John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr: Black and White and Red All Over

Roundup: Historians' Take

[John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are coauthors, with Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).]

The New York Times may be the paper of record, but its record leaves much to be desired when the issue is Soviet espionage in the United States. Where the Times is not obscuring the historical record, it is willfully obtuse. Consider Charles Isherwood’s recent review of the newly opened play After the Revolution. The glowing notice is indeed merited. The cast is superb, and playwright Amy Herzog has written a witty, morally complicated, and engrossing drama about the turmoil that engulfs a radical family when details emerge about their deceased patriarch’s role as a Soviet spy during World War II.

But the review also highlights the problems that continue to afflict the Times when the subject turns to the Soviet Union’s American spies. For instance, Isherwood speculates that “the play seems partly inspired by the recent revelations about Julius Rosenberg, whose culpability had been debated since his execution for spying, along with his wife Ethel, in 1953.” Debated? Julius Rosenberg’s guilt has long been established: He and Ethel were convicted in a court of law in 1951, and the evidence has been thoroughly documented. Among other publications detailing the proof are: The Rosenberg File (1983) by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton; the 1995 release of the National Security Agency’s decryptions of World War II Soviet KGB cables (21 of which report on Julius’s espionage); the 2001 autobiography of Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg’s KGB controller; and Steven Usdin’s Engineering Communism (2005), which laid out the enormous extent of the Rosenberg ring’s espionage in the field of military technology. There are no more lingering doubts about the Rosenbergs’ “culpability”—except in the precincts inhabited by the employees of the New York Times....

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