It happened today - June 19, 2015

Ethel and Julius RosenbergOn June 19 back in 1953 the Rosenbergs were executed for nuclear espionage on behalf of Joseph Stalin. Liberals long insisted that it was a gruesome miscarriage of justice driven by mindless McCarthyism. To this day the case is described as “controversial”. I don’t see why.

I get that some people strongly disagree with the death penalty period. I can see calling capital punishment “controversial”. And the fact that the Rosenbergs were the first Americans ever executed for espionage in peacetime might cause controversy although the “Cold War” was, as its name suggests, a singularly tense form of peacetime. But what is strange is that there is really no doubt about their guilt, especially that of Julius. Nor is there really any doubt that Stalinism was monstrous in every dimension and that anyone who was deliberately trying to help it defeat freedom was behaving horribly. So where’s the controversy?

Well, there’s this weird lingering liberal affection for the goals or spirit of communism or something. For instance, I’m still amazed that in February 2006 Maclean’s devoted its back page to a glowing obituary of “Robert ‘Doc’ Savage 1911-2006”, a lifelong member of the Communist party. I’d love to see them do it with a lifelong Nazi. But then, in 2000 revered U.S. news anchor Peter Jennings had delivered an on-air eulogy for American Communist Party leader Gus Hall, in which he said “Even after his friends… abandoned the cause, Hall never wavered.” Again, one cannot imagine him saying such a thing about a Nazi. And it’s still cool to have fought for Communism in the Spanish Civil War in a way that having fought for the other side is not. And yet Stalin was surely as bad as Hitler while Franco, a seedy dictator to be sure, wasn’t even a Mussolini.

The same impulse that led liberals to swallow Walter Duranty’s reporting in the 1930s and to defend Alger Hiss is still at work in calling it “controversial” that two people who betrayed their nation to Stalin in an important way paid a high price for it. It’s possible that Ethel did not spy, and that the secrets Julius passed to Moscow were not terribly important. But she knew what he was trying to do, and what he was trying to do was commit treason.

Capital punishment may be controversial. But the only really controversial thing about the Rosenberg case is why anyone still calls it controversial.