Leftish Nonsense

GEORGE F. WILL

September 30, 1990|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON. — WAR MAY BE hell, but peace is proving to be no picnic for some injudicious people. The end of the Cold War is rich in acute embarrassments for those who, while living on what proved to be the winning side, were on the wrong side of significant arguments.

One argument concerned the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the spies executed in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev, in taped reminiscences now published as memoirs, extols ''some good people'' who served a ''great cause of the Soviet state'':

''I was part of Stalin's circle when he mentioned the Rosenbergs with warmth. . . . I heard from Stalin and Molotov . . . that the Rosenbergs provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atom bomb.''

The last particle of doubt -- not that much doubt remained -- regarding the Rosenbergs' guilt was removed in 1983 by the book ''The Rosenberg File'' by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton. Yet on the left, the myth of the Rosenbergs' innocence is still clung to as an article of faith, a vital part of the catechism indicting America -- Amerika -- as paranoid and vicious.

Last summer, strollers on Chicago's Michigan Avenue saw stretched across the front of a cultural center a banner heralding an exhibit of ''art'' from ''the Rosenberg era.'' The banner featured Picasso's mawkish sketches of the spies. The exhibition -- for example, a grinning Eisenhower with electric chairs for teeth -- mixes lugubrious martyrology regarding the Rosenbergs and loathing for America.

Endorsed by a familiar list of the left's incurables -- Ed Asner, Ramsey Clark, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut -- the exhibit purports to document paranoia -- the nation's, in the 1950s. Actually, the exhibit expresses the continuity of paranoia, to this day, on the anti-anti-communist left. The exhibit consists (it is still on the road, in Charlotte, heading for Houston and Washington) of what the Rosenbergs' communist friends called ''agitprop,'' art utterly subordinated to a tendentious political message.

The exhibit is powerful evidence of the impotence of evidence in the face of faith. The faith in this case is in the innocence of the Rosenbergs. By now the faith should be as fragile as ashes. Yet it survives the hammer of fact.

The lie of the innocence of Alger Hiss has been similarly central to the mentality, and futility, of the American left. That lie received a devastating, if redundant, refutation in 1978 in Allen Weinstein's book ''Perjury.''

And now the bedraggled remnant of those innocents who still believe, and those cynics, including Hiss himself, who still pretend to believe in Hiss' martyrdom must fear the day when some file cabinet in Moscow yields a document proving -- on top of ample proof -- that it was Hiss, not this nation or that era, that was detestable.

Western casualties of glasnost are multiplying. Alexander Cockburn of The Nation magazine has written that historians have been beastly to Stalin, whose victims number, says Mr. Cockburn, no more than between 3.5 million and 8 million. But Pravda and Izvestia have now put the figure at 50 million -- not counting war dead.

Mr. Cockburn is a fringe figure, interesting only as a candidate for a glass case in the Smithsonian -- ''The Last Stalinist.'' Honest misjudgments by moderate people are more troubling. For example, as recently as 1984 John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:

''That the Soviet system has made great material progress in recent years . . . is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene. . . . One sees it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people on the streets . . . and the general aspect of restaurants, theaters and shops. . . . Partly, the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.''

''The Russian system succeeds because. . . .'' Note the Harvard economist's reflex to connect an absurd misjudgment of the Soviet Union with a disparagement of some facet of the West.

The trickle of tantalizing facts from the Soviet Union may soon become a flood when archives, in the Soviet Union and its former satellites, are opened to the searching gaze of scholarship. We shall learn interesting things -- about the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, about the Soviet administration of the attempt to assassinate the Pope and much else about the empire that was not only evil in itself but was the focus of evil in the modern world.

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