The 1950s in the USA was the age of McCarthyism. At the start of the "Cold War", many Americans became paranoid about the perceived threat from "Communism", and rooting out supposed "communists" became something of a national hobby. McCarthyism reached its climax in the "Rosenberg Affair", an affair that many since then have preferred to forget.
On June 19th 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, New York. Their death marked the end of the most notorious political affair in America in the nineteen fifties, and came over two years after their sentencing for the crime of spying for the Soviet Union.
It came in spite of some 21,000 petitions and telegrams to the White House, demanding clemency, from people, organisations and governments in North America and Europe, including Albert Einstein. It was, in a way, the climax of McCarthyism.
At the time the American press, full of a manic fear and hatred of communists and anything that could be considered "leftist" fully supported the verdict. Only one major paper, the National Guardian, saw anything wrong in the trial, anything excessive in the verdict. The Rosenbergs were sentenced principally on the word of Ethel Rosenberg's brother David, an employee at the Atomic Research Center at Los Alamos, who admitted having handed the Russians plans of US atomic weapons; he accused Julius Rosenberg of having recruited him.
But what was all the hassle about ? David's A-bomb plans, handed to the Russians, were no more than "a poor caricature", in the words of the bomb's inventor, "A drawing unable to give any worthwhile information". Some other accusations were proved to be false, too, and throughout the trial, the Rosenbergs themselves maintained their innocence. By normal standards of justice, there was little in the affair that could justify a sentence of death.
However, there was one point. The Rosenbergs were Communists, and proud of it. In the age of McCarthyism, that in itself was a heinous crime, in the eyes of a nation encouraged to believe that Communism was worse than devil-worship. After the departure of Senator McCarthy from public life (following his accusations that many of America's leading politicians were secretly communists or sympathisers), McCarthyism died away and the Rosenberg affair came to represent the nation's guilty conscience — the case of two people who were unjustly put to death.
Senator Joseph McCarthy
Thirty years later, two American historians published a book on the Rosenberg Affair, and after much research, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton concluded that Julius Rosenberg in fact was guilty of spying, though there was no proof of anything in Ethel's case; Ethel's only mistake was to have loved her husband, and to have sympathized with his views, neither of which is a crime, let alone a crime punishable by the death sentence in a country where freedom of speech and opinion are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Radosh's research allowed him to ascertain that Julius was indeed the head of a Russian spy ring, that he did hand over secrets to the Russians, and that these did allow the Soviets to save three years on their nuclear research program. But, he concluded "That being said, he did not legally deserve the electric chair, but thirty years in jail. For her part, she was executed for nothing".
Peering more deeply into the character of Julius Rosenberg, the historians portrayed him as a devoted communist, ready to sacrifice himself, his wife and his family in the name of the principles he so strongly believed in. He believed, furthermore, that Ethel would never be killed, and that one day the United States would become a socialist state.... a fear that is still brandished to this day in the dystrumpian rhetoric of some on the right.
The legacy of McCarthyism
As for McCarthyism, following the death of Senator McCarthy the movement rapidly declined in popularity and indeed in credibility, and by the sixties the period was looked back on by many Americans with embarrassment, an age of witch-hunts against mostly innocent people..By the nineteen nineties, and the demise of the Soviet Union, the communist threat was completely forgotten by all in America other than some die-hards on the far right, who continued to see "Reds under the bed" in the most unlikely of situations. Fear of communism was dropped from mainstream politics in the USA, being replaced by a fear of socialism that is portrayed by American conservatives as representing the antithesis of American values. Thus in the runup to the 2020 presidential elections, the popular candidate for the Democratic party nomination, Bernie Sanders, lost out to Joe Biden in part because Sanders was repeatedy branded as a socialist..... with Donald Trump going one step further, telling Fox News "“I think he’s a communist. I mean, you know, look, I think of communism when I think of Bernie.”
McCarthyism may have died out with the McCarthy generation.... but its DNA is still present on the fringes of American political life seventy years after the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair.WORDS:
threat - danger - root out: find and remove - notorious: famous for the wrong reasons - sentencing : judgement - spying : espionage - clemency : opposite of harshness, strictness - verdict: decision mde by a court - conviction : sentencing hatred : hate - trial : legal judgement - hassle : trouble - worthwhile : valuable - heinous : very bad - worship: to consider as a god -- he was guilty of : he really did - to peer : to look - brandish: to wave, to show - unlikely: improbable - antithesis: opposite - runup: period before - classified : secret.
Note also the word dystrumpian, a recent word which is formed by combining the words Trump and dystopian.
Dystopian means bad, unfair, inhuman... an opposite of utopian
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The Rosenberg Affair
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But what was all the hassle about ? David's A-bomb plans, hand to the Russians, were no more than "a poor caricature", in the words of the bomb's invent, "A draw unable to give any worth information". Some other accusations were proved to be false, too, and through the trial, the Rosenbergs themselves maintained their innoc. By normal standards of just, there was little in the affair that could justify a sentence of death.