review by Arie Altena
Secret Agents is a book full of essays on, as the subtitle gives away: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism and Fifties America. It is one of those typical books you encounter more and more these days: the articles are grouped around the Rosenberg Case, which is used as a lens through which the cultural, historical and political situation of that time is contemplated. In this way, the authors sketch a postmodern picture of Fifties America. In this case, the result is an intriguing book, with, unavoidable, highs and lows. It is an interdisciplinary project, with essays that vary from old-fashioned history writing, via literary analyses, to psychoanalytical discourses based on Lacanian principles.
The Rosenberg Case is little more than a footnote in the official history of the United States. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish communists from New York City, were suspected of having passed the 'secret' of the atom bomb to the Russians. Allegedly, they were secret agents in service to the Soviets. They were sentenced to death and executed in 1953, which sent a wave of indignation throughout the world.
This is also a classic episode from the McCarthy era and, moreover, one about which many questions have remained unanswered (questions which, for example, inspired Robert Coover to write his postmodern masterpiece The Public Burning). It raises questions such as: how was it possible that, suddenly, being a communist, and certainly, being a Jew and a communist, automatically led to the suspicion of espionage followed by conviction, in contrast to the situation before 1953, when many espionage suspects actually became communists? Or: was there a connection between the simultaneous rise of TV as a mass media and the first atom bomb tests in peace time? And moreover: were the Rosenbergs really secret agents? Was there really something that could be called the 'secret' of the atom bomb? What was the role of the CIA in this? Was there in fact a conspiracy? What was Hoover's role, and what was the connection between the role he played and his (suppressed) homosexuality? What is the link between the political beliefs of the Jewish New York Intellectuals, their Jewish identity, and their bearing in the Rosenberg discussion? Secret Agents deals with these questions, and many more.
Secret Agents is divided into three sections: Secrets, Agents, and Testimonies. Apart from an article by Robert Meeropol (the Rosenbergs' son), the section Testimonies also includes essays on the judicial background of trials such as these. These are the least exiting essays of the book, particularly for those readers who, just like all the authors who contributed to this book, were already convinced that the Rosenbergs were wrongfully sentenced to death.
The section Agents investigates, among other things, the letters which Ethel and Julius wrote to each other. These conclusively prove that the Death House Letters, which had been published at that time, and were a great success in communist circles, had been falsified. Thus, every passage in which Julius and Ethel betrayed the slightest misgivings or in which they spoke of their love for each other, was deleted. The result was that they came across as communists obdurately obeying their communist principles. In the unadulterated version, the Rosenbergs come across as people of flesh and blood, full of desires, doubts and love. Almost too human!
The essays in the first section, Secrets, are the most penetrating, and therefore the most interesting, exiting, irritating, and sometimes, content-wise, the most dubious.
Of course, this section would not have been complete without the essay which proclaims the Rosenberg trial to be the beginning of the postmodern era: this was apparently the first trial based on a simulation, rather than a real incident. The essay in question is convincing, certainly insofar as it draws a parallel between the fifties and the nineties in the US, but I cannot help wondering why on earth this had to be linked to the beginning of the postmodern era?
True enough, the compelling opening essay, Jell-O by Marjorie Garber, also emphatically underlines the postmodern calibre of the trial. Firstly, the central exhibit in the trial was a box of Jell-O. Such a box, torn in half - its flavour unknown - was the identification sign used by Julius Rosenberg and his Soviet contact. The box used at the trial was not the 'original', but simply a random Jell-O box from the nearest supermarket. Secondly, Jell-O is an imitation pudding, not the real thing, and is as such moreover a symbol of postwar consumer culture, with its profusion of instant and imitation products. Jell-O is practically a mythical thing. Add to this the major problem for Jews in those days, whether Jell-O was kosher or not - it was made from pigs' bones - and, as a virtuoso postmodern theoretician, you have plenty of leads to get going. In this case, this happens convincingly; Marjorie Garber presents us with Roy Cohn, the prosecutor, brandishing a Jell-O box (like Iago in Othello, waving a handkerchief as proof of the slander) while he signs the Rosenbergs' death warrant. Garber uses this image to emphasize that their death sentence was based on nothing, thus embedding their trial in the historical and cultural context of postwar America.
The same is true of the essays scrutinizing the entanglement between the rise of TV and the first atom bomb tests. The essays by Joyce Nelson, Stanley Goldberg and Robert N. Procter convince you of the fact that the USA (read: the Pentagon, CIA and Hoover) kept up the notion that there was a 'secret' of the atom bomb, a secret formula, entirely unknown to the Russians, ready to be stolen. This notion was used to cover up the discovery that radium rays and other kinds of radiation were highly detrimental. The Rosenberg trial took place at the very moment that TV was first introduced to the masses, specifically, with the coverage of the atom bomb tests on Bikini. That both the tests and the first TV sets could involve dangerous radiation was concealed or at least drowned out by the fact that spies had handed the 'secret' of the atom bomb over to the Russians. The fake 'secret' was a smokescreen designed to conceal the real secret. Because, if there was a 'secret of the atom bomb', this was certainly not the 'formula' passed on to the Russians by the Rosenbergs, no, it must have been the secret 'agreement' between the emerging mass media, the CIA and the American government. In higher army and defense circles, it had been known for some time that there was no such thing as the 'secret' of the atom bomb, and that the Russians were, most likely, already able to produce an atom bomb without any help from the Free West. What had to be kept a secret was the fact that the radiation from the first TV sets and the nuclear tests was carcinogenic.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for being secret agents. They never confessed to being guilty. They probably did pass on information, but what kind of information? It is almost certain that they were convicted on false grounds. In retrospect, it would appear that they were convicted because they refused to cooperate, as Secret Agents makes it clear, and refused to point the finger at others. They were convicted because they thought their principles more important than their children, so, in a certain sense, because they were bad parents. Certainly, the title Secret Agents does not allude to the Rosenbergs - not one of the essayists believes that the Rosenbergs were guilty. The Secret Agents are all secret 'agents', abstract or concrete; politicians, coincidences, character traits, in short, all 'secret' and covert, major and minor, forces which constitute history. If Secret Agents explains anything, it is this.
some rights reserved
Arie Altena, october 1996
published in Mediamatic Magazine 9#1, summer 1998
see also http://www.mediamatic.nl/magazine/previews/reviews/altena/altena=garber.html translation OLIVIER / WYLIE