Getting Away with It

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You can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

How much can our heads of government get away with? Constitution-defying travel bans, revolving-door staff, governance by tweet, absconding from climate accords, cozying up to white nationalists, disrespect for everyone except the self? It seems that our world has shifted, fractured as though by a jerk of tectonic plates. It’s easy to think of our situation as uniquely off kilter, and in some ways it is, but consider the political upheavals of mid-twentieth century U.S.
Orderly governance turned bizarre and dangerous in the early1950s, when I was growing up in Washington, D.C. “Association” became a crime – that is, association with anyone who might have left-wing sympathies. Interrogation, job loss, emigration and worse could follow accusation, and a mood of suspicion and fear colored every interaction. Senator Joseph McCarthy garnered attention and headlines all over the country and the world as he waved papers, claimed that X number of known Communist Party members worked in government, and accused Democratic administrations of “twenty years of treason.” At the peak of hysteria, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, convicted of conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Russians.
I was barely twelve as our family’s friends and acquaintances began to be called, one by one, to testify before HUAC, the House Unamerican Activities Committee. We consulted the paper with queasy stomachs each morning to see who would be next. Of course there were no laws restricting your social circle or the meetings you attended, but names are what the committee wanted, and if you refused to name your friends and associates, you had to plead the 5th amendment, against self-incrimination, and the world would assume you were guilty. If you refused to name them you could be prosecuted for contempt of Congress. If you got tripped up in your testimony you could be prosecuted for perjury and convicted, like Alger Hiss, who spent five years in jail.
My father, Philleo Nash, was working for President Truman at the time, a Special Assistant in the White House in the area of race relations.He and my mother, Edith, were among a group who had founded Georgetown Day School, a progressive and independent school and the first school inD.C.tobe racially integrated. I was a student there. They feared that the school would be targeted and smeared. My music teacher at school was told to stop having the choir sing The Peatbog Soldiers, a song of the Spanish Civil War. Everyone was afraid of everyone else.
Daddy had already been well-vetted by the Loyalty Review Board of the U.S. Civil Service Commission and had answered the usual questions satisfactorily: “Do you now or have you ever had Communist friends, gone to Communist meetings, read their newspapers, paid them dues?” A firm believer in democracy and a strong supporter of his president, he had said no to these questions.However, his file contained his testimony as a character witness for a young student, given when Philleo was a Professor at the University of Toronto in the late ’30s. During the period of the Soviet-Nazi pact, the student had tried to prevent Canadians from joining the military, a Soviet interest for the brief period of that pact. The young man was eventually convicted and interned as an enemy of the state. Many years later, an employee of the Loyalty Review Board filched this file and brought it to Senator McCarthy.
One day in 1951 a call alerted Daddy. McCarthy was alleging on the floor of the Senate that he was an atomic spy and member of the Communist Party, that he paid dues, attended meetings and had Communists living in his house. Further accusations, said the Senator, were “too terrible to name.” Daddy’s name was in headlines all over the country. Reporter hounded him, asking “What do your kids think? What’s it like for them to have a spy for a Daddy?”
Truman called Daddy and said, “This is an attack on me, not on you.” He set upa White House Loyalty Review Board to go over Daddy’s record and promised to take action when they were through. “In the meantime,” said the President, “Go back to work.” Daddy’s loyalty and the security of the White House were re-established, and he kept his job. He and our family were among the lucky ones.
Daddy’s staunch anti-communism put him firmly to the right of some of my adult friends and mentors, and I felt tossed like a ball between opposing camps. I’d bring home one set of ideas and bounce them off my father at night, then carry the opposing arguments back to school the next day. The father of one of my closest girlfriends was called to testify before HUAC, pled the 5th, and soon after, disappeared. I still saw her at school, but our families avoided each other. I knew this was a betrayal, but I was as afraid as my parents and remained silent.
As I grew up,my ineffective arguing gradually matured. I resisted later wars and advocated for more radical change than Daddy wanted. But I know his conservative stance saved our livelihood and maybe our lives during the McCarthy time. His chief aim then was to shield has wife and children as well as to preserve his reputation and keep his job, and I am grateful for that as well as for our liberal home, where black people were friends and frequent guests. I’m also proud of what he helped accomplish: desegregation of the Army and federal government and later, as Commisioner of Indian Affairs, improved civil rights for Native Americans.
I was fifteen the day the Rosenbergs were executed. With shame and despair I thought of my girlfriend and others that we’d avoided, people we could have helped, songs we might have sung. Though McCarthyism and McCarthy died soon after, he got away with evils that can never be undone.
* * *
In 1971 E. L. Doctorow publishedThe Book of Daniel,a fictional version of the Rosenberg execution. The author altered names, events and personalities freely to render a world as disjointed as the one of which he writes. His narrator, Daniel, is one of the Rosenberg orphans, and his voice wanders freely from 1stto 3rdperson and back, sometimes within a paragraph. Daniel is the author of his own story. “This is a…. marker, black,” the narrator writes. “This is Daniel. . .I sit at a table.” The narrator’s near-psychotic jumps from inside to outside his character slowly bring me into Daniel’s terrible world, where your parents can be killed by the government of your own country when you are six, and you can grow up both despised and lionized for something you’ve never done.
The book as a whole is a hybrid of narrative and other forms, each titled: a letter, a four-point annotation to the letter, a list of subjects to be covered. a tour of the city, a letter to the editor, a play in “ten overt acts” (the language of the Rosenberg indictments), and riffs on methods of execution (drawing and quartering, knouts, burning at the stake, smoking). Essays about issues in the complex trial and the political mood in the U.S. provide background and context. Between sections the tense shifts from present to past and back, and the narrative is interrupted by ironic word plays on such phrases as “The heart of the matter” and “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Doctorow follows no rules of consistency of time, place, genre, person or voice.
Daniel is the opposite of sympathetic. He’s sexually sadistic with his young wife, whom he refers to as a “breeder.” Shortly after a cruel scene, he queries the reader: “Who are you anyway? Who said you could read this? Is nothing sacrosanct?” He behaves abominably to his adoptive parents and says, “The right to offend irreparably is a blood right.” He addresses himself, “You are a betrayer. There is no use to which you would not put your patrimony.”
The book’s switches of tone, along with alternations of person and tense, create a feeling of alienation, like Brecht’sEntfremdung(making strange), that brings home the existential terror of emptiness a six-year-old must feel when his parents are suddenly snatched away. From deep inside the child the narrator speaks: “Our blood will hurt as if it had glass in it. And it will be hot . . .and our house will smell and smoke and turn brown at the edges and flare up in a great floop of flame.”
“And that is exactly what happens,” says the adult narrator. The separation (unthinkable!) becomes final. The broken heart speaks, and its language shatters. The author has gotten away with everything, rendering a world that got away with murder.
When I finished the book I could not imagine how the real Rosenberg children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, would have taken this version of their story. I saw no acknowledgment or permission page taking them into account. Looking online, I discovered a seminar at Fordham in which “Daniel,” a movie based on the novel and directed by Sidney Lumet, had been shown, with discussion by both brothers following.
The adult brothers are open, forthcoming and sanguine. Michael, an economist, says, “I love the book so much,” and Robert, a lawyer and anti-war activist, that it makes him mad. “It’s up to the reader to know what’s true and what’s not,” says Robert.
Since the first publication of the book, new evidence has emerged, as presented recently and compactly on “Sixty Minutes,” at In 1975 the brothers sued the FBI, CIA and Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act. Long-forgotten files revealed that Julius was probably a spy, a recruiter who ran a network and shared some minor technologic information with the Soviets. With no knowledge of physics he could not have given Russia “the bomb,” as popular imagination had it. In 2001, David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, admitted to having given false testimony at the Rosenberg’s trial. Greenglass had worked at Los Alamos and had passed on a (virtually useless) drawing to Julius. Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s infamous lawyer and part of the prosecution at the Rosenberg trial, had encouraged Greenglass to testify falsely against Ethel,his sister, in order to save Ruth Greenglass, his wife. He received a lenient sentence in exchange for his testimiony, and his wife went free.
The Rosenbergs were indicted for conspiracy, by definition a secret activity that requires no objective evidence as proof. One person testifying that he or she was part of the conspiracy is sufficient to prove its existence. The Rosenbergs were never tried for treason, which would have required proof. In the heated atmosphere of the time, they were convicted of conspiracy, but sentenced for treason.
Names, names, that is always what the inquisition wants. The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence to the end and refused to betray each other or anyone else. Even at the moment of execution, Julius’ was offered commutation of his sentence if he would\name names. And moments after his death, Ethel was offered the same opportunity. She said, “”I’m innocent, I know no one. I am ready.”
In 1990 Robert Meeropol founded The Rosenberg Fund for Childrento help children of targeted activists in the U.S. today. He ran the foundation for twenty years and then transferred leadership to his daughter, Jenn Meeropol, In 2016 the Fund spearheadeda movement to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg.Sixty thousand people signed a petition, which Robert and Michael brought to the Obama White House, standing in the same spot where they had been photographed in 1953 as six and 10-year-olds, petitioning Eisenhower to save their parents. Obama did not act on the recent petition, and the Meeropols don’tplan to present it to Trump.
Today, once again, our government is careening into the land of lies, restricting and deporting immigrants, threatening cities that offer sanctuary, making bellicose threats and giving up principles of responsibility and leadership. Roy Cohn, once disbarred for dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation and now deceased, was Trump’s “constant adviser on every significant aspect of his business and personal life,” according to Wayne Barrett of theVillage Voiceand author ofTrump: the Deals and the Downfall.We would do well to recognize the ghost of Cohn in the machine of today’s government, a ghost that preserves the dishonest and self-serving spirit that destroyed so many families and cost the Rosenbergs their lives.
Doctorow’s brilliant disregard for the rules of writing has resulted in a scathing critique of a terrible time. What’s great in fiction can be hell on earth. His work should alert us to the dangers of following our own rules for normal times. With Doctorow’s courage perhaps we’ll find a way to prevent the current path of governance from creating its own momentum and catapulting into a new sense of normalcy. It’s up to us to see that this time they don’t get away with it.
Maggie Kast is the author ofThe Crack Between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family,published by Wipf and Stock, and a novel,A Free, Unsullied Land,published by Fomite Press and winner of first place for fiction from Wordwrite Awards.