- Revisiting the Red Menace
What is past is not dead: it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it. We pretend to be strangers.—Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood
Wolf’s opening sentences of her account of a 1971 journey—both actual and pyschological—into her childhood in Nazi Germany constitute a particularly apposite description of Virginia Carmichael’s project in Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War. Carmichael understands her quest to be no simple investigation of historical events or facts, rather that it will be a difficult, even treacherous excavation of how and why things happened in particular ways at a specific moment in a national political context.
Both authors are well aware of the subjective nature of memory and the degree to which the languages in which they write must structure their retellings. Conventional history-writing is certainly less difficult, but finally inadequate to the kinds of questions that Carmichael wants to pursue. Her investigation will examine not only how things happened in the past, but also how we participate in constructing both that past and our present-day “history” as well.
In re-examining the events of the Rosenberg saga in tandem with several [End Page 210] representations of it, Carmichael moves that story and its cold war milieu beyond the tired issues of guilt or innocence, be it the government or particular individuals. Her discussion illuminates not only the complexity of human interaction, but also the degree to which chance is a major force in how things happen, past and present. To accomplish this, Carmichael creates a hybrid approach, combining literary criticism with close historical analysis. Thus Framing History proceeds on two tracks simultaneously—examining both what happened to the Rosenbergs and how it was presented publicly, as well as what has been made of those events.
One is struck in reading Framing History by the degree to which the 1950s cold war milieu, the history of left-wing movements in American history, and the continuing legacy of Hiroshima are still topics which have had virtually no public discussion or reconsideration since that time. This situation is particularly disturbing after the fall of the Berlin Wall—when the daily news is filled with accounts of the wrenching confrontations with the cold war past taking place throughout central and western Europe. One is also struck by the degree to which current public and political discourse in America—like that of cold war public rhetoric which led to its excesses (blacklisting and McCarthyism)—is so polarized, and so mired in the demonization of differences as to leave little space for constructive disagreement. While Carmichael does not draw specific parallels like those above, her book clearly offers interesting and provocative discussions about periods of national crisis, and the kinds of panic and scapegoating which inevitably result.
Framing History begins by laying out in meticulous detail the ways in which the cold war story and the Rosenberg story were presented during the 1940s and 1950s by government figures, business leaders, social commentators, and both print and the then quite new electronic media. Carmichael designates the cold war as a “frame narrative” and the Rosenberg saga as an “embedded story” within that. She then examines both stories in light of the wealth of documents and information that became available as a result of the 1974 Freedom of Information Act. That juxtaposition alone is both fascinating and disturbing in its demonstration of the levels of corruption in various government agencies, and the willingness of most mass media in the 1950s to support rather than critique the “official stories.”
Carmichael’s goal is a sense of how these official stories came to seem so credible to so many people at the time. She pays particular attention to the widespread belief (essential for McCarthyism to flourish) that the [End Page 211] “secrets” of making atomic weapons belonged exclusively to the United States, and could thus be “sold” to the enemy (the Soviet Union) by spies. By citing contemporary documents in...