Historian Takes a Political U-Turn: Once a Left-Wing Activist, Ronald Radosh Now Is a Self-Described Moderate Conservative Who Has Torn Down Powerful Old Left Myths with His Research and Writing

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Historian Ronald Radosh is one of the great demolishers of the myths of the Old Left. He was coauthor of The Rosenberg File (second edition, 1997), which destroyed the notion that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent of the charges for which they were executed in 1954: turning U.S. atomic secrets over to the Soviet Union.

In this year's Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, Radosh and coauthor Mary Habeck took on one of the biggest legends of the American and European left: that the Soviet Union in the 1930s courageously and disinterestedly supported the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War against Gen. Francisco Franco. Far from being disinterested, the book proves through ample documentation that the Soviet Union planned to turn Spain into a Soviet satellite and had no desire to preserve the Spanish Republic.

Radosh should know of which he speaks. A former left-wing activist, he joined the Communist Party in the mid-1950s but quit a couple of years later Radosh knew and worked with many prominent American leftists, from Mary Travers (with whom he went to Manhattan's radical Elisabeth Irwin High School) to Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society and Michael Harrington of the socialists. He's now on the right of the political spectrum, describing himself as a "moderate conservative." Radosh tells the story of his move from left to right in his excellent and recently published Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.

INSIGHT spoke with Radosh at his home in Maryland where his next project is a book on the 1950s and Sen. Joe McCarthy. He is "trying to put together what happened in the context of a very real threat that America faced."

Insight: You've looked at the world as a man of the left and now as a conservative. How would you describe the difference between those two ways of looking at things?

Ronald Radosh: I now look at the world as a supporter and defender of American democracy and the American system of government. I realize the country has imperfections, but our political system is geared to correcting those imperfections on a democratic basis. I concentrate on its strengths rather than its weaknesses, whereas a man on the left concentrates on its weaknesses. Those on the left look at the weaknesses of America and say they can only be solved through a complete, total overhaul of the system; that only through cataclysmic, monumental social change and revolution can those weaknesses be overcome.

By being geared toward correcting imperfections through democratic change, I mean that in a 25- or 30-year period the success of the civil-rights revolution has been phenomenal. There may be some minor problems of racism, but anybody who believes that blacks in America haven't made progress doesn't live in this world. And the strength of the civil-rights movement was that it tried to realize the promise of American democracy in a country that was amenable to change because it is a democracy. Despite the presence of very disgruntled black radicals, the civil-rights movement was not a radical revolutionary movement. It was a democratic movement.

Insight: How did the recent terrorist attacks affect the left in America?

RR: Since Sept. 11, the left really has been ruptured. The most-sensible elements on the left now are supporting the war and the administration, having realized that this was an unparalleled attack on America. They may have thought that [Al] Gore won the election and [George W.] Bush didn't, but now they're supporting Bush and the administration and they're being very tough-minded about it. Eric Foner [a Columbia University historian, president of the American Historical Association and longtime prominent leftist] writes in the New York Times, saying he proudly flies the American flag from his balcony. He wouldn't have been caught dead doing that before Sept. 11.

Those on that part of the left are still reluctant warriors, but they're not going off the deep end. …