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Cold Case

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on March 29, 1951. Sixty years later, the case still crackles with controversy. Why is it so hard to put to rest?

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(Collage: Tablet Magazine)
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National Insecurity: The Case for Jonathan Pollard

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested in July and August of 1950, tried for conspiracy to commit espionage, found guilty by a jury on March 29, 1951, and then condemned to death by Judge Irving Kaufman at their sentencing a week later. I sat in the courtroom at Foley Square on that final fateful day 60 years ago, and remember my shock and that of those in attendance at the handing down of this harsh sentence, as well as the judge’s words that the couple had committed a crime that was “worse than murder.” Not only had they given “the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted,” Kaufman told them, they had “already caused … the Communist aggression in Korea.” Millions more than the 50,000 American casualties in Korea, he added for good measure, “may pay the price of your treason.” By their action, the Rosenbergs alone had “altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country,” the judge said. Kaufman was so proud of his speech that he brought his son with him to the courtroom so the 10-year-old could hear his father impose the dual death sentence, which was carried out in the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison, north of New York City, on June 19, 1953, amidst worldwide protest.

It seems that every year since has brought new revelations about the Rosenberg case and reignites a debate about the meaning of the couple’s actions, the extent of what they actually did or did not do, and whether their actions did real harm to national security. Moreover, many of the Rosenbergs’ supporters still believe, as they did at the time, that the couple were innocent and made into scapegoats for America’s loss of its atomic monopoly.

The truth is that for those who accept evidence and reason, the debate should be over. Beginning with the first release in 1995 of the Venona decrypts of KGB messages to their agents in the United States, it became clear to even the most resolute doubters not only that Julius Rosenberg was a KGB agent who put together and ran an espionage ring made up of college friends who had become engineers or scientists but that his wife, Ethel, knew of and supported his activities. So, the question must be asked: Why did so many ignore the plain evidence of the Rosenbergs’ guilt? And why do so many continue to argue that the Rosenbergs were framed by the U.S. government?

The Rosenberg case was a family affair—almost everyone involved was Jewish: the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses, those who became government witnesses against the two couples, as well as the prosecutors, Myles Lane, Irving Saypol, and Roy Cohn, and the justice who presided at the trial, Kaufman. The trial took place in New York City, which had the largest Jewish population in the world and where many Jews were still adherents of the leftist beliefs they imbibed along with their mother’s milk from the days of FDR and the Popular Front. Many in the Jewish community feared being branded as traitors. It is no wonder that the American Jewish Committee and the various groups that fought anti-Semitism at home kept their distance from the case, proclaimed that the couple was guilty, and did not join the pleas from all over the world for President Dwight Eisenhower to commute the Rosenbergs’ death sentence.

Indeed, Lucy Dawidowicz, the late scholar of Hitler’s war against the Jews, wrote in the socialist anti-Communist newspaper the New Leader that the American Communist Party was trying to use the Jews in its “war against America,” and hence no Jew who understood that should be involved in an effort to gain clemency for the condemned couple. Anti-Communists should not only oppose clemency, she argued, but should hope that the Rosenbergs’ lives would not be spared, because if judges backed away from imposing the ultimate penalty on them, it would mean America had caved in to the Party’s “moral blackmail.”

In 1983, The Rosenberg File, a book I had co-authored with the late Joyce Milton, was published. That year, Robert Leiter, then as now an editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, wrote that “one aspect of the case—its particular ‘Jewishness’—has, in all but the rarest instances, escaped wider discussion.” Commentators, he wrote, “have avoided coming to grips with it.” The concern at the time of the trial was most clearly expressed by an aide to the AJC’s executive director, who wrote a memo about their fear that “the non-Jewish public may generalize from these activities and impute to the Jews as a group treasonable motives and activities.” Jury members were aware of the issue. The foreman of the all-gentile jury told the press that “I felt good that this was strictly a Jewish show. It was Jews against Jews,” and, as he put it, “it wasn’t the Christians against the Jews.”

On the left, the Communists and their allies did all they could to attribute the indictment and trial of the Rosenbergs to anti-Semitism, which fit with their assertion—as hard as it is to believe today—that the Truman Administration was leading America toward a home-grown version of Fascism. Moreover, the Rosenberg trial coincided with the actual anti-Semitic trial of the former Czechoslovak Communist Party leadership—most of whom were Jewish. Almost all of the defendants in that trial were found guilty of spying for the United States and the Zionists and, after confessions forced by brutal torture, were hanged to death. By focusing on the Rosenbergs as victims of American fascism and anti-Semitism, the Soviets hoped to deflect attention away from what they were doing in their own bloc.

Thus the Old Left newspaper that began the first Rosenberg defense efforts, the National Guardian, explained that it was “nonsensical” to view the Slansky trial as anti-Semitic, because “in Prague the defendants have confessed in open court while the Rosenbergs still proclaim their innocence.” The newspaper went on to note that the Czech prosecutor “presented photostats and documents to support the accusations.” It is no wonder that the independent leftist journalist I.F. Stone—who believed the Rosenbergs were probably guilty (possibly because decades earlier he had himself signed on to work for Soviet intelligence)—wrote that “no picket lines circled the Kremlin to protest the execution of Jewish writers and artists; they did not even have a day in court; they just disappeared. Slansky was executed overnight without appeal in Prague. How the same people could excuse Slansky and [Stalin’s] anti-Semitic ‘doctor’s plot’ and at the same time carry on the Rosenberg campaign as they did calls for political psychiatry.”

Today, so many decades later, the descendants of the people who proclaimed the Rosenbergs’ innocence have now begun yet another campaign to rehabilitate them. They now argue that although it appears Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy after all, he gave little of value to the Soviets, was motivated by the desire to stave off atomic war, and in any case had nothing to do with handing over atomic information of any kind to the Soviet Union.

A new variation of this argument was penned recently by the activist historian and lawyer Staughton Lynd, writing in the Marxist journal Monthly Review, founded in 1949 by the late Leo Huberman and the late Paul M. Sweezy. I have written at length about Lynd’s article, but his argument can be easily summarized. Lynd now accepts as fact that Julius Rosenberg led a Soviet spy network, but he objects to what he calls the triumphalism of those like me who have asserted this for years. More important for Lynd is that the couple refused to “snitch,” therefore making themselves heroes. He maintains that their trial was a “sham,” and he argues that even if they were guilty, they must be viewed as unadulterated heroes. Why? Because, he actually writes, the couple had “obligations as Communists, and as citizens of the world.” So, to Lynd, the Rosenbergs’ obligation to spy for Joseph Stalin stands above any loyalty to their own country, not to speak of their willingness to make their own children orphans. Secondly, Lynd believes that if the Rosenbergs helped the Soviets get the bomb, that “might have been justified,” since he believes Soviet strength stopped aggression by the American imperialists.

For years, the American Left argued that the Rosenbergs were framed and innocent. Now Lynd says they were guilty but that their actions were justified because they helped “preserve the peace of the world.” In effect, he is saying that instead of still attempting to prove the Rosenbergs were framed, we should celebrate them for being traitors to their own country. His argument reveals only the desperation some on the left have to descend to in order to maintain their view that the only guilty party was the United States.

The innocence of the Rosenbergs has long been a touchstone of the left, and attempts to discuss evidence suggesting their guilt have been assailed as appeasement of McCarthyism. Most recently, writing in the Nation, its former editor and publisher Victor Navasky endorsed the finding of the late Walter Schneir, who argued that the Rosenbergs were framed and innocent. Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 Invitation to an Inquest was the textbook for this cause, and this strain of thought continues in the latest Schneir book, Final Verdict, published in 2010, after Walter Schneir’s death. The real spy, the Schneirs claim in a new twist, was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, who they claim acted on his own and in return for his cooperation with prosecutors got off with a 15-year sentence. Never mind that in their original conspiracy book the Schneirs argued that Greenglass never engaged in espionage at all and did not hand anything over to Rosenberg’s courier, Harry Gold, who made up his entire testimony. Schneir and Navasky also ignore the incontrovertible fact that Julius Rosenberg, at Ethel’s request, recruited David Greenglass into his network.

Steven Usdin and I answered Navasky’s charges in an article appearing in the New Republic’s website last December, and I wrote a critical review of Walter Schneir’s Final Verdict that appeared in Commentary. Other publications presenting detailed and incontrovertible proof of the Rosenbergs’ guilt are The Rosenberg File; the 1995 release of the National Security Agency’s decryptions of World War II KGB cables (21 of which report on Julius’ espionage); the 2001 autobiography of Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg’s KGB controller; and Steven Usdin’s 2005 book, Engineering Communism, which laid out the enormous extent of the Rosenberg ring’s espionage in the field of military technology. Although it is not freely available online, Usdin’s article “The Rosenberg Ring’s Continued Impact,” in The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, is the single most complete source for an overview of the damage the couple did to America’s national security and a detailed account of what the Soviets got from the network. There are no more lingering doubts about the Rosenbergs’ “culpability”—except in the precincts of the dwindling true believers.

Continue reading: the Meeropols, dark secrets, and “I did it for the Soviet Union.” Or view as a single page.

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The Nazis could not have been defeated without the participation(to the tune of 20 million dead)of the Soviet Union…”Uncle Joe” was our staunch ally in the ’40′s,our sworn,eternal enemy a few short years later…for those who believed that the U.S. was the progenitor of a future Corporate Fascism,the USSR was the only prevailing counterweight…were the Rosenberg’s wrong to betray their country in the name of Humanity?…of course…it’s always wrong to elevate the ideological over the Human…but,because the Rosenbergs were executed and the USSR was finally tossed on the Ash-Heap of History,we now live in a country where Torture,Rendition,three wars at a time,destruction of Unions,Corporate Domination of Politics,Executive Lawlessness,demonisation of the Working Class and the Destitute(related,but not quite the same thing…yet)etc.etc.will never threaten us again…

Alter says:

One irony I see is that here and now, before our very eyes we are witnessing a replay: a supposed ally of the United States, Israel, enabled Jonathan Pollard, a traitor to his country. And why? So that the Israelis could trade the most sensitive United States secrets to our then enemy, the Soviet Union, in order to obtain the release of Jews from the Soviet Union who could emigrate to Israel. And like the plea for the Rosenberg’s clemency, the perpetrators and supporters of this crime against the United States have the chutzpah to seek clemency for Pollard! As for American Jews who support releasing Pollard so that he can be given a hero’s parade in Israel, recognize that you are supporting a traitor to your country—or maybe your primary loyalties belong to Israel!

The two previous comments on totally irrelavant tangents just go to show how much utter irrationality the Rosenberg case still evokes. One may disagree with Radosh’s opinions, but not with his seminal historical work on the Rosenberg case. Opinions of any kind must be grounded in the truth to have any claim to legitimacy, something the other commenters here seem not to understand.

I wonder if Tablet has any plans to balance this contentious, retro-”anti-Communist” piece with one that recognizes the many ambiguities, complexities and paradoxes in the Rosenberg tragedy.

Full Disclosure: As a proud red-diaper baby myself, I make no claims to objectivity. I believe that
the Rosenberg story long ago entered a mythic “commons” as evidenced by its ongoing power to inspire major acts of creativity, Kushner’s masterpiece, “Angels in America” being a clear example.

It is good to recall the millions that “Uncle Joe” killed long before WWII, as well as his willingness to be an ally of Hitler until Hitler turned on him.

Stalin and the Soviet Union’s secret police, many of who had Jewish heritage/origins, specifically targeted Jewish communities for persecution because of their Jewishness.

Communists who supported Stalin and the Soviet Union still seem unable to accept responsibility for their actions but try to argue it away with all sorts of rationales.

Old Rockin' Dave says:

A quibble with the assertions made in the article: The Soviets gained no benefit from any P-80 (later designated F-80) because it was essentially obsolete by the time it came into service. Soviet aircraft designers were quite good in their own right and gained a great deal from people and materiel they captured from the Germans. What made the MiG-15 such a menace in the Korean War was the jet engine made from the British Rolls-Royce Nene jet engine, then the most advanced production jet engine, that had been freely and openly given to the postwar USSR by Britain’s Labor government as a “goodwill” gesture. I have no idea what if any penalties the fools behind that decision suffered when MiGs were blasting British and Commonwealth pilots out of the sky in Korea.

artcohn says:

Rolls Royce also had a licence agrrement with Pratt&Whitney who produced the engine as the J-42. It was not used in the advanced swept-wing F-86 Sabre by the manufacturer North American’s choice of the lower frontal area General Electric’s J-48. The J-42 was used in the straight-wing, slower, Grumman F9F Panther.
The guilt of the the Rosenbergs was apparent to me as an 18 year old in 1953, and, with all of the KGB revelations, should be to anyone today. The Government overstated their contribution to the Soviet A-Bomb project, but Julius and his organization were still guilty of treason. To my mind, the only open question is the sentencing of Ethel to death and the carrying-out of that sentence. The Government vs. the Rosenbergs and their Communist associates were playing a lethal ‘game of chicken’. Would the Rosenbergs admit to being Communist agents? The Rosenbergs, true to their Communist allegience, refused to admit, and their children were, in effect, sentenced to being orphans. I don’t know that Ethel’s contributions to Julius’ organization were of such a level to justify the overall sentence of her to death, and her children to being orphans.

stan nadel says:

Ron seems to have forgotten or is ignoring his own conclusion in the Rosenberg File that even the prosecutors had doubts about Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt but that they pushed for a death penalty in order to blackmail Julius into confessing. That alone is enough to make it a miscarriage of justice.

As for the overwrought claims by Judge Kaufman and some of the commentators here that the Rosenbergs committed treason, let’s remember a bit of real history. While treason is defined as giving aid and comfort to our country’s enemies, the Rosenbergs were giving aid and comfort to an ally when they passed on information to help them fight our common enemy, Nazi Germany. That doesn’t necessarily justify what they did, but it wasn’t treason.

Peter W. says:

A friend of mine from years ago, who is related to one of the Rosenbergs, I forget which one, grew up in a Communist Party household in Brooklyn in the late 1940s and 50s. He told me, that in his household it was totally understood and known that the Rosenbergs did what they were accused of, but that his family, outside of the home, would hypocritically maintain that they were innocent.

Daniel says:

What Stan Nadel said.

Radosh does little more than hand-waving to support his claim of Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt.

The only affirmative act on her part in this crime was to type her husband’s reports to the KGB — and the only evidence she had typed them was the testimony of her brother David Greenglass. Greenglass had at first claimed his sister was wholly innocent, but changed his story and saved his own skin in a deal to testify against the Rosenbergs. He recanted his testimony before he died and said he didn’t know who had done the typing.

Even for felonies as heinous as espionage or treason, misprision of a felony — knowing about it and not reporting it to the authorities — is not by itself conspiracy or participation. That is very probably the most Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of, but in the Cold War hysteria and nuclear terror she was judicially murdered because she would not testify against her husband. We wrong her and the truth if we accept Radosh’s rechilus about her.

As the author of the novel on the Rosenberg case, “Red Love,” I do not agree with Ron Radosh’s assertion that Morton Sobell engaged in espionage “not because he was anti-fascist, but as he told us, `I did it for the Soviet Union.” This distorts Sobell’s meaning. Radosh knows that for Sobell and for the Rosenbergs, being anti-fascist was inseparable from being pro-Soviet.As the Nazis mercilessly slaughtered millions of Jews, Julius Rosenberg poignantly asked his KGB handler Feliksov, “Why do the Germans hate the Jews so much?” He had the illusion he was talking to a rescuer of the Jews. Stalin, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote, was the “new Moses.” Yes, Rosenberg set up his network during the Nazi-Soviet pact, and he kept his network alive after the war, but Communist true believers– no matter how misguided they appear to us now– still thought they were in the vanguard of the battle against fascism, both during the war and even after it. We need a more nuanced understanding of them within the context of those terrifying times.

Old Rockin' Dave says:

Another piece of evidence, for what it’s worth, is Sergei Khruschev’s recollection of his father telling him that Julius Rosenberg was definitely guilty but Ethel was not.

John Earl Haynes says:

The claim by a commenter that “The only affirmative act on her [Ethel Rosenberg's] part in this crime was to type her husband’s reports to the KGB” is flat wrong. Documentation from KGB records available only after 1995 show that she was in direct contact with KGB officers and recommended the recruitment of her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, and in a report to the KGB Julius portrayed Ruth’s recruitment as a joint effort by Ethel and himself. And recruiting Ruth was the key step to recruiting David Greenglass, otherwise isolated at Los Alamos. If Ethel had not assisted in recruiting Ruth, David would not have been recruited, and there would have been no Rosenberg trial. Certainly she was not a major figure like Julius, but she was an active participant in espionage.

Jed Brandt says:

Ronald Radosh? Surely you are kidding.

This guy is the anti-Semite’s favorite Jew. Eager to prove his loyalty to the empire by sacrificing Ethyl Rosenberg, victim of a vile anti-Jewish crime committed by the McCarthyite’s.

The truth was that the USA was armed with nuclear weapons, was threatening to use them in China, Korea, the Soviet Union and anywhere the global reach of B-52s under the control of Curtis LeMay could go. If it is true that Julius shared technology with the Soviets, we can’t underestimate how many lives were saved from the racist lunatics who thought nuclear monopoly would bring them.

McCarthy is dead — let’s put the witch hunters behind us.

Jed Brandt says:

There was no “Nazi-Soviet Pact” — the greatest war in human history was between the Nazi, racist hordes and the liberal-communist alliance. It was the Red Army that liberated the death camps.

No doubt the Ronald Radosh’s of the world were happy enough collaborating with Operation Paperclip Nazi scientists… but the systems of white supremacy and colonialism that the Nazis, British and US agreed were their due were, in fact, coming to their end.

Let us remember clearly who stood for racial government and colonialism — and who fought it to the last man. (Hint: it was the Reds.)

David Alman says:

Surely, your readers deserve to hear more than the government’s side of an historic trial for conspiring to commit espionage in which every defendants was Jewish. Justice officials assigned as Chief prosecutor and his assistant two Jewish prosecutors plus two non-Jewish minor prosecutors. The judge assigned to the trial was likewise Jewish. The initial jury panel contained 18 Jewish potential jurors, but 17 were removed on challenges from the prosecution and one by a challenge from the defense, so that in a city that was one-third Jewish, not a single member of the jury was Jewish. Such a trial in Moscow or Berlin would have long ago been labeled anti-Semitic.

An exploration of the government’s conduct of the case, published in a number of books in the 20th century, and three in 2010, use scores of government documents to demonstrate that the government used suborned perjury and other deceits to obtain guilty verdicts.

Ronald Radosh and others of similar outlook have avoided coming to grips with the documentary evidence of the government’s misconduct and unjustifiable and illegal executions of the Rosenbergs.

I pray that Tikkun will summon the courage exhibited by the Orthodox Jewish magazine Zman, which in February of this year, devoted a 60 page article that, as it said, challenged “the assumptions of the official version [of the case] as it has been known for the last 60 years.”

Nicholas II says:

What we Christians want is simply that you [whatever you Zionists, Israel-firsters, Neocons call yourselves] — join us in elevating humanity. You certainly have the money, the rhetorical skills, the chutzpah. Christ, before you blow up the world in your paranoid nearsightedness, come out and listen and commune and join us. We have a world to be saved. Your “City on a shining hill, a light unto the nations” is increasingly an internationally-recognized bad joke. No one thinks of Israel as a “Light unto the Nations.” No one that I know! Make common cause. As the revered Rabbi Hillel once instructed, “Who will join me if I’m only for myself?”

All I desire to say is, yes! Yes! Yes! Youre so proper. I desire to get behind this so considerably. You speak with so significantly authority, so much spirit, I feel as although youve absolutely hit the nail on the head. Very good job with this. Please maintain brining us far more simply because we want more of your type of blogger.

Grif Fariello says:

Haynes and Radosh overstep themselves by leaving out pertinent information.

One should first mention that Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, atomic scientists who did indeed hand over the bomb to the Soviets, were treated very differently than the Rosenbergs. Fuchs, a British subject, served only 9 years. Hall, an American, whose espionage the government was aware of at roughly the same time, was not even indicted.

The trial by any measure was unjust. The Rosenbergs were scapegoats for the above-mentioned, tried as though they had given away the bomb and placed the nation in mortal danger. The info Julius provided did no such thing. One might reply, “not for want of trying,” but that is not what we hand out death sentences for. Key testimony against Ethel was perjured and solicited by the prosecution. The prosecution was involved in ex-camera meetings and discussions with the Judge, even to the point of agreeing on the penalty before the trial was over.

Nor do they seem to understand that allegations weighed against Ethel decades after the trial does not lead to an ex post facto declaration of guilt. No matter what KGB documentation may have arisen in 1995, they remain only allegations untested in court, and perhaps untestable as hearsay. Who could then or now vouchsafe their accuracy to meet the standard demanded by law?

That Julius was guilty of espionage is incontestable, that his wife knew of it also so. That Ethel was innocent under the statute charged is also true. Mere knowledge was not culpable. That is why the prosecution suborned perjury from her brother.

The trial was a travesty, as was the penalty. That Julius ran a spy ring does not make it less so.

This article was written in 2011 which is old. However it invites comment so this is mine.

I question Radosh’s depth of thought on a single fact. He uses the term Marxist in a pejorative and dismissive context. In fact Wiki states that Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. Marx’s work in economics laid the basis for the current understanding of labour and its relation to capital, and has influenced much of subsequent economic thought. (That is an understatement)

For a century, Americans and others have had a part of their lives regulated by Marxist theory. Central Banks and graduated taxation are adopted out of Marx’s work. It is the mythology about American capitalism, that is mindlessly preserved within America’s culture, that has led to America’s economic decline. As today’s headlines confirm, America is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century and the reality that socialism is its’ future, as Kruschev stated some 50 years ago to JFK.

I would add one more historic fact about Korea, since Korea is mentioned.

As the result of several wars with China, Japan occupied Korea for a decade before being defeated by America. Since China was a “Western ally”, the Allied leaders had agreed before the end of WWII that Korea would be returned to China, as it rightfully belonged to her.

The revolution drove the Chinese Nationalist government from office to Taiwan. This caused the Allies to renege on returning Korea to its’ rightful owners, namely China. This was the principle that brought about the Korean war.

It was a similar situation that brought on the Viet Nam War after France’s failed attempt at Dien Bien Phu to defeat the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Both Korea & Viet Nam had been within China’s sphere of influence for centuries until the “West” tried to change that. Early attempts at regime change you might say.

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Cold Case

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union on March 29, 1951. Sixty years later, the case still crackles with controversy. Why is it so hard to put to rest?