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?
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.
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