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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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As Usdin shows, the Rosenberg network, especially the agents Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, passed on the 12,000-page blueprints for the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, airborne radars for nighttime navigation and bombing, and other new radar technology. “Rosenberg’s band of amateur spies,” Usdin writes, “turned over detailed information on a wide range of technologies and weapon systems that hastened the Red Army’s march to Berlin, jump-started its postwar development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and later helped Communist troops in North Korea fight the American military to a standoff.”

So why, then, is there still a campaign to declare the Rosenbergs innocent victims? The answer must be found in the desire of now aging New Leftists and the few remaining elderly veterans of the Old Left to keep alive their hope of proving that the United States is the main villain in the world. In an essay written about today’s Tea Party for the New York Review of Books, the historian Gordon S. Wood reflects on the differences between popular memory and history. He notes that “there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember.” In the case of the Rosenbergs, what the veterans of the old “the Rosenbergs are innocent” school desire is to keep the memory of the cause alive. To admit the couple’s guilt is to demolish in one fell swoop the case their defenders have made over the years about their martyrdom and to force their supporters to face up to issues they would rather ignore. That is why the distinguished historian Eric Foner—one of the most prominent historians in the United States—can write that “the execution of the Rosenbergs was only the most extreme example of a broader pattern of shattered careers and suppressed civil liberties”—rather than an actual espionage case in which two American Communists were recruited out of the Communist Party USA to work for the KGB.

Foner continues to assert that “rather than the nest of Soviet spies portrayed by the FBI, or creatures of Moscow … the party emerges in new [revisionist historical] work as a complex and diverse organization.” He sees the CPUSA as a legitimate political group no different than any other organization or party. But in fact, if not exactly a “nest of spies,” it was, from its top leadership down, a willing recruiting agency for the KGB. It might have been complex, but its diversity included the membership’s willingness to do whatever Moscow ordered.

Indeed, Walter Schneir inadvertently admitted as much, when he wrote in Final Verdict that if Julius Rosenberg had talked, he would have been forced to name “the very friends who he had himself recruited,” as well as reveal “the dark secret” that the CPUSA and its leader, Earl Browder, “had involved itself in enlisting dozens of members for espionage.” When Schneir writes that if Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had confessed, they would have “fueled the hysteria of the times,” he is admitting that the so-called hysteria had a real basis in fact—the CPUSA and its members’ principal loyalty was to Moscow.

The Schneirs saw the Rosenberg trial as an American show trial, in which acknowledging the truth that Rosenberg was a Soviet agent would have given their enemies—the U.S. government—invaluable ammunition for their anti-Communist policies. Ironically, the Rosenbergs and their supporters were at the same time giving their total support to a power that was holding real show trials and sending innocent people to their deaths.

When the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 to Sam Roberts of the New York Times that despite his decades of asserting his innocence, he was in fact a Soviet spy, the old game ran into big trouble. Sobell qualified his confession by saying he never thought of himself as a spy, just as an individual who was helping “a wartime Soviet ally,” who only handed the Soviets “defensive” weaponry that would be of no harm to America. Moreover, Sobell also argued that the information coming from Greenglass was only “junk.”

Yet even while confessing, Sobell fudged the facts. In an article Steven Usdin and I wrote that appears in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, we revealed that Sobell decided to admit that what he stole was in fact major military data desired by the Soviets. He told us how on a nonstop photo session over a July 4 weekend in 1948, he, Julius Rosenberg, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics scientist William Perl, and a fourth man took films of 1,885 pages of classified documents stolen for them by Perl from a Columbia University safe belonging to Theodore von Kármán, at that time the nation’s most prominent aerospace engineer. It included information about the designs and capabilities of every American bomber, designs for analog and digital computers used to automate antiaircraft weapons, and specifications for land-based and airborne radars later used in Korea. He thus provided information that advanced the capabilities of the Soviet military machine.

Moreover, Sobell acknowledged that he engaged in this espionage not because he was anti-fascist, but, as he told us, “I did it for the Soviet Union.” His spying continued until the day he fled to Mexico to try and escape arrest in 1950, well into the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were no longer allies.

As new information found in espionage historian Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks revealed, Greenglass had in fact not only given a primitive sketch of the bomb’s lens configuration to Harry Gold, Rosenberg’s courier, but later delivered to him the physical mold of a detonator for the bomb. The detonators were built in the shop in which Greenglass worked. Moreover, the supposedly “harmless” material the Rosenberg ring handed over to the KGB included radar specifications and aircraft designs that gave the Soviet military critical information about American capabilities, allowed the Red Army to jam U.S. radar, and contributed to the development of sophisticated Soviet fighters that equaled those deployed by the U.S. Air Force. There can be no doubt that this technology directly led to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

Sadly, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, still continue their campaign to exonerate their parents. After Sobell’s confession, Michael—the elder—acknowledged that for years “we believed they were innocent and we tried to prove them innocent.” But now, he said that they believe “truth is more important than our political position.” However, they are continuing to obscure the truth. After all, their parents went to their deaths admonishing them, in their last letter, to “NEVER LET THEM CHANGE THE TRUTH OF OUR INNOCENCE,” or as the couple put it another time, “The Fact of our innocence will not change. We are the first victims of American Fascism.”

So, it is understandable that it has been hard for their sons to let it go. Perhaps it is more painful for them to direct their anger at their parents who lied to them about their guilt, preferring to leave them orphans rather than to dishonor their pledge to serve Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Robert Meeropol explained to Sam Roberts that had his farther talked, he would have had to “send his best friends to jail, and he could not do that.” He also added that “my parents would have made a bigger betrayal to avoid betraying me, and frankly I don’t consider myself that important.” Evidently, remaining silent to protect the spies he recruited was something Julius saw as sacrosanct, while allowing his sons to become orphaned was excusable. So, now his sons admit only that their father engaged only in “non-atomic espionage,” which somehow makes it appear less wrong. Of course, this is also false, since the Rosenbergs recruited David Greenglass precisely because he was working at the Manhattan Project, where they hoped he would hit pay dirt. Moreover, we now know, thanks to Spies, the book by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, that Julius Rosenberg also recruited yet another atomic spy, Russell McNutt.

The sons also claim that even if Julius was guilty, their mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was completely innocent. They make their claim on an evaluation of the once-secret grand jury hearings released by the government in 2008. That material showed that Ruth Greenglass, David’s wife, lied when she testified that material received from her husband was typed up by Ethel. In her grand jury testimony, she said to the contrary that she herself wrote it up in longhand. KGB Venona decrypts confirm that what they received was “hand-written.” (You can find my analysis of the grand jury testimony here.)

This, however, did not mean that Ethel was innocent, even though the government got Ruth to change her testimony. Venona also corroborated that Ethel had recommended Ruth, her sister-in-law, to the KGB as a suitable recruit. She also knew about her husband’s espionage work as well as that of other members of his ring, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. Ethel, in other words, was knowledgeable, and in legal terms was a conspirator. The fact that the government sought to break Julius by getting him to realize that his children would be left without both their parents does not prove that Ethel was innocent.

The truth is that both Meeropol sons are not what they continually claim to be: objective historians who are researching the Rosenberg case. They are partisans in the fight to prove their parents morally innocent, if not factually innocent. Michael Meeropol once wrote that his parents refused to cooperate because they wanted to keep the United States from creating “a massive spy show trial,” and they hence “earned the thanks of generations of resisters to government repression.” That statement is truly ironic, since the couple gave up their lives on behalf of the Soviet Union, the home of the show trial.

The late Howard Zinn tried to shift the terms of the Meeropols’ argument. Even if their parents were guilty, he wrote before his death, the “most important thing was that they did not get a fair trial in the atmosphere of cold war hysteria.” That statement would have had some credibility if Zinn had acknowledged the couple’s guilt. But of course he argued that most of the witnesses against them were lying. No one on the left, it seems, is willing to offer any condemnation for the way in which the Rosenbergs betrayed their own country.

There is, finally, the claim, made by Victor Navasky and echoed by others, that “these guys thought they were helping our ally in wartime.” A nice try—except the new evidence reveals two things: Julius Rosenberg set up his network during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when the United States and Russia were not allies, and second, he kept his network alive after the war’s end, in the period when the Cold War had started. The myth that Julius was motivated by anti-fascist concerns, rather than a desire to serve Stalin, is the greatest myth of all. As David Greenglass told me personally, he and Julius saw themselves as “soldiers for Stalin.”

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, David and Ruth Greenglass, and Morton Sobell all saw themselves as soldiers in a good fight, working behind enemy lines. They were Soviet rather than American patriots, who hid their own motivations in phony remonstrations of their supposed love for the United States.

Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at The Hudson Institute and a writer for Pajamas Media. He is author, with the late Joyce Milton, of The Rosenberg File and other books.

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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?

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