The Rosenberg Case in Historical Perspective


11-24-08, 9:27 am

The Rosenberg “atomic spy” case is 58 years old, yet its reverberations are still being felt. In 1953, within three years of their arrest, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for passing secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. From the beginning, many people hotly contested the outcome of the trial. Many, on both sides, still use the case to highlight the worst excesses of the Cold War. This past September, the release of previously secret grand jury testimony related to Ethel Rosenberg's role along with an 'admission' by Morton Sobell made news. And with the inevitable host of misrepresentations and claims made as a result, the case is worth reexamining in an historical perspective.

My experience with the Rosenberg case began when I joined the Fund for Open Information and Accountability (FOIA – formerly the Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case) in the mid-1970s. There, I met Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s sons, and also the late Marshall “Mike” Perlin, Morton Sobell’s attorney in the 1951 trial. I also came to know Walter and Miriam Schneir, whose pioneering work, Invitation to An Inquest, in effect re-opened the case for a new audience in the late 1960s.

Prior to my involvement, the Committee to Re-open the Rosenberg Case had compelled the FBI to release important but heavily censored documents on the case using the Freedom of Information Act. While the documents failed to prove Julius Rosenberg’s innocence, they provided strong evidence that Ethel Rosenberg had been prosecuted as a ploy to intimidate Julius. The declassified documents also showed that Judge Irving Kaufman, who pronounced the death sentence on the Rosenbergs, had in the two years leading up to their execution, conspired with the Justice Department to thwart the defendant’s appeals. Kaufman’s actions, by any legal standard, violated judicial ethics.

The Anti-communist Cottage Industry

Subsequently historian Ronald Radosh, who formerly associated with New Left radicals in the 1960s, joined journalist Joyce Milton to use these documents and various interviews in their 1983 book, The Rosenberg File. This book claimed to affirm Julius Rosenberg’s guilt. It presented the standard House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and FBI portrayal of the Communist Party USA as a conspiratorial front for both a Soviet-led world revolution and Soviet conquest of the United States.

At the time of its publication, I strongly criticized the Radosh and Milton work as an attempt to legitimize the Reagan administration’s extreme intensification of the Cold War. Reagan, who not by accident gave Judge Kaufman the Medal of Freedom in 1987, had adopted a Cold War mentality that also enlisted a cadre of historians to recycle the anti-communist ideas of the 1950s. “The Witch-hunter’s Truth,” a pamphlet published by the Fund, dealt with these issues. In 1983, I attended a packed town hall debate between the Schneirs and Radosh and Milton sponsored by The Nation Magazine. At that debate various sections of the left and the former left, ranging from communists and ex-communists to Cold War liberals and ex-Cold War liberals (who came to support Reagan as self-styled “neo-conservatives”) showed up to cheer and boo the respective sides.

In the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US government released its decryptions of Soviet intelligence messages under the code name “Venona Project.” Since then, anti-communist historians have often used the decryptions in their research uncritically, even though such documents are notoriously inaccurate and politically colored. They created a sort of archival HUAC, to latch onto every encoded reference as fact and compile lists of “agents” and “dupes” of the communist conspiracy. Despite the fact that many such references are known to be false or planted, many scientists, government officials, non-communist journalists like the late I.F. Stone, found themselves accused of being Soviet agents because of listings in the Venona files. Julius Rosenberg, too, appeared in the Venona files under the code-name “liberal” as having providing information to the Soviets during World War II.

Some additional investigation, however, brought the Venona Project into serious doubt. For example, historians uncovered the fact that Kim Philby, the leading Soviet agent in the 1940s who also happened to head British counter-intelligence, knew about the Venona Project. Forced out of British intelligence in 1949 and under suspicion for years, Philby fled to the Soviet Union in 1963. Philby’s role and subsequent exposure suggest that Venona materials from much of the 1940s should be considered suspect. In addition, few serious historians doubted that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, would hold itself above doctoring documents to support its political schemes. Hoover, after all, had furnished HUAC and Sen. Joseph McCarthy with all sorts of distorted and incomplete documents to foster their scurrilous investigations. Historians also now know that Hoover had used FBI files, many of them distorted, to blackmail prominent figures.

By the mid-1990s, the case receded into memory. Ronald Radosh took to writing books connecting Bill Clinton and the Democrats with communists and becoming even more the caricature of a 1950s red-baiter. By this time, second and third generation historians, who studied the Communist Party in the late 1980s and 1990s, began to emerge from the smog of anti-communism. Many of them came to portray Communist Party activists as making positive contributions to the labor movement and to civil rights and other struggles, even if this largely non-Marxist and certainly non-communist scholarship often looked critically at formal CPUSA positions and leadership.

About that time, I wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of American National Biography on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I dealt with the case as a politically motivated one, and addressed the clear anti-Semitic subtext of the case. My article had an interesting effect. Both far rightists on the Internet and historians, for whom study of the communist movement can only be the study of espionage, denounced the publication for permitting me to write the article. They referred to me as a “proud, “self-confessed, “admitted” communist, which should have disqualified me from writing about the Rosenbergs, since anything that I wrote would be untrustworthy and deceptive. Only anti-communists, they opined, could write about communists without being biased. Some even accused me of insisting that the Rosenberg case was simply about anti-Semitism. I felt as though I had been transported back into the period I had written about, which many of my accusers seemed to have never left.

New Evidence, Old Story

The recent revelations about the Rosenberg case added important documentation to what we had been saying for years: that the authorities fabricated evidence, particularly against Ethel. On September 11th, the National Security Archives at George Washington University released declassified grand jury testimony by Ruth Greenglass, Ethel's sister and wife of alleged accomplice David Greenglass. In that grand jury testimony, Ruth claimed that the secret information allegedly obtained by David Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg was sent to Soviet agents written in her own (Ruth's) handwriting. During the trial, however, Ruth testified that Ethel Rosenberg typed the information. This perjured contradiction caused historians reviewing the new documents to say it both cleared Ethel and proved that the federal attorneys on the case made up evidence against her in order to include her in the proceedings. Such a fabrication, by any standard, should have put the entire trial into jeopardy. It also shows that the US government executed a woman it knew to be innocent.

While the major media largely ignored the Greenglass revelations, a new piece of the story emerged at about the same time. On September 12th, the New York Times published what it called Morton Sobell’s “confession.” Unfortunately for those who have obsessed over the spy story for decades, Sobell made no mention of nuclear espionage – the whole crux of the case – or that he knew that Julius Rosenberg had anything to do with nuclear espionage. While the major media today seemed firmly intent on continuing this impression, for it was the same fabricated nuclear issue – that is allegedly handing to the Soviets 'the secret of the atomic bomb' – for which both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed.

Sobell, now over 90, stated clearly that he all he did was work with Julius Rosenberg to pass non-nuclear information to the Soviets during World War II. Sobell wrote, “As for me, I helped an ally (admittedly illegally) during World War II. I chose not to cooperate with the government in 1950. The issues are now with the historians.” For a man who spent 19 years doing hard time in federal prison for those wartime activities, that is a fairly magnanimous statement.

Secret of the Atomic Bomb

Despite these new revelations, some aspects of the case, the most important ones, remain unchanged. There was no such thing as the 'secret of the atom bomb,' no more than there was a secret to the automobile. Unfortunately, no scientific expert witness had the courage to say at the Rosenberg’s trial in 1951. Scientists had known about nuclear fission, the basic inner-workings of the bomb, since before World War II. The atomic bomb project was 'an industry, not a recipe,' nuclear physicist Phillip Morrison would say later.

When the US successfully built an atomic weapon, it became clear that the Truman administration intended to use it to threaten the Soviets. The US government shared nuclear information with the British during the war but refused to do so its Soviet allies. When Harry Truman informed Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference that the US had successfully tested such a weapon, he meant it as an implied threat to the Soviets to conform to US dictates. Truman’s actions prompted the first steps in the nuclear arms race. Stalin immediately ordered his subordinates to contact Moscow and make the Soviet atom bomb project a high priority.

Americans built the first atomic bomb, but scientists familiar with the project understood they would probably not be the last. The Truman administration, as part of its developing Cold War policy against the Soviets, decided immediately after the war to refuse to work with the Soviets in the United Nations to promote a nuclear disarmament program. Truman wanted to maintain a monopoly over nuclear weapons, develop those weapons in quantity and quality, and use this nuclear monopoly to gain global hegemony.

The goal of maintaining a nuclear monopoly failed for many reasons. The Soviets’ successful explosion of a nuclear device in 1949 stood as only one of many causes for this failure. Political reaction to the Soviets’ successful test led directly to hysterical claims that Soviet spies in the Communist Party stole the “secret” of the atomic bomb. Right-wing pundits and demagogues blamed American communists and the Soviets entirely for the nuclear war danger, despite the fact that only the US had ever used an atomic bomb on people. Based on that irrational assertion and using a guilt by association logic, McCarthyites justified any action to fight the Soviets and go after communist movements as well as non-communist groups suspected of communist affiliations. The Rosenberg-Sobell political show trial served as “proof” for that assertion.

Spies Among Us

I do not mean to suggest that no spies were involved with nuclear questions. No one argued in 1951, for example, that Klaus Fuchs did not pass information to the Soviets. Fuchs, however, worked as an actual physicist, not an engineer and machine shop operator like Julius Rosenberg or a draftsman and college dropout like David Greenglass.

In recent years, historians also proved that Theodore Hall met with Soviet officials in New York in June 1945 and provided them with a drawing of a model of the atomic bomb that proved valuable for their project. Shortly before his death (he went on to a distinguished scientific career in Britain), Hall said that he took these steps to keep the US from establishing monopoly control over the atom bomb and nuclear weapons after the war. Such a monopoly would have endangered the world, he believed.

Likewise, historians think that physicist Joel Koval worked for the Soviets. Koval was born in Iowa to pre-revolution immigrants from Czarist Russia. Later, the Kovals moved with Joel to Birobidjan, a Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Union established for Jewish citizens who wished to live in an area specifically set aside for Jews. There, Koval distinguished himself as a student of physics and then, in a story fit for Hollywood, returned to the US as an agent of Soviet military intelligence. Ironically, the Putin government of the capitalist “new Russia” gave him a posthumous medal.

Abuses of Power

The Soviet Union wasn't the only foreign country with spies operating in the US during the 1930 and 1940s. During this time, America had a large racist, openly anti-Semitic isolationist right wing, which only reluctantly joined the war effort against the Nazis. This ultra right included corporate leaders who prior to the war had been happy to do business with Hitler, as well as US military and State Department figures who sought to limit aid to the Soviets at a time when they were taking on more than 80 percent of Axis ground forces in Europe.

With the future of the world literally hanging in the balance, World War II was a desperate and unusual circumstance. Although the Soviet Union and the US were allies, the FBI, extensive recent scholarship has shown, continued to regard the Communist Party, anti-fascist émigrés from Germany and other countries, and all who had contact with the Soviet Union during the war as enemies, greater enemies even than individuals and groups that had pro-fascist and pro-Nazi sympathies. J. Edgar Hoover even put Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends under surveillance in an attempt to discredit her and her circle on political and personal grounds. And most of the military and corporate leaders whose powers now greatly increased during the war refused to hide their deep and long-standing hostility to the Communist Party or see the war in anti-fascist terms.

Patriotic, Not Subversive

Thousands of Communist Party members in the military services initially faced major forms of discrimination, from segregation into units that the military reserved for troublemakers to attempts to bar them from officers training programs. This didn’t prevent an estimated 15,000 communists from serving in the US armed forces during World War II. Some served in the OSS (ironically, the predecessor to the CIA), where their knowledge of and commitment to fighting fascism made them in effect “advanced” soldiers. Others received decorations for individual acts of heroism. Collectively, the Communist Party focused its energies on achieving victory over fascism, winning the war and the peace. Communists organized the campaign to open an early Second Front, which, had it come to fruition earlier, might have saved millions of lives in Europe and Asia.

The Communist Party made serious mistakes. It supported, for example, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, for which it later issued a formal apology long before the US government did. The Communist Party’s total commitment to winning the war and the use of all of its influence in all sectors of society, however, represented the highest form of patriotism. This sense of patriotic duty, shared by millions of working-class people, went unmatched by the capitalist class, which had to be bribed with cost-plus contracts to increase war production. Conservative politicians, who turned a blind eye to war profiteering, fought to protect corporate profits and sowed the seeds of racism.

Large sections of the US ruling class felt uneasy with and expressed contempt for what they saw as a “love affair” with the Soviet people. Mass media celebrated Soviet heroism and even portrayed Joseph Stalin as a friendly “Uncle Joe.” Capitalists and the right wing feared that these sentiments somehow would spill over into a postwar radicalization, making it more difficult to trot out the Soviet bogey.

These conditions fostered an environment in which some people concluded that providing aid to the Soviet Union to help their war effort, despite opposition from right-wing leaders of the military industrial complex, served the interests of both the Soviet and American people.

Serious students of Communist Party activists in this period, those who have looked at rank-and-file communists and their activism, stress their identification with and love of the US working class, its vital popular culture and its potential to advance democracy and socialism. These widely held beliefs became something like a left “American exceptionalism,” a belief that all of US history from the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Roosevelt's Four Freedoms and Economic Bill of Rights were large steps on the road to an eventual socialist “great society” which would play a major role in liberating humanity. While such views may be criticized as naïve or even utopian, making it difficult for many to respond to the massive and relatively sudden postwar repression, these views were a far cry from “subversive.”

Friends of the Rosenbergs have long portrayed them in this light. These were people who, for ill or for good, admired both Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and President Franklin Roosevelt as advancing the struggle for working-class liberation against fascism. They saw them as helping to bring about more than a “better world,” but a world with a socialist system that fostered equality, peace and social justice. If patriotism in its most simple definition means love of country, this was the America that communists defended and loved, rather than the America of Standard Oil, Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, the corporate leadership ready and willing to do business with Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists both to make money and fight socialist revolutions.

Loose Ends

Attorney Mike Perlin always said that the Rosenberg-Sobell trial was a frame-up, and even with the recent statement of his client, Morton Sobell, the new material released by the National Security Archives showed that. Those who for political purposes continue to try to make the history of the Communist Party a story of spies and conspiracy should be permitted to wallow in their own irrelevance, both to any serious study of the communist movement as a social movement or for that matter to any understanding of the complexities of espionage.

Other questions remain unanswered, some perhaps unanswerable. Did the information that Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, Joel Koval and others provide the Soviets enable them to get a bomb in four years rather than the 10 years estimated by US intelligence? No one can say. Had the Soviets not gotten the atomic bomb when they did, would Truman's threat to use atomic weapons in the Korean War against both Korea and China have been carried out? Quite likely.

Judge Irving Kaufman, in ordering Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s execution, accused them of sentencing to death millions, including their own children by giving the Soviet Union the “secret” of the atom bomb. In that rationalization of the death sentence, Kaufman both told the big lie of the Rosenberg-Sobell case and expressed perfectly the purpose of the trial. No “secret” of the atom bomb existed for Julius Rosenberg to provide anyone. There was, however, the Korean War and a new race to build the hydrogen bomb. Above all, Kaufman pronounced his sentence during a Cold War that promised war without end. The ideology of anti-communism buttressed by the terror that possible nuclear war would bring stood at the heart of the trial, the conviction and the executions.

Let me conclude by putting the shoe politically on the other foot. In the future, the US government may view it politically feasible to give historians and journalists the incentive to seriously study the relationship of US corporations both before and during World War II to their business allies and subsidiaries in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. As a result of those relationships some corporations made available important secrets used for information technology, synthetic rubber, aircraft development and other materials of immediate and direct military value to the Axis war machines.

And perhaps these writers will study those political, business and military leaders whom Axis intelligence reports often commented upon favorably, not to mention those who leaked information about Roosevelt’s pre-war efforts to aid the allies in order to deliberately scuttle those efforts, or the military leaders like George Patton who wanted an immediate war against the Soviets after hostilities with the Germans ended. Perhaps new light may be shed on US military leaders who busily prepared “preventive war” scenarios against the Soviets in which the US control of atomic weapons emerged as “the winning weapon” against the Soviet Red Army. Some historians have found bits and pieces of evidence to support such views in government archives (see, for example, the book IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black), but access to classified materials on this side of the issue might present a much fuller picture.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of