A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs
By SAM ROBERTS
Published: September 20, 2008
You could choose to ignore, or somehow explain away, the
Hitler-Stalin pact, or be wedded to the original Port Huron Statement
instead of the "compromised second draft," but if you seriously
considered yourself fiercely loyal to the far left, you believed that
the Rosenbergs were not guilty of espionage. At least you said you did.
For more than 50 years, defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an
article of faith for most committed American leftists. That the
couple was framed by officials intent on stoking anti-Soviet fervor
and embarrassed by counterespionage lapses that allowed Russian moles
to infiltrate the government was at the core of a worldview of
Communism, the Korean War and the ensuing cold war, and an enduring
cultural divide stoked by McCarthyism.
Now, that unshakeable faith has been rattled seismically. Not for the
first time, of course; in the 1990s, secret Soviet cables released by
Washington affirmed the spy ring's existence. But this time, the
bedrock under that worldview seemed to transmogrify into clay.
The rattler was Morton Sobell, 91, the case's only living defendant.
He admitted in an interview that he and Julius Rosenberg had indeed
spied for the Soviet Union. His admission prompted the Rosenbergs'
sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol self-described magnets for global
anguish over their parents' execution in 1953 to publicly accept,
for the first time, that their father committed espionage. Ronald
Radosh, co-author of "The Rosenberg File," a comprehensive account of
the trial, declared that "a pillar of the left-wing culture of
grievance has been finally shattered."
"The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies," he said in an op-ed article in
The Los Angeles Times, and "it is time the ranks of the left
acknowledge that the United States had (and has) real enemies and
that finding and prosecuting them is not evidence of repression."
Well, not quite. Many who took up the execution of the Rosenbergs as
a grievance are reluctant to let go of it. Mr. Sobell, in fact, was
rebuffed by his own stepdaughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, an author
and teacher. She said his confession "complicated history and the
personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the
world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to
support his claims of innocence."
By Mr. Sobell's account, Julius was guilty of conspiracy to commit
espionage (the charge he faced), although non-atomic military secrets
he delivered were probably more valuable to the Russians than
whatever he might have volunteered about atomic energy. And Ethel, in
Mr. Sobell's words, "knew what he was doing" at the very least.
But Mr. Sobell's confession came with plenty of caveats: He claimed
to know nothing about atomic espionage; if there was a secret to the
atomic bomb, the Soviets already knew it; Ethel was railroaded by the
government to leverage a confession from her husband; in Julius's
case, prosecutors framed a guilty man; neither deserved to die in the
Over the years, it became more difficult to find anyone on the left
who would echo Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's last letter to their
sons. "Always remember," they wrote, "that we were innocent." With
simple innocence seemingly off the table, Mr. Sobell's caveats still
keep the case alive.
"I never was going along saying I know that they were innocent, and
I'm not shocked by the fact that they turned out to be spies," said
Howard Zinn, the left-wing history professor. "To me it didn't matter
whether they were guilty or not. The most important thing was they
did not get a fair trial in the atmosphere of cold war hysteria."
E. L. Doctorow, whose novel "The Book of Daniel" was largely
sympathetic to the accused couple even as it indicted the larger
society, also said that a larger question superseded whether they
spied: "It was what happened to them, as if a society turned its
magnifying lens on these people until they caught fire and were burned alive."
Mr. Doctorow's fictionalized account explored the case through the
prism of the Old Left that came of age during the Depression and the
New Left that emerged in the 1960s.
"As the cold war deepened," said Tom Hayden, co-author of the Port
Huron Statement, the 1962 manifesto from Students for a Democratic
Society, "the problem became a whole generation on the left falling
into a dogmatic faith in the Rosenbergs' innocence while another
group believed the fantastic proposition that the Soviets only got
the bomb because of the Rosenbergs."
Leonard J. Lehrman, co-director of the half-century-old National
Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, argues, "The Rosenbergs were
not guilty of starting the Korean War, not guilty of stealing the
'secret' of the atomic bomb and giving it to the Russians, not guilty
of betraying their country, not guilty of atomic espionage and not
guilty of any form of espionage on behalf of an adversary in wartime."
"Were they guilty of some sort of conspiracy to commit some sort of
espionage?" he asked. "That's a purely subjective judgment." But Mr.
Sobell's comments, like the jury's verdict, suggest otherwise.
Victor Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation, said:
"I wish Morty and Ethel and Julius had been open about what they had
and hadn't done, or in Morty's case, 'come clean' before this." But
he added that "these guys thought they were helping our ally in
wartime, and yes, they broke the law, shouldn't have done what they
did, and should have been proportionally punished for it; but the
greater betrayal was by the state."
Soon after the Rosenbergs were arrested, they were officially shunned
by American Communists who feared the party would become synonymous
with Soviet espionage. Last week, the party and its newspaper,
People's Weekly World, did not return calls seeking comment on Mr.
The End of a Lie
By Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, September 22, 2008
With Morton Sobell's recent admission that both he and his comrade
Julius Rosenberg were Soviet spies, "the end has arrived for the
legions of the American left wing that have argued relentlessly for
more than half a century that the Rosenbergs were victims, framed by
a hostile, fear-mongering U.S. government." For decades, the Left has
painted the Rosenbergs, along with Alger Hiss and other Soviet spies,
as martyrs for civil liberties, sentenced only for their political
beliefs and opposition to the bi-partisan Cold War anti-Soviet
foreign policy. This is not an issue out of the distant past; rather,
the fight over whether they were innocent or guilty is "a crucial
part of the ongoing dispute between right and left in this country."
The Sobell confession, made to journalist Sam Roberts of The New York
Times, reveals that Sobell admitted to espionage, but "never thought
of it as that in those terms, only as helping a wartime Soviet ally,"
and that what he gave the Soviets were only "defensive" military
weapons that did not harm his own countrymen. As for Rosenberg, Sobel
claims, the so-called atomic information he obtained from his
brother-in-law David Greenglass was only "junk."
Sobell would not acknowledge that, in fact, the supposedly harmless
data he and Rosenberg stole had caused the deaths of Americans in
both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Sobell in particular had handed
over the SCR 584 radar that was used by the MIG planes to shoot down
US aircraft. Moreover, the MIG design itself came from one of
Rosenberg's key agents, William Perl. And Rosenberg himself gave the
his Soviet handler Alexander Feklisov the proximity fuse, which was
used to track Francis Gary Powers' U-2 plane and to shoot it down
during the Eisenhower administration. The evidence that the Rosenberg
ring did manifest serious harm to American national security is overwhelming.
With Sobell's confession in hand, it was only matter of time that the
press would contact Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenberg's
orphaned sons. They had no reason to doubt Sobell, Michael Meeropol
told Sam Roberts. He continued to acknowledge what for him was the
painful reality: "We believed they were innocent and we tried to
prove them innocent." Yet, he confessed that since 1975, somewhere
deep down the brothers knew that "truth is more important than our
political position." If that was so, they certainly did not show it.
Indeed, in scores of articles, interviews and two books, they went on
the warpath against my 1983 book The Rosenberg File (reissued in
1997), seeking to portray my historical research and analysis as a
right-wing smear polemic, and to condemn it as fraudulent history.
But now there is even more a wrinkle in their decades-long crusade
for "justice." Robert Meeropol, the younger of the two brothers,
added that he had considered Julius' guilt "a real possibility for
some time" and Sobell's confession now "tips the balance." Journalist
Roberts wrote that as the new revelations shrank their long-standing
claims of innocence, they "seemed to be tiptoeing toward the posture
they expressed this week."
Yet, their new posture lasted only a few days. Perhaps Roberts,
phoning soon after the Sobell story, caught them off guard. Robert
Meeropol, in fact, ended with a sad and telling comment. Had they
felt betrayed by their parents' unending protestations of innocence,
he was asked? After all, as they wrote in their Death House Letters,
"NEVER LET THEM CHANGE THE TRUTH OF OUR INNOCENCE." Or another time,
they put it: "The Fact of our innocence will not change," and their
explanation: "We are the first victims of American Fascism." And in
their last letter to their sons, they wrote "Always remember that we
Not being able to prove their own innocence, the Rosenbergs passed
that task on to their sons, who decided in the mid-1970's, as young
adults, to take up the cause. Did the sons have any resentment, given
that their parents lied to them about their guilt, and went to their
deaths on behalf of Stalin and the Soviet Union? Robert Meeropol,
sadly, told Roberts he understood; Julius would have had to "send his
best friends to jail," he noted, "and he could not do that." Most
shockingly, he added that his "parents would have made a bigger
betrayal to avoid betraying me, and frankly I don't consider myself
that important." The Meeropols did not seek to ask themselves what
kind of parents would saddle their orphaned sons with a lifelong
burden of proving their innocence, even when the Rosenbergs knew they
were lying to their sons and were actually guilty?
At any rate, it seemed that Michael and Robert Meeropol had finally
accepted the truth that their father was a Soviet agent. By Friday
September 19th, however, they paused and returned again to the old
bromides. In a statement released to their supporters - and soon to
be on their website www.rfc.org - Robert Meeropol presented his and
Michael Meeropol's latest thinking.
First, Robert Meeropol writes that since the 1980's he has
"maintained that it is possible that my father engaged in non-atomic
espionage," but not in any activity that resulted in his obtaining or
passing any A-bomb secret to the Soviets. On the face of it, this
first assertion is demonstrably false. Harry Gold, the courier who
took data from Julius's brother-in-law David Greenglass at Los
Alamos, went to visit him precisely to get whatever information
pertaining to atomic data he could get. As it turns out and has been
widely known already for decades, the crude sketch he offered
confirmed to the Soviets the accuracy of the more sophisticated data
they got from their other high level atomic spies, particularly Ted
Hall and Klaus Fuchs. Moreover, as the late scientist Phillip
Morrison told me decades ago (Morrison held the actual patent for the
A-bomb in his name), Greenglass's data was valuable because it showed
the KGB that Fuchs was giving them accurate material and that it was
"good corroboration." Greenglass' material was not on the level of
that passed by others. No one has claimed it was. Clearly, had it
been (and Julius Rosenberg had no way of knowing its value) Rosenberg
would have passed it on, hoping that he had given the Soviets the
most valuable data. As to whether Rosenberg passed on more material
of an atomic nature, we will have to wait until later this winter
when a new book by Harvey Klehr, John Haynes and Alexander Vasseliev
is published by Yale University Press.
Second, Robert Meeropol minimizes the extent of the damage done by
the "military information" he acknowledges that his father passed to
the Soviets. Had he discussed the details in his press release, his
readers would immediately find that it was a laundry list of top
secret and dangerous military information, that in fact did much
damage to the United States. The Meeropols have never dealt with the
information revealed by Steven Usdin in his very important book,
Engineering Communism (2005). Usdin shows that the Rosenberg network,
especially his 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." The Meeropols' acknowledgment that
Julius Rosenberg had passed on military information is conceded by
them only to make it appear that what he gave was insignificant and
nowhere harmful to the United States; much as Sobell tries to do the
same thing by calling the material "junk."
Third, Robert Meeropol emphasizes the Government's now proven
overreaching in their prosecution of his mother, Ethel Rosenberg. As
I reported in my analysis of the Grand Jury testimony, Ruth
Greenglass clearly lied under oath when she testified that reports
handed over by David Greenglass had been typed by Ethel Rosenberg and
then passed on to the Soviets. In her GJ testimony, Ruth said that
she had received the material and wrote it up in longhand herself. At
the trial, she testified that Ethel typed it. A secret Venona decrypt
dated January 8, 1945, however, notes receipt of this material and
the KGB says that it was "hand-written."
This does not mean, however, that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent and
framed. Indeed, in a conspiracy indictment, the unchallenged
testimony that Ethel had suggested that Ruth be recruited and urged
Ruth to enlist her husband, was far and enough to include her as a
defendant. But the prosecution was undoubtedly worried that a jury
might not find that substantive enough as a direct act to merit a
finding of guilt, not to speak of a death sentence. So the government
used the fake typing incident as its trump card to get a conviction
by the jury. The prosecution desperately needed Ethel indicted in
order to use her as a lever to hold over Julius' head in order to
break him and get him to talk about his network. Had he done so,
Ethel would have not received a death sentence; she may never have
been put on trial. As militant Stalinists, however, the cause came
first, and they would not bend
So here, Robert Meeropol is partially correct. The Government had
Ruth Greenglass manufacture a typing incident that never happened in
order to gain a conviction. They did so because they knew she was
guilty (Venona could not be introduced as evidence since the Soviets
would be given notice the US had broken its code) and were willing to
use unethical conduct to get a conviction. But Meeropol is wrong that
these sordid tactics (which I suspect came from Roy Cohn) are proof
of his mother's innocence.
Finally, in his final section, Meeropol seeks to use these new
findings for his old political agenda. As he writes in bold, "the
U.S. Government abused its power in truly dangerous ways that are
still very relevant today." These include, the charge that the U.S.
Government "created and fueled anti-communist hysteria."
Let us look at the implications of this first charge which is the old
canard that the Rosenbergs were political dissenters, put on trial
and executed because of an anti-Communist witch-hunt, "making them
the focus of the public's Cold War-era fear and anger." These claims
make little sense, since the Rosenbergs were arrested and put on
trial because they were real Soviet spies, not because they were
Communists. And as students of the trial know all too well, they
denied - and so did their supporters - that they were Communists at
all. Indeed, to call them that was immediately met by the charge of
Red-baiting. As the introduction to the second edition of their death
house letters, The Testament of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1953 and
1954) puts it, "A confession of guilt was meant to give validity to
the big lie: that all who struggled for a better life were
Communists, and all Communists spies and enemies of the country which
gave them birth."
So they did not confess, since in fact had they done so, it would
have established that there was an actual Communist threat, and that
some Communists were motivated by ideology alone to become willing
and active spies, and indeed were enemies of their own country.
Ironically, the book was published by the firm of Cameron and Kahn,
which we know thanks to the memoir of the former KGB General, Oleg
Kalugin, was itself financed by the KGB. To the Rosenbergs,
protecting the Communist myth was evidently more important than
preventing their own sons from becoming orphans.
Robert Meeropol is correct that there was judicial misconduct; all
writers on the case have made that point many times. We have also
noted - indeed I was among the first to do so - that Ethel's arrest
was meant as leverage to get Julius to cooperate with the
prosecution. But again, such tactics are often used in trials by
prosecutors. Again, the government knew they were spies, and it
desperately wanted - as did the FBI - to break up the rest of
Julius's network. But people - like Barr and Sarant before they
succeeded in fleeing the country to Czechoslovakia and then the
Soviet Union - were harassed because they were spies about to flee,
not because they were Communists! Barr and Sarant got away with it,
and as Steve Usdin meticulously shows in his sadly neglected book,
they used what they knew to build up the Soviet microelectronics
industry single-handedly after their defection.
In making his spurious charges, Robert Meeropol tries to change these
recent revelations to an indictment of the United States Government,
which he claims "systematically and emphatically covered-up and
denied all these abuses." In fact, our democracy has allowed a court
suit, as well as the Freedom of Information Act, to ferret out all
remaining material pertinent to the case, even though it shows
prosecutorial misconduct. The kind of immoral conduct sometimes
engaged in by a prosecutor like Roy Cohn in particular is used to
deflect attention away from the real revelation: that all the new
material confirms in more detail the actual guilt of Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg, and the efforts of their defenders in the past and in the
present to use their trial to promote anti-Americanism and lack of
trust in American democracy. It is an attempt to prove that the
Rosenberg case symbolizes the repressive nature of the U.S.
Government, who brought to trial innocent political dissenters and
even killed them.
Years ago, Michael Meeropol wrote that his parents did not cooperate
because they wanted to keep the U.S. from creating "a massive spy
show trial," and because they refused, they earned "the thanks of
generations of resisters to government repression." His statement is
truly ironic, since if there was any government that staged show
trials for political ends, it was the government for which the
Rosenbergs gave up their lives, that of Stalin's Soviet Union. No
wonder Michael and his brother seek to carry out their parents'
legacy in defending and providing funds for the children of those
they term "political prisoners" today, but who are in reality thugs
like the cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
The new revelations also deeply affected all those on the Left who
had a similar stake in the couple's innocence. In a masterful summary
of their reactions, Sam Roberts notes, as I have, that "defending
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an article of faith for most committed
American leftists," and that "the couple was framed…was at the core
of a worldview" held by them. Noting that their "unshakable faith has
been rattled seismically" by the Sobell confession which seemed to
"transmogrify" their world view into clay, Roberts got reactions from
some of the main figures on the cultural and intellectual left-wing.
Even Sobell's stepdaughter expressed her anger, seemingly upset not
at whether or not her stepfather was finally telling the truth, but
that the confession "complicated history" and was a seeming betrayal
of those like herself and her associates "all over the world who gave
time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims
of innocence." Poor Sydney, her struggle has been betrayed by her own
stepfather's decision to tell the truth.
Then there is the "historian" Howard Zinn, who now says that he never
said the Rosenbergs were innocent. Readers of his People's History of
the United States might be confused, since his discussion of the case
is written in such a way as to cast grave doubt as to whether they
were guilty, implying throughout that the witnesses against the
Rosenbergs were more than likely lying. At any rate, Zinn now says
the "most important thing was that they did not get a fair trial in
the atmosphere of cold war hysteria."
The left-wing novelist E. L. Doctorow, who wrote a novel and film
based on the case, The Book of Daniel and the movie Daniel, also sees
the Rosenbergs as martyrs who "were burned alive." Even Tom Hayden
chimes in that the case was a "problem" because his left-wing
generation had a "dogmatic faith in the Rosenbergs' innocence," while
the other side made a "fantastic proposition that the Soviets only
got the bomb because of the Rosenbergs." Unaware of atomic history,
Hayden reveals his own ignorance. The Rosenbergs helped the Soviets
in many ways, as I illustrated beforehand. As for the bomb, scholars
and Russian scientists have long acknowledged that the first bomb
exploded by the Soviets was an exact replica of the bomb exploded in
Los Alamos and was obtained by them from their various spies at the
Manhattan Project. And Hayden too has no words of condemnation for
the betrayal of his country by the Rosenbergs.
Finally, there is Victor Navasky, the former publisher and editor of
The Nation, who now is a professor of journalism at Columbia
University's School of Journalism. Navasky presents a familiar
refrain: "These guys thought they were helping our ally in wartime."
They broke the law, should not have spied, but their punishment was
not proportionate to the crime. Thus, "the greater betrayal was the
state." Again, only the American government deserves condemnation.
Navasky cannot seem to pause to bring up anything pertaining to the
horrors of the monstrous Stalinist regime the Rosenbergs served; his
focus is only on the evils of the United States. True, the
prosecutors exaggerated evidence and engaged in indefensible
behavior. Did it compare one drop to the behavior of the Stalininst
prosecutors in the Slansky purge trial, which the Rosenbergs and the
fellow-traveling Left of its day defended as genuine? I.F.Stone,
ostensibly one of Navasky's heroes, understood that. He wrote at the time:
The Communists…have cause for shame…the eagerness abroad to use the
Rosenbergs to equate the U.S.A. of Truman with the Germany of Hitler,
the wild cries of frame-up, sacrificed calm consideration of the
Rosenberg case to the needs of world Communist propaganda. After all,
no picket lines circled the Kremlin to protest the executions 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 the 'doctor's
plot' and at the same time carry on the Rosenberg campaign as they
did calls for political psychiatry.
Stone understood in the 1950's that the "Rosenbergs were treated a
good deal more fairly here than Slansky and other Jewish victims of
Stalinist injustice." Yet for Navasky, the Rosenberg's execution was
"the greater betrayal." Does he not comprehend that had the
Rosenbergs told the truth, they would have not only been spared, but
spared their supporters decades of living to defend a lie?
Finally, one more point needs to be made. The Rosenberg's defenders
continually fall back on the claim that after all, they were only
helping an "American ally." The implication, of course, is that the
Soviets needed what we chose not to give them; they were only helping
a mutual victory against fascism when the reactionary American
government held back weaponry that was rightfully due the Soviets.
After all, the Rosenbergs saw the Soviet Union as the vanguard of
anti-fascism, and they helped Stalin as the good anti-fascists they were.
There is one problem with that defense. Julius Rosenberg became a
Soviet spy and set up his network before June of 1941; in other
words, during the years of the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact, when Stalin
aligned his country with Hitler's Germany. He saw himself as a Soviet
partisan fighting behind enemy lines on behalf of Soviet Communism.
He was, as David Greenglass put it to me, a "soldier for Stalin."
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their recruits, including Morton
Sobell, wanted to do anything necessary for the Soviet cause, before,
during and after the war against Hitler. When it came down to it,
they were first and foremost Soviet patriots who hid their treachery
on phony remonstrations of their love for America.
Ronald Radosh, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, is
co-author of The Rosenberg File.
Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of
New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.