Elizabeth Schulte examines what the new revelations in the case of
the Rosenbergs actually tell us.
September 30, 2008
A NEW spotlight has been thrown on the case of Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 as so-called "atomic spies" for
the ex-USSR, after the release of grand-jury testimony from the time,
plus an admission by the Rosenbergs' co-defendant Morton Sobell that
he had spied for the Soviet Union.
A few people couldn't be happier to heap new condemnations on the
Rosenbergs following the New York Times interview in which
Sobell--who until now has maintained his innocence--said he'd spied.
Take Ronald Radosh, who has made an academic career out of justifying
the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. Radosh wrote in the Los
[A]fter Sobell's confession of guilt, all other conspiracy theories
about the Rosenberg case should come to an end. A pillar of the
left-wing culture of grievance has been finally shattered. The
Rosenbergs were actual and dangerous Soviet spies. 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
But the facts are more complicated than Radosh admits. In Sobell's
Times interview about spying ("Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that," he
said. "I never thought of it as that, in those terms."), he said he
gave military secrets to the Soviet Union--but during the Second
World War, when the U.S. was supposedly an ally fighting Nazi
Germany, and not "atomic secrets," but information about radar and
Sobell, a former classmate of Julius Rosenberg at the City College of
New York, was tried in 1951 alongside the Rosenbergs and refused to
incriminate himself or the Rosenbergs. He was sentenced to 30 years
behind bars, and served 18 years, in Alcatraz and other federal prisons.
While the media were quick to re-prosecute Sobell and the Rosenbergs,
Sobell wrote in a letter to the Times afterward: "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 their part, the Rosenbergs' sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol,
repeated in a statement what they said in 1975, when they first began
to request that the government release information about their parents' case:
"The truth is more important than our personal political position."
We meant it. Though we believed then that this material would prove
our parents' and Morton's innocence, we have always been willing to
accept whatever the record showed...
Morton's statement...moves us to acknowledge that Julius did, in
fact, participate with others in passing along military information.
But at the same time, we believe the still-evolving record makes it
even clearer that Julius did not "steal" or transmit the "secret of
the Atomic Bomb," the crime for which he was executed.
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MEANWHILE, THE National Security Archive, an independent research
group at George Washington University, gained the release of
testimony of all but three of the 46 witnesses who appeared before
the grand jury in the Rosenberg case from August 1950 through March 1951.
The transcripts are a chilling addition to the "trial of the
century," in which the Rosenbergs were railroaded through coerced or
patently false testimony.
Most importantly, the grand-jury testimony shows that Ruth
Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's sister-in-law, falsely incriminated
Ethel to win a lighter sentence for her husband David.
During the trial, David Greenglass claimed that he gave the
Rosenbergs secrets--including a sketch of the atomic bomb--that he
stole from his job as an Army machinist at the Los Alamos, N.M.,
laboratory. During her 1951 trial testimony, Ruth claimed that Ethel
typed David's notes on the atomic bomb. But her recently released
grand-jury testimony from 1950 doesn't say anything about Ethel
typing notes. In fact, Ruth originally claimed that she herself
handwrote the so-called atomic notes.
During the trial, David also implicated his own sister Ethel--which
played a key role in convicting Ethel and getting her a death
sentence. Decades later, David admitted to Sam Roberts for his 2001
book The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case that he had
lied about Ethel. "I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I
don't remember," Greenglass said.
"You know, I seldom use the word 'sister' anymore; I've just wiped it
out of my mind," Greenglass said, adding, "My wife put her in it. So
what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife."
Greenglass has blocked the release of his own grand-jury testimony.
As the Meeropols pointed out in their recent statement,
Obtaining the full record is essential, because both David and Ruth
testified about the typing at the trial. In fact, in his summation to
the jury, the prosecutor drove home the case against our mother by
referencing Ethel's alleged typing when he declared, "Just so had she
on countless other occasions sat at that typewriter and struck the
keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."
Ultimately, the government used the threat of executing Ethel--even
though there was no evidence implicating her--to try to coerce Julius
into a confession. "They created a case for my mother," Michael
Meeropol told the Washington Post. "They put a gun to her head and
said to my father, 'Talk, or we kill her.'"
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JULIUS AND Ethel were executed for giving away the so-called "atomic
secret"--what the prosecution portrayed as the one piece of
information that made it possible for the USSR to develop the bomb.
This is ludicrous, since there was no "atomic secret."
As a 1949 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic
Energy stated, "The basic knowledge underlying the explosive release
of atomic energy--and it would fill a library--never has been the
property of one nation...The Soviet Union, for its part, possesses
some of the world's most gifted scientists...men with the abilities
and whose understanding of the fundamental physics behind the bomb
only the unrealistic were prone to underestimate."
And if there was a secret, David Greenglass couldn't have relayed it
in the garbled drawing that he passed off as evidence to prosecutors.
But the point of the trial--and the executions--wasn't just about
alleged atomic spying. The U.S. government had a message it wanted
heard--if you oppose our policies, we will execute you. If you are a
Communist, you are a suspect.
The fact that the Rosenbergs were an average couple in many ways made
them the perfect target. They came from working-class Jewish
immigrant families in New York's Lower East Side and, radicalized by
the poverty of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, joined
the Communist Party like many others did. They took part in the
struggle to save the Scottsboro Boys and collected funds for the
Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. By 1943, they were no longer
active in the party.
Their trial was dominated by fierce anti-Semitism and hysterical talk
about the so-called Communist threat to the "American way of life."
What the federal government showed with its highly publicized trial
was that if the Rosenbergs could be sent to the electric chair for
their political affiliations, then no one was free from suspicion,
and no one was safe.
Whether or not there was spying, what is crystal clear is that the
government's prosecutors didn't let anything get in the way of
orchestrating a trial and executing the Rosenbergs to send a chill
through the left.
As Julius wrote in a letter to their lawyer Manny Block:
This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be
a Rosenberg case because there had to be an intensification of the
hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American
people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in
order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger
thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer
gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for
contempt of court, but we're gonna kill ya!"
Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive drew an analogy with
the "war on terror" today. "The Rosenberg case illustrates the
excesses that can occur when we're afraid," she said. "In the 1950s,
we were afraid of communism; today, we're afraid of terrorism. We
don't want to make the same mistakes we made 50 years ago."
As the Meeropols wrote: "All that we have learned in the last two
weeks, coupled with all that we have gleaned from the information
already available, reinforced the biggest lesson of our parents'
case: The U.S. government abused its power in truly dangerous ways
that are still very relevant today."
It isn't the Rosenbergs who should be, once again, on trial--55 years
after their murder--but the federal government, which still persists
in whipping up fear and hysteria.
What else to read
The Rosenberg Fund for Children provides for the educational and
emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists, and
youth who are targeted activists themselves.
For more background about the Rosenberg case, read Elizabeth
Schulte's "The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," in the
International Socialist Review, marking the 50th anniversary of their
execution. Bill Keach's "Rehabilitating McCarthyism" discusses the
history of the witch-hunts and the Bush administration's attempt to
revive that atmosphere.
For books on the Rosenbergs, look for Invitation to an Inquest, by
Walter and Miriam Schneir, and Robert Meeropol's An Execution in the
Family: One Son's Journey.