It has been fifty years since your parents’ execution, and it is understandable that as the son whom their actions betrayed -- along with their country -- you should still cling to the idea of their innocence. But in the decades since 1953, we have learned much about your father, Julius Rosenberg, and the contributions he made to the Soviet Union as an active espionage agent. We also know, contrary to what you claim in your new book An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, that your mother -- Ethel Rosenberg -- was not an innocent housewife as many of those who concede her husband’s guilt maintain. The Venona cables, which you discuss but never quote, prove conclusively that she was a knowledgeable accessory to your father’s espionage, and that she also recommended others to be recruited to the KGB. In a conspiracy case, that alone is sufficient for a person to be included in an indictment.
But you seem unable to grasp that the case against your parents was part of an effort to break an important Soviet espionage network, one that your father put together. Instead you insist on referring to it as a political trial meant to serve as a warning to the “progressive” Left, to strike fear into their hearts, as you put it in a recent interview, and to prove that “left-wingers were really agents of a foreign power.” As though this were not indeed the truth, at least in the case of active spies.
Why can’t you admit that the Venona decrypts conclusively prove that American Communists were indeed agents of a foreign power? The same decrypts show that your father put together a network of seven primary sources and two active liaison-couriers, as well as three others who carried out support work. All of these people were recruited, as was your father, from the ranks of the American Communist Party. Your father stole top secret military data, including the proximity fuse that years later the Soviets used to shoot down Major Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane. Klehr and Haynes refer to the fuse as “one of the most innovative advances of American military technology,” for which Moscow awarded your father a $1,000 bonus in March 1945.
Of course, we also know -- as Joyce Milton and I argued back in 1983 -- that the death sentence for your mother was intended by the prosecution as a “lever” to pressure your father to confess so they could move against his ring. But the government never expected to carry these executions out; indeed, even J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo opposing the execution of your mother. But as Communist true believers, they refused to confess, preferring martyrdom -- and making their own children orphans -- to telling the truth and saving their lives. Your uncle, David Greenglass, who also sought to stop the execution, put it accurately when he said that your parents “could have cleared themselves.” All they had to do was tell the truth.
I know that you have suffered greatly, and that as you reveal in your memoir, you have struggled to come to terms with what their trial means for our history. You make a start; but you fall far short of accomplishing your goal. You continue to give credence to myths that have long been answered. You insist that Venona is “devastating…to the government’s case,” when in fact, it establishes beyond doubt that your father was a Soviet spy. You say you now “accept the possibility” that he participated in what you call an “illegal and covert effort to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis,” forgetting that as a Communist his ambition was to overthrow the government of the United States, as well. You also denigrate the confirmation of the role your father played, provided by his KGB control Alexander Feklisov, writing him off in two pages as a “disreputable character interested in self-aggrandizement and financial gain.” However, any reader of his book knows that his motivation is only to honor and “to rehabilitate the name of” the Rosenbergs, whom he considers to have been genuine Soviet partisans.
Your contention that your father’s espionage for one of the bloodiest tyrants in history is understandable because he had bad eyesight and could not enter the U.S. Army, is sad, even desperate. I could understand if, like Feklisov, you argued that your parents were committed Communists who put their ideals into practice by stealing the military secrets of the imperialists to help their Soviet comrades. I would find that a rather poor excuse, but at least one that is honest. But instead, you continue to assert that the agencies that released the new evidence regularly practice “disinformation,” and are thus intent on creating “false leads to show my parents’ guilt.” In this way, instead of exculpating your parents’ crimes against their country, you continue them.
In the end the truth remains that your parents were traitors who betrayed their country and their sons for an illusion. They acted with courage, but for a cause that was corrupt. By recognizing this you would restore their humanity, and perhaps heal the wound you obviously still feel. Instead, you have chosen to continue the charade, pretending that their cause was noble and that they were heroes of an American “resistance.” Resistance to what?
For your own sake, I hope you are mentally prepared for the inevitable day when the KGB’s own archives reveal that your parents were guilty. Get ready, because it’s going to be soon.