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 were innocent."
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.