Commentary Magazine

Retrying the Rosenbergs (Again)

The innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, has for decades been one of the most treasured myths of the American Left. Although public outrage at their treatment was more intense and widespread in Western Europe than in the United States, a small, devoted conclave of apologists in this country has tried for decades, in the face of an accumulating and increasingly conclusive mass of declassified government documents, to discredit the guilty verdict. So overwhelming has been the accrual of new evidence that some defenders of the Rosenbergs have recently been forced to shift their ground and admit forensic guilt while still insisting on a higher, moral innocence. A case in point is the historian Ellen Schrecker, who has devised the Orwellian term “non-traditional patriotism” to describe the Rosenbergs’ betrayal of their country.

A not altogether different line has been taken by the curators of the New-York Historical Society, who have mounted a lurid exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the execution of the Rosenbergs. Apparently banking on the likelihood that few Americans under the age of sixty will recollect the facts of an exceptionally complicated case, the Historical Society coyly attempts to split the difference between guilt and innocence by focusing not on the charge of espionage but on the death penalty, even helpfully locating and installing an electric chair of the type used on the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing prison. These and other lugubrious touches have apparently provoked “overwhelming public interest,” or so the Historical Society informs us in a press release announcing that, though originally scheduled to close in early January, the exhibition will be held over into late March.

This same document provides an overview of the Rosenberg case that anyone familiar with it would find very curious:

Julius Rosenberg was one of a number of students studying engineering at City College, who as a member of the Depression generation became very disillusioned with capitalism. They imbibed the values of the Communist Left that were prevalent in New York City politics at the time and eventually were recruited by the Soviet Union to fight fascism and help the cause of beleaguered workers. . . .

The Rosenbergs’ death sentence has continued to generate controversy over the last 50 years. Many observers think the capital verdict reflected both the fears engendered by the anti-Communist Red Scare and a government strategy to pressure the defendants to reveal a larger spy network. . . .

[The exhibit prompts] visitors to consider how this internationally publicized cold-war case and resulting double execution acted as a warning to those who publicly criticized government policy.

When defendants face capital punishment, every detail of evidence counts. Yet in this trial, as in many of today’s controversial death sentences, the evidence was fragmentary and inconclusive. In a conspiracy trial, national-security concerns and the nature of the crime itself tend to make hard evidence difficult to come by. The release of hundreds of thousands of pages of U.S. government classified documents in recent years has by no means resolved all these issues.

Except for pointing to “a government strategy to pressure the defendants to reveal a larger spy network,” all of the assertions in this document are either partially or wholly false. Whatever the tasks to which Soviet espionage operatives were assigned in New York in the 1930’s, “fight[ing] fascism and help[ing] the cause of beleaguered workers” were not among them. Nor—it should be unnecessary to remind a society of historians—were the Rosenbergs executed for criticizing government policy. It is also not true that the “hundreds of thousands of pages” of newly declassified documents have failed to resolve issues in the case; quite the opposite, in fact.

But these are the sorts of equivocations and obfuscations that seem to have become increasingly necessary in light of historiographical developments over the past quarter-century. The major landmarks include a 1979 article in the New Republic by Ronald Radosh and Sol Stern and Radosh’s subsequent book (with Joyce Milton), The Rosenberg File (1983), which made use of materials obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to establish the couple’s guilt. These were followed by the 1990 publication in English of the memoirs of the late Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who explicitly credited the Rosenbergs with having “provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb.” Then, in the 1990’s, the National Security Agency (NSA) released declassified versions of the once highly secret decrypts of intercepted Soviet cable traffic, codenamed Venona, which both confirmed and filled in quite a few key details about the Rosenbergs’ espionage operation. Still another contribution has arrived lately in the form of a biography of a key player in the spy ring, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass.1 Finally, Alexander Feklisov, the man who served as Julius Rosenberg’s Soviet controller, has broken a half-century of silence to publish his own memoirs; after first appearing in France, these have now been issued in the United States.2



Feklisov offers a fascinating excursion into the netherworld of Soviet espionage in New York in the early 1940’s. Apparently a deft and disciplined agent, he was so successful in the U.S. that in 1946 he was transferred to London to supervise the activities of another highly productive spy, the nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs. Feklisov’s testimony is particularly significant because he is able to confirm the accuracy of the Venona decrypts, whose validity is still contested by the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol.

Feklisov is also able to confirm the couple’s considerable success in recruiting other agents: “the Rosenberg network,” he writes, “was one of the best-producing groups of agents in the history of Soviet technological espionage.” Its leading personalities were Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr, both of whom eventually fled the United States in the run-up to the Rosenbergs’ arrest and spent the rest of their lives in the Soviet Union developing advanced military technology. Another was Morton Sobell, an electrical engineer who eventually ended up as a co-defendant at the Rosenberg trial. Still another was David Greenglass.

Rosenberg apologists have always claimed that the FBI “framed” the couple. Feklisov’s account makes short shrift of any such idea. Indeed, he expresses considerable irritation with Soviet (and now Russian) intelligence for failing to express adequate appreciation for the immense services rendered by Julius Rosenberg to the cause of the motherland. He even takes his former superiors to task for failing to do all they could to spare his agent, either by instructing him to confess or by publicly claiming him and offering a swap for an American agent apprehended by Soviet security authorities.

Feklisov recounts that he met Julius Rosenberg over 50 times in order to acquire documents and artifacts that had been obtained by Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, and William Perl, another member of the ring, all of whom were employed in sensitive military industries. These included technical drawings, manuals, and electronic devices somehow smuggled out of heavily-guarded defense plants. In total, writes Feklisov, Barr, Sarant, and Perl passed on to Rosenberg—and Rosenberg to Feklisov—some 9,000 pages of secret documents relating to 100 different programs in the planning stage, half of which were deemed “very valuable” by the KGB. Rosenberg even brought him an actual fuse-proximity detonator, the same device that would eventually be used in 1960 to shoot down Francis Gary Power’s U-2 spy plane.

Other information conveyed through this channel included data for the SCR 584, an instrument that determined the speed and trajectory of V-2 rockets and calibrated the firing of anti-aircraft batteries, and a complete design manual for the first U.S. jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star. Feklisov also admits to an involvement in atomic espionage, though he claims that the documents he received in this area (presumably from Greenglass through Rosenberg) contained information that Moscow had already obtained from other quarters—a point to which we shall return.



Another side of the story comes from the successful quest by Sam Roberts, a New York Times reporter, to track down David Greenglass, now very old and living in retirement under an assumed name. Greenglass was a machinist assigned to the Manhattan Project who turned states’ evidence and was—in the words of the deputy prosecutor Roy Cohn—the case’s “smoking gun.” He had some scientific and technical interests but never went beyond high school. Apparently he idolized his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg, who was a graduate engineer, and absorbed most of the latter’s “progressive” political ideas. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Greenglass was assigned by a trick of fate to the war’s most important technical undertaking: the construction of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico.3 He managed to slip through the government’s fairly rigorous security background check by the simple expedient of lying about his past associations.

In Los Alamos, Greenglass was part of the team assigned to fabricate precision molds for the high-explosive lenses used to detonate the nuclear core. Eventually his drawings, passed on to the courier Harry Gold and from him through Julius Rosenberg to Soviet agents, were to play a major role in the case for the prosecution. On leave in New York City in 1945, Greenglass also met with a Soviet operative by the name of Yakovlev in a public location, identifying himself by saying, “I come from Julius.” He then handed Yakovlev a list of people in Los Alamos he considered “suitable for drawing into our work.” At the same time, he was told to gather samples of materials used in making the bomb. While in New York, Greenglass also delivered a cartridge for a new kind of wire detonator that had just been invented by his machine shop in Los Alamos.

When the war ended, Greenglass entered into an unsuccessful and eventually acrimonious business association with Julius Rosenberg. This may have played a role in his eventual decision to turn against his brother-in-law and his own sister, helping to send them both to the death chamber.



The seemingly quiet world of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and David and Ruth Greenglass was shattered by two events separated by five years. The first was the September 1945 defection of Igor Gouzenko, a military-intelligence code clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada. At about the same time, Elizabeth Bentley, an American woman who had been acting, like Harry Gold, as a courier for Soviet intelligence, turned herself into the FBI. Both revealed that the Soviets had penetrated the Manhattan Project. The second event was the January 1950 arrest in London of Klaus Fuchs, who provided Scotland Yard with a complete record of his activities in passing along crucial atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. A few days later, FBI agents came to visit the Greenglass home in New York.

The FBI was ostensibly inquiring about the theft of uranium from Los Alamos, but both Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg suspected, correctly, that the net created by Klaus Fuchs’s confession was closing in on them. Meanwhile, Soviet intelligence was making plans to evacuate both the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses through Mexico and Sweden, an option of which, in the event, neither couple chose to avail itself. Instead, David Greenglass chose to confess.

Not long afterward, Julius Rosenberg was interviewed by the same FBI officials. He denied everything—indignantly. He claimed not to know anything about the atomic bomb until it was dropped. He lacked, he said, the necessary technical knowledge even to ask intelligent questions about his brother-in-law’s secret work. And, he insisted, he did not even know any Russians.

A few months later, in July 1950, Rosenberg was arrested. His earlier refusal to cooperate had led the FBI to consider other means of getting him to volunteer what he knew, one of which was to implicate his wife. The government’s sense of urgency was driven by something unknown even to President Truman: much of the incriminating information in the government’s possession could not be revealed in court without compromising the fact that the National Security Agency had broken the USSR’s secret codes. Ironically—as it later became clear—the FBI and the NSA could have saved themselves the trouble; Stalin knew about the breaking of the codes anyway.

The Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell, one of their confederates, were brought to trial in 1951. Both husband and wife were found guilty of espionage and eventually sentenced to death. After a series of appeals, the sentence was carried out in 1953. David Greenglass was tried as well, and found guilty of espionage, but his willingness to cooperate with the government led to a reduced sentence of fifteen years; he was released on parole after serving ten of them.

What led to the worldwide outcry was the decision of the U.S. government to put the Rosenbergs to death. The protest was orchestrated by the Soviet Union and its allies and fellow travelers, but was not limited to them. Even Pope Pius XII, himself no shrinking violet when it came to fighting Communism, appealed for clemency. In denying any such request, President Dwight D. Eisenhower uttered a lapidary sentence summarizing the view of the U.S. government and, to a very large measure, of the American public: “By immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world.”

Ethel Rosenberg’s own response was quite different: “the great democratic United States,” she said, “is proposing the savage destruction of a small, unoffending Jewish family.” When, on the eve of the execution, the United States marshal told her that her final appeal had been denied and the death sentence would be carried out in a matter of hours, she added: “the Rosenbergs will be the first victims of American fascism.”



Although rich in colorful detail, Roberts’s book largely follows (and to some extent simply repeats) the findings of Radosh and Milton’s The Rosenberg File without always crediting the source. He singles out two issues for extended comment, both of them central to the government’s case and both contested by the defense. Could David Greenglass, a machinist with a Popular Mechanics level of technical preparation, have absorbed details crucial to the making of so complex a device as the atomic bomb? And, assuming that he did assimilate the necessary data, how valuable were his drawings and other information to the Soviets?

Somewhat surprisingly, a fair number of eminent physicists consulted by the Rosenbergs’ defense team declined to rule out the possibility that Greenglass could have acquired the necessary proficiency; they included E.U. Condon, a former Los Alamos physicist, Hans Bethe of Cornell, and Norbert Weiner of MIT. As Weiner put it, “I would hesitate to make any close association between a person’s formal education and his ability to perform.” As things turned out, this was a particularly prescient observation, since, as Roberts explains in the final pages of his book, after being released from prison Greenglass enjoyed a rather spectacular (if financially unremunerative) career as an inventor and scientific innovator.

The value of Greenglass’s information to the Soviet construction of the bomb was easier to dispute, partly because the Rosenberg ring was only one source of information; presumably Klaus Fuchs in Great Britain was at least as important. But, as Roberts sagely observes, establishing who did what for whom may not have been anyone’s first imperative. At the time, American intelligence officials had a vested interest in minimizing the costs of their relatively lax security procedures at Los Alamos. A few years later, having detonated their own device, the Soviets would not have been eager to suggest that their scientists had been incapable of building a bomb on their own—even though the model they finally did produce resembled the U.S. prototype down to the nuts and bolts.

Roberts resolves the controversy thus: “Whatever else Julius Rosenberg delivered to the Russians, they would have built the atomic bomb without him.” Perhaps they would have—but not necessarily when they did, or with the same consequences. Although Roberts dismisses the impact on the cold war of the early Soviet acquisition of the bomb, we now know beyond dispute that this is precisely what gave Stalin the confidence to challenge the United States in Korea, resulting in a war that cost the lives of millions of civilians and tens of thousands of American soldiers. Still, Roberts does at least squarely acknowledge that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage,” and that while he did not—because he could not—“steal the secret of the atomic bomb,” this was not for lack of trying. The point, Roberts rightly adds, is that Julius’s innocence or guilt did not hinge on whether “the conspiracy accomplished its goal.”



Another great question that remains from this case is the degree of Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt and whether, even if she had been fully complicit in atomic espionage, it was right for the United States to sentence her to death. Admittedly, the punishment was unusually harsh and even unprecedented. Never before had a civilian court imposed the death penalty for espionage, and only twice had the federal courts handed down capital sentences for treason.

Over the years, even those who have supported the government’s case—including Radosh and Milton—have argued that Ethel Rosenberg’s role was not significant enough to justify the punishment she received. Roberts agrees: in his account, Ethel Rosenberg was the victim of her brother David’s excessive eagerness to cooperate with the prosecution, an eagerness that led him to say she had typed certain secret documents. Presumably by delivering up both his brother-in-law and his own sister, he hoped to minimize his own sentence and save his wife Ruth from indictment—and so he did.

How much credit should the government have given to Green-glass’s accusation against his sister? Feklisov, who denies ever having met her, puts it this way: “It is certain that Ethel shared the convictions of Julius and recognized, no doubt, his collaboration with Soviet spies. However, she had never participated in these clandestine activities.” Roberts states the matter more starkly: she was “irrefutably personally supportive, philosophically in sync, and morally complicit. She may, in fact, have committed some or even all of the few overt criminal acts attributed to her by the prosecution.” Even so, this did not necessarily justify assigning her the same fate as her husband.



But here we arrive at the supreme irony of the entire case, which is that the U.S. government did not want to execute either of the Rosenbergs. What it wanted, instead, were the facts about their espionage activities. Had Julius and Ethel been willing to talk, Eisenhower was fully prepared to commute their sentence to life imprisonment. Even that would never have been served to term, for under federal law, as the President himself pointed out, “if they do not go to the chair, they will be released in fifteen years.”

This option was available to the couple virtually to the very moment the executioner threw the switch. Roberts reminds us that, from a command post in Sing Sing, the FBI maintained open phone lines to director J. Edgar Hoover’s office in Washington. Agents were also armed with an elaborate legal protocol that would have justified the Bureau’s recommendation of a last-minute reprieve. Specific questions had been drafted, two stenographers were standing by, and several suspected members of the Rosenberg spy ring had been placed under surveillance to prevent them from fleeing the country if word leaked out that the Rosenbergs were cooperating. Yet even when, moments after her husband’s execution, the prison’s Jewish chaplain begged Ethel to save herself, her only comment was, “I have no names to give. I’m innocent.”

In effect, the Rosenbergs played a game of chicken with the U.S. government, one that both sides lost. The government was never able to pin down all the facts about Soviet atomic and scientific espionage, and several key members of the Rosenberg ring were able to escape to safe haven behind the Iron Curtain. Moreover, the execution of the Rosenbergs provided the Communist camp with a massive propaganda windfall; Roberts exaggerates only slightly in writing that “by martyring themselves, they contributed considerably more to the cause of world Communism than they ever had as spies.”

As for the price paid by the Rosenbergs, they willingly chose not only to die themselves but to commit their two boys, ages six and ten at the time, to orphanhood. Indeed, contemplating what the Rosenbergs did or hoped or tried to do in the years before their apprehension, one cannot help wondering about the disposition of parents who would engage in dangerous and highly illegal work that inevitably exposed their children to the prospect of their own physical disappearance, not to mention the stigma that would be attached thereafter to their name and family.

But as Rebecca West wrote in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), “a traitor may or may not be a Communist; he may or may not be working for gain, and there is a third uncertainty. He may or may not be able to bring his treachery to an end.” The Rosenbergs were certainly Communists; the gain they were working for was not of the monetary kind, but much more powerful than that; and until the last moment they could not and would not bring their treachery to an end. In the service of despotism, they betrayed both their children and their country. This remains the most central and relevant fact in the case, notwithstanding yesterday’s or today’s attempts to blur or disfigure the historical record.



1 The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair by Sam Roberts. Random House, 543 pp., $35.00.

2 The Man Behind the Rosenbergs, coauthored with Sergei Kostin. Enigma Books, 432 pp., $35.00.

3 Originally scheduled for another assignment, Greenglass was deemed unqualified at the last minute when a medical examination revealed colorblindness.


About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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