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Is There Anything More to Say About the Rosenberg Case?

By Staughton Lynd
Reposted from The Monthly Review

For more than forty years, defenders of the Rosenbergs have offered an argument unchanged in its essentials. The prosecution obtained the ultimate punishment by means of a kind of evidence universally recognized to be unreliable, that is, the “snitch” testimony of accomplices in exchange for benefits. The punishment of the defendants was disproportionate and barbaric. However, the Rosenbergs’ defenders now concede that “Julius Rosenberg, code-named ‘Antenna’ and later ‘Liberal,’ had worked as a spy for the Soviet Union.”1

The reason for this turnaround is that in 1995 the federal government made public a series of cables, referred to as the “Venona” messages, which were exchanged between the Soviet government and its operatives in the United States during and after the Second World War. These messages detailed Soviet atomic espionage and unmistakably showed that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent, indeed had been the head of a Soviet spy ring.2 Those who have all along argued that the Rosenbergs were guilty feel triumphant. It seems to them that they have been proved correct. The case, they propose, is closed.

I am reminded of a play my high school once produced. It was Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. At the end of the play, a man runs up the center aisle carrying important information that the title character has been killed. These days, I want to shout out to the audience, as did that man, but with a different message. My imagined dramatic scene goes as follows.

Wait, wait! (Members of the audience, who have begun to disperse, turn back toward the stage, hesitate, then return to their seats.)

Listen to me. Please listen. 
(As he sees that he has caught the attention of the audience, the Intervenor slows down and begins to speak deliberately.)

You’ve heard the Thesis of the defense. You’ve heard the Antithesis of the prosecution. Don’t you want to hear the Synthesis?

(Still more deliberately.) This will take a little time. The Synthesis has three parts.

The Punishment

A criminal prosecution has two components. First, the jury finds the defendant innocent or guilty. Second, if the verdict is guilty, the judge, or in rare circumstances the jury, imposes a sentence. Self-evidently, it is easier to challenge the sentence than the verdict. So let’s begin there.

As all parties now agree, there was a “spy ring” in the United States to which Julius Rosenberg at least belonged. Indeed, there were several spy rings. Accordingly, it seems appropriate to compare the sentences received by different members of Soviet spy rings who engaged in comparable activities.

In their book, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr assert that Julius Rosenberg was one of an estimated 349 Americans who had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence agencies.3 Any one of them, it would seem, could have been indicted for the crime with which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged: conspiracy to commit espionage.

The first important person engaged in atomic espionage to be identified by British and U.S. intelligence agencies was not an American, but a naturalized British citizen, Klaus Fuchs. Unlike the Rosenbergs, Fuchs was a scientist who actually worked on the atomic bomb, first in Great Britain and then at Los Alamos. Fuchs was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and served nine years before he was released.

The group said to have been coordinated by Julius Rosenberg included six “sources,” that is, persons whose employment in industrial engineering enabled them to transmit information of varying value; two “active liaison-couriers”; and three persons alleged to have done support work. Of these eleven persons, or twelve if we include Julius Rosenberg himself as a source, only one—Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass—had any direct connection with the atom bomb. And Greenglass was a machinist, not a scientist.

Among the Americans who were arguably complicit in espionage, Harry Gold was the chief link between Fuchs and the Soviet secret service. Gold also testified that he had visited the apartment in Los Alamos where David Greenglass and his wife Ruth lived, and received from Greenglass some handwritten notes and a few rough sketches of high-explosive lens molds. Gold was sentenced to thirty years and served sixteen years before his release. Among other persons alleged to have been complicit in the Rosenberg espionage group, Morton Sobell, who refused to become an informant, was sentenced to thirty years and served approximately eighteen.

The Greenglasses, husband and wife, are the obvious analogues with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It seems probable that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband’s activity and supported it to a limited extent. However, she was executed; David Greenglass was sentenced to fifteen years and served nine; and Ethel’s sister-in-law Ruth Greenglass was never charged, tried, or convicted. Experts continue to dispute whether Ethel Rosenberg ever typed a set of notes provided by David Greenglass for delivery to Soviet agents, the only specific “overt act” linking her to the supposed conspiracy. But Ruth Greenglass is alleged to have recruited her husband David for the project, and her New York City apartment was recommended by Julius Rosenberg as a site for photographing documents. It seems monstrously disproportionate that Ethel died while Ruth escaped punishment altogether.

We should ask, “Why were the Rosenbergs punished so much more severely than others whose activities were comparable to theirs?” I believe Haynes and Klehr provide the answer. Each individual who “confessed” was required to do one thing more. He or she was also asked to identify (“finger”) other individuals engaged in espionage. Thus, “Fuchs’ confession in Britain led the FBI to Harry Gold in the United States. Gold’s confession in turn…quickly led the FBI to Sgt. David Greenglass. Greenglass confessed to espionage and also implicated his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg.”4
But, at this point, the FBI inquiry hit a snag, or what Haynes and Klehr call “stonewalling” by the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell. That is to say, these three persons refused to snitch.

Initially, the FBI investigation gave promise of being a classic case of “rolling up” a network link by link. First, Fuchs was identified, and he confessed. His confession then led to Gold, and Gold’s confession led to David Greenglass. Greenglass then confessed, followed swiftly by his wife, Ruth. But there it ended. The next link in the chain was Julius Rosenberg, and he refused to admit anything. So did Ethel….Morton Sobell…also refused to confess.5

I offer the opinion that the Rosenbergs’ execution was really all about their refusal to snitch. On the basis of a fifteen-year acquaintance with death row prisoners in Ohio, I can state that the refusal to snitch is one of the highest values of long-term prisoners. It is the essence of the “convict code.” Refusal to snitch earns a prisoner recognition as a “solid convict.” In contrast, the government wanted an unbroken chain of informants who would inform against their colleagues. When confronted by individuals who refused to confess or “deal,” the government decided to send a message to all other potential informants by killing the Rosenbergs.

Persons of goodwill have different opinions about snitching. A Cincinnati lawyer who is a frequent advocate for Ohio prisoners said to me, “But Staughton, you can’t do away with snitching altogether!” A professor of criminal justice in Cleveland echoed, “What happens when a community demands a conviction for a heinous crime and the only way to get it is to rely on the testimony of accomplices?”

Several years ago, in a case called Singleton, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a drug conviction for failure of the trial court to suppress testimony of a codefendant obtained in exchange for a prosecutorial promise of leniency (“something of value”), since such an exchange violated federal law. That ruling caused the Tenth Circuit to be deluged by amicus briefs from prosecutors all over the country. The full complement of judges of the Tenth Circuit, sitting en banc, reheard the case and reversed that section of the panel’s opinion, affirming the trial court’s refusal to suppress the testimony.

There is, however, another tradition that I learned as a small boy from an Irish “nanny.” She taught me a song about eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry, sentenced to death for his role in the Easter Rising of April 1916:

Just before he met the hangman
In his lonely prison cell, 
The Black and Tans [British soldiers] tortured Barry
All because he wouldn’t tell
The names of his companions
And other things they wished to know, 
“Turn informer and we’ll free you,”
Barry proudly answered, “No.”

Guilt and Innocence

Critics of the Rosenberg trial continue to dispute various items of evidence used to convict the two. Neither the actual Jell-O box supposedly used by Harry Gold to identify himself to David and Ruth Greenglass, nor the actual sketches of the “atomic bomb” allegedly provided by David Greenglass to Julius Rosenberg, have ever been produced. Like everything else in the Rosenberg trial, description of these missing physical exhibits was wholly dependent on the testimony of accomplices who, after the fact, were themselves vulnerable to greater penalties if they failed to say what the government wanted.
The Venona cables, however, are contemporaneous, independent, objective evidence. The new evidence set forth in the Venona cables has been supplemented by other material that has dribbled into the light of day, such as the Soviet archive of documents concerning the Communist Party of the United States, other Soviet archives besides Venona, material from hitherto secret FBI files, and the memories of Soviet intelligence operatives.

Walter and Miriam Schneir obtained transcripts of pretrial interviews with certain prosecution witnesses. After the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called Brady v. Maryland, such documents are now required to be given to defense counsel if, in the judgment of the prosecution, they might be “exculpatory” of the defendant or useful in impeaching a prosecution witness. There was no such legal requirement in the early 1950s, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went on trial.

Long after the trial, the Schneirs obtained transcripts of interviews conducted by government agents with Harry Gold before his sentencing hearing. According to the Schneirs, one day before the FBI questioned David Greenglass, Gold for the first time alluded to picking up information from a GI in Albuquerque. His attorney interrupted to ask if he had used a recognition signal with the soldier. On the stand, Gold would tell the Rosenberg jury that he said, “I come from Julius.” In his earlier, pretrial statement, Gold said that he thought he had used a password that “was something on the order of Bob sent me or Benny sent me or John sent me or something like that.”6

The Schneirs attach particular significance to a document obtained from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. The document, No. 464, indicates that the material David Greenglass purportedly gave to Julius Rosenberg in September 1945 was not sent to the Soviet Union until December 27, 1945.

The Schneirs connect this date of transmittal with their discovery, in another Soviet document, that in February 1945 Julius Rosenberg had been fired from his job as a Signal Corps inspector after he was charged with membership in the Communist Party, and that the Soviet government thereupon relieved him from his duties as a group handler. The Schneirs believe that there was no meeting at the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. Instead, the Schneirs suggest, Soviet agent Yatskov met David Greenglass on a New York City street sometime that month, and asked the Greenglasses to collect material that was transmitted to the Soviet Union after a further meeting in December.7

All these clandestine encounters concerning evidence fade in importance when compared to the monumental fact recognized by both books, Venona and Final Verdict—the U.S. government already possessed the Venona cables at the time the Rosenbergs were tried and convicted. Prosecutors need not have constructed a fragile bridge of evidence consisting of a Jell-O box, a “password” that appears to have made its appearance on the eve of trial, the typing of a report in the Rosenbergs’ apartment that may very well never have occurred, sketches that atomic scientist Philip Morrison called “confused” and “imprecise,” and all the rest of the intrigue. The government had in its possession far more incriminating evidence in the form of the Venona transmissions that it decided not to use. The reason for the decision, of course, was that the U.S. government wished to continue its own spying into Soviet decision making without the Russians’ knowledge.

A similar situation exists today. Many of the alleged combatants held at Guantánamo have been interrogated by methods that amount to torture under international law. Many federal judges will not receive as evidence the “information” obtained in this way. As a result, the government must stage sham trials, using the very kind of evidence used to convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: what Haynes and Klehr describe as “the testimony of defectors and a mass of circumstantial evidence.”8

It seems to me that our conclusion about guilt and innocence must be somewhat more complex than the opposing caricatures hurled at one another by the contending parties after the Rosenbergs’ trial. The following three things appear to me to be true: (1) Julius Rosenberg recruited and coordinated a network of persons, many of them friends from college, to conduct industrial espionage for the Soviet Union; (2) There was not presented at trial and does not exist today sufficient evidence to convict Julius Rosenberg of atomic espionage beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) Ethel Rosenberg probably knew about and sympathized with her husband’s activities, and in this limited sense was a “complicitor.” But in the words of Haynes and Klehr:

It is…unlikely, had the [Venona] messages been made public or even circulated more widely within the government…that Ethel Rosenberg would have been executed. The Venona messages…suggest that she was essentially an accessory to her husband’s activity.…Had they been introduced at the Rosenberg trial, the Venona messages would have confirmed Ethel’s guilt but also reduced the importance of her role.9
Citizens of the World?

Finally, there is an issue that seems to me just as important as punishment, or guilt and innocence, but to my knowledge has rarely, if ever, been publicly discussed. It concerns the Rosenbergs’ obligations as Communists, and as citizens of the world.

The poisonous state of public opinion when the Rosenbergs were arrested, tried, and executed in the early 1950s may be difficult to remember. As one small example, I received an undesirable discharge from the Army in 1954, on the basis of anonymous allegations that began with the charge that, at Harvard University, I had belonged to American Youth for Democracy and the John Reed Club, was “believed to be a Communist sympathizer,” and had “included considerable Marxist philosophy in papers submitted while a student at Harvard University.” These even included the allegation that I had “a mother, Helen, who was described as a hyper-modern educator.”10 It was a climate of opinion in which so fearless and independent a spirit as the journalist I.F. Stone “believed that passing atomic or military secrets was punishable treason.”11

In that environment the left was thrown on the defensive, and no one dared publicly to ask the question: If an American helped the Soviet Union to obtain the atomic bomb as soon as possible, might that have been justified?

But again, there was another tradition. Tom Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, “My country is the world.” Harried out of the country of his birth (Great Britain), imprisoned and almost executed by one adopted country (France), and left to die neglected by a second (the United States), Paine had good reason to emancipate himself from allegiance to nation-states. William Lloyd Garrison put Paine’s words on the masthead of The Liberator, and they were repeated by antislavery agitator Frederick Douglass, as well as by Haymarket anarchist Albert Parsons, as he addressed the jury before he was sentenced to death in 1886.12

Also in opposition to a parochial nationalism, Marx and Engels ended The Communist Manifesto with the statement that the working class has no country, but has a world to win. Eugene Debs spent years in federal prison for stating in a speech in Canton, Ohio that the only war in which he was prepared to take part was the class war of the international working class.

This tradition was not confined to radical propagandists such as Paine, Marx, and Debs. It was also part of emerging international law. The London Treaty, adopted in August 1945 and first applied at Nuremburg, specified particular war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the peace that individuals of all nations were directed to refuse to commit.

What might these mandates have meant, what should they have meant to the Rosenbergs? What would and should any of us have done in their circumstances? Consider a selective chronology of the period during which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were alleged to have committed their acts of atomic espionage, 1944-45.13

    •    September 1944. Ruth Greenglass recruited by Julius Rosenberg in New York City.
    •    November 1944. David Greenglass recruited by Ruth in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
    •    January 1945. David and Ruth give information on Los Alamos to Julius in New York City.
    •    April 1945. Germany surrenders.
    •    May-June 1945. Communist Party of the United States considers the open letter from a high-ranking French Communist named Duclos, rejects the political orientation of peaceful coexistence between the United States and Soviet Union promoted by Earl Browder, and adopts a more militant perspective associated with William Z. Foster.
    •    June 2, 1945. Klaus Fuchs gives data to Harry Gold in Santa Fe.
    •    June 3, 1945. David and Ruth give sketches and information to Gold in Albuquerque.
    •    August 6, 1945. The United States drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
    •    August 8, 1945. The London Treaty is adopted, creating the War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremburg.
    •    August 9, 1945. The United States drops an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
    •    September 2, 1945. Japan signs surrender document.
    •    September 19, 1945. Fuchs gives information on A-bomb to Gold in Santa Fe.
    •    September 21, 1945. David Greenglass, on furlough in New York City, meets with Soviet agent

Yatskov and is alleged to have passed critical information to the Rosenbergs at their apartment.

It is inconceivable that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as devoted Communists, did not have intense discussions about the internal debate within the Communist Party of the United States in late spring and early summer 1945.14 Although I was not a member of the Party, I remember such discussions with my political friends as a teenager growing up in New York City. At issue was whether the Party should continue to advocate the perspective that “Communism Is Twentieth-Century Americanism” in the tradition of “Jefferson [!], Jackson [!!], and Lincoln,” as proposed by Earl Browder, or adopt the more militant perspective associated with William Z. Foster.15 But nobody seems to know anything about such kitchen-table conversation at the Rosenbergs’ apartment, so I pass on to something even more important.

How did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg react when the United States actually used the atomic bomb with catastrophic consequences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? For a long time within the community of scientists working on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and others justified their activity by the probability that scientists in Nazi Germany might be engaged in parallel pursuit of the ultimate weapon. But when Germany surrendered in April 1945, fear of a German atomic bomb was no longer rational. At that point, because the United States had spent so much time and money on developing this weapon, political figures like President Harry Truman wanted to know whether it would work, the more so because conflicts with the Soviet Union had already become intense.

So the United States dropped the bomb: first in Hiroshima, then, three days later, in Nagasaki. Each bomb was dropped without notice, on a civilian population, with predictably devastating effects. It is overwhelmingly obvious now that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not justified by military necessity and was a war crime as war crimes were defined by the Nuremburg Principles. Ironically, the London Treaty creating the Nuremburg Tribunal was adopted on August 8, 1945, one day before the second and less justifiable of the two atomic bombings.

Again, I know of no evidence as to how these events in early August may have affected the Rosenbergs, the Greenglasses, and Soviet agents in the United States. Maurice Isserman states, “When American planes dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August the Communists raised no objection, particularly since the Soviet Union had officially joined the war against Japan that month.”16 Yet it does seem that actual use of the atomic bomb may well have motivated people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to do more to ensure that the Soviet Union learned how to make an atomic bomb as soon as possible. Moreover, to whatever extent we believe that they were—and we are—citizens of the world, not merely citizens of a particular nation, the question arises: Was helping the Soviet Union to acquire the atomic bomb justifiable, even obligatory?

Haynes and Klehr state that “the betrayal of American atomic secrets to the Soviets” allowed the Soviet Union to acquire atomic weapons by 1949, several years earlier than would otherwise have been the case. From this incontestable fact, they proceed to the highly debatable proposition that acquisition of the atomic bomb emboldened Stalin to “authorize North Korea to invade South Korea in 1950.” Had the Soviet Union not already possessed the bomb, they reason, Stalin would have feared that President Truman might have responded by “threatening to use atomic weapons.”

It appears to me that this logic can be turned on its head. Suppose the Soviet Union had not possessed the bomb in 1950, and that North Korea (or South Korea), acting on its own initiative, started the war.

Had only the United States and not the Soviet Union possessed atomic weapons, might not the government that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki have used the bomb again “when initially unprepared American forces were driven back into the tip of Korea and in danger of being pushed into the sea, and then again in the winter when Chinese Communist forces entered the war in massive numbers”?17

Further, had only the United States and not the Soviet Union possessed atomic weapons when French forces in Vietnam were surrounded at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and some high-ranking military figures in the United States urged use of atomic weapons, might not the answer, had the Soviet Union not possessed the bomb, been: Yes? Surely it is clear that, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the fact that both superpowers had nuclear weapons helped to prevent war and to preserve the improbable independence of Communist Cuba.

I am a lifelong advocate of nonviolence. When I first read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, I was horrified. But I believe the argument could be made that to whatever extent Fuchs, Gold, the Greenglasses, and one or both Rosenbergs hastened the development of a Soviet atomic bomb, it may have tended to preserve the peace of the world during the crises of the Cold War.


    1.    ↩ Walter Schneir, with Preface and Afterword by Miriam Schneir, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2010), 46. This book, most of it drafted by Walter Schneir and published by Miriam Schneir after her husband’s death, sums up fifty years of investigation by this devoted couple.

    2.    ↩ John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 6, 11. I do not pretend to have mastered the literature about Venona and related releases of Soviet archives. I shall refer to Haynes and Klehr as representative of that literature. I should add that in her meticulous memoir, Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice (New York and Charlestown: Bunim & Bannigan, 2010), 196-98, Miriam Moskowitz states that “eight errors appear in less than a half-page” of Venona.

    3.    ↩ Haynes and Klehr, Venona, 9.
    4.    ↩ Ibid., 307.
    5.    ↩ Ibid., 310-11 (emphasis added).
    6.    ↩ Schneir, Final Verdict, 25.
    7.    ↩ Ibid., 126-48. I do not feel competent to evaluate this theory, which is at the center of the Schneirs’ “final verdict.” Haynes and Klehr state that after leaving his Signal Corps job, Julius Rosenberg was employed at Emerson Radio on classified military projects and “achieved a singular espionage coup, stealing a working sample of the proximity fuse, one of the most innovative advances of American military technology in World War II,” Venona, 303, 438-39 n. 40. The Schneirs concede that in 1946-47 Julius Rosenberg was said to have continued “the duties of a group handler,” and that Morton Sobell recalled taking part in two espionage escapades in the summer of 1948. Final Verdict, 148.
    8.    ↩ Haynes and Klehr, Venona, 14.
    9.    ↩ Ibid., 15-16.
    10.    ↩ Staughton Lynd, “The Cold War Expulsions and the Movements of the 1960s,” in From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader, ed. Andrej Grubacic (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), 97.
    11.    ↩ Myra MacPherson, All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (New York: Scribner, 2006), 297.
    12.    ↩ For Paine and Garrison, see Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), chapter 5; for Douglass, see Simon Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 415-21; for Parsons, see James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 237.
    13.    ↩ This very rough chronology is based on material in Final Verdict, 6-8, supplemented by Joseph R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 78-103, and Lynd, “Someday They’ll Have a War and Nobody Will Come,” in From Here to There, 265-78.
    14.    ↩ I understand that whether the Rosenbergs were Party members may be contested. This is a complex issue. For a variety of reasons, many persons chose to be “influentials” or “unavailable,” rather than public members of the Party. Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), 4, 51. Harry Gold, so he said, gave information to the Soviet Union not because he was a Party member but to “deflect [Tom] Black’s nagging to join the Communist Party.” Moskowitz, Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice, 232. Perhaps we can agree that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were “devoted Communists” whether or not they were formally members of the Party.
    15.    ↩ See Starobin, American Communism in Crisis; and Isserman, Which Side Were You On? 9-14 et passim.
    16.    ↩ Isserman, Which Side Were You On? 238.
    17.    ↩ Haynes and Klehr, Venona, 10-11.

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