What History Says About Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
The newspaper lay on the cement apron of the step to our home in the early 1950s. I did not know how to read then, but I clearly remember the enormous size of the newspaper’s headline and the fact that whatever news that paper related, it caused tremendous upset in my home. Years later I would learn that it told of the execution of the so-called atomic spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on June 19, 1953, on the charge of conspiracy to transmit the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The echoes of the Rosenberg spy case come cascading down through the decades. From the perspective of the New Left, the Rosenbergs, members of the Old Left, were framed by the U.S. government during the worst period of Cold War hysteria. It was an accepted premise on the Left that the U.S. government invented false charges against the Rosenbergs in the midst of the Cold War— and the hot war in Korea—then convened a kangaroo court to convict the couple. But the end of the Cold War brought the release of historical records, particularly the Venona project (1943-1980), a counter-intelligence program that was begun by the U.S. Army and later involved the CIA. The information from Venona was corroborated by Soviet intelligence records. Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy according to the historical record. But, he was not a spy in the way the government of the U.S. prosecuted Ethel and him.
Now Michael and Robert Meeropol, the adopted name of the Rosenberg sons, want their mother, Ethel, exonerated. They’ve gone to Barack Obama with their request. There is absolutely no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg took part in the so-called conspiracy to transmit the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, the spying on which the Rosenbergs were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, were convicted, and sentenced to death. And there is no evidence that Julius transmitted the co-called secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviets. His spying did involve giving the U.S. ally, the Soviet Union, secrets about radar, the proximity fuze, and other military information that qualifies as espionage, but not of the kind that would have justified execution under the law with which the Rosenbergs were tried. The Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. at the time Julius transmitted secrets to them during World War II. And the Soviet Union, along with the Allies, were largely instrumental in stopping the murderous Nazi military juggernaut that had destroyed Europe and most of European Jewry. Julius was involved in espionage for the Soviet Union on behalf of the communist party in the U.S., but he had no expertise or information about the Manhattan Project to have given anything useful about the so-called secret for the development of an atomic bomb. He did, however, recruit an engineer involved in the Manhattan Project who provided information from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a facility that produced bomb-grade uranium. The famous drawing of the bomb that Julius’ brother-in-law David Greenglass gave the spy Harry Gold was useless. Some say that that drawing, combined with other drawings, helped the Soviets develop their own atomic bomb. But the Soviets developed the bomb largely because they also had highly trained scientists.
Some historians believe that released Soviet documents show that Ethel knew of Julius’ spying activities for the Soviets, that Ethel evaluated potential recruits for spying, and performed other functions helpful to the Soviets (“What 60 Minutes Got Wrong About Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” The Washington Free Beacon, October 20, 2016). The question must be asked again, however, if spying for an ally as a possible co-conspirator merits the death penalty when the specific act that Ethel was charged with was one she did not commit?
Some historians have also left out the fact that Ethel Rosenberg was never given a code name from Soviet intelligence. Most damaging to Ethel, however, was the fact that her brother, David Greenglass, perjured himself at trial by falsely testifying that Ethel had typed notes on spying activities for the Soviets. In truth, his testimony was to save his wife Ruth, who actually typed those notes, and that led Greenglass to testify falsely against his sister.
The hysteria generated by the Cold War must have been frightening for anyone caught in its grips. Thousands of teachers, professors, social workers, unionists, and others lost their jobs across the U.S. McCarthyism was the order of the day. The Rosenbergs were blamed for the carnage of the Korean War and held responsible by some for the 33,652 American deaths there.
No comparable accounting of blame was leveled at any policy maker in the U.S. for between 90,000 to 146,000 deaths from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, or between 39,000 to 80,000 dead at Nagasaki. Those deaths were justified in order to save the lives that would have been lost if the Allies had invaded Japan. Here, history records that Japan was ready to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped.
The prevalence of anti-Semitism also cannot be discounted when considering the Rosenbergs’ fate. Anti-Semistim was at its zenith during and after the war and the Rosenbergs took on the negative stereotype of radical Jews.
Reading the comment section of an article published in the Boston Globe following Michael and Robert Meeropol’s appearance on 60 Minutes (“The Rosenberg Boys: The Cold War’s Most Famous Orphans,” October 16, 2016), a reader might conclude that this nation was still in the midst of a communist conspiracy that must be stopped. Here are four individual comments from the Globe (“In new twist in Rosenberg spy saga, sons seek mother’s exoneration,” October 19, 2016) that are fairly representative of the animosity toward Ethel and Julius Rosenberg all of these decades later:
•“She was on board…”
•“… how disturbed… I felt that American Jews could show any allegiance to the Russian state.”
•“Ethel was guilty and by her actions helped Stalin kill and prepare to kill…”
•“Ethel was also guilty, but less so.”
The Rosenbergs lived through the Great Depression and believed that Soviet communism was a means toward achieving a better world, particularly a world where economic and social differences would be addressed. They may have been blinded by their political philosophy. They believed that by aiding the Soviets, and through the Soviets achieving parity in weapons, a better world could come about. Many in the Old Left would not accept the truth about Stalin’s Great Purge, but decades later millions were swayed by their political beliefs in their endorsement of Richard Nixon’s and Lyndon Johnson’s murderous rampage through Southeast Asia and George W. Bush’s war policies and nation building in the Middle East. Following the attacks of 2001, the War on Terror carried with it many of the fears that were part of the Cold War.
The Rosenbergs would also not name the names of their political allies, something that was most obviously on the mind of the federal government as they tried to break Julius by the imprisonment of Ethel and the potential of the death penalty. But Ethel would not take part in that plan, as dedication to one’s associates and each other was highly valued in their political belief system.
There are no good answers when looking at the fate of the Rosenbergs all of these decades later. Questions pile up upon questions and the wretched condition of humanity in a state of perpetual warfare goes on and on. The bodies of the dead and the innocent pile up in the charnel house of history.
Here are selected totals of war dead during World War II. Six million Jews… U.S. war dead: 407,316… U.S.S.R. war dead: 26,600,000. Worldwide war dead: Over 60,000,000.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.