The N.Y. Times yesterday published an interview with Morton Sobell in which he admitted spying for the Russians and conceded that his friend Julius Rosenberg had done so as well. He confirmed that Ethel Rosenberg had not been involved in the conspiracy:
“She knew what he was doing,” he said, “but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”
My friend Michael Furmanovsky, a historian of the period, notes that Sobell isn’t really telling us anything we didn’t know already, since this had been the consensus of many experts for a number of years. But the story had never been confirmed by a principal in the case.
Sobell also reveals that Julius furnished to the Soviets data that could only have been used by them to confirm earlier, more detailed and higher quality espionage product:
Echoing a consensus among scientists, Mr. Sobell also maintained that the sketches and other atomic bomb details that the government said were passed along to Julius Rosenberg by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, were of little value to the Soviets, except to corroborate what they had already gleaned from other moles.
This is how Sobell put it in the actual interview:
“He was a spy, but no more than I was,” Sobell replied. “He gave nothing, in the end it was nothing. The sketch was negligible and the government lied in presenting it as the secret to the atomic bomb. They never harmed this country, because what they transmitted was wrong.”
In other words, Rosenberg did not give the Soviets the atomic bomb. He merely helped confirm the legitimacy of the information they had already gained from other sources like Klaus Fuchs.
Sam Roberts reveals that the grand jury testimony from the case has also been released by the government. It confirms that David Greenglass framed his own sister, implicating her in actions she not only didn’t perform–but that were performed by his own wife. In essence, Greenglass threw his sister to the wolves in order to protect his wife.
A respected historical archivist states further that Greenglass’ wife confirmed Ethel’s innocence:
“…The grand jury testimony by Ruth Greenglass directly contradicts the charge against Ethel Rosenberg that put her in the electric chair,” said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive
My first reaction to reading this was one of outrage. Imagine that someone could do this to their own flesh and blood. It seems like abominable behavior. And it was.
But my second reaction was to try to understand the tenor of the times. The feds clearly exerted severe pressue on all the participants. The political hysteria of the times demanded the “guilty” be apprehended and treated with utmost severity. Greenglass must’ve felt that it might be him and his wife who might join the Rosenbergs in the electric chair. Who knows how one might react under such circumstances? You’d like to think that you could be strong and resist. But could you? Might you cut a deal in hopes of saving the ones closest to you?
Which leaves us with the actions of the federal government. They truly deserve the worst opprobrium. Prosectors now admit they KNEW AT THE TIME that Ethel was innocent. At worst, she knew that Julius was spying but never aided or abetted it in any way. Yet they went at Rosenberg hammer and tong to get the confession they wanted. They drew her into the net and promised him she would die with him. This is unconscionable and an utterly depraved abuse of the judicial system. Today, such lawyers would be prosecuted themselves and disbarred. Unfortunately, the government has shielded its prosecutors’ deliberations from the light of day until today and no one knew the extent of the misconduct.
Which brings me to the question: what lessons can we learn for today from this historical event? We learn that prosecutorial misconduct has heinous consequences. That the lives of the innocent are offered up on the altar of political expediency. We learn that our own government today engages in conduct that isn’t far removed from this. We learn that the Bush Administration is capable of conduct as bad or worse than this.
This is the reason why we must continue fighting against the Guantanamos, the enemy combatant prosecutions, the violations of habeus corpus, the perpetual national security state. Today’s War on Terror is yesterday’s Red Scare hysteria. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Finally, the behavior I understand least is that of Julius Rosenberg. He was truly between a rock and a hard place. He had to know that by not bowing to federal pressure he was dooming his wife. Yet his sense of honor, his resistance to the government’s tyrannical conduct, and his allegiance to the Party were such that he would not violate them even if it meant sacrificing his wife and leaving his children orphans. This was truly a proud man. I don’t know if I’d call him heroic since his actions caused such tragedy for those who loved him.
Who knows what any of us would do under the circumstances?
Leila Abu-Saba says
Thank you, Richard, for bringing it back to “what lesson can we learn from this today,” because that’s all that really matters. People born in the 70s and later don’t know who all these players are and would otherwise have no reason to care… The real issue is the rule of law. The real fight on our hands is to protect the rule of law.
You wrote that today a lawyer would be prosecuted for what he did to Ethel Rosenberg — how do you know? How do we know what lawyers are committing malfeasance in prosecuting alleged terrorists at Guantanamo and elsewhere?
I have never wanted to jump out in front of the Sami Al-Arian case, remembering the Rosenbergs and Sobell… I fear he is an innocent man being hounded for his loyalty to Palestine. I don’t know though. But at the very least his prosecution, conviction and subsequent treatment have included many many offenses against due process and the rule of law. Whether the guy is guilty of actual terrorism or not, he deserves due process, because we all deserve due process. It cannot be selective. The rule of law needs to apply to everyone, else it falls apart.
Richard Silverstein says
@Leila Abu-Saba: I can’t say for certain, but given the record of this Administration & the racist attitudes & remarks of the Al Arian federal prosecutor I’m prepared to believe that Al Arian is not guilty of any crime. Now the gov’t on the other hand…
I too didn’t write about the Al Arian case for the first several yrs after it began. But in the past 6 mos., when it became clear to me he was being selectively prosecuted & persecuted, I changed my mind & have been writing about it rather intensively.
Regarding prosecutorial misconduct & the Rosenbergs…I think secrecy was more ironclad in that era. Somehow, I think such malfeasance would become known more easily in this day & age. Perhaps someone w. a conscience might’ve leaked something. THough perhaps I’m wrong…
Marcia Tepper says
Thank you for your insightful article. Studying the facts of this case, it is clear that Julius Rosenberg didn’t avoid admission and clearing his wife not out of simple pride or devotion to his cause, but to avoid “naming names” that may send others to their death. If he would have done that to save his wife, he would be just as guilty as his brother-in-law, David Greenglass. I understand how he never thought (and clearly stated to the last day) that his wife (or he, for that matter) would be put to death. More importantly, I don’t believe the jury (or maybe even the prosecution) believed the Rosenberg’s would even be sentenced to death, as “conspiracy to commit espionage” is not a capital crime — under any circumstances. THAT is truly the hugest miscarriage of justice.