Were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Soviet spies?

August 6, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Give us the real scoop. Did the Venona Project establish beyond a doubt that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953 but proclaimed their innocence, were Soviet agents?

Of the many revelations since the fall of the iron curtain, one of the least expected was that all that McCarthy-era Red-scare-mongering wasn't pure paranoia. Case in point: the Rosenbergs, long considered victims of a frame-up. Based on secret Soviet cables decrypted as part of the Venona Project as well as other evidence, the verdict of history (for now) is that they didn't deserve the chair, and Julius Rosenberg was way guiltier than his wife, Ethel. But yeah, they were spies.

The trial of the Rosenbergs, the only U.S. civilians ever executed for espionage, was one of the most notorious episodes of the cold war. Among other things Julius was accused of persuading his brother-in-law David Greenglass, a technician at the Los Alamos nuclear lab, to divulge design details for the implosion device needed to trigger the bomb, which were then passed to the Soviets. After a three-week trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted in March 1951 and sentenced to death. The verdict predictably outraged the left--both defendants had been Communists in the 30s--but even Pope Pius XII made a pitch for clemency. The critics fell into two camps: some believed the defendants were innocent; others felt that, regardless of guilt, the sentence was too harsh. The authorities were unmoved. Their appeals exhausted, the Rosenbergs were electrocuted in June 1953.

Belief in the Rosenbergs' innocence faded in the 1990s. First an expanded edition of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs was published in which the former Soviet premier claimed he'd heard a high official tell Stalin that the Rosenbergs had greatly aided Russia's A-bomb push. Then in 1995 the National Security Agency began to declassify files from the Venona Project, a till-then little-known effort to decode Soviet diplomatic cables. The correspondence contained numerous references to nuclear spying by a party at one point code-named--you can hear the teeth gnashing--"Liberal." An abundance of biographical details led inescapably to the conclusion that Liberal was Julius Rosenberg. He was no bit player, either, but an energetic recruiter for the Soviet cause.

Still, that doesn't mean he and his wife deserved the death penalty. True, the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs were convicted, permitted execution for spying "in time of war." But you'd think it might count for something that during World War II, when the couple passed along their ill-gotten secrets, the Soviet Union was an ally. For just that reason the UK was obliged to spare the life of physicist Klaus Fuchs, a naturalized British citizen, who confessed to giving information from the Manhattan Project and the British nuclear program to the Soviets and was sentenced to 14 years. The U.S. legal system drew no such fine distinctions. Sentencing judge Irving Kaufman blamed the Rosenbergs for the Korean War and said what they'd done was "worse than murder." Come now. We know today that the Soviets obtained A-bomb secrets from multiple sources--Venona files indicate they had some 350 informants in the U.S. government. Even at the time it was widely assumed that Fuchs had provided the core technical know-how, with the Rosenbergs merely confirming the details. (Actually, some now think the Greenglass info may have given the Russians their first insight into a key feature of imploder design.) But in the hysterical atmosphere of the early cold war--the Russians had detonated their first atom bomb less than a year before the Rosenbergs were arrested--nobody with a say in the matter, up to and including the Supreme Court, was in the mood to cut the bad guys any slack. Even if you consider Julius an evil genius, Ethel was at most an accomplice. Prosecutors apparently hoped that leaning hard on Ethel would persuade Julius to talk, but it seems clear the U.S. was set on making an example of them. To paraphrase philosopher Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago: Your example, their lives.

That brings up a related question. What about Alger Hiss, convicted of lying to a congressional committee in an equally famous case in 1949-'50? (Long story short: Former Communist Whittaker Chambers produced letters and secret government documents he claimed he'd been given in the 30s by Hiss, then a midlevel functionary in the State Department.) Here evidence from the Venona files is less compelling. One decrypted cable refers to a State Department turncoat whose biographical details seem to match Hiss's. The official's code name was Ales. Obviously Ales = Alger, right? Not necessarily--it was unlike the Soviets to assign their agents code names that so closely echoed their real ones. We don't have as much corroboration as in the Rosenbergs' case, and some still believe Hiss was innocent. But the weight of evidence suggests he wasn't.

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