From the US end, the Rosenberg case served as a show trial. In dramatic fashion, the prosecution and press trotted out two “sinister-looking” characters in front of a public that distrusted both Jews and leftists in order to show that the actions against civil rightists and civil liberties were justified, even if said actions skirted law or obliterated any sense of decency.
During the time between the sentencing and the execution, the show-trial aspect of the Rosenberg case began to backfire. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas found enough cause to tell Sing-Sing executioners to delay the execution. J. Edgar Hoover expressed concern that the Rosenbergs’ death would turn them into martyrs. Irving Kaufman, the very judge who railroaded the Rosenbergs at their trial, privately expressed doubts about their guilt. The FBI sent a number of assurances that he did the right thing, because they had “secret evidence,” which Kaufman couldn’t see for “national security reasons.”
Hoover’s assessment would turn out to be valid. From 1953-1995, the Rosenbergs served as poster children for justice perverted. In 1993, for example, the American Bar Association conducted a mock trial of the case. The moot court returned a unanimous verdict of Not Guilty, for both Ethel and Julius.
This is what made VENONA so important to those claiming that violation of civil liberties and due process were necessary to maintain national security. Released as they were in 1995, they effectively chilled a growing movement, spearheaded by Ethel and Julius’ sons Robert and Michael Meeropol, to reopen the case officially. As Megan Barnett wrote in a US News and World Reportarticle dated January 19, 2003:
In 1995, however, many of the most ardent Rosenberg supporters were forced to change their minds. The United States declassified key KGB correspondence that clearly connects Julius to a Russian spy ring. Ethel's role remains controversial; David Greenglass, who served 10 years in prison for his role in the affair, recently said he lied about his sister's activity under pressure from prosecutors.
That “declassified key KGB correspondence” turned out to be the VENONA ciphers. In the those-who-are-ignorant-of-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-it department, shills have once again used VENONA as proof-positive of an anti-American conspiracy existing within the American left. As Ann Coulter wrote in her 2003 book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism:
The Soviet cables indisputably proved the guilt of all the left’s favorite ‘Red Scare’ martyrs--Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Appropriately, the Soviet’s code name for Communist spy Julius Rosenberg was ‘Liberal.’ Because of Venona, the FBI and certain top Justice Department officials were absolutely sure ‘they were prosecuting the right people.’
One almost has to admire the facility with which Coulter typically mangles so many facts in such a short statement. For starters, Ethel Rosenberg was never identified at all by VENONA. The codename ‘LIBERAL’ was used to conflate the alleged activities of the person codenamed ‘ANTENNA’ by US cryptographers after the fact, and would by all appearances seem to represent two different parties, not the same party with two codenames. Most important, the FBI dismissed VENONA’s information in the Rosenberg case, for the only person who could be identified by it was a man named Joseph Weichbrod, not anyone named Julius. As Special Agent Alan Belmont, the FBI's point man for VENONA stated:
We made a tentative identification of 'Antenna' as Joseph Weichbrod since the background of Weichbrod corresponded with the information known about 'Antenna.' Weichbrod was about the right age, had a Communist background, lived in NYC, attended Cooper Union in 1939, worked at the Signal Corps, Ft. Monmouth, and his wife's name was Ethel. He was a good suspect for 'Antenna' until sometime later when we definitely established through investigation that 'Antenna' was Julius Rosenberg.
Furthermore, VENONA gives no indication whether ANTENNA, whoever he was, actively participated in Soviet intelligence, or was simply a person of interest as a recruit. Then again, the VENONA ciphers could very well have been Soviet misdirection all along, so they prove absolutely nothing, indisputably or otherwise.
Still, VENONA caused some Rosenberg supporters to backtrack on their positions. Even Robert Meeropol, upon becoming a corporate attorney, began to express doubts about his father’s innocence by now proclaiming himself an “agnostic” on the question of dad’s guilt on the June 19, 2003 episode of Democracy Now. That prompted this rather spirited response from his fellow guest, Morton Sobell:
Well, I take issue with the ‘agnostic’ position that Robert takes. I am innocent. And my investigation of VENONA leads me to believe, because I have the evidence, that VENONA was a cooked up job. And therefore, if the government had to cook up stuff to implicate Julius and Ethel, then I cannot be an agnostic. I say they are innocent....
But I have evidence that certain files were written one way before Julius was arrested. And after he was arrested, they changed it to implicate him. In fact, one file says that ANTENNA/LIBERAL was a guy in Washington...named Weichbrod. And then after Greenglass came out that Julius was guilty, they said, ‘Oh, we made a slight mistake.'
Now the rest of the stuff doesn’t follow because the ANTENNA/LIBERAL was supposed to have gone to Cooper Union, and Julius did not go to Cooper Union. But I have other files. And then, when I wanted to get a whole sheaf of files, before the arrest, the National Security Agency said, ‘No, this will reveal our methodology of 1950, if we give you these files....’
So VENONA, to me, is a fraud.
A fraud? As Ethel and Julius’ co-defendant, the man should know.
If you still have doubts about VENONA and previous witchhunts serving more as tools of domestic order than of national security, then consider this. The Feds prized informant, Harry Gold received a thirty-year sentence, but was paroled in 1965. He quietly retired to Philadelphia where he died in 1972. David Greenglass got only a fifteen-year sentence in exchange for what he now admits was perjured testimony against his family. He was paroled in 1960, and currently lives in New York City. Fuchs also managed to escape execution. Released in 1959, and deported to East Germany, he was named the Director of the Central Institute for Nuclear Physics, and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1979. He died in 1988. Elizabeth Bentley never faced prosecution, and was allowed to become a shipping executive. She served as an FBI consultant until her death from cancer in 1963. Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel), a New York based KGB spy caught red-handed (so to speak) in 1957, was exchanged in 1962 for downed U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers, and died in 1971. Theodore Hall got to tell about his exploits on CNN. His courier and accomplice, Lona Cohen, managed to defect to the Soviet Union, where she passed away in 1992. Alexander Feklisov passed away quietly on October 26 of this year. Whitaker Chambers, a self-confessed spy who produced the forged papers that convicted Alger Hiss of perjury suffered a fatal heart attack in 1961, but was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1984. (This, for a man whose claim to fame was spying against the United States?)
In short, those who were self-confessed and/or proven Soviet spies, those who actually aided Soviet intelligence, lived long and/or happy lives.
The government had offered Julius and Ethel Rosenberg a deal. In exchange for ratting out associates, whether guilty or not, the Rosenbergs would receive leniency. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, fingered them in an almost identical deal. The Rosenbergs, however, refused to put anyone else through the torture they themselves had experienced at the hand of someone they loved and trusted.
Some might say, “Well that just proves they were dedicated Soviet agents.” Others might say, “Well, maybe they knew something about Soviet espionage, but were loyal to their friends.” I would argue, however, that they refused to cooperate because they were innocent, and understood the nature of the government’s deadly game all too well.
When one studies the red hysteria of the 1950s, one can easily see that the steps that the US government took to combat it weren’t really anti-communist, but rather anti-liberal and anti-leftist. By the 1950s, the FBI had thoroughly infiltrated the American Communist Party. By 1960, according to some estimates, over 90% of the ACP’s funds came from the dues paid by informants for the Bureau, which then had to deal with the inevitable problem of its informants constantly turning each other in.
Those who really wielded power in the US had little reason to fear American communists, for they were thoroughly under government control. Legitimate leftist factions, however, were another story altogether. They were in government. They were in the military. They were in the media establishment to some degree. At that time, there were even leftists within American intelligence. The vast majority of these people were loyal only to the United States, and felt nothing but disdain for Stalin after he signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939.
Most Americans didn’t realize that the ensuing witchhunts of the 1950s weren’t so much about curtailing communism abroad as they were about destroying egalitarianism at home. To the wealthy, any form of unionization meant a loss of economic power. Any hint of racial equality in the Jim Crow South would ruin the “natural [hierarchical] order,” according to racist thought. Likewise, promoting women to positions of power would lead to an America run by the “weaker sex.” American communists and socialists became very visible champions of these causes from the 1910s to the 1930s, and met with continued resistance: from the Palmer Raids to the persistent efforts to abort or crush labor organization. The industrial fears that communists would upset the status quo ran rampant in business-to-business communications, especially advertising meant for business owners and managers.
Figure 1. Anti-communist advertisement for Scott Paper Towels (c. 1921)
During World War II, the powers that were curtailed their assault on communism because of their reliance upon the Soviet Union as a critical ally against Nazi Germany. During the 1940s, mainstream media barraged the American public with avuncular images of Joseph Stalin, and rooted for the “Gremlins from the Kremlin” to work their magic against fascism. At war’s end, however, the West had no more use for “Uncle Joe” or his “evil empire,” and the efforts to rid every privy of home-grown leftists resumed.
Those in power justified aggressive action against the political left by repeatedly linking it to a looming communist threat in order to scare the American public into toeing the line. But to maintain any credibility, those on the attack had to (a) link communism to all leftist activity and (b) produce at least some “evidence” of leftist complicity with the Russian Bear.
And that’s where the Rosenberg case fits in. Elizabeth Bentley had nothing to offer in terms of evidence, yet she became a key witness because she willingly spun, with no corroborating evidence whatsoever, a tale linking almost the totality of American socialism to Soviet espionage. Hers was the grand narrative, the Unified Conspiracy Theory, that justified the unconscionable treatment of not only the Rosenbergs, but the others she testified against.
From there, it was all a matter of linking the Rosenbergs to communism. That was pretty easy to do, for they were communists. So, if you have a person who allegedly has the “inside story” that all communists are, by definition, anti-American spies, you can hop them in front of a kangaroo court for an easy conviction.
The need for a communist straw man explains a lot of the weirdness of the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, the Brothman-Moskowitz trial, the Alger Hiss trial, and other actions. The point wasn’t to round up Soviet spies and punish them. The point was to perpetuate the looming fear of communist infiltration by pressuring people to name names, and have their names name more names, thus resulting in a never-ending supply of people to parade in front of the public as “proof” of a vast communist conspiracy. Guilt or innocence no longer mattered by that point.
The only evidence against the Rosenbergs consisted almost entirely of witness testimony, most of which was hearsay, a lot of uncorroborated words put in the mouths of Julius, Ethel and Sobell. One should immediately see the weaknesses of Bentley’s testimony, since it was extremely vague, and identified Julius Rosenberg only by apocryphal telephone conversations (she had trouble identifying Julius’ actual voice, incidentally). Furthermore, this came from a woman who gave all appearances of being an anti-communist infiltrator acting under the orders of her employer, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party. David Greenglass might have sold some technical information to the Soviets, and subsequently found the scapegoating of family to be a convenient way out of his own predicament. Harry Gold’s testimony is based on his supposed connection with Klaus Fuchs, who couldn't identify him in a lineup, despite Fuchs’ claim that he was Gold’s personal friend.
Even Fuch’s confession, the event that triggered this whole series of events, is suspect. Facing deportation before the war, he might not have been very secure about his future in England, especially after getting grilled by British Counterintelligence (MI5). As an ex-patriot, he might have been a bit homesick too. Thus, we might understand his desire to go home. But he had a problem. He had helped the enemies of East Germany develop the nuclear weapon now aimed at its belly. Thus, by taking a rap and a prison sentence, he could have rehabilitated himself in the eyes of East German Intel (Stassi). Moreover, Mother Russia could very well have been pleased that his confession deflected attention away from her real spies.
I’ve written before about notional assets, but to refresh your memory, these are, quite literally, spies who don’t exist. If you have a situation where your spies are scoring one intelligence victory after another, you have to be careful, for the enemy could track them down by deducing who had knowledge of what. In order to get the pressure off of your real spy’s back, you create a non-existent spy and credit him with all the deeds done by the others. That way, your enemy winds up chasing a phantom.
After awhile, though, the enemy might suspect that the superspy in its sights is a notional asset, and thus look elsewhere for the security leak. So, if you want to keep the enemy heading in the wrong direction, you then put a real name and face to him by plucking some poor slob off the street and attributing to him all the deeds of your fictional spy.
I believe this is what happened to the Rosenbergs on the Soviet end. The Russians used an unbreakable code, compromised only because they carelessly (?) misused it. Alexandre Feklisov, the former NKVD officer who claimed to be Julius’ handler in New York, maintained the tale in later years, especially after the disclosure of the VENONA ciphers in 1995. By offering more hearsay, this time to the press, Feklisov diverted attention away from such real spies as Theodore Hall, the young physicist working at Los Alamos who managed to avoid detection until shortly before his death in 1999. Most importantly, however, Feklisov diverted attention from the actual recruitment and deployment techniques that the Soviets used during the Cold War.
He had good reason to do this, too. After all, he was a loyal intelligence officer, who, like his superiors, could never be sure if the US would remain an ally to Russia in the post-Soviet period. For all he knew, he’d have to set up similar spy operations all over again, someday. He therefore had every reason to tell Americans only what they wanted to hear.
One more installment in this series. Thanks for keeping with it.
What started out as innuendo became specific when Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and sister-in law, David (left) and Ruth Greenglass, took the stand. Ruth characterized herself and her husband as an innocent couple bullied and cajoled into communism by family members, who then bullied and cajoled them into espionage. Ruth also testified that Ethel conspired with her to form a contingency cover-up plan in case either Julius Rosenberg or David were arrested. David’s testimony did more of the same, but also made the connection to Gold, previously linked to Klaus Fuchs through other investigations. Most outrageously, he specifically named his older sister, Ethel, as a key member of the atomic-spy ring, and outlined the duties she allegedly performed.
On the witness stand, David stated that he joined the US Army in 1943, and came to the Manhattan Project in August 1944. There he worked as a machinist. In his position, he picked up a number of technical details in order to produce the components necessary to build and test the atomic bomb. Right away, against defense objection, Prosecutor Roy Cohn lit into the Rosenberg’s political leanings, as if they were relevant to the case:
Roy Cohn: Now did you have any discussion with Ethel and Julius concerning the relative merits of our form of government and that of the Soviet Union?
[Defense counsel] Alexander Bloch: Objected to as incompetent; irrelevant and immaterial, not pertinent to the issues raised by the indictment and the plea....
[Judge] Irving Kaufman: I believe it is relevant…in view of the fact that the indictment charges conspiracy to commit espionage in matters of national defense which would be advantageous to Russia is charged in the indictment. I think it is most relevant....
Cohn: Talking about Socialism over capitalism, did they specifically talk about Socialism as it existed in the Soviet Union and capitalism in the United States?
David Greenglass: They did.
Cohn: Which did they like better? Did they tell you?
Greenglass: They preferred Socialism to Capitalism.
Kaufman: Which type of Socialism?
Greenglass: Russian Socialism.
Here, it is clear that the Court and Prosecution aren’t merely attacking the defendants. They’re striking a blow against the USSR, at that time a feared enemy, a seemingly irrational foe that might drop “the bomb” on them any minute. Pressing the issue concerning the dangers of socialism even further, Ruth told The Forward on September 2, 1950:
There was a time when David and I were partial toward Communism. But we were never embittered or intolerant toward people who did not agree with us. But Ethel was quite different. She did not buy from a butcher or grocer unless he were an open sympathizer toward Soviet Russia. She considered everyone who was against Communism her personal enemy.
In The Murder of the Rosenbergs, Stanley Yalkowsky unearthed several letters clearly showing that the Greenglasses were lying through their teeth, and that the gung-ho, pro-communist depiction of the Rosenbergs actually applied more to them. Written before Julius and Ethel allegedly strong-armed them into espionage, they paint a very different picture of how David and Ruth felt about socialism.
[April 28, 1943 letter from David to Ruth] There is a vital battle to be fought with a cruel, ruthless foe. Victory shall be ours and the future is socialism’s....
[May 2, 1943 letter from Ruth to David] All I can say is that I am sorry I missed as many other May Days….Perhaps the voice of 75,000 working men and women that were brought together today, perhaps their voices demanding an early invasion of Europe will be heard and then my dear we will be together to build--under socialism--our future....
[December 27, 1943 letter from David to Ruth] Dearest, you are no snob, what you say is true and there are only two ways to look at it. Either convert our friends or drop them.
Going from the general to the specific, Greenglass then testified that at the end of a family visit in New York, Julius sent him back to Los Alamos with a jaggedly cut Jell-O box. Rosenberg explained that he would send a contact, who would have the other half. This contact turned out to be Harry Gold, who as a witness for the Prosecution backed up the statement with his version of the Jell-O box story. Both also testified that in return for documents pertaining to nuclear weapons Gold gave Greenglass an envelope containing $500 in twenty-dollar bills. Over the next two years, Greenglass received about $5,000 for his future efforts.
Greenglass then said that he prepared a twelve-page description (with sketches) of classified nuclear information that he had in his head and gave these to Ethel, who then typed and edited it. Because he had supposedly given away this document to the Soviets, through Ethel and Julius, he allegedly recreated those notes from memory the day before his testimony in order to produce them as evidence. Thunderstruck that the Prosecution would enter top-secret information into open court proceedings, Defense Counsel Emanuel Bloch immediately objected when Prosecutor Irving Saypol attempted to introduce them. This prompted a sidebar between him, Saypol, and Sobell’s lawyer Harold Phillips, where this amazing conversation took place:
Emanuel Bloch: Even at this late day this information may be of advantage to a foreign power. So I am satisfied that this be kept secret.
Irving Saypol: The Department of Justice took up the matter of revelation with the Atomic Energy Commission and with the joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, and it was left to my discretion how much of this material should be disclosed, on the premise that the primary obligation in the administration of justice was that the defendants were entitled to be apprised of the nature of the case against them.
Kaufman: Perhaps we can avoid this matter of clearing the courtroom if counsel can stipulate right now that the matters he is about to describe were of secret and confidential nature to national defense.
Saypol: Mr. William Denson, chief of the litigation section of the Atomic Energy Commission is here, and I will obtain his consent to such procedure.
Kaufman: How do counsel for the defense feel about this?
Bloch: May I consult with co-counsel? [Confers with Phillips] Your Honor, we cannot agree. I would like to stipulate it as an American citizen and as a person who owes his allegiance to this country.
Kaufman: May I ask counsel for Sobell why aren't you stipulating this?
Phillips: I do not feel that an attorney for a defendant in a criminal case should make concessions which will save the prosecution from the necessity of proving things which we may be able to refute.
Saypol: If counsel are not unanimous, I am inclined to go forward with my proof.
Incredibly, the Justice department, represented by Saypol, and the Atomic Energy Commission had no reservations about releasing the very atomic secrets that the Rosenbergs were accused of giving away to the Soviet Union into a court record where any US enemy and his Aunt Matilda could see them. Apparently, the US government wasn’t all that concerned about guarding the secret of the Atomic bomb. Believe it or not, Uncle Sam had legitimate cause not to be alarmed about the disclosure, for reasons that I will specify later.
By the time the Greenglasses left the stand, the damage to the Rosenbergs had been done. Despite professing the profound love he had for his big sister and her husband on the stand, David was the one person who directly linked both Rosenbergs to handling atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union He also slandered them, depicting them as a bullying, ideologically myopic couple, who forced him and his wife into a life of treason.
Ethel and Julius came to the stand in a feeble attempt to undo what David had done. But because the Prosecution had made such a big deal about their leftist ideology and past, they both looked even guiltier invoking the Fifth Amendment whenever asked about their political leanings.
The trial ended after several weeks on March 28, 1951. The jury found Sobell and the Rosenbergs guilty on one count each of conspiracy to commit espionage. Judge Kaufman sentenced Sobell to thirty years in Alcatraz. Julius and Ethel each received the death penalty.
The Rosenbergs filed an appeal, which Judge Jerome Frank of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied on February 25, 1952. The US Supreme Court subsequently made four rulings on the case. On October 13, 1952, the justices decided not to review the case. On June 13, 1953, they denied a stay of execution. In the following days, exculpatory evidence emerged, but by that time, the Court was out of session. All of the justices were out of town, except for William O. Douglas. He ordered a stay of execution on June 17, 1953 in order to review the evidence that came to him. But the other justices boogied back to Washington to hold a special session two days later, something that had never happened before, and hasn’t happened since. They overturned Douglas’ stay.
That night, June 19, 1953, Julius died in the electric chair (left) at Ossining State Prison (Sing Sing) . Ethel went to her execution fifteen minutes later.
Gloria in excelsis deo. Et in terra pax hominibus, bonae voluntatis
[Glory to God in the highest. And on Earth peace and goodwill to all mankind]
Track 6: Traditional
Track 7: Traditional and English
Track 8: In case you’re wondering what X. Dell asked Santa for this year….
Track 9: Hoping you have one.
Since our friend She did such a wonderful job making a CD cover for yours truly, I reckoned that the least I could do is supply some music. I recorded these for friends, many years ago, and can now put them here thanks to Audacity.
Elizabeth Bentley took the stand to testify against the Rosenbergs. She expounded on three major planks of the prosecution’s case: (1) that the Young Communists League, to which Julius Rosenberg belonged, was a part of the Communist Party of the United States; (2) that the CPUSA was under direct orders from Moscow; and (3) Julius had participated directly with her in espionage activities.
Most of her testimony was quite vague, and relied almost exclusively on innuendo, and in no part on documentation. The defense made numerous attempts to object to hearsay and vague testimony, only to be overruled by Judge Irving Kaufman. For example, co-counsels Edward Kuntz and Edward Phillips aptly pointed out the flimsiness of Bentley’s testimony regarding the connection between the YCL and the CPUSA:
[Lead Prosecutor] Irving Saypol: Well, I want to refer for a moment to Columbia. At that time did you take any part in the activities of the Young Communist League at Columbia?
Elizabeth Bentley: Not directly, because I was a member of the party, being too old for the YCL, but we did work with the YCL unit on the Columbia campus, because their activities inter-crossed in that way.
Saypol: Was the Young Communist League considered, recognized as a part or as an agency of the Communist Party?
Bentley: Oh definitely
[Morton Sobell Defense Co-Counsel] Edward Kuntz: I object to that, if your Honor please.
[Judge] Irving Kaufman: Overruled.
[Sobell Defense Co-Counsel] Harold Phillips: I object to it on the ground that the question is too vague, ‘was recognized as part;’ recognized by whom?
Kaufman: All right. Recognized by whom?
Saypol: Recognized and accepted by party members as an integral unit of the Communist Party?
Phillips: That is still objected to. This is not an authenticating statement she is making.
Kaufman: Go ahead. Did you give your answer?
Bentley: The YCL was recognized by the Communist Party as being the younger edition, so to speak.
Kaufman: You are talking now as a member of--at that time, as a member of the Communist Party?
Bentley: That is correct; the YCL no longer exists.
Kaufman: And at that time, as a member of the Communist Party, was it understood among members of the Communist Party that the YCL was part of the Communist Party for people who had, for Communists, but of a younger age group?
Bentley: Yes, that is correct.
Phillips: Your Honor will pardon me for saying that my objection put to the question is equally to the language the Judge just used.
Kaufman: Very well.
In the above excerpt, Bentley asserted a link between the YCL and the CPUSA, but gave neither proof nor indication of the nature of the relationship. She didn’t direct the Court or prosecutors to, say, bank accounts or money movements between the two organizations either directly or through fronts. She didn’t specify a chain of command, or any kind of constituency that made the YCL officers answerable to the alleged parent organization. She didn’t give any examples of the YCL following the CPUSA’s dictates. Under Saypol’s examination, she can’t even give any hint of how she might know anything about the YCL. It’s only when Kaufman takes over for Saypol that Bentley says that her knowledge comes from being a member of the “Communist Party.” Even though Kaufman himself shaped her testimony by framing the question as he did, the answer was still vague, giving Phillips the unenviable task of having to object against the Court’s own questions.
The rest of Bentley’s testimony reads the same, with entire lines of questioning allowed without foundation. Bentley never did provide a solid link to YCL. She provided an even more vague (if that’s possible) connection between the CPUSA and Soviet Intel, saying that she understood their orders came directly from the Kremlin.
What’s worse, she claimed to have worked with and for Julius Rosenberg, even though she admitted never having met him. According to her statements, she received telephone calls from someone identifying himself as ‘Julius,’ who would give her things to do. The Prosecution offered no evidence in terms of telephone records. Although I don’t know if they could in the 1940s, except for long-distance, they certainly had bugging equipment. If they could wiretap Max Elichter’s telephone, they could have certainly tapped Julius and Ethel’s. If they were really a huge threat, the FBI certainly would have done so. From there, they could have simply played a tape-recorded excerpt of one of these phone calls Bentley claimed to have had with the man. If he called from a payphone, then the Feds could have easily spotted him, correlated the times he called, the times Bentley says she received a phone call, and offered that into evidence. They didn’t.
There was also no corroborating physical or documentary evidence of any of her accusations. Bentley could only insist that Rosenberg was the Julius in question, assuming that these phone calls even took place. And that’s a hell of an assumption.
Obviously, all the witnesses against the Rosenbergs had some credibility issues in terms of directly tying Ethel and Julius into Soviet espionage. The star witness, however, would point to them, and only them, as the traitors who gave the Soviets the secret of the atomic bomb.
After reading the transcript of the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, one has to doubt Judge Irving Kaufman’s impartiality. Kaufman overruled numerous legitimate objections to blatant hearsay benefiting the prosecution’s side. He also allowed vague testimony and entire lines of questioning without foundation despite constant defense protests. He also didn't enter bench objections to leading questions that defense lawyers Emanuel and Alexander Bloch incredulously allowed. When Irving Saypol or other prosecutors couldn’t phrase their questions in acceptable ways, Kaufman asked his own, which seemed to coach, or shape, witnesses’ answers to aid the prosecution’s case.
Max Elichter, a classmate of Morton Sobell and Julius Rosenberg at City College, testified that Julius Rosenberg telephoned Elichter in June 1944 to recruit him into Soviet Intel because of his job with the Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance. Elichter then said that he told Julius no, but still met occasionally from 1945-1948, and on each occasion, Julius attempted to recruit him. In the summer of 1948, Elichter left that job, and took one in the private sector at Reeves Instrument Company, a move that allegedly infuriated Julius, for it took Max out of the information circle that he had maintained with the Navy.
The plan was for them to stay with the Sobells until they could find their own housing. On July 30, 1948, Elichter and his wife, Helene, drove from Washington, DC to New York to begin the process of relocating. During this trip, they spotted two tails, something they mentioned to the Sobells immediately upon arrival. According to Elichter’s testimony, Morton became upset because he feared that the FBI might have followed them there, and he had something incriminating on him, namely a bunch of documents on 35-milimeter film. Feeling that he had to get rid of them, Sobell allegedly arranged a dead letter drop of the film to a building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Elichter accompanied him on this trip, during which they discussed the recent outing of Elizabeth Bentley as a Soviet agent. Sobell supposedly reassured Elichter that Bentley couldn’t identify Rosenberg because the two only conducted their spy business on the telephone.
A lot of things in Elichter’s testimony simply don’t add up. Upon direct and cross-examination, Elichter maintained that he never once handed Rosenberg any information, classified or otherwise, and that he barely knew Rosenberg during their days together at City College, although both were close friends with Sobell. If that’s the case, it then seems odd that Julius would be the one who would attempt to recruit Elichter. A close friend such as Sobell would have been a more logical choice than someone he didn’t know very well.
Still, if Elichter refused Rosenberg’s advances once, maybe twice, why would Julius keep trying over the course of four years? That should have constituted a major security threat to Soviet espionage if one of its agents constantly exposed himself this way. It certainly doesn’t seem very smart to allow Julius to make repeated contact with him. And since Elichter allegedly didn’t give Rosenberg any information from the Bureau of Ordinance, why would Julius be upset if Elichter didn't give him info from a job somewhere else? After all, Sobell also worked for Reeves, Elichter’s new employer. If Sobell could be a spy and work for Reeves, there’s no reason why Elichter couldn’t do the same. Then too, why would Sobell invite Elichter to accompany him on a spy assignment, when Max was (1) hostile to anti-American espionage, and (2) already being followed by the Feds?
In The Murder of the Rosenbergs, Stanley Yalkowsky hypothesized that Elichter himself was a spy, not for the Soviets, but rather, the FBI. On the stand, Elichter testified that he first spoke with the Bureau in July of 1950.
That’s odd, because in an FBI teletype dated May 12, 1948, J. Edgar Hoover himself ordered a halt to its investigation of Elichter. Nevertheless, on July 8, the Bureau bugged his DC residence. Furthermore, Elichter’s testimony about spotting FBI surveillance on his trip to New York was dead on the money, and corroborated by two FBI reports, both dated July 30, 1948.
Here’s the funny part: the FBI knew that the Elichters had spotted their tail, noting “Max and Helene Elichter…extremely alert for surveillance.” Yet, for some reason, this didn’t bother the Special Agents involved. The FBI goes on to say how they nonchalantly followed them to Sobell’s apartment, but couldn’t follow through because they couldn’t find a telephone number for his Queens flat--despite the fact that Sobell was listed in the 1948 New York City White Pages.
The FBI stopped its investigation against Elichter in May, yet embarked upon massive surveillance procedures a couple of months later, with no intervening order to resume the espionage against him. Either there were some foolhardy G-men who defied Hoover’s order, or the Director himself ordered the monitoring in order to implicate Elichter’s associates. If so, Elicther most probably lied when he said that he first spoke to the FBI in 1950. He probably first spoke to them in 1948, and cooperated with authorities ever since.
This is augmented by the fact that in June of 1949, after the investigation and the monitoring, Elichter boarded the USS Mississippi in Norfolk, VA and shown top-secret Navy equipment. Surely, if he were a Soviet agent, the Bureau would be duty bound to alert the Navy and have them stop the visit. As in Sobell’s case, this led to the investigation against someone for suspicion of espionage, specifically Lt. Cmdr. Morton Prager, the officer who gave permission for Elichter's onboard tour.
The FBI most likely recruited Elichter because they could manipulate him fairly easily. You see, on his enlistment application to the US Navy, he claimed that he was never a communist, even though he was. As true today as it was then, lying on an official government document is a felony, punishable by time in a federal prison and a stiff fine. Sure enough, a slew of federal agents watched Elichter give his testimony in the Rosenberg-Sobell trial. One might surmise that they went to make sure that Elichter did his part in dishing dirt on Sobell in exchange for overlooking his crime.
Why do all of this to rope in Sobell if he were, in fact, innocent? On the June 19, 2003 episode of the radio show Democracy Now, Sobell explained that the government needed to prosecute him in order to make the Rosenbergs look like part of a spy network. Going after a man and his wife doesn’t seem like much of a network, as much as it does a mom and pop enterprise. So the feds needed him to make the enterprise seem more conspiratorial.
Furthermore, they needed Elichter to tie Bentley to Rosenberg, for her testimony would come later in the trial.
As you can see, I haven’t been around much lately. But now the fires are out, and everything has gone well. I should be back in posting mood in a little while. Right now, I’m kinda drained. But we’ll be up and running soon.
The game was simple. If you got caught, you named names. If you wanted to get away with hunt all, your names would name names. For David Greenglass, this meant dropping dime on his sister and her husband, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (left). The Rosenbergs wound up facing trial on one count each of conspiracy to commit espionage along with a friend of Julius’, an old college buddy named Morton Sobell.
The official story claims that NKVD spymaster Semyon Semenov recruited Julius in 1942, because of Rosenberg’s membership in the Young Communist League. Semenov then handed over control of Julius to Alexandre Feklisov, who put the young radio engineer to work stealing classified secrets from his job at Emerson Radio, and recruiting more Soviet agents, among them Sobell, Ethel, and his in-laws, David and Ruth Greenglass.
Prosecutors Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn, who had previously litigated the cases against Alfred Slack, Abraham Brothman, and Miriam Moskowitz, contended that Soviet agent Klaus Fuchs, then working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, smuggled out information about the weapon and the personnel working on it to Harry Gold. Gold then relayed the information to David Greenglass, who then delivered it either personally, or through Ruth, to his in-laws, who then handed it over to Feklisov, who took it back to Moscow via diplomatic pouch.
The Rosenbergs faced difficulty from the start. Because of the notoriety given to them by the media, they had difficulties obtaining counsel. Many lawyers refused to become involved with the case, until Emanuel Bloch and his father Alexander stepped up for the defense. Judging from the trial transcripts that I’ve read (approximately 300 pages out of two thousand+), I believe that Bloch & Bloch gave the Rosenbergs their all. Unfortunately, the case might have been somewhat over their heads. The defense made a number of egregious errors during the trial, the most critical of which was its refusal to cross-examine Harry Gold while on the stand. Either they didn’t do their homework, or they had some other reason for not bringing to the Court’s attention the numerous contradictions between Gold’s testimony in the Rosenberg case and previous statements he made in grand jury hearings and to the FBI.
Worse yet, the Rosenbergs lost personal support among family and friends. David Greenglass, the star witness against them, was Ethel’s brother, and because of that her family took his side, and shunned her. As their notoriety grew, even those who loved them began to distance themselves.
That’s not surprising, since the government put tremendous pressure on the Rosenbergs to implicate others in espionage. After all, Greenglass ratted on his own flesh and blood. He explained, in a 2001 interview on 60 Minutes, that he expected federal prosecutors to offer his sister and brother-in-law the same type of deal he received, where they would not get the death sentence in exchange for testifying against friends, family and acquaintances. Sure enough, prosecutors made that offer. They both declined it.
During the trial, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg served as the only defense witnesses. The prosecution called a number of witnesses. Max Elichter was there to implicate Sobell, and connect him with a Rosenberg conspiracy. The most critical, however, were Greenglass, Bentley, and Harry Gold.
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I'm going to have to leave the blogosphere for the next seven days, due to a new crop of fires that have sprung up a week before the dissertation defense. My apologies for not stopping by and visiting you. I hope to be somewhat back to self by Christmas.
Harry Gold and Elizabeth Bentley testified against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the fall of 1950. By then, they had become veteran actors playing the role of ex-Soviet spy turned prosecution witness.
I say role, because some suspect that they were in-fact only posing as Soviet spies. Their MO: infiltrating communist organizations and collecting information on their members.
Stanley Yalkowsky articulated this belief in The Murder of the Rosenbergs. The evidence he gives in support of this position is a bit week, especially in the case of Gold. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning.
First of all, Yalkowsky felt that Gold’s enrollment at Xavier University was no fluke. Rather, it was a calculated move to put him into a milieu of government informants, who had their share of peeping material in the form of a growing communist movement on campus. Moreover, the notes he took of meetings focus far more in the individuals present than on the topics discussed, something one would expect of a true infiltrator:
I have been unable to locate the man I heard speaking in favor of Trotskyism at an acquaintance’s home about a year ago. Have been trying to locate several people I formerly knew who may be able to introduce me to a member of that organization but I had not had the time to follow this up as well as I want to.
Gold’s attempts to spy on Cincinnati communists was apparently so ham-handed that Thomas Black, his fellow ex-commie-turned-informant, told the FBI in June of 1950 that the real communists began to suspect him of being up to no good:
…did not know for certain that Vera Kane was aware of Harry Gold’s [allegedly Soviet] espionage activities, but he suspected that she was aware because between 1937 and 1944 Vera Kane on a number of occasions told Thomas Black that Harry Gold was not one for [self-confessed Soviet spy Ferdinand] Heller and Black to associate with and that it was very dangerous for them to associate with him.
Although the context of Black’s statements make it clear that he is referring to Soviet espionage, the suspicions of Vera Kane and other communists would seem rather confusing. Anti-Stalinism would not really become a part of American communism until 1939, after the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler’s Germany. Would she and others really fear a Soviet Agent in their midst, or a snitch?
The FBI not only tolerated Gold’s constantly changing testimony, a severe breach of perjury laws, but helped him do it on at least one occasion. An FBI memo reported on a May 31, 1947 search of Gold’s home, and specifically said that neither the investigators nor Gold could find the alleged blueprints Gold supposedly got from Golos. In the Brothman-Moskowitz trial of 1950, however, he testified that he and the agent found said blueprints during the search.
The malleability of Gold’s testimony clearly shows an interest in adapting to the needs of federal prosecutors. He would say one thing, if that’s what he thought they wanted to hear, and would recant his testimony later if he thought they wanted to hear that.
Although Gold could deftly change his story to suit whomever, he couldn’t really hold a candle to Bentley(left). She had gotten to know a lot of prominent American communists because of her association with Jacob Galos. So she certainly knew names and could put them together with faces. In photo lineups, she would tentatively identify persons by saying, “It looks like him,” or “It could be him.” That way, she could hand over someone that she knew the FBI had wanted, while at the same time covering her tail if the targeted individual could prove their innocence (which happened on occasion with other “informants”).
Many people described Bentley as ‘enigmatic.’ She wove a number of melodramatic stories about herself in conversation, and in her autobiography, Out of Bondage. She wrote about her great, unconsummated love affair with the married Galos, who spurned her sexual advances for political reasons only. According to her, Moscow dictated who was to fall in love and marry whom. How the Soviets managed to enforce such dictates she left to the reader’s imagination.
Bentley also contradicted her own story about how she became a communist. At one point, she said that she joined a communist party in 1935, and was a member in good standing for three years.
That’s strange, for on a 1938 trip to Italy, Bentley joined a fascist organization. When evidence of her involvement with Italian fascism surfaced, she explained, “We [?] all belonged to it, not from a point of ideology…but simply because we got cut rates on various things.”
Put yourself in Bentley’s place. You’re a communist traveling abroad to a country hostile to your beliefs and your home country. During your trip, you join a group who would kill people like you, thus endorsing their political aims, all for the sake of a few discounts? Would you go to a hostile country and sign a statement against everything you believed in just to get a few deals on knick-knacks?
Perhaps you might, for reasons you could explain. But in Bentley’s case, her involvement with fascism continued when she returned to the US later in 1938, when she took a job at Italian Library of Information in New York, a propaganda bureau of the fascist Italian government.
Bentley’s association with the Italian government prompted her to change her story about how she became involved with American communism. In her second version of events, she said that she became a communist in 1938, when she approached Jacob Galos with an offer to spy on her employer.
If we take her word on the second story, and dismiss the first, then what we have is a person with no prior communist leanings before 1938, and whose only prior political background was fascist. So we are left to wonder if she was actually spying on the Italians for the communists, or the other way around.
If you assume her first story is correct, and dismiss the second one, you still have the problem of figuring out why she would travel to Italy and declare herself anti-communist to save a few bucks. Either way, Bentley doesn’t appear to have been a true communist at all.
The Feds were well aware of Bentley’s flip-flopping. After investigating the eighty people she named as Soviet spies, the Bureau was unable to find substantial evidence to charge any of them, let alone indict them. According to Yalkowsky, an internal FBI memo suggested her unreliability might have been due to schizophrenia. Not that it mattered. Bentley’s willingness to point out reds, her networking, her willingness to testify, and her flair for dramatics made her an ideal witness for a federal trial, so long as prosecutors could ixnay the inconsistency of her previous statements.