More than six decades after they were executed for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg continue to inspire polemics. Their case had ample drama, embellished by the fact that the doomed couple were the only Americans executed for espionage by the United States during the Cold War. That they left behind two orphaned sons made the case poignant.
They were convicted during the Korean War, which took the lives of over 50,000 Americans who died to stem Soviet aggression, which provided an explanation why the government did not seek leniency, especially because the Rosenbergs had assisted the Soviet nuclear weapons program with their espionage. Moreover, it was obvious that Federal prosecutors wanted Ethel’s cooperation — Julius was the Soviets’ big fish and the government’s case against his wife was weaker than against him — but Ethel, a hardline Communist, rejected that, even when she could have saved her own life for her children’s sake.
Although the Rosenbergs had defenders who pleaded that they were innocent, or at least severely misunderstood, most of them fell silent when the National Security Agency twenty years ago declassified its VENONA project, a top secret code-breaking effort that revealed numerous 1940’s secrets of Soviet espionage against the United States. The unveiling of VENONA, one of the great triumphs of American intelligence, also revealed why Federal prosecutors were so confident in their prosecution of especially Julius Rosenberg. VENONA transcripts made clear that Julius, who appeared in the messages under the Soviet covernames LIBERAL and ANTENNA, wasn’t just a Stalinist true-believer but an important agent of the Soviet secret police who gave Moscow every American secret he could get his hands on.
For all but the most determined denialists, that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy was proved conclusively by VENONA — the ace in the hole for the Feds that they possessed in 1953 but could not show to the jury at the Rosenbergs’ trial, because it was so highly classified. Julius was every bit the traitor that the government said he was, and he had betrayed nuclear secrets to Stalin.
Now the case is back in the news, with Michael and David Meeropol, the Rosenberg’s orphaned sons, appealing to President Obama in today’s New York Times to exonerate their mother who, they claim, was unfairly convicted of espionage. Specifically, they want the Obama administration to right what they see as the wrongs of so many decades ago.
“Our mother was not a spy,” the Meeropols flatly state, demanding that President Obama “acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.” Their case for this is based on the recently released grand jury transcript of David Greenglass, who was the Meeropol’s uncle. Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, was himself a Soviet spy who served almost ten years in Federal prison for betraying atomic secrets to Moscow. One of the most sordid aspects of this sordid case is that Greenglass saved his own skin, and that of his wife, by fingering his own sister.
The newly released grand jury testimony leaves little doubt that Greenglass embellished matters over the decades and his story changed with time (he died last year); he was never an especially reliable witness. On the basis of this the Meeropols protest that their mother was innocent, and to “prove” that they highlight evidence from various sources in a slipshod manner. Although I understand that the Meeropols need to believe that their mother wasn’t a spy for Stalin, the facts to not bear that wish out.
VENONA made very clear what Ethel was up to. I’ve worked with VENONA materials for years, including intercepts never released to the public, and I thereby shut the door on denialism regarding Alger Hiss, another one of Stalin’s spies inside the U.S. government that many on the left simply refused to accept was a traitor, although his guilt was firmly established by VENONA.
Several VENONA messages reveal important facts about Ethel Rosenberg. Number 1657, sent from the KGB’s New York residency to the Center (i.e, HQ) in Moscow on 27 November 1944, is worth citing in detail (for the original see here):
To VIKTOR [i].
Your no. 5356 [a]. Information on LIBERAL’s [ii] wife [iii]. Surname that of her husband, first name ETHEL, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [ZEMLYaK] [iv] since 1938. Sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR [v] and NIL [vi]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.
Notes: [a] Not available
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin [head of KGB foreign intelligence].
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] Ethel ROSENBERG, nee GREENGLASS.
[iv] ZEMLYaK: Member of the Communist Party.
[v] METR: Probably Joel BARR or Alfred SARANT.
[vi] NIL: Unidentified.
. . .
[xi] ANTON: Leonid Romanovich KVASNIKOV [KGB’s New York rezident].
This KGB report establishes that Ethel Rosenberg was a trusted person as far as the Kremlin was concerned, a Communist Party member who was witting of her husband’s secret work for Soviet intelligence, as well as the roles of other agents who were part of Julius’ spy network. Code-phrases such as being “devoted” and “well developed politically” reveal that Ethel was a committed Stalinist in whom the Soviet secret police placed trust.
That Ethel’s role in Soviet espionage went beyond sympathy was revealed in another KGB message from New York to Moscow, sent on 21 September 1944 (Number 1340, it can be seen in full here). This discusses the possible recruitment of a new American agent:
To VIKTOR [i]:
Lately the development of new people [D% has been in progress]. LIBERAL [ii] recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS, with a safe flat in view. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA] [iii], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TORNITsA] (iv) since 1942. She lives on STANTON ISTANTAUN] Street. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P. M. FITIN.
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] GOROZhANKA: .American citizen.
[iv] FIZKULITURNITsA: Probably a Member of the Young Communist League.
In other words, Ethel was a such a willing and witting member of the Soviet espionage apparat in mid-1940s America that she was setting up her own sister-in-law as a candidate for recruitment by the KGB. The observation that Ruth Greenglass had a “safe” flat indicates they had clandestine work in mind for her.
Moreover, it’s impossible to believe that Ethel could not have been aware what Julius was up to. As the head of his own KGB agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for the Soviets, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Additionally, Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see VENONA message Number 1600, 14 November 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s simply impossible to believe that she didn’t notice her husband moving and photographing literally thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.
Neither is VENONA our only inside source on Ethel’s role in the case. Aleksandr Feklisov, a legendary KGB officer who ran their operations in the United States in the 1940’s, had details to add as well. In the aftermath of the VENONA release, Feklisov stated the Rosenbergs weren’t all that important to Soviet espionage, describing their execution as a “contract murder” by the American government.
That, however, was not how Feklisov described the Rosenbergs in his memoir, published in English in 2001. Although Feklisov makes no effort at being dispassionate — he considers the Rosenbergs to be heroes and the book includes a picture of Feklisov kissing their tombstone (!) — he adds considerably more detail about the matter. Feklisov, who served as the Rosenbergs’ case officer, admitted to more than fifty meetings with Julius, whose betrayal of his own country Feklisov describes in glowing terms. (Here Feklisov’s original Russian-language memoir, published in 1994, is helpful.)
As for Ethel, Feklisov says that he never met her. This does not surprise, as Julius was already such a trusted agent-handler for the KGB that there was no need for Feklisov, who lived in the United States in constant fear of being caught by the FBI, to expose himself to additional danger by meeting with Ethel. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.
Additionally, Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was 1940’s KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.
I understand the human impulse behind the Meeropols’ desire to have their long-dead mother exonerated. In addition to the pain of losing both parents at a young age, there’s the added horror that Ethel could have saved herself by cooperating — after all, if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, why not talk to the FBI? Especially when your execution is pending. The awful truth is that Ethel Rosenberg, a committed Communist, loved Stalin more than her own children.
Nobody who understands Soviet intelligence and has read the relevant VENONA messages with open eyes has any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was an agent of the KGB. She was witting regarding a large degree of her husband’s enormous treason, perhaps all of it. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were fanatical Communists in a manner we now associate with jihadists. The cause was their life; it mattered more than anything, even family.
David Greenglass was a traitor and a liar, but the truth is that the U.S. government when it convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of espionage needed his testimony as cover. VENONA told the FBI all it needed to know about Julius and Ethel’s secret life of betrayal, but such top secret information could never be discussed in court. Hence the need for first-hand witnesses, sometimes of dubious credibility, wanting to save their own skin.
Greenglass was content to let his sister die to save himself. But that does not make Ethel Rosenberg innocent of espionage on behalf of one of history’s most murderous regimes. She was a spy for Stalin. We can debate whether the Rosenbergs ought to have been executed — I suspect that will be debated until the end of time — but there is no debating that they were guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Ethel was a witting and willing member of that criminal conspiracy.
Today’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, successor to the KGB famed foreign intelligence arm, proudly proclaims both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as “greats” who served Moscow. It would be best if the Meeropols accepted that fact and moved on with their lives. There’s no need to bother President Obama, a busy man, with this deception.
[N.B. Although the Soviet secret police was not named the KGB until 1954, having changed its name numerous times since its establishment in 1917, I’ve used the well-known abbreviation for simplicity. Purists can’t always win.]