'Atom spy' verdict is in, and again it's guilty


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The "atom spy" case, one of the darkest and most contentious episodes in the history of the Cold War, is reawakening this month, 55 years after Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed as Soviet espionage agents.

Kicking off the renewed interest were two events last week. After legal pressure from historians and journalists, the National Archives released the bulk of sealed testimony from the grand jury that indicted the Rosenbergs in 1950 for delivering "the secret" of the atomic bomb to Soviet spies.

It will take months before the voluminous files are examined, but it's widely thought that they might contain further proof that Julius Rosenberg was working for Soviet intelligence. As earlier evidence indicates, Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in her husband's spy ring but knew of its activities. She was executed anyway, as prosecutors hoped the threat of her death would force her husband to implicate others. He did not.

The second was an admission of spying by Morton Sobell, 91, convicted with the couple for passing on military information to Moscow. He confessed his guilt for the first time last week in an interview with The New York Times. He was released from federal prison in 1969 after serving 18 years.

Mr. Sobell's admission now becomes part of a large truth: That despite vociferous support from well-regarded corners and a welter of so-called evidence exonerating them, the Rosenbergs and another infamous spy of the Cold War era, Alger Hiss, were guilty.

That truth is for the history books, however. The most enduring aspect of the Rosenberg-Hiss episodes is its legacy in the politics of today. Their convictions were the first sparks in the political "culture wars," with ripples reaching into the 2008 presidential campaign.

Although other Americans like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanson were to be convicted later of passing secrets to the Soviets, the Rosenbergs-Hiss cases were more influential in our culture, says G. Edward White, author of "Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars."

"The difference between the Rosenberg and Hiss cases and cases such as Ames and Hanson is that in the Cold War period, previous sympathy for the Soviets, or virulent opposition to communism, was signals of political affiliation," said Mr. White, professor in the University of Virginia Law School.

"[President Harry] Truman and [Secretary of State] Dean Acheson were associated with sympathy for Hiss, and most (but not all) of the rabid anti-communists of the late 1940s and 1950s were Republicans. So being 'soft' on communism, or 'squishy,' was more clearly a posture identified with party affiliation."

Individuals linked forever with the Hiss and Rosenberg cases -- Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Whittaker Chambers and Roy Cohn -- became villains of the left and heroes of the right, with the most notorious figure, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as the lightning rod. Mr. McCarthy, however, played no role in either case, only using them for political ends.

Alger Hiss "played upon the identification of many liberals with his sympathy for the Soviets," Mr. White said. "He emphasized that his chief persecutors were Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Whittaker Chambers [Hiss' accuser], and suggested that his conviction was another example of McCarthy-era blacklisting. Many people had friends and acquaintances that were blacklisted in the late 1940s and 1950s, so believing in Hiss' innocence was a way of coming to terms with one's own former political sympathies."

Mr. Hiss was released from federal prison in 1954 after serving three years for perjury; he was never convicted of being a spy, only of lying about it. He spent the rest of his life denying he had been a Soviet agent since the 1930s, succeeded in regaining his lawyer's license and appeared to be exonerated following release of old Soviet records.

"Hiss' campaign for vindication reached its greatest heights in the 1970s because Nixon was in disgrace, Hoover exposed as a notorious figure and Chambers dead," said Mr. White. "Moreover, the emergence of the New Left on campuses seemed to be a resurgence of something like popular front collectivism," a left-wing movement of the 1930s that Mr. Hiss joined.

However, before Mr. Hiss died in 1996, other revelations confirmed his guilt, as Mr. White shows in his book.

Mr. White also points out that the Democratic Party, long a bastion of white, working and middle-class supporters, began courting African-Americans and college students in the 1960s, creating a faction within the party associated with what came to be called the "New Left." The urban and campus turmoil of the late 1960s, culminating in the election of the Republican Nixon, confirmed that those old-line Democrats had shifted allegiances, largely for cultural reasons.

Recent books such as Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland" and Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" further elaborate on that shift.

As for continued interest in the Rosenbergs and Hiss, Mr. White believes it is "largely confined to a generation of people who was alive when they occurred. I am regularly struck by the fact that the law students I teach [most of them born in the 1980s] are unfamiliar with Hiss, and generally unfamiliar with the 'Cold War' period. The major reason that interest might remain, I would suggest, has to do with both cases being spy stories."

The Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison June 19, 1953, as protests were held in America and Europe against their death sentence. Mr. Sobell, a friend of Julius Rosenberg, was convicted of conspiracy unrelated to the atomic bomb case. He broke years of maintaining his innocence by admitting to delivering files on radar and artillery developments.

Significantly, he confirmed that Julius Rosenberg was a major player in a New York-based spy ring made up of members sympathetic to the communist cause. One of the members was David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, who worked at the Los Alamos laboratory building the A-bomb.

"Morton feels his position [on involvement in spying] was distorted by the Times article," said Robert Meeropol, one of the Rosenbergs' sons who took the name of his adoptive parents after his parents' execution.

Mr. Meeropol, who defended his parents for years, now concludes that his father and Mr. Sobell did pass on military secrets to the Russians, just not atomic bomb data.

"For decades I've considered this possibility," he said, "but the newspaper story leaves the impression that my father collaborated with Greenglass on the bomb. Morton's 91 and a little confused these days, but I don't see his comments as proof that my parents were atom spies."

Calling the release of grand jury testimony "a great victory for democracy," Mr. Meeropol believes the records will raise questions about the federal prosecution of his parents, including eliciting perjury from key witnesses, including Mr. Greenglass' wife, Ruth, who claimed Ethel Rosenberg retyped government documents.

"What Morton is saying and that the testimony will show is that my parents were executed for something they did not do," Mr. Meeropol said.

"Sobell's admission doesn't surprise me in the least, and I suspect it doesn't surprise most scholars of Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and 1940s," added Mr. White. "What is surprising, to me at least, is the length to which some contemporary commentators are still prepared to go to attempt to demonstrate the innocence of people such as Hiss."

Mr. White believes that history "reveals that there were a lot of Soviet agents affiliated with the U.S. government -- in that sense McCarthy was unwittingly right -- and that almost of all them denied spying when interrogated.

"In that sense Hiss and Rosenberg were predictable figures, if the quality of their intelligence was higher than most. Yet people remain dedicated to 'proving' their innocence."

Events of the past month, however, would indicate that exonerating the Rosenbergs will be a tougher job.


Book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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