Seventy years ago today, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage by a Federal court in Manhattan, following a sensational trial that captivated the nation. One week later, the married couple was sentenced to death. The American public was out for blood. The Rosenbergs had betrayed highly classified U.S. defense secrets, including regarding the atomic bomb, and with American boys dying in Korea fighting the Communists, there was limited support for leniency.
The Rosenbergs went to their deaths in Sing Sing’s electric chair on June 19, 1953, unrepentant to the end. Julius was 35 and his wife was two years older; they left behind two orphaned sons. No matter their guilt, the human aspects of the Rosenberg case were poignant – their sons, aged six and ten, asked to see the electric chair where their parents were soon to be executed – and so they remain, seven decades on.
For the remainder of the Cold War, the Rosenbergs had their defenders, mostly on the Left, who insisted that the couple was framed in a bout of McCarthyite hysteria. That case was superficially bolstered by the fact that the prosecution’s star witness, David Greenglass, was a revolting specimen who happened to be Ethel’s brother, an admitted Soviet spy who testified against his nephews’ parents to save his own skin.
However, the Rosenbergs-were-framed argument, which was always tenuous, fell apart in the 1990s, when revelations from Kremlin archives, bolstered by declassified U.S. intelligence – more on that later – made it abundantly clear that the couple was deeply involved in Soviet espionage networks in the United States in the 1940s. The issue of Julius’ guilt, particularly regarding the betrayal of American atomic secrets to Moscow, was settled in all reasonable minds. Ethel, however, still enjoys her defenders, who point to the seediness and unreliability of her own brother as exculpatory in her case.
Along comes Emily Tamkin, who seems to possess no expertise in intelligence history, in the New Statesman, with a piece whose title gives the game away: “The executed innocent: Why justice for Ethel Rosenberg matters.” Her account will be familiar to those versed in the Rosenberg canon, albeit retold for 2021, with citations of feminism, racial issues, and the Patriot Act. Tamkin emphasizes the Rosenbergs’ Jewishness, hinting at anti-Semitism in their case. It is an undeniable fact that Soviet espionage networks in the U.S., as across much of the West during the “golden age” of Kremlin spying in the 1930s and 1940s, included many Jews. Most of them were the children of Ashkenazi immigrants from the Russian Empire, like the forgotten traitor Bill Weisband, whose sensational, indeed world-changing espionage case I recently elaborated in Top Secret Umbra.
Tamkin references a Jewish civil war of sorts going on around Julius and Ethel, citing the role of the notorious Roy Cohn in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs. She does not mention that some of the finest, most balanced scholarship on the Rosenbergs, and on Soviet espionage against FDR’s America more broadly, has been done by Jewish historians like Ron Radosh and Harvey Klehr.
The keyword that’s entirely absent from Tamkin’s article is VENONA. That was the above-Top-Secret codebreaking program run by the National Security Agency between 1943 and 1980, which identified hundreds of Kremlin spies in several countries – including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When NSA declassified VENONA in the 1990s, the history of the early Cold War had to be rewritten. Tailgunner Joe was a drunk charlatan who, to be clear, knew nothing about the VENONA secret, he was shooting in the dark with his often wild counterintelligence claims, but 1940s America really was crawling with Soviet spies.
Omitting VENONA from the Rosenberg story is the last line of defense in Ethel Rosenberg’s case, and it’s hardly a new trick either. It’s tantamount to failing to mention the Mannlicher-Carcano M91/38 rifle purchased by Lee Harvey Oswald under the alias A. Hidell when discussing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A few years ago, Ethel’s sons appealed to President Obama (who sensibly had better things to do) to exonerate their mother and they, too, omitted VENONA entirely from their letter to the White House. That inspired me to explain, based on my expert knowledge of VENONA and NSA, just what they left out:
Julius Rosenberg appeared in several VENONA messages, under the cover names LIBERAL and ANTENNA, which made plain that he 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…VENONA likewise makes clear that Ethel Rosenberg was a Soviet spy.
Let’s review the formerly Top Secret/Special Intelligence-plus details, which are damning:
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 November 27, 1944, is worth citing in detail:
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 aware 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 Message 1340 from New York to Moscow, sent on September 21, 1944. It 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 [STANTAUN] 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.
He we learn 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 was wholly unaware of what Julius was up to. As the head of his own Soviet agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for Moscow, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see Message 1600, November 14, 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s far-fetched to think she never noticed her husband photographing thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.
A standard, post-1996 comeback to VENONA from the Ethel-was-innocent camp is a quote from Aleksandr Feklisov, the legendary KGB colonel and Cold War spymaster who handled the Rosenbergs for several years, and who died in 2007. Feklisov claimed he viewed Julius as a friend, while Ethel was not involved in espionage directly: “Ethel never worked for us. She didn’t do anything,” Feklisov stated in 1997. He added that the Rosenbergs’ execution was “contract murder,” while downplaying the significance of their betrayal of U.S. atomic secrets to Moscow.
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 includes a picture of him kissing their tombstone (!)—he adds much more detail about the matter. He admits to more than 50 clandestine 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 her. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.
What totally undermines [the Ethel-was-innocent] case, however, is that Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was old school KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.
Tamkin, in customary fashion, makes much of the fact that FBI and Justice Department documents on the Rosenbergs case appear somewhat weak, particularly that they appear incomplete: because, in fact, they were. Indeed, all unclassified DoJ accounts regarding Julius and Ethel written up before 1996 omit any reference to VENONA, which when the Rosenbergs were on trial was one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the U.S. government. Indeed, so sensitive was the VENONA secret that when Julius and Ethel went to the electric chair, President Harry Truman hadn’t yet been briefed on the NSA project. Therefore, DoJ resorted to other testimony in the Rosenberg case such as the testimony of lowlifes like Greenglass, a traitor and a liar. He wasn’t a particularly credible witness, but Greenglass had observed espionage for Moscow conducted by his brother-in-law and his sister too, and that could be discussed in open court – unlike VENONA.
The painful reality about Ethel, as I summed it up in 2016, is this: “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.”
That seems like too much reality for Ethel’s defenders to accept seven decades on, yet VENONA and Soviet intelligence files make clear that she was witting of, and to some degree involved in, her husband’s substantial espionage for Stalin and his genocidal regime, including the passing of U.S. atomic secrets to Moscow. We can debate endlessly whether they should have been executed – the Rosenbergs remain the only Americans to receive the death penalty for espionage since the Second World War – but the witting involvement of Julius and Ethel in spying for the Kremlin has been established beyond any reasonable doubt by the release of VENONA.
That massive intelligence release by NSA came a quarter-century ago now and it’s historical malpractice to omit reference to VENONA in any discussion of the Rosenberg case. If anyone wants to debate VENONA and its crypto-linguistic intricacies with me, I’ve done plenty of that at the unclassified level, feel free to get in touch.