Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2008

Atom spies

Filed under: repression,ussr — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Around 40 years ago I had dinner at Dick Roberts’ place in New York. Also in attendance was his girl friend Laura and David Thorstad. All of us have left the SWP, but Dick-to my knowledge-was the only one to have become a committed Christian. (Right, Dave?) At the time Dick was the SWP’s economics expert and a rather blustering opinionated individual not without certain charms. He was also a notorious drunk. His path into organized Christianity, as I understand it, was greased by sessions at Alcoholics Anonymous.

At some point in the evening, the topic turned to the Rosenbergs. Dick, who enjoyed being provocative especially after a few scotches under his belt, stated emphatically that they were guilty-number one. Number two, he thought that they should have admitted their guilt and crowed about it along these lines: “Yes, we helped socialist Russia develop the A-Bomb because we believe that the U.S. would have destroyed the country if had no adequate defenses. In fact, Truman stated that he only dropped A-Bombs on Japan in order to show the Russians that he meant business. We acted on behalf of peace and social justice. Punish us if you must, but history will absolve us.” In other words, give the same kind of speech that Castro gave after going on trial for the attack on the Moncada barracks.

Morton Sobell, from today’s N.Y. Times

Today’s New York Times contains an admission of sorts of Julius Rosenberg’s guilt from a now self-confessed spy:

In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.

Through it all, he maintained his innocence.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.

In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Sobell, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was asked whether, as an electrical engineer, he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he, in fact, a spy?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

I got to know Morton Sobell in 1989 after he showed up at a Tecnica meeting. I had already read his memoir “On Doing Time,” an extremely powerful account of his radicalization in the 1930s, his trial, and his 19 years at Alcatraz. He had returned recently from Vietnam where he had been working on a project to develop low-cost hearing aids and now wanted to do something similar in Nicaragua. I could be wrong, but I seem to remember the staff in our California office holding him at arm’s length because of his past. We would soon be charged with running an espionage ring out of Nicaragua, so perhaps caution did make sense in retrospect. Of course, it didn’t help matters with Morton being even more cantankerous than me on most occasions.

The Rosenberg trial has been one of the most important issues for the left since the 1950s, when an international campaign mounted on their behalf could not stave off Cold War hysteria. Their sons Robert and Michael Meeropol spent decades trying to establish their innocence, while journalists Walter and Miriam Schneir’s “Invitation to an Inquest” made in my opinion a powerful case for their innocence in one of the century’s most blatant show trials. The judge Irving Kaufman, a Jew like the Rosenbergs, did everything he could to prejudice the jury against the defendants in order to establish his credentials as a “good American”.

Ronald Radosh: Satanic neoconservative

In October 1983, the Nation Magazine and the New Republic organized a debate on the Rosenberg trial between the Schneirs on one side, and Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton on the other. Radosh and Milton had written a book making the case for their guilt, which the New Republic endorsed. The Nation, of course, had long been associated with defending both the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, also accused of spying for the Soviets. His main attacker was Whittaker Chambers, the repulsive renegade from Communism.

Radosh had a lot in common with Chambers. He had been a Communist in the 1950s and 60s but began to become disillusioned with radical politics after a trip to Cuba in 1973 revealed crowded buses. I don’t know. The fucking number #96 bus that I took across town this morning made me feel like a sardine, but I am not about to dump my beliefs.

In the 1980s, his evolution to the right was consummated by the Sandinista revolution that he saw as an omen of the spread of Cuban style communism in Latin America. Before long he became a full-fledged anti-Communist. Not only did he try to sink his teeth into the corpses of the Rosenbergs, he became a supporter of Generalissimo Franco and Joe McCarthy.

So imagine how painful it is to hear now that this skunk was more right than the Schneirs. After reviewing the Venona documents that became available after the collapse of the USSR, the Schneirs acknowledged that Julius Rosenberg was guilty but that his wife was not.

Even the Meeropols have been forced to confront the Venona documents, but still obviously refusing to admit the obviously false claim that the Rosenbergs gave away the “secret” of the A-Bomb. In an interview with PBS conducted on the occasion of a documentary about atom spies, Robert Meeropol said:

The United States government executed two people for the reason, as the prosecutor said, that they stole the greatest secret known to mankind. The judge said that they committed a crime worse than murder, they caused the Korean war. President Eisenhower in saying “I am denying clemency” said essentially the same thing. All of this was because they stole the secret of the atomic bomb. That’s why they were executed, and the writing on the wall if you believe Venona is that neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg did the crime they were killed for. That seems to be the most important question to me.

While I don’t particularly regard spying for the USSR as a crime against humanity (as opposed to a violation of U.S. penal codes), it does gall me to see people like Ronald Radosh vindicated. It is a little bit like what the left might have felt if a team of inspectors had discovered an atomics weapon lab in Baghdad in early 2004. “You see,” Christopher Hitchens would have said, “we were right all along.”

Robert Meeropol’s formulation was a far cry from what Dick Roberts would have said if he had been Julius and Ethel’s son. Perhaps this gets to the bottom of the difference between the Trotskyist and Communist Party outlooks. The CP would have found it very difficult to defend self-admitted atom spies since their entire trajectory since the Popular Front turn was in the direction of confirming Earl Browder’s belief that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. In New York, the CP educated its cadres at the Jefferson School, an institution named after someone who owned slaves and once wrote on the topic of Indian “removal”:

“If ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi….they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”

The CP was also faced with a quandary. If its members were required to resign before taking on dangerous assignment like Julius Rosenberg’s, a paper trail connecting them to the party would be much harder to erase. After all, the Rosenbergs were typical party members, with a long involvement raising funds for the Lincoln Brigades, etc. It would have been far better for the USSR to recruit left-minded people for such work who had never had any connections at all to the party. After all, there were thousands of them in the 1930s and 40s, such as the British spies from the upper class.

The revelations about the Rosenbergs will of course be used to keep the spirit of the Cold War alive. The Ronald Radosh/Joyce Milton book on the Rosenbergs was published as part of the “Annals of Communism” series out of Yale University that is run by Jonathan Brent. Brent now occupies the Alger Hiss Chair at Bard College (my alma mater), a chair once occupied by ecosocialist Joel Kovel and that was most certainly established to honor Alger Hiss’s memory. It is characteristic of the degradation of American political culture, including an ostensibly liberal bastion like Bard College, that a red-baiter like Jonathan Brent would be appointed to this chair.


  1. one small correction — Radosh has never maintained that Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of the charges against her.

    Comment by alan — September 12, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  2. I can’t remember what Radosh said at the debate, but he evolved in the direction of implicating Ethel Rosenberg after Venona:

    This was a dramatic example of the fact that Ruth’s testimony implicating Ethel Rosenberg was inconsistent with her trial testimony, and that most likely, the “typing” never took place. It does not mean, as some might think, that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent. Venona also corroborated that Ethel had recommended Ruth, her sister in law, to the KGB as a suitable recruit. She also knew about her husband’s espionage work, as well as that of other members of his ring, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. Ethel, in other words, was knowledgeable, and in legal terms was a conspirator.

    full: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/how-rosenbergs-in-law-helped-seal-their-fate/85737/

    Comment by louisproyect — September 12, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

  3. One thing I’d like to know is just what “secret” Rosenberg communicated to the USSR. As I understand it he had little scientific training, and besides, there was no one secret of the atomic bomb. Maybe the closest thing to a secret was that both kinds of A-bomb actually worked, and the US made that public at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Of course there were essential technical advances in producing fissile material and in making the plutonium bomb work by “implosion.” The spy who really knew important stuff in detail and got it to the Soviets was the physicist Klaus Fuchs. It doesn’t seem plausible to me that Julius Rosenberg, whatever his intentions, could have turned over very much of value, to say nothing of “The Secret.”

    Comment by John Lamperti — September 12, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  4. I’m interested in today’s comment by Sobell that he was “misled” somehow – by the Communist Party? My father met him in 1969 when Dad taught Existentialism (??) pro bono at Lewisburg Penitentiary. Sobell became a friend until about 1980 or so. I therefore met him many times as a teenager. He was always a committed follower of the CP. As a friend of mine says – all the good ones left much, much earlier when they found out about Stalin’s crimes. What happened to Sobell that he decided he was duped at this late date?

    By the way, Sobell was the worst ad for Communism and the CP possible. As young adolescents my brother and I had dinner with him, asked him about his views, and concluded that his politics had nothing to offer us. I blogged the story at Dove’s Eye View.

    Comment by Leila Abu-Saba — September 13, 2008 @ 3:23 am

  5. I knew Dave Thorstad when he dated a woman who went on to write a book about Serbia. Dave Riehle talks to him still.

    My thoughts are the same as John Lamperti, with the same question.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 13, 2008 @ 5:06 am

  6. Another still fascinating topic raised by Louis: “Perhaps this gets to the bottom of the difference between the Trotskyist and Communist Party outlooks.”

    That “difference” boils down to the same difference between science & religion. In order to figure out What Is To Be Done Trotsky taught revolutionists to analyse the class character of a given state dialectically, as a living organism, analogous, albeit crudely, to a biologist studying cell division whereas Stalinists were compelled to employ their only analytical tools — faith & dogma — which quickly became lifeless pedantry, like trying to finish reading any literary organ of the Comintern or CPUSA.

    I’m still smiling at the imagery of Earl Browder’s belief that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. It sounds like the pop culture slogan of corporate pharmaceuticals advertising some (either dubious or overpriced) pill under the banner: “Age 60 is the New Age 40!” or like the Pope said this week: Condoms are the Cause of Aids.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 22, 2009 @ 12:27 am

  7. The other aspect of it was that this alleged espionage occurred-not during the Cold War at all-but during World War 2 when the Soviet Union was an ally of the US and the Nazis were feverishly developing their own nukes.

    Comment by Tom Cod — February 6, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  8. Actually the Nazis were not feverishly trying to develop their own bomb. In fact they never tried since Heisenberg had told them it would take decades to do it. The book the Alsos Project details the investigation team that followed the US Army into Europe to find out how close the Nazis were to their bomb. They found nothing at all. Klaus Fuchs was the primary spy who gave the Soviets the secrets, but they did not really trust that intel either. Fuchs holds many of the patents on the bomb and was central to the work. Oppenheimer was aghast when he found out since he knew that Fuchs had all the answers the Soviets would be interested in.

    Comment by randyjet — April 6, 2019 @ 5:27 am

  9. You fail to mention a work by John Wexley, THE JUDGEMENT OF JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG. It is an exhaustive and well researched book, and in it he quotes a damning statement by Harold C. Urey, the Nobel Prize winner. Urey states “the case against the Rosenbergs outrages logic and justice… a man of Greenglass’ capacity is wholly incapable of transmitting the physics, chemistry and mathematics of the atomic bomb to anyone.” One week later Judge Irving Kaufman, after having conferred with Roy Cohn, sentenced the Rosenbergs to death.

    Comment by theodore kazanis — April 12, 2021 @ 8:37 pm

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