Morton Sobell, Soviet espionage, and Cold War mysteries

For those interested in Cold War history, one of the more surprising stories of 2008 was the admission by Morton Sobell that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s.

Why did Sobell, now 91 years old, a former spy in the winter of his life, decide to tell the truth to Sam Roberts of the New York Times, after having proclaimed his innocence since his trial and conviction on espionage charges in 1951? Was he tired of lying on behalf of a discredited Marxist-Leninist ideology? (“Now, I know it was an illusion,” Sobell told Roberts. “I was taken in.”)

Did he no longer care about any embarrassment and pain he might cause for that dwindling legion of defenders who had proclaimed his innocence, and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for more than half a century? (His stepdaughter told Roberts that Sobell’s confession “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.”) Did he want to set the historical record straight while he still could? Or did Sobell hope to preempt embarrassing disclosures in Rosenberg case grand jury testimony about to be released? (Ron Radosh, the leading historian of the Rosenberg case, believes Sobell broke his silence because, contrary to his public statements, the released testimony would make it “clear that Mr. Sobell had access to important classified military data, and was in a position to hand it over to the Soviets.”)

In the fullest account of the Roberts-Sobell conversation, it’s clear that Sobell remains conflicted about his dealings with the Soviets:

“I haven’t considered myself a spy,” he said. “Isn’t that funny? You use that word ‘spy,’ it has connotations.”

Was Julius Rosenberg a spy?

“He was a spy, but no more than I was,” Sobell replied. “He gave nothing, in the end it was nothing. The sketch was negligible and the government lied in presenting it as the secret to the atomic bomb. They never harmed this country, because what they transmitted was wrong.”

Further, Sobell argued he had passed information to a World War II ally, the Soviet Union, not then an American adversary—an excuse used by many on the Old Left to defend the Communist spies of the period. This, of course, ignores the fact that (as Radosh has tartly noted) the Rosenberg network commenced spying during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, prior to Germany’s 1941 invasion of Russia.

Yet Sobell’s attempts to downplay his and Julius Rosenberg’s culpability can be seen as signs of deep psychic conflict. Some of the Soviet atomic spies have been less repentant. Ted Hall, the Harvard-trained physicist perhaps most responsible for passing the design of the atomic bomb to the Russians, expressed little regret for his actions. (Hall deserves a special place in Harvard’s 20th century Hall of Shame alongside Nazi publicist Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl). After his death, Hall’s wife published a brief memoir in 2003 which included the following passage:

He [Hall] said that if he had then understood the real nature of Stalin’s dictatorship, he would not have had the stomach to share information about the atomic bomb with the USSR. However, looking back, he concluded that though he had been mistaken about some important things, ultimately his decision had proved right. In the early postwar period the risk that the US would use the bomb, for example against China or North Korea, was really serious. Hawks in the government seemingly had no comprehension of the danger this would involve for the whole world, and certainly no concern for the human lives they would have destroyed. If they had not been made cautious by the Soviets’ retaliatory power, enhanced to an unknown extent by the contributions of Ted and (far more importantly) [Klaus] Fuchs, there is no telling what they might have been capable of.

To his credit, Sobell appears ashamed of his “contributions,” and has refrained from claiming the moral high ground for his treachery. Instead, he has tried to minimize whatever damage he and Julius Rosenberg may have caused by passing classified military information, although the details they provided the Russians about American radar may have been used against U.S. planes in Korea and Vietnam.

Other repercussions

Sobell’s confession was jarring to many Rosenberg defenders, as Roberts of the Times chronicled in his piece “A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs.” It also prompted the Rosenberg’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, to acknowledge that their father, Julius, had been involved in espionage, although, they maintained, of a non-atomic sort. They continued to argue for their mother’s innocence and for prosecutorial misconduct in the case. (Certainly the executions of the Rosenbergs represented a failure of justice, as the death sentence was grossly disproportionate.)

Sobell’s admission also had to represent a chilling development for those last-ditch defenders of Alger Hiss, another Cold War figure accused of spying for the Soviets and convicted of perjury on a related charge in 1950. Hiss steadfastly maintained his innocence until his death at the age of 92 in 1996. Sobell’s confession suggested that decades-long protestations of innocence might not be indicative of anything.

There was some gloating, as well, by those who were proved right about the Rosenberg spy ring, and some attempted score-settling. In the New Republic, Martin Peretz went after Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, calling him “the cheerleader of the ‘everybody was innocent’ school in American sentimental thought about communism and its fellow-travelers” and challenging the Columbia University journalism professor to acknowledge that “innocence of the Rosenbergs is now exposed as false.” (Navasky on Sobell and Rosenberg: “these guys thought they were helping our ally in wartime, and yes, they broke the law, shouldn’t have done what they did, and should have been proportionally punished for it; but the greater betrayal was by the state.”)

Cold War mysteries

While Morton Sobell confirmed what most Cold War scholars had already accepted—the existence of the Rosenberg spy network—there are still questions about the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and how deeply the American military/scientific establishment was penetrated.

For example, nearly 350 Americans had some sort of covert relationship with Soviet intelligence in the 1940s, according to Venona Project decrypted Russian cables. Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have matched roughly half of the Venona code names with individuals. What more might we learn if more identifications could be made? How might that alter our understanding of U.S.-Soviet relations during the period?

Western scholars had some access to KGB and GRU archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, and much was learned about the clandestine links between the American Communist Party and Soviet intelligence. The rise to power of Vladimir Putin curtailed much of that research, although there have still been surprise revelations, such as the naming in 2007 of George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” as a GRU agent who infiltrated the Manhattan Project.

And Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman’s just published “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation” makes the claim that an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s. The authors do not name the alleged spy, but say that the FBI bungled its investigation of the security breach. (Nuclear weapons expert Robert S. Norris has suggested that the alleged spy was Darol Froman, a long-time Los Alamos scientist.)

No doubt the Russians could clear up more of these Cold War mysteries, but a Kremlin dominated by former KGB officials has resisted further transparency. It may take a recrudescence of glasnot, and the reopening of the Soviet-era archives, for the full historical story to be told.

Copyright © 2008-2009 Jefferson Flanders
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