Cold War questions: Soviet espionage and American Jews

September 25, 2011

The organizers of a conference held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research this past Tuesday in New York City chose a provocative title: “Soviet Espionage and American Jews.”

While perhaps not a hot button topic today with the Cold War now over, nevertheless any public consideration of links between Jews and subversion should make us uneasy–for the alleged treachery of the Chosen People has been a favorite trope of anti-Semites throughout the ages. That concern shouldn’t freeze historical inquiry or debate, of course; it should, however, encourage very careful scholarship and discourage broad generalizations about “the Jews” and their role in Soviet espionage.

As Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute, pointed out in his opening remarks, the historical reality is that Jews were prominent members of the Soviet elite, and were disproportionately represented in both the American Communist Party and in the ranks of those spying on the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. Some scholars have argued that Judaism’s concern with social justice, its prophetic identification with the oppressed, and its Messianic strain made those raised in its traditions naturally more sympathetic to socialist or Marxist thought. (It should be noted that unlike secular or Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews have been more or less resistant to Leftist ideology.) The leadership of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s was also heavily Jewish, proving that left-of-center Utopian politics continued to retain their allure for many of Jewish descent.

Yet what became clear during the conference, which featured a panel discussion of the Rosenberg spy ring (that group of primarily Jewish engineers who passed military and atomic secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s), was that ideology, not religious identity, served to motivate their underground activities. For example, Joel Barr, a member of the Rosenberg ring who fled to the Soviet Union to avoid prosecution, later told conference panelist Steve Usdin, author of Engineering Communism, that he spied “…because I was a Communist.”

Barr believed in the promise of Marxism to reshape the world, and his willingness to pass information about American weapon systems stemmed from that conviction. The same can be said for the others of Jewish descent providing Moscow with scientific information (the XY Line in KGB terms), like Ted Hall and his Harvard roommate, Saville Sax, who offered up Manhattan Project secrets. It had nothing to do with their Jewishness: they believed that the new Jerusalem would be found in Moscow, not in Israel. They shared this vision of a Socialist Paradise with the non-Jews who spied for the GRU and KGB like Alger Hiss, William Remington, Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, William Henry Taylor, Lauchlin Currie, Donald Wheeler, and Duncan Chaplin Lee.

As a totalitarian system, Communism demanded total allegiance. Some young college-educated Americans of Jewish descent, like the core members of the Rosenberg ring, were consciously repudiating their Jewish identity in embracing the internationalism, and materialism, of their adopted ideology.* They can be more accurately characterized, then, as young American Communists whose education and employment made them useful to the Soviet intelligence apparatus and who (in most cases) happened to be of Jewish descent. While they may have been ethnically Jewish, they had rejected their community and abandoned the faith of their fathers in favor of a different God, the God That Failed.

Other insights

For anyone interested in the spy games of the early Cold War, the conference offered some interesting historical insights:

  • Despite the large number of Jews caught up in espionage, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other anti-Communists of the Right did not politicize the situation by blaming Jews for subversion. Panelist Harvey Klehr, Emory University professor and co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, noted that McCarthy “did not bring that toxic brew into the mainstream” but instead focused his attacks on WASP Establishment figures like Dean Acheson and George Marshall. Had he chosen to scapegoat Jews, Klehr argued, “the results would have been very ugly.”
  • With historical scholarship establishing that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet agent and that his wife Ethel was also deeply implicated in espionage, their Old Left supporters have shifted their defense of the couple. They are now arguing that the Rosenberg’s refusal to come clean represented a noble commitment to “a higher duty than the truth,” according to Ron Radosh, the preeminent historian of the Rosenberg case.
  • Morton Sobell, a member of the Rosenberg ring who belatedly acknowledged his role as a Soviet spy in 2008, recently admitted to novelist David Evanier that, in retrospect, “I backed the wrong horse.” Evanier told the conference, however, that Sobell remained reluctant to reexamine the crimes of Stalinism.
  • The contrast between the harsh sentences for the Rosenberg spy ring members (including death sentences for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and 30 years for courier Harry Gold) and the relatively light sentence in Great Britain for Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs reflected cultural differences about what constituted appropriate punishment and not anti-Semitism by the U.S. courts, maintained Allen Hornblum, author of The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atomic Bomb.
  • The amateurism of some members of the Rosenberg ring was comical at times. Steve Usdin recounted how Joel Barr violated basic spycraft by recording directions from his KGB handlers and details of his assumed identity in a pocket notebook. Evanier related how when Sobell fled to Mexico City in 1950 (as the FBI closed in on the spy ring), he forgot to bring his passport.

* It was no different for the New Left. In a disjointed yet revealing talk former SDS leader Mark Rudd gave in 2005 entitled “Why were there so many Jews in SDS? (or, The Ordeal of Civility),” he noted that “…by being radicals we thought we could escape our Jewishness. Left-wing radicalism was internationalist, not narrow nationalist; it favored the oppressed and the workers, not the privileged and elites, which our families were striving toward.”

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved