Not all old men forget. Morton Sobell, one of the three defendants in the Rosenberg case, is now 91 and living in the Bronx. And he has just admitted, in an interview with Sam Roberts of The New York Times, that he was, in fact, guilty as charged: a Soviet spy during World War Two.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he responded to Mr. Roberts’ direct question whether he was a spy. “I never thought of it as that in those terms. What I did was simply defensive, an aircraft gun. This was defensive. You cannot plead that what you did was only defensive stuff, but there’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.”
Mr. Sobell was drawing a distinction between plans for radar and artillery devices —which were what he claims to have passed along, and which could be considered defensive weapons— and the secret of the atomic bomb, which is what he and his Rosenberg co-defendants were charged with having stolen and betrayed.
All three defendants pled not guilty. All were convicted (of espionage rather than treason because at the time the alleged events occurred, the Soviet Union was an ally). Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing on 19 June 1953.
Morton Sobell refused to testify at his trial; his silence saved his life and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served 18 —including five in Alcatraz— and was released in 1969. Up until this interview with Mr. Roberts, he has insisted on his complete innocence. In 1974 he published a long memoir —On Doing Time— that revisited the spy case and reaffirmed his innocence, but mostly dealt with his experiences in prisons and the prison system.
His former wife, Helen Sobell (they divorced in 1980), died in 2002. She was one of the leading activist proponents of saving the Rosenbergs’ lives; she obtained endorsements from Bertrand Russell and Pablo Picasso. After their execution she focused her attention on the National Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell — for which she helped raise the more than $1 million that funded more than eight appeals. She seems to be (unlike Ethel Rosenberg) a case in point of the observation that women are often the more fiercely committed partner in an ideological marriage.
Two major books led to substantial revisions —as well as continued controversies— regarding the Rosenberg case.
In 1983, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton published The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. (When it was updated for a 1997 edition, the subtitle was dropped.)
The authors, whose liberal credentials were well furbished, reached the conclusion that the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged (although he more so than she); that the government had resorted to underhand means, and the court to unfair conduct, in their prosecution; and that their execution had as much to do with the temper of the time as the seriousness of their offense.
In 2001, the Times’ Mr. Roberts published a major breakthrough study of The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair. Mr. Roberts’ conclusion, basically, was that the Rosenbergs were guilty but had been set up by her brother, David Greenglass. The book was based on interviews with Mr. Greenglass — who was no more attractive or less reprehensible an individual in 2001 than he had been in 1952.
And now Mr. Sobell has squared the circle by admitting his guilt. And only a real naïf would imagine that this will allow the case to be closed.
For starters, Mr. Sobell’s current state of mind will rightly be considered. Mr. Roberts, however, is inclined to accept what he says, and he has found confirmation from another knowledgeable source:
Mr. Sobell is ailing, but says his long-term memory is sound. He has repeatedly professed his innocence and has said earlier of the Rosenbergs, “I would not take the position that they were absolutely innocent.”
In the interview on Thursday, Mr. Sobell affirmed what has become a consensus among historians: that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband’s espionage, but did not actively participate.
“She knew what he was doing,” Mr. Sobell said. “The only thing she may have done is talked to her brother, but Julius knew her brother as well as she did.”
Mr. Greenglass, in an interview for a book by this reporter, “The Brother,” acknowledged that he had lied when he testified that his sister had typed his notes about the bomb — the single most incriminating evidence against her. That allegation emerged months after Mr. Greenglass and his wife testified before the grand jury and only weeks before the trial was to begin.
Government prosecutors later acknowledged that they hoped a conviction and the possibility of a death sentence against Ethel Rosenberg would get her husband to confess and implicate others, including some agents known to investigators through secretly intercepted Soviet cables.
That strategy failed, William Rogers, who was the deputy attorney general at the time, admitted: “She called our bluff.”
Mr. Sobell has been interviewed a number of times recently by Walter Schneir who, with his wife, Miriam, wrote a damning indictment of the Rosenberg prosecution years ago, but, on the basis of decoded Soviet cables and other information, have since reconsidered their verdict that Julius was innocent and was completely framed by the government.
“Do I believe Morty? Yes,” Mr. Schneir, who is writing a memoir, said on Thursday. “The details that he’s given us so far we’ve been able to check the peripheral parts and they check out.”
During my 1983 interviews with RN, I asked him about the Radosh book — which had only just been published.
FG: There’s a book that’s recently been published about the Rosenberg case, which, if it’s true, upsets the liberal pantheon in that, based on government and other documents, it indicates that the Rosenbergs were, in fact, guilty — at least Julius Rosenberg was specifically guilty and Ethel to a perhaps to a lesser extent. But it also indicates that the government went overboard in framing a case against them. Does that–did that shock you as you read about that, or surprise you, or make you feel vindicated?
RN: No, as far as the Rosenberg case was concerned, of course, that final decision, the decision not to delay the sentence, was President Eisenhower’s. I was in the room when it happened. It was in the Cabinet Room, and I recall very well the attorney general, Herbert Brownell, and Bill Rogers, the deputy attorney general, bringing the facts to the president, to his attention, and the decision was made. Not in that room —he made it later—as he always did.
FG: Did anybody argue for clemency?
RN: No. The evidence was clear. There was no question about their guilt, as even this book–in which the authors started out convinced they were innocent and then came around to becoming convinced they were guilty.
FG: Does it bother you, though, that some of the evidence–although they were apparently guilty–that some of the evidence was–was cooked by the F.B.I. to make them appear even more guilty — which might have affected the judgment on clemency, at least for Ethel Rosenberg?
RN: Oh, certainly. If I had known–if we had known that at the time–if President Eisenhower had known it, he might have taken a different view with regard to her. In other words, tainted evidence, even though a person is totally guilty, is a reason to get him off.
Take Daniel Ellsberg. Daniel Ellsberg was guilty of illegally taking top-secret papers from the Pentagon and turning them over to be published in a newspaper. And yet, because the evidence was tainted, he’s scot-free, making a lot of money on the lecture circuit, particularly at the elite Ivy League colleges. So, as far as Mrs. Rosenberg was concerned, she was entitled to get off on that basis, too.
FG: Does it disillusion you about J. Edgar Hoover that presumably he —it wouldn’t have been done without his knowledge, if, indeed, without his direction— that the F.B.I. was cooking evidence in such a way?
RN: Well, I wouldn’t — if I followed that book that you refer to. And the case they made for cooking the evidence is–is pretty weak. It’s–it’s a question of, really, a matter of judgment, and if you look at the times then, if you look at the fact that the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb two to three years before we thought they could, all the evidence points to the fact they wouldn’t have gotten it if it hadn’t been for not only our atomic spies, but the British atomic spies.
You can see why overzealous prosecutors, and those that are assisting prosecutors, like J. Edgar Hoover, would certainly tilt their prosecution and their investigation in a way toward guilt, rather than toward innocence. Now if you look at it coolly, in retrospect, at this point, certainly we would have preferred that it not be done. But at the time I understand why it was done. And let us understand–Mrs. Rosenberg was guilty. This wasn’t a case of somebody not guilty going to the chair.