Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Reading the Rosenbergs after Venona

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Reading the Rosenbergs after Venona

Article excerpt

IN THE SUMMER OF 1950, first Julius and then Ethel Rosenberg were arrested on charges of conspiring to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Morton Sobell, a former classmate of Julius', was also arrested and charged with being part of the Rosenberg spy network. Played out against the hysteria generated by the onset of the Korean War, and the Smith Act, and the prosecution of the leadership of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), the Rosenberg trial in March 1951 took a brief two weeks to complete and ended with the jury delivering a guilty verdict. (1) On 5 April 1951, the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, sentenced Morton Sobell to thirty years, and Ethel and Julius to death. Their executions were delayed until 19 June 1953 as various appeals were pursued.

These barebones facts do not adequately convey the controversy surrounding the trial, sentencing, and execution of the Rosenbergs. From the time of their trial to the present, the Rosenbergs have been viewed by some as victims of the Cold War and by others as traitors to their country. The prevailing political climate of the US determines which of these interpretations is in the ascendant. During the repressive 1950s, popular and official views of the case coalesced: it was commonly believed that the Rosenbergs were Communist spies who deserved to die. In the more liberal 1960s and 1970s the Rosenbergs were seen as victims of Cold War hysteria, their trial and execution a miscarriage of justice. By the 1980s, in response to a right-wing shift in American politics, the Rosenberg case was once again subject to revisionist impulses. In the new conservative moment, it was argued that Julius Rosenberg was most assuredly guilty of some kind of espionage, even if Ethel was not. Buttressing this argument were the recently released Venona decrypts, messages between KGB operatives in America and Moscow that, assessed from within this conservative paradigm, confirmed their guilt. For many historians, the Rosenberg case is now closed. This paper argues that the Venona intercepts require far greater scrutiny than they have so far been afforded, that the Rosenbergs' guilt has not been established, and therefore, that the case is not closed.

What is Venona?

On 11 July 1995, the National Security Agency (NSA) announced that it had nearly 3,000 coded and encrypted documents from KGB agents relating to Soviet espionage in the US during the 1940s. These had been decoded, decrypted, translated, and rendered as English plain text (2) over the years by several security services of the United States government as part of an enterprise that was given the codename Venona. (3) The NSA indicated that the Venona documents were now being declassified and would be released in batches in ensuing months. The time lag between the public announcement that these documents existed and their declassification and release was necessitated, according to the Agency, by concerns regarding privacy. (4)

In the interim, to provide a sense of what the project had achieved, the NSA released 49 documents, including all the material related to the Rosenbergs, a cache of 19 decrypted and decoded messages.

In the next 16 months (between July 1995 and October 1996), the NSA released approximately 2,850 similar documents. In October 1996, to publicize the existence of these documents as well as to mark the official closing of the Venona project, the NSA together with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Center for Democracy (associated with the counter-revisionist historian Allen Weinstein) held a conference and media event at the National War College in Washington DC. An assortment of historians, government employees, members of the fourth estate, and other interested parties attended, including Morton Sobell, who had been tried and convicted with the Rosenbergs. (5)

Simultaneous with the conference, the NSA and the CIA jointly issued the Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner edited volume entitled Venona: Soviet Espionage and The American Response 1939-1957, a work intended as a handbook for scholars interested in the Venona project. …

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