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
All rights reserved

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7 thoughts on “Morton Sobell, Soviet espionage, and Cold War mysteries

  1. On that radar you worry may have used against US planes in Korea and Vietnam: It was intended for use against Nazi planes by our ally Russia. If so, it saved American lives since the Russians did most of the actual fighting against the Nazis in that war.

    1. Dear Mr. Munk,

      A few points:

      1. Sobell and the other members of the Rosenberg ring did not pass military secrets out of a patriotic desire to reduce American casualties, but rather in loyalty to the Communist cause. They were spying on the U.S. BEFORE 1941, thereby directly aiding Hitler and the Nazis, who were allied with the Soviets. The Soviet and Nazi intelligence services were collaborating during this period.

      2. Most of what the Rosenberg ring passed to the Soviets proved valuable in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is an excerpt from Steve Usdin’s petition to open the Rosenberg grand jury testimony. Usdin wrote the definitive book on the Rosenberg spy ring and its value to the Soviets, “Engineering Communism”:

      Among the important information the Rosenberg ring transmitted to the Soviets were detailed specifications and manufacturing instructions for critical Soviet military technologies of the early Cold War, including: the proximity fuse, which the Soviets first used on May 1, 1960 to shoot down an American U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers; powerful land-based and airborne radars; automated antiaircraft weapons; jet engine and airframe technology; and many others.The Rosenberg ring’s espionage did not end with World War II. Joel Barr leaked details to the USSR on radar technology used to guide intercontinental ballistic missiles as late as the summer of 1948. Just weeks before David Greenglass was arrested in June 1950, he and Julius Rosenberg were collaborating on plans to purloin technology for stabilizing tank guns from Greenglass’s employer. As I wrote in Engineering Communism, “Rosenberg’s band of amateur spies turned over detailed information on a wide range of technologies and weapons systems that hastened the Red Army’s march to Berlin, jump-started its postwar development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and later helped Communist troops in North Korea fight the American military to a standoff.”

      3. The notion that the “Russians did most of the actual fighting against the Nazis” is inaccurate. The Russians did most of the dying, much of it the direct result of Stalin’s paranoia and ruthless mismanagement of the Soviet military. The American and British campaigns in Africa, Italy and Europe were the decisive blows in the war.

      The Soviets were “allied” with the U.S. and Britain for some three years, and it was an alliance of convenience, not of conviction, as Stalin and his regime represented the same totalitarian impulse as did Fascism (national socialism).

      Jefferson

  2. “The notion that the “Russians did most of the actual fighting against the Nazis” is inaccurate.”

    Give me a break. The Russians did most of the dying and most of the actual fighting. Without American supplies they would have lost, but they still bore the brunt of the fighting and the Germans know it. If you doubt this read some German accounts of the war.

    1. Dear Professor Hexham,

      I stand corrected: I should have said “effective fighting.”

      Yes, the Russians did more dying, suffering greatly at Stalingrad and Moscow. The Red Army, supplied by American Lend-Lease aid, kept the Germans occupied in the East from 1941 on. Yet the historical record shows the immense loss of Russian life was due, in part, to Stalin’s cult of personality and his mismanagement of the war–including his purges of experienced military commanders and the disastrous summer offensive of 1942. Stalin also sacrificed nearly 400,000 Russians in his Winter War invasion of Finland, a cynical attempted land grab.

      Nazi Germany was defeated, in the end, by the combined efforts of the Soviets and the Allies. But without the effective campaigns of the U.S. and British—El Alamein, Sicily and the Monte Cassino, the Normandy invasion, Arnhem, Battle of the Bulge, and the final assault on Germany (halted short of Berlin by political considerations)—there would have been no unconditional victory in 1945.

      Jefferson

  3. Didn’t Sobell and his brother infiltrate the Trotskyists in the 30s, I think in Germany. My reference is Deutscher and I think Broue and their bios of Trotsky

    1. Dear Mr. Monaghan,
      Your reference is to the Sobolevicius brothers, Jack Soble (aka Adolph Senin) and Robert Soblen (aka Roman Well), who did infiltrate Trotsky’s inner circle in the 1920s. They are not related to Morton Sobell.

      Later they came to the US (in the early 1940s) where they were part of Soviet espionage efforts. Jack Soble and his wife were arrested, tried, and convicted in 1957. They denied any involvement with the Rosenberg ring. Later, Jack testified against his brother, Robert Soblen, in a separate trial in 1961. Soblen was convicted, sentenced to life imprisonment, fled to Israel, and committed suicide in England during efforts to extradite him.

      (Here’s a Time magazine piece on them: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,895412,00.html)

      Jefferson

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