Leon Trotsky in Mexico; ca. 1940
The Mexican president at the time was Lázaro Cárdenas, the most left-wing president in Mexican history, still very beloved by working class Mexicans for his nationalization of oil and agrarian reform programs. However, given his leftist policies at home and support for the Second Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War, Cárdenas was often under fire for being a puppet of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Well, what’s a good way to prove you’re not under Stalin’s control? Give asylum to Trotsky.
A bit of Chapter 6: The Break , from Trotsky’s autobiography, entitled “My Life“:
In 1894 Alexander III died. As was usual on such occasions, the liberal hopes sought support from the heir to the throne. He replied with a kick. At the audience granted to the Zemstvo leaders, the young Czar described their aspirations for a constitution as “nonsensical dreams.” This speech was published in the press. The word-of-mouth report was that the paper from which the Czar had read his speech said “groundless dreams,” but in his agitation the Czar had expressed himself more harshly than he intended. I was fifteen at the time. I was unreservedly on the side of the nonsensical dreams, and not on that of the Czar. Vaguely I believed in a gradual development which would bring backward Russia nearer to advanced Europe. Beyond that my political ideas did not go.
Commercial, multi-racial, loudly colored and noisy Odessa remained, to an extraordinary degree, far behind other centres in a political sense. In St. Petersburg, in Moscow, in Kiev, there were already in existence at that time numerous socialist circles in the educational institutions. Odessa had none. In 1895 Friedrich Engels died. Secret reports were read at meetings held in his memory by student groups in the various cities of Russia. I was then in my sixteenth year. But I did not know even the name of Engels, and could hardly say anything definite about Marx. As a matter of fact, I probably had never heard of him.
My political frame of mind while at school was vaguely oppositionist, but no more than that. In my day, revolutionary questions were still unknown among the students. It was whispered that certain groups met at the private gymnasium maintained by the Czech, Novak; that there had been arrests; that Novak, who was our instructor in athletics, had been dismissed and replaced by an army officer. In the environment surrounding the home of the Schpentzers there was dissatisfaction, but the regime was held to be unshakable. The boldest dreamed of a constitution as possible only after several decades. As for Yanovka, the subject was unmentionable there. When I returned to the village after my graduation from school, bringing with me dim democratic ideas, Father, immediately alert, remarked with hostility: “This will not come to pass even in three hundred years.” He was convinced of the futility of all reformists’ efforts and was apprehensive for his son. In 1921, when he came to me in the Kremlin, after having escaped the Red and White perils with his life, I jestingly asked: “Do you remember what you used to say that the Czarist order was good for another three hundred years?” The old man smiled slyly and replied in Ukrainian: “This time, let your truth prevail.”
I faced the first crossroads on my path, poorly equipped politically even for a seventeen-year-old boy of that period. Too many questions confronted me all at once, without the necessary sequence and order. Restlessly I cast about me. One thing is certain: even then life had stored within my consciousness a considerable load of social protest. What did it consist of? Sympathy for the down-trodden and indignation over injustice the latter was perhaps the stronger feeling. Beginning with my earliest childhood, in all the impressions of my daily life human inequality stood out in exceptionally coarse and stark forms. Injustice often assumed the character of impudent license; human dignity was under heel at every step. It is enough for me to recall the flogging of peasants. Even before I had any theories, all these things imprinted themselves deeply on me and piled up a store of impressions of great explosive force. It was perhaps because of this that I seemed to hesitate for a while before reaching the great conclusions which I was impelled to draw from the observations of the first period of my life.
His great great-granddaughter is interesting. Her family suffered from severe alcoholism due to the obvious stress from the assassination attempts on Trotsky, and she became an expert on addiction.
Here’s the 60 minutes piece on her:
Why Stalin allowed Finland to remain independent after WWII:
Stalin overestimated the efficacy of the Finnish Communist Party and underestimated the canniness of Finnish politicians. Starting in leverage high grade military equipment from the Germans which allowed the Finnish forces to stage a fighting retreat from Karelia in 1944. Thus in mid-1944, the Finns and the Soviets were fighting in the same ground as the Winter War. Both the Kremlin and the Red Army’s leadership were much more interested in maintaining the drive into Eastern Europe than refighting what had been a dark chapter in Soviet military history.
Urho Kekkonen, a Finnish parliamentarian and later Prime Minister, said in a 1944 radio broadcast “the Soviet Union must stand to gain a bigger advantage from an independent Finland clinging to life than from a broken Finland doomed to a dependent existence.” The cornerstone of Soviet-Finnish relations was the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed with the USSR in April 1948. The Treaty guaranteed that Finland would aid the Soviets against “Germany or its allies” and fostered a series of networks and political connections between the Soviets and the Finns. The Soviets initially expected the Finnish Communist Party (SKP) to make electoral gains, but the existing Finnish political establishment adroitly managed to sideline them. The Treaty and the Finnish compliance with it did not give the SKP any major issues with which to attack the existing governments. Successive Soviet governments wanted the Treaty to be expanded and pull the Finns closer into the orbit of the Soviet sphere, but the Finns were able to strategically drag their feet. For example, the language “Germany or its allies” meant that Finns were able to justify not wanting to take defense steps against NATO Norway and Denmark. At the same time, the Finns also mastered the art of not appearing to be undermining the larger issue of Soviet security; they would give way over key debates like radar stations its early warning network.
The success of the Finns looks quite intelligent and unexpected from the vantage point of 2014, it’s important to keep in mind that during the Cold War the West was quite apprehensive the Finnish policies of accommodation. “Finlandization” became a pejorative term within Western Cold War discourse and a shorthand for making concessions to gain at best temporary freedoms from the USSR.
Jakobson, Max. Finnish Neutrality; A Study of Finnish Foreign Policy Since the Second World War. New York: Praeger, 1969.
Jussila, Osmo, Seppo Hentilä, and Jukka Nevakivi. From Grand Duchy to a Modern State: a Political History of Finland since 1809. London: Hurst & Company, 1999.
Luostarinen, Heikki. “Finnish Russophobia: The story of an enemy image.” Journal of Peace Research 26, no. 2 (1989): 123-137.
Rentola, Kimmo. “From half-adversary to half-ally: Finland in Soviet policy, 1953-58.” Cold War History 1, no. 1 (2000): 75-102.
Collapse of the Soviet Union:
While the USSR itself ceased to exist, many communist politicians either remained in power or continued to play an active role in their country’s politics. The revolutions were made possible not because of external forces (the US didn’t defeat communism, as it is often claimed) but because the communist party began to lose faith in itself.
Anti-communist and anti-party movements were not entirely uncommon in the USSR, but engaging in public demonstrations carried with it severe risks. In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to crush the opposition movement when it became clear that Imre Nagy, a communist himself, could no longer be trusted to rule the communist party. When he declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union mercilessly crushed the Hungarian dissidents. Mass bloodshed was avoided at Nagy’s insistence that the Hungarian people not fight their invaders, knowing perfectly well that there was little chance of victory. Similar events were to be repeated in Prague in 1968 when Alexander Dubček sought to relax party control over public life through democratic reforms including freedom of press. While more successful than the Hungarian revolution, the Prague Spring, ultimately met the same fate as the Warsaw Pact invaded in August. Similarly, bloodshed was spared only through the insistence by Dubček that Czechoslovaks not resist their invaders.
Although the revolutions in each country of Eastern Europe took on a different quality, there was one characteristic that defined them all: they were all non-violent. Beginning with the Polish workers’ union Solidarity and later emulated by Civic Forum (Czech) and Public Against Violence (Slovak) all communist opposition from then on took a strictly non-violent approach believing that, and with good reason, any violence committed by the opposition movements would only play into the communists’ party’s hands. On the other hand, any violent response to the democratic movements now sweeping Eastern Europe would only serve to discredit the communist parties further. Had the Soviets wanted to crush these democratic movements, there is little doubt as to whether they would be successful or not. The violent repression of the Prague Spring was still vivid in the minds of many.
There are two significant differences in the political climate within which the democratic movements of the 1980s were taking place and between those that took place before them and both had to do with the communist parties themselves. Faced with unprecedented protests and a call for democracy, communist officials simply did not understand how to address the protestors. That the revolutions were successful at all, ironically, can be attributed to a series of political and strategic blunders made by communist party officials. In Poland, for example, to address a series of devastating labour strikes, the Polish communist party, for the first time in the history of the USSR, formally recognized Solidarity (the Polish workers’ union mentioned earlier). In the span of just one year, Solidarity membership had reached 9.5 million members. Witnessing its popularity and fearing for its hold on power, the polish communist party attempted to outlaw Solidarity in the 1980s through the declaration of martial law. This would be characteristic of all revolutions in Eastern Europe: the communist party would relax their control over public life only to try and regain that same control later on through greater oppression which only served to discredit further still the communist regimes.
By the late 1980s it was clear in Poland and elsewhere that the communist party had no real sense of how to address their countries’ increasingly unsustainable economic situation or the growing public unrest. In 1989, the communist party having lost all credibility agreed to sit down with Solidarity to discuss the problems now facing Poland.
Among the agreements reached at the negotiations between the communist party and Solidarity was the creation of a new elected assembly. Elections were held just two months after the round-table talks between Solidarity and the party. Although the elections to the Parliamentary Assembly were rigged to retain a communist majority, the Senate elections were to untouched. Surprisingly, though in retrospect not unexpected, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 seats in the senate and all the seats it was allowed to the Parliamentary Assembly. The communist party itself was left in an impossible situation with the only options being to accept the vote and lose power, or to ignore the vote and resign. They chose the latter, at Gorbachev’s insistence, and communist rule in Poland officially ended.
That Gorbachev himself made clear that the Polish communist party had to accept the vote is significant. It was clear that Gorbachev had no intention of upholding the USSR’s official doctrine of quelling opposition through military intervention. Indeed, stating that the growing democratic movements in Eastern Europe were “a matter for the people themselves” signified to the protestors that Russia would not intervene. This minor and seemingly innocuous remark gave the democratic movements the confidence they needed to effectively bring communist rule to an end.
Judt, T. (2005). Postwar: A history of europe since 1945. London, England: Penguin Group.
Goldgeiger, J., & McFaul, M. (2003). Power and purpose: U.S. policy toward Russia after the cold war. Washington, D.C. : The Brookings Institution.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, was arguably, one of the most successful conspiracy theorist in American history. McCarthy was able to meticulously manipulate the Red Scare hysteria with the help of the media, the encouragement from the Republican Party, and this enabled him to pursue his agenda of combating the supposed red infestation in the State Department. Communist witch-hunts had become synonymous with the rhetoric of the period.
McCarthyism, was indeed, an opportunity for Soviet propagandists to exploit. McCarthy gave Europeans, who resented American power, a respectable reason for expressing their hostility. You just have to look at the sheer extent of the anxiety and hysteria that developed in American society. The level of blacklisting, denial of civil liberties, the witch-hunts, persecution of American citizens and the recklessness of McCarthy and his demagoguing. Many began to doubt if the country of McCarthy was a safe guardian of nuclear weapons.
He targeted the state department and the army (to his own detriment) and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeted Hollywood and business organizations in an attempt to root out communists. His methods were largely counter-productive and very destructive. Anybody that pled the Fifth Amendment were immediately interpreted as an admission of guilt. I think it was similar to that folklore hysteria you hear about – reporting your hated neighbor to the police for communist activities or suspicion, and a swat team storms in and grabs them.
McCarthy did not uncover any real Soviet spies, and he was not successful in his efforts – quite the opposite. He went on an anti-communist crusade, which led to the loss of jobs for countless hundreds, destroying businesses, exacerbated Red Scare fears and left an aftermath of uncertainty and anxiety in American society.
A german soldier sitting on the head of a statue of Stalin
I wonder if this was the guy who’s frozen body was turned upside down in the snow….
In August 1961, two young girls speak with their grandparents in East Germany over a barbed wire fence, a barricade which later became the Berlin Wall.
Roza Shanina, a female Soviet sniper who fought in World War II and got 54 confirmed hits. Allied newspapers called her, “the unseen terror of East Prussia.”
“The essence of my happiness is fighting for the happiness of others. It’s strange, why is it that in grammar, the word “happiness” can only be singular? That is counter to its meaning, after all. … If it turns necessary to die for the common happiness, then I’m ready to.” -Roza Shanina
Roza Shanina was a Soviet sniper during World War II, credited with fifty-four confirmed hits, including twelve soldiers during the Battle of Vilnius. Praised for her shooting accuracy, Shanina was capable of precisely hitting moving enemy personnel and making doublets (two target hits by two rounds fired in quick succession). She volunteered to serve as a marksman on the front line.
Allied newspapers described Shanina as “the unseen terror of East Prussia”. She became the first Soviet female sniper to be awarded the Order of Glory and was the first servicewoman of the 3rd Belorussian Front to receive it. Shanina was killed in action during the East Prussian Offensive while shielding the severely wounded commander of an artillery unit.
She was, as the Russians say, a terrifying Nazi slaughtering badass.
In Soviet Russia, music criticizes you!
Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad”
- It was completed December 27, 1941 and was written as a heroic symbol of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism invading Russia. It’s been criticized for its often simplistic and bombastic sounds but others argue that was Shostakovich’s way of criticizing Stalin and the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union – simple, childlike, often obnoxious, over the top, and monstrous underneath. (It was also performed in the city during the siege of Leningrad. They shelled the German lines and then broadcast the symphony live across the wire. )
Life and times
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович, 1906-1975) is probably more popularly associated with Soviet Russia than any other composer. He was a child prodigy, but his adult career flourished during Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror, and this influenced his art very directly. In 1936, Comrade Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; although the opera had previously been praised by the Soviet press for its ideological correctness, Stalin quite visibly did not enjoy it. Two days later, an editorial in Pravdacalled the opera “Muddle Instead of Music” and suggested that things “may end very badly” for Shostakovich. In this first prototype of the Communist regime’s new mechanism of cultural control, critics who had previously praised Shostakovich’s work publicly revised their opinions; he lost most of his commissions and performance engagements, and several of his friends and family were soon imprisoned or executed.
Shostakovich’s response was the Fifth Symphony, which he advertised as an apology for Lady Macbeth: “an artist’s creative response to just criticism”. Thus began a series of apparently patriotic compositions to gradually restore his official favor with Stalin and the musical authorities. Most of this work is ignored today, with some exceptions like the wartime Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”). Meanwhile, Shostakovich wrote his most personal feelings into “desk drawer” compositions, mainly piano solos and especially chamber music, not meant for public performance.
Of course the biggest event in restoring Shostakovich’s public reputation was Stalin’s death in 1953, the same day as Sergei Prokofiev’s. Shostakovich ostensibly commemorated Stalin with his Tenth Symphony, and many of his earlier works were finally premiered. In fact, he regained so much favor with the Khrushchev regime (fortunately, Khrushchev had no ear for music that he joined the Communist Party to become General Secretary of the Composer’s Union; by this point, younger composers were happily studying forbidden musical concepts like serialism, and Shostakovich suddenly seemed like an icon of conformity. It’s not clear what was going through Shostakovich’s head, even from his own conflicting accounts, but soon he wrote the Eighth String Quartet – some previous works had been dedicated to friends and family who perished under Stalin, but this one was privately dedicated to himself, a musical suicide note.
Though the quartet trailed off in a signature morendo, Shostakovich survived, turning inward to psychological pessimism and dread for his late period. Despite his conservatism, he influenced a school of younger successors, including Alfred Schnittke.
Even when Shostakovich seemed to be at his most patriotic, did he really mean it? Or did the apparently simple-minded themes sit on a layer of irony, concealing deep commentary on Soviet repression? And were these messages meant to be recognized by audiences while eluding official critics? These allegations are made in a supposed memoir, but historians question its authenticity.
At any rate, Shostakovich’s music is structurally conservative and old-fashioned for the time, official Soviet policy on “formalism” notwithstanding. Nearly all his work is quite clearly and accessibly tonal, with some extensions or tidbits of chromaticism. With fifteen string quartets and fifteen symphonies, often with roughly traditional movement orders, he was certainly one of the most prolific composers of these backward-looking genres in the twentieth century. And backward he did look: he was fond of quoting melodies from other composers or himself, and channeled Bach in his own preludes and fugues. Even his most personal chamber music generally follows the same formal and tonal idioms as his symphonies meant for public consumption.
From Mahler, he took not just orchestration but the concept of the symphony as psychodrama (Boulez: “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler”). His late string quartets show an affinity with Beethoven’s, in much the same respect. He was influenced by many Russian composers, including contemporaries like Prokofiev and Stravinsky as well as the old greats like Tchaikovsky and especially Mussorgsky. Though it’s not immediately apparent to the ear, he counted the Second Viennese School among his strongest inspirations.
- Symphony No. 5, especially the finale, and the 2nd movement (in that order)
- Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement (fantastic 4-minute portrait of Stalin, with the three-note motif reminding one of “KGB”)
- String Quartet No. 8, 2nd movement (tumultuous “whole note = 120” piece with amazingly big sound with lots of DSCH and dissonance and crunchy double stops sprinkled all around, dedicated to ostensibly the victims of fascism, but really himself and his fellow countrymen)
- Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad” (quoted as the longest orchestral crescendo, topping even Bolero, used to evoke the oncoming Nazi army into Leningrad)
But, people seem to never talk about Symphony No. 4, which is my personal favorite.
Scored for a Mahlerian orchestra and stuffed with the most jarring dissonances, it begins with a shocker and closes with a triumph that subsides into a slow death. Indeed, I believe that the ending of Symphony No. 4 is THE MOST CHILLING ending of all time. Nothing tops this… a heartbeat in the timpani + sustained floating c minor chord in the violins + undulating celeste figure that all fades away.
The American Experience:
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first American civilians executed under Section 2 of the Espionage Act. Charges related to passing atomic bomb secrets to Russian agents (the data came from Ethel’s brother, who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos). Their legal prosecution was the “Trial of the Century” (prior to O.J., at least), and many felt the couple were unfairly convicted.
Quotations Related to JULIUS ROSENBERG:
“My opinion was that if we had a common enemy we should get together commonly.” — Julius Rosenberg
“There was a possibility I could have been under surveillance.” — Julius Rosenberg
“This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be.” — Julius Rosenberg
“First of all, I am not an expert on matters on different economic systems, but in my normal social intercourse with my friends we discussed matters like that.” — Julius Rosenberg
“I would like to state that my personal opinions are that the people of every country should decide by themselves what kind of government they want.” — Julius Rosenberg
“If the English want a king, it is their business. If the Russians want communism, it is their business. If the Americans want our form of government, it is our business.” — Julius Rosenberg
“Now, I feel that if somebody looks through all the numbers through all those years, they will find one for Julius Rosenberg, and it is worth finding if it is such an important issue.” — Julius Rosenberg
“And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we’re gonna kill ya!” — Julius Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Convicted of spying for KGB:
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915 – 1953) and Julius Rosenberg (1918 – 1953) were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This was the first execution of civilians for espionage in United States history. Since the execution, decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but doubts remain about the level of Ethel’s involvement. The decision to execute the Rosenbergs was, and still is, controversial. The New York Times, in an editorial on the 50th anniversary of the execution (June 19, 2003) wrote, “The Rosenbergs case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.” This hysteria had both an immediate and a lasting effect; many innocent scientists, including some who were virulently anti-communist, were investigated simply for having the last name “Rosenberg.” The other atomic spies who were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass, served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Greenglass and the British scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was “in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.”
The Case Against the Rosenbergs
KGB Spy: According to his former NKVD handler, Alexandre Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg was originally recruited by the KGB on Labor Day 1942 by former NKVD spymaster Semyon Semenov. Julius had been introduced to Semenov by Bernard Schuster, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party USA as well as Earl Browder’s personal NKVD liaison, and after Semenov was recalled to Moscow in 1944, his duties were taken over by his apprentice, Feklisov. According to Feklisov, Julius provided thousands of classified (top secret) reports from Emerson Radio, including a complete proximity fuze, the same design that was used to shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960. Under Feklisov’s administration, Julius Rosenberg is said to have recruited sympathetic individuals into KGB service, including Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, William Perl and Morton Sobell. The Venona intercept show that Julius (code name LIBERAL) was indeed the head of this particular spy ring. According to Feklisov’s account, he was supplied by Perl, under Julius Rosenberg’s direction, with thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, including a complete set of design and production drawings for the Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star. Feklisov says he learned through Julius that his brother-in-law David Greenglass was working on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and used Julius to recruit him. The USSR and the U.S. became allies during World War II, after Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the USSR in 1941, but the U.S. government was highly suspicious of Joseph Stalin’s long-term intentions. Therefore the Americans did not share information or seek assistance from the Soviet Union for the Manhattan Project. However, the Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the U.S. government and made a number of attempts to infiltrate its operations at the University of California, Berkeley. The FBI file CINRAD (Communist Infiltration of the Radiation Laboratory) led particularly to J. Robert Oppenheimer, a consultant at the Radiation Lab and later, the key figure at Los Alamos.
A number of project members—some high-profile—voluntarily gave secret information to Soviet agents, many because they were ardent communists or were sympathetic to the Soviet Union’s role in the war and did not feel the U.S. should have a monopoly on atomic weapons. After the war, the U.S. continued to protect its nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. The West was shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test, “Joe 1”, on August 29, 1949. It was then discovered in January 1950 that a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs, had given key documents to the Soviets throughout the war. Fuchs’ identified his courier as Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. Gold also confessed and identified Sergeant David Greenglass, a former machinist at Los Alamos, as an additional source. Greenglass confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold as well. Though he initially denied any involvement by his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, eventually he claimed that she knew of her husband’s dealings and even typed-up some documents for him. He also claimed that her husband, Julius, had convinced Ruth Greenglass to recruit David while on a visit to him in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1944 and that Julius had also passed secrets, linking Julius and Ethel to Soviet contact agent Anatoli Yakovlev. This connection would be necessary as evidence if there was to be a conviction of espionage. Another accused conspirator, Morton Sobell, was on vacation in Mexico City when both Rosenbergs were arrested.
According to his story published in On Doing Time, he tried to figure out a way to reach Europe without a passport, but ultimately abandoned that effort and was back in Mexico City when he was allegedly kidnapped by members of the Mexican secret police and driven to the U.S. border where he was arrested. The government claimed Sobell was arrested for bank robbery on August 16, 1950, by the Mexican police and extradited the next day to the United States in Laredo, Texas, but in 1956 the Mexican government officially declared that he had never been deported. Regardless of how he was returned to the U.S., he was arrested and stood trial with the Rosenbergs on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage. Grand Jury: In August 1950, a federal grand jury was convened to hear the Justice Department’s case for indictments. The grand jury transcripts, made public in 2008, record that on August 3, Ethel Rosenberg’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, testified that in November 1944, Julius Rosenberg recruited her, and urged her to recruit her husband (Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass), into a conspiracy to engage in atomic espionage for the Soviet Union:
“[H]e proceeded to tell me that he knew that David was working on the atomic bomb…. that he felt there was not a direct exchange of scientific information among the Allies, and that it would be only fair for Russia to have the information, too… and he wanted to make that possible. He asked me if I would relate this to David and ask him to pass on information through Julius.”
She added that Ethel participated in this effort, urging her to comply:
“His wife said that I should at least relay the message, that she felt that David might be interested, he would want to do this…. [S]he urged me to talk to David. She felt that even if I was against it, I should at least discuss it with him and hear what he had to say.”
On August 17, the grand jury returned an indictment alleging 11 overt acts. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted, as were David Greenglass and Anatoli Yakovlev. Ruth Greenglass’s testimony alleging the involvement of Ethel as well as Julius would subsequently be corroborated by a decrypted Soviet Intelligence cable of September 21, 1944, from New York station to Moscow Center:
“LIBERAL recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS…. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TURNITsA] since 1942…. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her…. [Ruth] learned that her husband … is now working at the ENORMOUS [ENORMOZ] plant in SANTA FE, New Mexico.”
Notes by U.S. Signals Intelligence Service cryptographers (who partially decrypted this cable in the Venona project) identify the code-names LIBERAL as “Julius ROSENBERG,” GOROZhANKA as “American Citizen,” FIZKUL’TURNITsA as “Probably a Member of the Young Communist League,” and ENORMOZ as “Atomic Energy Project.”
Trial and Conviction: The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman and the attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. The prosecution’s primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. He also testified that he turned over to Julius Rosenberg a sketch of the cross-section of an implosion-type atom bomb (the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to a bomb with the “gun method” triggering device as used in the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima). The notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project and some suggest Ethel was indicted along with Julius so that the prosecution could use her to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. However, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg named anyone else and during testimony each asserted their right under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment to not incriminate themselves whenever asked about involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers, when later asked about the failure of the indictment of Ethel to leverage a full confession by Julius, reportedly said, “She called our bluff.”
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S. Code32 (now 18 U.S. Code 794), which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information “relating to the national defense.” The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair. The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:
“I consider your crime worse than murder… I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack.”
After the publication of an investigative series in The National Guardian and the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, some Americans came to believe both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grassroots campaign was started to try to stop the couple’s execution. Between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-semitism; the charges of anti-semitism were widely believed abroad, but not among the vast majority in the United States, where the Rosenbergs did not receive any support from mainstream Jewish organizations nor from the American Civil Liberties Union as the case did not raise any civil liberties issues at all. Marxist Nobel-Prize-winning existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, autos-da-fé, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear… you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.” Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein and Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Harold Urey, as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Dashiell Hammett, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed America’s Dreyfus Affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for the communist French newspaperL’Humanité, “The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place.” The all-black labor union International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Cinema artists such as Fritz Lang registered their protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful. Their case has been at the center of the controversy over Communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of political persecution and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and Early Modern Europe (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s critically acclaimed play, The Crucible). On September 12, 2008, co-defendant Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg were guilty of spying for the Soviet Union, but that any information about the atomic bomb that they had passed was of no value for the Soviets. He believed Ethel was aware of the espionage, but did not actively participate.
Execution: Because the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an electric chair at the time, the Rosenbergs were transferred to the New York State-run Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining for execution. The couple was executed at sundown in the electric chair on June 19, 1953. This was delayed from the originally scheduled date of June 18 because, on June 17, Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas had granted a stay of execution. That stay resulted from the intervention in the case of Fyke Farmer, a Tennessee lawyer whose efforts had previously met with scorn from the Rosenbergs’ attorney.
On June 18, the Court was called back into special session to dispose of Douglas’ stay rather than let the execution be delayed for months while the appeal that was the basis of the stay wended its way through the lower courts. The Court did not vacate Douglas’ stay until noon on June 19. Thus, the execution then was scheduled for later in the evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Desperately playing for more time, their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, filed a complaint that this offended their Jewish heritage, so the execution was scheduled before sunset, at 8pm on Friday instead of the regular time of execution at Sing-Sing of 11pm. which usually took place on Thursday. Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes the circumstances of the Rosenbergs’ death, noting that while Julius Rosenberg died after the first series of electrocutions, his wife did not. After the normal course of electrocutions, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Mrs. Rosenberg had not yet died (her heart was still beating). Three courses of electrocution were ultimately applied, and at conclusion eyewitnesses reported, Bob Considine among them, a grisly scene with smoke rising from her head in the chamber. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery in Pinelawn, New York.
Final letter from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their children:
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death. The Rosenbergs remained on death row for twenty-six months. They were eventually executed by electric chair on June 19th, 1953. The following letter to their two sons was written on the day of their execution.
Dearest Sweethearts, my most precious children, Only this morning it looked like we might be together again after all. Now that his cannot be, I want so much for you to know all that I have come to know. Unfortunately, I may write only a few simple words; the rest your own lives must teach you, even as mine taught me. At first, of course, you will grieve bitterly for us, but you will not grieve alone. That is our consolation and it must eventually be yours. Eventually, too you must come to believe that life is worth the living. Be comforted that even now, with the end of ours slowly approaching, that we know this with a conviction that defeats the executioner! Your lives must teach you, too, that good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; that freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly. Be comforted then that we were serene and understood with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life; and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us. We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you. Your Daddy who is with me in these last momentous hours, sends his heart and all the love that is in it for his dearest boys. Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience. We press you close and kiss you with all our strength.
Lovingly, Daddy ( Julie)and Mommy (Ethel)
The Rosenbergs’ two sons, Robert and Michael, were orphaned by the execution, and no relatives dared adopt them for fear of ostracism, or worse. They were finally adopted by the songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne. Abel, under the pen name of Lewis Allan, wrote the classic anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit made famous by singer Billie Holiday.