Atomic Spies

The story of Western Espionage in the forties and fifties goes back to the position of the Soviet Union as an Allied nation during the Second World War. This and its Communist ideology attracted many Western intellectuals and left-wingers whose belief in socialist theory tended to focus on the theoretical benefits of the system, largely ignoring the terrors of the Stalin regime. Later on the Korean War became a major stand-off between the USSR and the West, and events such as the downing of Gary Powers' U2 spy-plane and the Cuban Missile Crisis would crystallise the Western view of the dangers of the Cold War.

Soviet Codes Broken

Much of the evidence against the individuals mentioned in this learning pack was gathered in secret by the US Authorities. They had managed to decipher Soviet communications describing espionage activity. The CIA website describes how the codes in these communications, called The Venona Transcripts, came to be broken:

A Soviet code clerk preparing a message first reduced its text into numeric code groups drawn from a codebook (a kind of dictionary in which the words and common phrases correspond to four-digit numbers). After encoding the plain text with numeric code groups, the clerk would obscure the code groups by adding them, digit by digit, to a string of random digits. This second series of digits, called 'additive' or 'key,' was known to both the sender and receiver because it was printed on the pages of a 'one-time pad. ' One-time pads were periodically pouched to Soviet consular missions in sealed packets. The pad pages--with 60 five-digit additive groups per page--were used in order, always starting with the group in the upper lefthand corner (the pad-page number to be used was more or less concealed somewhere on the face of the message). Code clerks in different Soviet missions used up these packets at varying rates, depending on the volume of messages to be enciphered or deciphered.

Crypto-Analysts discovered that the Soviets had made an error, reproducing pages of "key" text by accident, and binding them into one time pads. By the time they discovered the error, probably as a result of double-Agent Kim Philby informing them, most of the compromised one-time pads had already been used.

Atom Bomb Spies

Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist had been at Los Alamos working on the development of America's nuclear bomb in 1943, and he passed details of its construction to the Soviets. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1946 and was immediately the subject of suspicion because of the VENONA ciphers. He was eventually arrested and interrogated by MI5 and the by the FBI's agent Robert Lamphere. He identified Harry Gold as the courier who transferred documents to a Soviet agent called Anatoly Yatskov (also known by the aliases Anatoly Yakovlev and "John"). Yatskov was General Consul to the Soviet diplomatic mission in New York in the 1940s. Gold confessed when a map of Albuquerque, the location of the Los Alamos base of the Manhattan Project, was found in his possession. A long and detailed confession resulted in the arrest of Paul Greenglass, who named Julius Rosenberg as the man that recruited him as a spy. Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were tried along with Morton Sobell and Yakovlev, who was included in the indictment but not tried because he had diplomatic immunity.

The Rosenbergs, like Morton Sobell, Harry Gold and Klaus Fuchs, had leftist sympathies. Julius Rosenberg was dismissed from the US Army for allegedly being a member of the American Communist Party. He went into business with his brother-in-law, Paul Greenglass, but the business was unsuccessful and the pair argued, especially about money, and the allegation that Julius had $4,000 to his name at one point was instrumental in the trial as it connected Julius Rosenberg to Soviet espionage. Greenglass alleges that Rosenberg gave him that amount of money in a paper bag to aid his escape from the United States.

Paul Greenglass made a deal with the government to avoid his wife, Ruth, being arrested. In making this deal he testified against his sister and brother-in-law, resulting in their death sentences. He was able to openly testify about his actions: drawing a diagram of an implosion lens mould similar to the illustration that he'd provided to Harry Gold. He provided direct testimony against Ethel, saying that she had typed up notes which he'd obtained for Julius. Julius took a Jell-O Box and cut it into two pieces. One piece he gave to Paul and the other would be provided by the contact which Paul was to meet. That contact, Harry Gold, would use the phrase "I come from Julius".

Harry Gold testified for the prosecution in the Rosenberg/Sobell trial and received a 30 year prison sentence. Paul Greenglass was also sentenced to 30 years. The statute which Julius and Ethel had been convicted of violating stipulated a 20 year prison term for espionage in peacetime, but the death penalty for the crime during period of war. Since the conspiracy had taken place during World War II the death sentence was passed even though Russia had been a wartime ally.

The sentence was incredibly controversial, and remains so to this day. The Rosenbergs had two young boys who were placed with a foster family after their parents were executed in June 1953. Since Michael and Robert Meeropol (as they became known) broke their silence in the 1970s there has been continued interest in the Rosenberg case, and campaigns to re-open the case continue. Since the execution many factors have come to light:

  • The recently declassified VENONA files name Julius Rosenberg as an active Soviet Agent. A memoir from one of his handlers, Alexander Feklisov, provides further examples of acts of espionage carried out by Julius Rosenberg.
  • The government never expected the executions to go ahead. A command centre was established at the prison, staffed with FBI agents including Robert Lamphere, the man who'd originally interrogated Fuchs in London, in the expectation that either Ethel or Julius decided to name names in order to spare their lives.
  • Paul Greenglass lived under an assumed name following his release from prison. He was tracked down by a New York Times journalist. In interviews given recently he has shown no remorse over the decision he took to testify against his sister to protect his wife. Furthermore he has admitted to perjured testimony concerning Ethel Rosenberg typing the notes.
  • Morton Sobell, who was jailed for espionage, is not named in the VENONA files.

It is important to separate attitudes to the death penalty in general and in this specific case from study of the period. The pro-Rosenberg version of events suggests that the US Government tried to lever the Rosenbergs in the same way as they'd put pressure on the Greenglasses. Ruth Greenglass was never arrested, and became a prosecution witness. Ethel was arrested, but this didn't encourage Julius Rosenberg to admit to espionage or to identify other members of the so-called "Rosenberg Spy Ring". It is difficult to imagine that two parents would sacrifice themselves and orphan their young sons: it either shows them to be enormously principled. But the information which has come to light since then shows that this was the strategy that the US Government was attempting. Robert Lamphere indicated that there were ten to fifteen possible members of the spy ring that could have been identified.

The Rosenberg's children, in books such as We Are Your Sons, The Rosenberg Letters (edited by Michael Meeropol) and An Execution In The Family (by Robert Meeropol) have continued to question the original decision to convict and execute their parents. In speeches they continue to challenge the authenticity of the VENONA transcripts. The essence of the Meeropol's position can be seen at, which is the website of the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case, and it contains many links to documents, letters and speech transcripts that support the innocence of the Rosenbergs and the lack of "proof" in the VENONA transcripts.

It is also difficult to understand why many of those who testified against the Rosenbergs Harry Gold and David Greenglass "were just as guilty of conspiring against the United States, and yet they received prison terms. Surely it was Harry Gold and Paul Greenglass that, in the words of Judge Irving Kaufman, sentencing the Rosenbergs, "put the A-bomb into the hands of the Russians". Existing evidence from the trial, from VENONA and Alexander Feksisov's memoir, suggests that Julius put some of the so-called "spy ring" together and that he passed a proximity fuse to the Russians, but there has been no evidence to show that Julius Rosenberg actually passed Atomic Bomb secrets to any Russian agents.

In an interesting quirk of judicial process which illustrates the difference in attitude at the time between Britain and the United States, Klaus Fuchs was spared the death penalty in Britain because at the time of his espionage Russia had been an ally. But Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death because at the time of their crimes America had been at war.


Roberts, Sam. The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Random House. ISBN 978-0375761249.
Radosh, Roland and Milton, Joyce. The Rosenberg File. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300072051.
Feklisov, A. The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. Enigma Books. ISBN 978-1929631087