The Venona Transcripts
In early 1943, Colonel Carter Clarke of the U.S. Army’s Special Branch was concerned that the Soviet Union might negotiate a peace treaty with the Germans. Such a treaty would have been disastrous for the remaining allies: all the German forces would then have concentrated on the Western front.
In order to investigate the possibility of that (non existent) secret treaty, Colonel Carter ordered the deciphering of Soviet diplomatic cablegrams. Remember, those were the days when all such information went through cables and could be easily intercepted. As a matter of fact, all international cablegrams coming into the U.S. from all countries had been routinely saved since 1939. Of course the messages were all encrypted.
The Soviet encryption code was particularly complex. However, the American code breakers took advantage of a mistake made in the encryption, and they started to recognize and unravel patterns. This was slow and mind frying work which would last for many years.
By the time some messages could finally be read, in 1946, the war was over.
Unexpectedly, the deciphered messages, known as the Venona transcripts, turned out to be a true Pandora’s box. The transcripts revealed that the Soviet Union had routinely engaged in espionage inside the U.S. since the 1930s. More disturbingly, the transcripts revealed the presence of Soviet agents in many branches of our government.
No agent was named in the transcripts, but some could be identified without hesitation from unmistakable details in the messages. Some others could not be identified, and were only known through their code names. (If you’ve ever been flummoxed by the names given to the furniture in the Ikea catalogue, you can sympathize with the Special Branch: quick, tell me, is “Agerum” a bookcase or an agent?) Although not all messages could be deciphered, there was evidence of at least 350 Soviet agents on U.S. soil, and possibly many more.
Because the information was still trickling in through the same channels (and would go on trickling until 1980) the decision was made to keep the transcripts and their content top secret. Even President Truman was not told that the sensitive information he was given at security briefings came from decrypted Soviet cables.
The decision to keep the transcripts a closely guarded secret would contribute to the nutty atmosphere of the 1950s red scare. Uncovering and prosecuting the enemy agents mentioned in the Venona transcripts without mentioning the transcripts themselves was a delicate task. Since the transcripts were unmentionable, the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence, and on spies’ confessions. The most colorful tattling spy was a dowdy but romantic matron named Elizabeth Bentley. Bentley’s tales of a comprehensive network of agents were partly disbelieved at the time. But most everything Bentley said was true, as confirmed in the transcripts.
By the late 1960s, the Vietnam war was the new red battleground, and a very divisive one at that. Compared to the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 1950s red scare felt like a quaint subchapter. Public opinion awarded a general amnesty to the 1940s and 1950s reds: They had just been idealistic youths who had grown in dark tenements and sought a better fate for everybody. There was a joke running around in the 1970s that most of the American communists had been FBI informants spying on one another…
The simultaneous opening of documents in the former Soviet Union and the declassification of the Venona transcripts show that the truth was more sinister. American communists weren’t all dreamers. Alongside some good hearted American communists, and taking advantage of their naiveté, there were dangerous agents whose only allegiance was to Moscow.
Rosenbergs and Greenglasses
We learned about the Rosenbergs in French high school. Do they teach the Rosenbergs in American high schools? Anyway, we learned that the Rosenbergs were electrocuted because they were Jews, communists, and uncompromising. We were taught an awfully pointless story of innocence and martyrdom. [Come to think of it, could there have been Soviet agents in the curriculum committee at the Ministère de l’Éducation in the 1970s? I’m only half joking: after all, I attended Karl Marx Elementary in a suburb of Paris, I kid you not.]
Thanks to the Venona transcripts and to the Soviet archive material, we now understand the whole Rosenberg saga. It is not a story of innocence, but there is an element of martyrdom. The true story is, if anything, more tragic than the legend.
Julius and Ethel were typical poor but smart New York Jews of the inter-war era. For them, the American dream was just out of reach, and they did witness much social frustration and inequality. From the squalid reality of their New York viewpoint, the carefully designed Soviet propaganda must have been most attractive. Remember, we were still at war against Germany and Japan. The Soviets were our (uneasy) allies.
In 1943, Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, went to work as a machinist on the atom bomb project at Los Alamos. Harry Gold, a Soviet agent in Brooklyn, managed to infiltrate the Los Alamos facility through two individuals: a physicist named Klaus Fuchs with whom he dealt directly, and David Greenglass whom he contacted through Julius Rosenberg. Greenglass gave variously important information about our nuclear weapon to the Soviets (via Julius Rosenberg and Harry Gold) between 1944 and 1946.
Such security breaches allowed the Soviets to detonate their own first nuclear device in 1949.
After the war, two uncomfortable relationships soured: between the U.S. and the Soviets, and also between the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses. Julius and David failed in a shared business venture. The wives bickered.
For the Rosenbergs, the timing couldn’t be worse. Using Venona evidence, the FBI uncovered Klaus Fuchs first (in 1950) and through Harry Gold, David Greenglass was identified as well: Fuchs and Greenglass had given secrets to our ally, except that now, our erstwhile ally was our enemy in Korea.
Harry Gold served 16 years of a 30 year sentence.
Klaus Fuchs was prosecuted in England where he was residing and served 9 years of a 14 year sentence. His trial lasted 90 minutes. Fuchs’ case was an embarrassment to the British: Los Alamos had hired him following their recommendation. The day after he walked out of jail, he flew to East Germany where he led a quiet scientific life until he died in 1988.
David Greenglass immediately implicated his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg. As a reward, he got an immunity agreement protecting his wife Ruth, who had been at least as involved as Ethel Rosenberg in typing the stolen information. David Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was released after 10.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went through a spectacular trial and were sentenced to death. Everything that could go wrong for them did. Their defense was mediocre at best. Their stubbornness and their commitment to each other worked against them. They were executed on June 19, 1953. That was the beginning of the Rosenberg legend – as taught in French textbooks.
The decision to keep the Venona transcripts secret had paradoxical consequences in the Rosenberg case: the death penalty and forty years of legend.
If the Venona files had been public knowledge, the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would never have been in doubt. There would have been no Rosenberg legend, and they would have joined the ranks of forgotten spies and footnotes from a troubled time (does anybody out there remember Morris and Lorna Cohen?).
Also, if Venona had been public, we would have known that beside Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, there were at least THREE more Soviet agents at Los Alamos: physicist Theodore Hall and unidentified agents code-named Quantum and Vogel. Grossly, that would have reduced David Greenglass’ responsibility for “giving away the bomb” from one half (and being the only presence in American courts) to one fifth. Julius might have worked out a deal with the government like David did; Ethel might have walked free like Ruth did.
While America Agonized Over Two Jews
Stalin’s Jewish Doctors Plot
The idea of two pathetic New Yorkers, parents to two little boys, awaiting death by electrocution, generated a huge wave of outrage here and abroad. Some of it may have been orchestrated in Moscow, but much of the sympathy was genuine.
Naturally, some saw the Rosenberg case as a sign of anti-Semitism in the U.S.
Which leads us to perhaps the cruelest irony of the whole situation. Let us examine what was happening in the Soviet Union in 1953, just as the Rosenberg were fighting for their lives. Let us examine what was happening in the country for which they had betrayed their own.
Back in 1948, a hero of the siege of Leningrad named Andrei Zhdanov had died of a heart attack. One of the attending physicians during Zhdanov’s illness, Lydia Timashuk, thought that the heart specialists’ treatment had been inadequate. As was routine in Soviet society, she wrote a denunciation of the specialists to the secret police. The report of faulty treatment went all the way to Stalin, but nothing came of it – at the time.
Soon afterward, the newborn nation of Israel aligned itself with the Western bloc (that was not a foregone conclusion). Stalin went on a rampage and murdered the leading members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. A harsh press campaign was waged questioning the loyalty of Jews. Stalin declared to the Politburo: “Every Jew is a nationalist and potential agent of the American intelligence.” On December 3, 1952, 13 former communist leaders in Czechoslovakia (11 of whom were Jews) were executed.
On January 13, 1953, those seemingly disparate elements fused. A sensational headline appeared in Pravda: “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians.” The article used extreme language, calling Jewish physicians “loathsome reptiles,” to describe a “vast plot conducted by Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership.”
Lydia Timashuk was awarded the “Order of Lenin” for unmasking “doctor-killers” back in 1948, although only one of the heart specialists on duty had been Jewish in that particular case. Never mind about that: Timashuk was hailed as a new Joan of Arc.
Thirty seven prominent Jewish doctors were arrested and tortured until some confessed to nonexistent crimes, leading to further arrests. Several doctors died while incarcerated.
The sensational campaign, fabricated of whole cloth, was meant to be the prelude to an enormous nationwide pogrom culminating in the deportation of ALL Soviet Jews to Siberia. Stalin had planned everything: Defectors in the 1960s recalled seeing immense never-used camps in Siberia, ready for the mass deportation that never came.
That Winter of 1953 can be seen in retrospect as the absolute nadir of the Soviet era. Why do I think it was worse than 1937? Because in 1953 Stalin had nuclear weapons. The psychopathic tyrant had the safety of the whole world in his hand.
Then, on March 5, 1953, Stalin died.
In an amazing turnaround, the plot was quickly abandoned. The case was dismissed on March 31. On April 4, Lavrenty Beria (Stalin’s head of the NKVD secret police, and one whose head would soon roll too) wrote a piece for Pravda exonerating the doctors. All the doctors were released, except of course those who had died in detention.
Woman-of-the-moment Lydia Timashuk was stripped of all her recent honors, and resumed a dull career as an X-ray technician at the Kremlin hospital. She died in 1983.
A scapegoat was needed to justify the reversal, so the head investigator for NKVD, Mikhail Ryumin, was accused of making up the plot and executed. Since he was a notorious practitioner of torture, we can’t feel too sorry for him.
From that all-time low, the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union would slowly improve until the final collapse of the Soviet system.
One could even argue that the U-turn that climaxed the affair of the Jewish doctors is the U-turn that signalled the beginning of the end for the Soviet block: 1953 is the exact mid-point between 1917 (the October revolution) and 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall).
It is instructive to compare the situation here and in the USSR in those early months of 1953.
We executed two spies who had betrayed America. Their terrible fate generated grief, controversy and discussion in our healthier society. Over in the country which had employed the spies, seducing them with lies, innocents were arrested, tortured and killed on a whim. As that somber period becomes better known and better understood, it is clear that the American system, while not perfect, was fairer to the guilty and to the innocents alike.
I like to think that is why we prevailed. May we be worthy of our privileged situation in the current and future crises.