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The Rosenbergs and Ted Hall

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I mentioned I’ve been reading about the Manhattan Project. Here’s a story, or pair of stories, that raise questions about legal and moral guilt and innocence, moral panic, and retrospective historical judgement, among other issues.

The trial and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was one of the great legal dramas/scandals in American legal history. At the time, two competing narratives regarding the Rosenbergs dominated debate.

According to the US government, Julius Rosenberg was the mastermind of an extensive Soviet espionage ring. As part of his work he had convinced Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, a machinist at Los Alamos, to pass top secret information regarding the implosion mechanism for the plutonium bomb to Russia. Because of this information, the USSR managed to build a bomb years earlier than it would have otherwise: a development that among other things cost the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers in Korea. From Judge Irving Kaufman’s sentencing statement:

I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim. The immediate family is brought to grief and when justice is meted out the chapter is closed. But in your case, 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.

According to the Rosenberg’s most ardent supporters, they were victims of a judicially approved anti-Communist and anti-Semitic lynch mob. Those supporters believed the Rosenbergs when they flatly denied that Julius was a spy. For millions of people in the US and around the world, the trial was America’s version of the Dreyfus affair, and the execution was simply the judicial murder of two innocent people, for the crime of being Jewish communists, in the wake of the panic that erupted when the USSR managed to build its own atomic bomb. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial “a legal lynching,” carried out by a “rabid” legal system, “sick with fear.”

The historical truth turns out to be far more complicated than either of these caricatures. Intercepted Soviet cables that the US government spent several years decoding make the following fairly clear, at least on my interpretation:

(1) Julius Rosenberg had been a spy for the Soviet Union for several years when, in 1944, he recruited David Greenglass to pass on some drawings related to the design of the implosion bomb to the Russians. Ethel Rosenberg knew about Julius’s activities in a general way, although the government’s claims that she actively participated in the Los Alamos conspiracy herself was probably false, and based on perjured testimony by Greenglass, who perjured himself to save his own wife from being charged (Ruth Greenglass certainly participated in the conspiracy).

(2) The marginal value of what Greenglass passed on to the Soviet atomic bomb project was probably zero (I would be very interested in Cheryl’s view on this). This was for two reasons. First, the Soviets got vastly more valuable technical information regarding the implosion trigger for the plutonium bomb from Klaus Fuchs and,Ted Hall. Fuchs and Hall were theoretical physicists who worked directly on the design of the trigger themselves, unlike Greenglass, who was very peripherally involved in the process, and knew nothing himself about the underlying technical issues. Greenglass wasn’t a scientist at all, let alone someone doing the very high level physics necessary to solve the puzzle of how to build an implosion bomb.

ETA: Two different kinds of bombs were built at Los Alamos. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima used uranium, or more precisely U-235, and had a (relatively) simpler “gun” triggering mechanism. The bomb tested at Trinity and then dropped on Nagasaki used plutonium, which was easier to manufacture than U-235, but required a much more complicated trigger. Indeed at the time of the Trinity test Robert Oppenheimer thought the chances of it working were no better than 50/50.

Second, Lavrentiy Beria, the paranoid psychopath that Stalin had put in charge of overseeing the Soviet analogue to the Manhattan Project, distrusted all foreign intelligence on principle, and apparently didn’t even pass on the information gathered by the Los Alamos spies to the Soviet bomb design team, except as a third party check on their work. This had some value — probably the most valuable secret the spies passed on was not any specific technical detail, but the fact that it was possible to build a plutonium-based implosion bomb at all: something that the Los Alamos team had to discover for themselves. But to the extent that the Soviets got any technical help from the espionage, it almost certainly came from what Fuchs and Hall passed on, rather than from whatever Greenglass stole.

Which brings us to the very interesting story of Ted Hall. Hall was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos: he was just 18 when he arrived in 1943. A naive kid who thought that it was unfair for the US to have a monopoly on the bomb when the Soviets were doing the lion’s share of the fighting against the Nazis, his contribution to the actual espionage at Los Alamos was almost surely orders of magnitude more significant than anything Julius Rosenberg’s spying provided.

By the time of the Rosenberg trial, the US government was, via the decoded cables, aware of Hall’s role in the spying. But he was never charged with anything. Why? (Fuchs was convicted of espionage in the UK and served nine years in prison). The answer, it seems, is that Hall’s brother Edward, also a physicist, was playing a key role in the development of the Minuteman missile program, and the Air Force lobbied furiously to avoid any prosecution of Ted, since this would make it impossible for Edward to continue his work on the project.

In sum, Julius Rosenberg was in fact guilty, but what he was guilty of bore no relation as a practical matter to the hysterical narrative put forth by the government prosecutors, and accepted by Kaufman and the rest of the legal system (Ethel by contrast almost certainly was innocent of the specific charges brought against her).

Meanwhile Ted Hall — a vastly more consequential spy — was given a get out of jail or the electric chair free card, because of the pure accident that his brother was valuable to the US military.

The saddest part of this story is that, because of their misguided idealism, the Rosenbergs were willing to be literal martyrs for the benefit of the monstrous Stalinist regime. The US government used the death penalty as leverage to get them to confess, as their death sentences would have been commuted if either Julius or Ethel had been willing to confess their guilt and implicate their co-conspirators. Another sad detail is that, after the executions, none of the many aunts and uncles of the Rosenbergs’ two orphaned toddlers were willing to adopt them.

In any event, it’s a fascinating chapter in American history, as are so many of the stories around the building and subsequent use of the atomic bomb. And what’s particularly fascinating to me is how the real story is so much more complex than the simplistic narratives that dominated the controversy at the time.

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