“It had been governmental secrecy that had allowed critics of the Rosenberg and Hiss cases to construct their elaborate theories about frame-ups and cover-ups. For years the Rosenbergs' defenders demanded that the government reveal its secrets about the case. When the government gave in and released the documents, the secrets made the government's case even stronger….As the secret archives of the Cold War are released, the original case made against Soviet espionage in this country has received ever more conclusive corroboration. Secrecy raised doubts about the great internal-security cases of the Cold War; ending that secrecy has resolved them.”—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience (1999)
The conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges, which took place 60 years ago today, occurred only one-third of the way through their ill-fated legal odyssey, but it represented an extremely early point on their passage into American legend.
The title of Alistair Cooke’s account of the Alger Hiss case, A Generation on Trial, only hints at the volcanic emotions of the Rosenberg case. Somehow, in the minds of the couple’s supporters, this was the Dreyfuss case and Sacco-Vanzetti multiplied.
The late Senator Moynihan’s discussion of the U.S. government’s long refusal to disclose a key source of its certainty of the couple’s guilt—the VENONA decryption of intercepted Soviet diplomatic communications—highlights not only an important element of the case, but also brings to the fore an issue with continuing importance today: When does the need to keep a national-security secret no longer operate?
At the time that the Venona transcripts became available to scholars, in 1995, the Rosenbergs had been dead four decades, and even the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. It’s easy to see that at this point, there was no longer any need to keep this intelligence motherlode secret.
But why couldn’t the secrets have been divulged two decades earlier? People can argue—and have—that the initial decoded encryptions were so small and fragmentary compared with all the intercepted communications that it took a long time to make sense of them. There’s also the claim that however long it took to decode them, the need remained compelling to ferret out the truth about at-large Soviet intelligence agents no matter how long it took.
The 1970s represented a critical point, when the writing and study of postwar American history—not to mention the course of American culture—could have been positively affected by disclosure. Weren’t any weapons systems depicted in the intercepts outdated by this point? Didn’t discussion of American troop movements belong to history by theh? But the mania for secrecy took on its own logic.
In the meantime, a thousand conspiracy theories, born of New Left historiography, with the U.S. overwhelmingly seen as at fault, were allowed to bloom. All kinds of questions, including the origins of the Korean War, remained unanswered. Moreover, the guilt and innocence of people accused of espionage remained a live question.
It became possible for the Rosenberg children to argue in the 1970s—the decade of Richard Nixon and Watergate—that their parents were only guilty of living in a time of hysteria and government coverup. Over time, the Rosenberg case formed the backdrop of the likes of E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalized The Book of Daniel (and the Timothy Hutton film Daniel) as well as Tony Kushner’s depiction of Ethel Rosenberg as avenging spirit in Angels in America.
VENONA’s release left the Rosenberg defenders with an increasingly eroded defensive position. It takes a long time for an illusion to die, and we should not be surprised that those cherished by so-called "Red Diaper Babies" should be any different. As the probability strengthened that Julius did, as charged, steal and pass to the Soviets the secrets of the A-bomb and that Ethel, at minimum, knew it, die-hards tried one excuse after another, including that the pair did not trade anything important and that the espionage began while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were still allies.
After all this time, it really is hard to say how much the U.S. government gained by clamping down on the VENONA secret. It is certain, however, that the New Left gained a pair of dubious martyrs. After all, how could the Rosenbergs have not have suspected, by the time of their execution in 1953, that they were dying for a murderous ideology and tyrant that in no way merited leaving their sons orphans?