Time travel just isn’t that easy. In fact, it can be very confusing.
It’s not the obvious things, like the funny clothes, the old-fashioned vehicles, or even the fact that everything and everyone is in shades of black and white. We expect that.
No. What is really confusing is the people. The are so…alien.
Again, it’s not the foreground things that are so strange. The people mostly seem to act in predictable ways. It’s the background stuff, the assumptions and visceral beliefs that underlie their words and actions, that are so hard to comprehend.
Or I suppose one could turn that on its head and say that the problem is that our own assumptions and visceral beliefs are so hard to set aside that it makes comprehending those people so difficult. At bottom, we expect them to act like us. To obey our own rules of logic and “common sense.” To always act from motivations that we can at least relate to, if not always respect.
Doesn’t always work that way.
Take, for instance, the Rosenberg Case.
First, the chronology: On February 2, 1950, the VENONA Project to decode Soviet messages resulted in the arrest in Britain of Klaus Fuchs, a scientist who had worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. His confession led to the arrest on May 23rd of his American courier, Harry Gold. In addition to admitting carrying material for Fuchs, Gold implicated a machinist at Los Alamos named David Greenglass as another spy. By June 15th, Greenglass had confessed to belonging to a spy ring run by his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. On July 17th, Rosenberg was arrested and a month later his wife followed him. Another accused member of the ring, Morton Sobell, was also arrested.
The three, the Rosenbergs and Sobell, were charged, not with espionage, but with “conspiracy to commit espionage.” This is normally a lesser charge and requires lesser standards of proof.
Their trial began on March 6, 1951. They were all convicted on March 29, 1951. Morton Sobell was given a 30 year sentence. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were condemned to death and executed at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953.
What does that have to do with time warps and alien attitudes? Just this: Everyone involved in this case — the accused, the witnesses, the lawyers, and above all the judge — willfully violated our laws and ethics and seem to have felt completely justified in doing so.
● The government knew that Klaus Fuchs had actually given “atomic secrets” to Russian and they had absolutely no evidence that the Rosenbergs had done so, yet they argued in court that the Rosenberg’s crime was passing “atomic secrets” to the Russians.
● David Greenglass had been led into the Communist party by his wife, Ruth, who seems to have been an active spy as well. To keep her out of jail, the government blackmailed Greenglass (who, remember, had held the exalted rank of sergeant in the machine shop at Los Alamos) into claiming that he had passed “atomic secrets” to Russia through Julius Rosenberg – this despite the fact that his Los Alamos courier was Harry Gold – not Julius Rosenberg.
● The government had literally no evidence of any kind against Ethel Rosenberg. So they forced Greenglass to claim she had typed up the notes about the “atomic secrets.”
● The judge, Irving Kaufman, was selected only after he said he would be willing to impose the death penalty in such a case.
● Judge Kaufman excluded anyone from the jury who was or had ever been a member of a Communist “front” organization (a list created by the McCarran Act, plus some new ones added by Judge Kaufman, himself) or had a relative or friend who was or who had been.
● Judges are forbidden to have any ex parte (i.e. out of the presence of lawyers from both sides) conversations or meetings about a case prior to or during a trial. Kaufman had many, both with the prosecution lawyers and with other government officials.
● In the realm of ethical violations, Judge Kaufman repeatedly took the role of a prosecuting attorney, interrupting questioning of witnesses to ask highly prejudicial questions of his own.
● The judge also materially aided in giving the jury the idea that Ethel Rosenberg’s taking the Fifth Amendment was essentially a confession of guilt.
● Roy Cohn (in the running for the most ethically challenged man in 20th century America), assistant prosecutor in the case, not only conducted the perjurious examination of David Greenglass, but he later bragged that he had encouraged Judge Kaufman, a family friend, to impose the death penalty.
● From what has come out over the years, we know the government’s real goal in the prosecutions, particularly that of Ethel Rosenberg, was to force Julius Rosenberg to break down and give them the names of other spies. When they both insisted on proclaiming their innocence, and the plan failed, the government simply went ahead and executed them.
● On the defendant’s side of the ledger, we know from the VENONA transcripts released by the NSA in 1995 that Julius Rosenberg had, in fact, been guilty of being a spy for the Soviet Union, and of passing on technical information – just not the “atomic secrets” the three were accused of.
● Julius Rosenberg, David Greenglass, and Ruth Greenglass all had been given code names in the VENONA transcripts, indicating they were active agents. Ethel Rosenberg never had a code name. That makes her technically innocent. All the same, both Julius and Ethel were active members of the Communist Party. And, as close as they were, it is just about impossible to imagine that Julius was a spy for many years and Ethel never knew.
● Given the fact that there was literally no evidence of any espionage regarding “atomic secrets” except the perjury fed to David Greenglass by the government, and given his numerous ex parte conversations with the prosecution and government officials, it is improbable (to say the least) that Judge Kaufman didn’t realize the Rosenbergs were innocent of the charges against them.
● For me, the low-water mark for Judge Kaufman came when he passed sentence. Outside, the Korean conflict was just ending. In imposing the death penalty, Judge Kaufman said: “I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb…has already caused…the Communist aggression in Korea with…casualties exceeding 50,000…and that millions more may pay the price of your treason.”
So how are we to try to really understand the mindsets of the people involved? Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were all native-born American Jews who had, in the middle of the capitalist debacle of the Great Depression, joined the Communist Party, along with thousands of other Americans. (It was, after all, a legal political party at the time.) Somehow they managed to keep believing in the Soviet version of the communist dream right through the revelations about Stalin’s “Show Trials” in the late 30s. So far, so good. While many left the Communist Party at this time, others loyally stayed on.
However, how are we to really understand what made them not only actively conduct espionage for the besieged “Socialist Paradise” during the war, but also stay loyal through the beginning of the Cold War in the late 40’s right up to (and mostly through) the Korean War?
But these were Communist Party activists, after all, and self-chosen exceptions to almost any norm you’d care to apply. What can we say about all the others? Since everybody involved in the case, the defense lawyers, prosecutors, the judge himself, but especially the accused, were Jewish, the prosecutors and the judge must have felt an enormous pressure to prove how loyal and American they were. But does that excuse violation after violation of the canons of legal ethics, the penal code, and American ideas of morality? In this case we had a judge who acted to exclude anyone too “leftist” from the jury, questioned like a prosecutor, engaged in repeated ex parte transactions, and delivered a sentencing statement that he had to know was false. We have a prosecution deliberately charging low (conspiracy) so they would face a lower standard of proof, presenting no evidence except that of co-conspirators (illegal in most state courts), and then seeking the death penalty. We also have prosecutors at the least suborning perjury, cooperating in the judge’s ex parte misconducts, and apparently actually advising the judge, ex parte, to impose the death penalty.
It is impossible, of course, to know how much the prosecutors and the judge actually knew about the fact that Klaus Fuchs was the real main spy who conveyed solid, actual, and scientifically sophisticated “atomic secrets” to the Russians. The intelligence agencies of the government certainly knew, but we can’t be sure how much was given to these main actors.
What we can be sure of, however, is that they were well aware that their case against Ethel Rosenberg was weak to the point of idiocy. That whatever else one could say about it, seeking the death penalty for her was asking for judicial murder.
But not one of them lifted a finger to prevent that travesty from actually happening. Nor did they show any embarrassment about it. Instead, what they actually did was go on to enhanced careers built upon the Rosenberg case.
The Rosenbergs were not monsters. They were true believers who had chosen the wrong faith. The tides of time had gone from the day when socialism might legitimately be seen by millions as the salvation of mankind, rising in a dread of fascism to “Our Glorious Russian Allies,” then falling down into the endless Cold War, and reaching a kind of nadir in the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy. What had been a naive optimism had hardened in them to something like a zealous religious faith and finally ended in espionage.
One has to believe that the other side were not monsters, either (well, maybe Roy Cohn, but he is an exception). They were ambitious men, possibly unsure of the real acceptance of their Jewishness in America, proudly patriotic, and probably convinced that in fighting such a world-threatening evil, the end justified the means. And I suppose it is inevitable among any elite that they will come, in time, to think that the rules they are supposed to be enforcing are their rules, to be used as necessary to achieve the greater good.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that no matter how much I study them, these people always surprise me. That while I can come up with rationales to understand what they did, I keep finding some new action that reaches beyond my rationales and stuns me.
And I know a few things more. I know Morton Sobell was given a 30 year sentence, but only served 16. I know David Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served 10. And I believe they are both still alive.
I also know that Klaus Fuchs, the fellow who (in many senses) started it all, was sentenced to 14 years, but served 9 years and four months. He went to East Germany and died, full of honors, in his bed.
Fellow travelers, indeed.