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The Rosenberg Case Again: A Canadian Perspective

By , contributor
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Once again the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their co-defendant Morton Sobell has been featured in the news. Most of you will recall that the Rosenberg couple was executed in 1953 on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage and Sobell received a 30 year sentence. The case aroused passions around the globe with those on the left condemning it as a legal lynching and those on the right defending the sentences as a reasonable response to Soviet spying. Both sides were wrong.

It has been recognized for years that the government case against Ethel Rosenberg was very weak but that the prosecution hoped to use her as a lever to get Julius to cooperate and name others. Of course, he did not cooperate and both went to their deaths in the electric chair leaving behind them two small sons. The man who sealed Ethel’s doom was her own brother David Greenglass who erroneously testified that she had typed the notes. He did that to save his own neck and that of his wife Ruth who had actually transcribed the notes in longhand. To be sure, Ethel knew of her husband and her brother’s activities but that hardly merited a death sentence. Julius did spy but turned information over to a wartime ally not an enemy power; in that sense both his crime and his motivation was akin to that of spies for Israel such as Jonathan Pollard.


The sentence of death, delivered by Judge Irving Kaufman, was horrendous and reflected Cold War hysteria of the worst order. He charged the Rosenbergs with not only putting the Atomic bomb into the hands of the Russians but also “in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea” was the price of their “treason”. We now know that, at best, the crude information supplied by Greenglass and Julius may have confirmed authoritative reports which came to the Soviets from scientists such as Allan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, neither of whom received a death sentence from the British courts

More recently Morton Sobell, now 91 years old, has been interviewed by Sam Roberts of the New York Times and admitted that he had spied saying: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” [but] “I never thought of it as that in those terms.” Thus, Sobell removes the last shred of doubt and even the Rosenberg sons are commendably ready to admit their father’s involvement. But are those who killed Ethel on manufactured testimony and brutally executed Julius ready to apologize? Most of the judges and prosecutors are dead but neither their supporters nor the government have made any effort to atone.

Canada had a similar spy case but without the same brutal sentences. Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in 1946 and revealed to the RCMP a spy network centering on Fred Rose, Communist, or as it was then known Labour Progressive, member of Parliament. Most of the recent students of the case have condemned the Mackenzie King government’s conduct of the investigation and prosecution as trampling on civil liberties and the rights of the defendants. Defendents were arrested, held incommunicado, had no access to lawyers, and were not advised of their rights on self incrimination. The Canadian government did not observe British traditions of civil liberty and there is no excusing them for that. However, there were no executions, some lives and careers were ruined but that is comparatively minor damage.

One of the defendants was McGill chemistry professor Raymond Boyer. He passed information on RDX high explosives through Fred Rose. Boyer did not regard it as spying because the results were soon to be made public and the Russians were a wartime ally of Canada. Boyer was sentenced to two years in prison, served his time and then returned to his life, renewing his contacts with old friends such as Pierre Trudeau, suffragist leader Senator Therese Casgrain and labour leader Michel Chartrand. Compare Boyer’s fate to those of the Rosenbergs and Sobell and we can be proud that Canada maintained a modicum of sanity.

It is vital in our own time to have due regard for the civil liberties of those linked to Islamist terrorism. The fight to preserve democracy is lost whenever we sacrifice liberty in a context of hysteria and in the name of an often mistaken notion of national security.


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