A spy all along
Morton Sobell went on trial for espionage with the Rosenbergs. His devotion to communism fascinated me
This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
On 11 March 2008, Morton Sobell, who was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, finally admitted to the New York Times, after five decades of denial, that he had spied for the Soviet Union. He implicated Julius Rosenberg in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets “classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb”. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison and served almost 19. The reporter, Sam Roberts, asked Sobell if, in fact, he was a spy. Sobell replied nonchalantly, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms.”
This was the same insouciant Morty I remembered from the mid-1980s when I first met him. It was the same Morty who, speaking about his disillusionment with communism to me in 2011, casually said, “I bet on the wrong horse.” When I mentioned the murder of millions in the Gulag, he said, “Well, that goes with the territory.” Citing communists’ early participation in the civil rights struggle, he noted, “Well, that was political.”
Sobell’s 2008 confession was no surprise; he almost confessed to me more than 20 years before. Why did he finally confess, an act that threw his devoted defenders under the bus and exposed as a pitiful fraud decades of his own life? It may have been a desperate attempt to reclaim relevance in the eyes of a left that had moved on and had little nostalgia for the old days.
Sobell died on 26 December 2018 at the age of 101. I knew him well. I hunted him down in 1982, kept track of him through the intervening years and sat down again with him for a long series of interviews from 2011 to the final year of his life.
He was inextricably linked to the Rosenbergs, and their execution in 1953 shifted the spotlight to him, the third, almost forgotten defendant. You touched the Rosenbergs by touching him and that may have been part of my motivation. I was a boy when the Rosenbergs, young parents of two small children, were executed on 19 June 1953 and I remember that the sky seemed to darken. It especially darkened for the Jews, who remembered the gas chambers, stilled just eight years before. And once again there was the odour of burning flesh.
In contrast to the “progressives,” the party faithful, most American Jews and all Jewish communal agencies had no interest whatsoever in joining a worldwide, communist propaganda campaign to portray America as a warmongering, antisemitic regime, the inheritor to Adolf Hitler, planning to engulf the world in a war of imperialist aggression. The very notion enraged them, partly because they loved America and partly because Jewish communists inflamed the appetites of the lunatic fringe of antisemites.
Lucy Dawidowicz captured their feelings in 1952 in an article in Commentary, writing that the communist campaign “aims to persuade the world at large that the American government is in the hands of an anti-Semitic conspiracy which is inexorably working up to the extermination of the American Jew, and that the conviction of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for espionage is a 1952 version of the Reichstag fire, prelude to an American version of Auschwitz”.
Noting that the communist press did not even mention the Rosenbergs until they were convicted and sentenced to death on 5 April, 1951, the Daily Worker sprang into action at the beginning of 1952, pronouncing their prosecution “a ghastly political frame-up. It was arranged to provide blood victims to the witch-hunters, to open the door to a new violence, anti-Semitism, and court lynchings of peace advocates and Marxists as ‘spies’ ”. In another essay, Dawidowicz said the party’s late entry was due to a lack of any real concern for the lives of the Rosenbergs: “The Communist Party would prefer to have two dead martyrs rather than two live potential witnesses against it.”
I tried to find my family in the eternal malcontents who wanted life to be perfect, the way they thought it was in the Soviet Union
With the death of Sobell it’s at least possible to sketch his whole story. It’s the story of many other Americans steeped in communism as well. And it is my story, during my teenage years in the Stalinist netherworld.
This began in the late 1950s, when as a teenager in New York I hung around the Communist Party. My parents were divorced. One day a girl rang the doorbell. She had a round, swarthy face, dark red lipstick and wide eyes. She was wearing a yellow blouse, black skirt and red knee-socks. She was curvacious and extremely short, and gazed up at me with a cheerleader smile. Her name was Ellen and she lived in my apartment house. She was holding a petition. I had no idea what it was for but I signed it and invited her in.
Her parents, Joseph and Leona Richman, were progressive; they had marched in protest when the Rosenbergs were executed. Indeed, they looked remarkably like Ethel and Julius. They became my family. Then one day Ellen left for the party’s Camp Wo-Chi-Ca and new beginnings with a boy with a guitar who sang folk songs to her. I felt I had nowhere to turn.
I tried to find my family in the comrades, eternal malcontents who wanted life to be perfect, the way they thought it was in the Soviet Union. They offered me unconditional love and acceptance if I was “progressive”. I knew the lingo. But the stench of the Gulag was in the air; even Khrushchev had spoken of Stalin’s crimes. The impact on the party resulted in a mass exodus, more than during the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. But that’s how I got lucky: as the comrades were leaving the party in droves, crowding the exits, one innocent-looking, bespectacled little fellow of 14 — me — was pounding on the door, struggling to get in. They greeted me warmly, referring to me as “a representative of the youth”.
And there was Pete Seeger. I first saw Corliss Lamont, the party’s “useful idiot” millionaire, introduce Seeger to his children at his mansion as “the people’s folk singer”. Then there he was, pied piper of the young, strumming his guitar, singing “We Shall Overcome” at Lewisohn Stadium while I peeked at the beautiful progressive girl beside me, my eyes filled with tears, hoping I could overcome my paralysing shyness. When he sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, that elegaic celebration of lost innocence, I bawled like a baby. The girl looked at me curiously.
The party’s resident intellectual, Herbert Aptheker, who called anti-communists “goats, gorillas and vermin”, entrusted me with his manuscript, The Truth about Hungary, in which he explained that the Hungarian revolution was manufactured by fascists to destroy human progress in the great people’s republic. He asked Benjamin J. Davis, the party’s storied black leader, to induct me into the party (I chickened out at the last minute).
Aptheker was my favourite; there was always the feeling in the air that he might murder someone. But I was not a communist. I was a fiction writer and this carnival of human curiosities, this mix of idealism and craven support of the Soviet snakepit, this mysterious chemistry of character and motives, this alternate reality, all those FBI agents around the party (you recognised them because they were young, Irish and wore shiny shoes), this whiff of conspiracy and spying, this crazy romance and collusion with KGB murderers while marching for free milk for children, was heady stuff for a fledgling writer.
I recently read Dostoevsky’s novella My Uncle’s Dream, in which the most honourable character, Zina, repelled by the manoeuvrings of her scheming mother, says to her: “I shall be stifled in this filth.” Reading that line, I recalled long ago sharing a toast to Fidel Castro with Comrade Sophie, the sweet-natured manager of the party’s Jefferson bookshop off Union Square. Sophie viewed me as a young Lenin. She adored me and bought me socks, but criticised my writing because it wasn’t celebrating the joyful workers achieving incredible production quotas in the USSR. (She kept precious books like William Z. Foster’s Towards Soviet America hidden in the basement because the party line had changed, but she wanted me to drink deep in the wells of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.)
What I witnessed as a teenager convinced me that the Rosenbergs and Sobell had spied for the Soviet Union
The Rosenberg/Sobell rallies in the late 1950s and 1960s shamelessly exploited the Rosenberg sons with show-business sheen and glitz. The music, the oleaginous, oozing sentiments, were a curious mix of hysteria and unctuous self-righteousness personified by Helen Sobell who neglected her own son Mark while travelling around the world being photographed with the likes of Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. The comrades (although not the Rosenbergs’ sons) knew that the Rosenbergs were guilty; in fact they really were innocent because they were guilty. But the level of desperation appeared to an outsider like myself like an unconscious admission of guilt. If they were so certain of the Rosenbergs’ innocence they would not be fainting in the aisles and screaming to the rafters.
What most fascinated me about the party was its overwhelming connection to the Soviet Union, even while it accused anyone who suggested it of McCarthyism and witchhunting. What I witnessed as a teenager convinced me from the beginning that the Rosenbergs and Sobell had given critical information to the Soviet Union. Why wouldn’t they? It would have been the highest honour to help.
Born in New York in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Morton Sobell breathed the air of American communism from birth. His uncles were high up in the party. Louis Pasternak was a courier for the KGB and a member of the American Communist Party’s disciplinary committee.
Julius Rosenberg recruited Sobell in December 1943 to spy for the Soviet Union. Sobell had originally met Rosenberg at City College’s engineering school and belonged to the party’s Steinmetz Society, where many members of the Rosenberg network first marinated their plans. Sobell worked at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in Washington and went on to join the aircraft and marine engineering section of General Electric. He provided his KGB handler with information about radar, servo-mechanisms, ballistic missile defence systems, and the composition of American military aircraft. While in Washington he had an affair with his future wife Helen while she was married to Casey Gurewitz, a communist functionary. He and Helen married in 1945.
On the night before his arrest, he banged on the door of Mexican Communist Party at midnight in desperation
Sobell kept spying after the war ended. He worked at the Reeves Instrument Corporation on Air Force and Navy contracts and provided a wealth of classified military material. In 1948 he told his friend Max Elitcher, a communist and City College classmate, that he had a canister of 35-millimetre films to deliver to Julius Rosenberg. The information, he said, was too hot to destroy and too dangerous to keep in his house. Elitcher accompanied him on the car ride to deliver the material.
In his 2008 confession, Sobell also disclosed that in 1948 he photocopied hundreds of pages of secret Air Force documents stolen from the safe of Theodore von Karman, a famous aerospace engineer. Sobell, Julius Rosenberg, William Perl and a fourth man spent a weekend photographing the files.
On 15 June, 1950, David Greenglass confessed to espionage and implicated his wife Ruth, his sister Ethel Rosenberg and his brother-in-law Julius. After reading of Greenglass’s arrest, Sobell knew he had to flee. There was no time to apply for a passport. He and Helen boarded a plane for Mexico City with their two young children. In Mexico he tried unsuccessfully to obtain passage to the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Many of his comrades had escaped behind the Iron Curtain, but he was acting too late.
He learned on 18 July that Julius Rosenberg had been arrested. Sobell took a plane to the port of Veracruz and registered at a hotel under the name “Morris Sand”. He flew on to Tampico under the name “M. Sand”, and registered there under the name “Marvin Salt”. He returned to Mexico City on 2 August and went to the Soviet and Polish consulates, but inexplicably did not ask for help. He said hello and left. It was a mystery I would explore with him endlessly. “You cannot explain mental confusion,” he said to me.
On the night before he was arrested, he banged on the door of Mexican Communist Party headquarters at midnight in desperation, but there was no one there but the night watchman. He was arrested on 16 August, 1950, by armed Mexican security police. Helen bit one of the policemen on the hand and Morton tried to grab a .38 calibre pistol from another. He was extradited to the US.
Helen and the Rosenbergs would have been thrilled by recent events in the US and the resurrection of progressive mantras
The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on 6 March, 1951. On the advice of his lawyers, Sobell did not testify. Max Elitcher was the only witness to testify against him. Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced Sobell to the maximum prison term of 30 years. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1952 and was later transferred to Harrisburg, Atlanta and Springfield prisons. He played chess at Alcatraz with another spy, Colonel Rudolph Abel, who presented him with a painting upon parting.
David Ward, penologist and author of Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, visited Sobell on several occasions. “Alcatraz might have been easier for Morty than for any prisoner in its history. Most of the inmates I visited at Alcatraz couldn’t bear to think about life outside in the free world, because it would kill them. You’ve got to focus on the inside. For Morty it was exactly the opposite. He wanted to know what was going on outside because he was a celebrity. You’re not alone. Someone’s paying attention to you, cares about you. That’s why Morty wanted visitors. Other prisoners didn’t want those reminders of what they were missing.
“This explains why someone like Mort, with no prior prison experience, could do very hard time. He loved the publicity. He was always full of himself, friendly but authoritative. So he did time in a really unique way, violating most of the rules of existence of his fellow convicts.
“He knew that if the government had not sent him to Alcatraz, if he had gone to a regular penitentiary, it would have been very difficult to generate interest and mobilise a Sobell movement on his behalf. It needed the drama and notoriety of Alcatraz. He had a lot of help from the outside, from the Sobell Committee. And he was smarter than everyone else and he showed it. That’s why he was glad to meet Colonel Abel and Robert Stroud, the Birdman, at Springfield, intellectuals on his level. So he felt he was lucky.
“As to Helen having affairs with other men, he felt he understood it and psychologically wanted to know about it, about the people she was involved with. I think it generated emotion in him and kept him alive. And again, that is totally unique among any prisoners I’ve ever encountered in 60 years of being involved in this work.”
When he came out of prison in 1969, Morton and Helen visited Moscow, where he was greeted as a hero by the KGB. Helen received a gift of a fur coat. Sobell’s handler, Alexander Feklisov, revealed in a memoir that he had passed on thousands of pages of text and drawings of valuable military secrets.
In the late 1970s, now that Sobell was free and living in Manhattan, I began to follow him around the city when he appeared at events. He grew a ponytail and a long flowing beard, and his white hair blew in the breeze. He struck the pose of the innocent revolutionary.
I was determined to write about him in my satirical Rosenberg novel, Red Love. And so I began an excavation project, seeking out FBI agents, scholars and historians of communism, former comrades and remaining true believers. I spoke to family members of the Sobells and the Rosenbergs, including a heartbreaking interview with Julius’s sister, Ethel Appel Rosenberg. And I began my pursuit of Sobell himself.
Ah, I thought. That’s it. He did it
Over the years I won his trust. Nancy Gruber, his second wife, a chastened Trotskyite, gave me her big smile over lunch and said brightly, “Do you enjoy being a spy?”
When I first got to Sobell, it was through Helen. I didn’t tell her that Bill Buckley was helping me find subjects to interview for a book. Buckley grasped what the comrades never would — that I was seeking to understand Sobell and a generation of true believers.
Helen (who died in 2002) and the Rosenbergs would have been thrilled with recent events in the US, especially the defacement of monuments, the denigration of the police, and the resurrection of progressive mantras about the country’s racist, ugly nature. She spoke to me of the anti-Columbus “celebrations” she was staging with her students, since “Columbus came to this continent, looked at these people who welcomed him, and the first thought he had was how to use them.”
She said, “The power structure takes a human being and puts him in prison and keeps him there. I think that those people who destroy people are the ones who bear the brunt for any murders. Black people are robbed of everything they have from before they are born, because even in their mothers’ belly they are robbed of the necessary nourishment. They are justified — justified! — in whatever they do.
“I was in Washington, in the park, picketing, when we heard the Rosenbergs were murdered. We lined up to put away our signs on the truck. As each sign was lowered by its stick into the truck, into a huge growing pile, it was as if a part of the world’s virtue was being destroyed and savagery was winning sway.”
When I finally met Sobell, we sat in silence except for the cracking of his knuckles. He wore a green workshirt, brown trousers and slippers. The wall posters proclaimed Chile: Free All Political Prisoners. Who Killed Letelier?
He looked at the floor and said, “So? Begin.”
“Tell me about Julius Rosenberg.”
“As a scientist,” Morton said, “Julie was a fish out of water. He should have been a Greek scholar.
“Julius and Ethel went to Coney Island one day. People left their clothes in the lockers. But Julie brought all of his things out to the beach with him. Legend has it that all the lockers were robbed that afternoon. They always told afterward how wise Julie was.”
Later, Morton said, “I never had a good hold on him.”
“Did you like him?”
Sobell didn’t answer for a long time. “He was a comrade. This to me is saying a good deal. To understand what this meant is a whole story in itself.”
“What’s the story?”
Morton shifted. “My friend,” he said, “beyond that, you’ll have to use your imagination.”
Ah, I thought. That’s it. He did it.
We would meet several times and I wrote about him in my novel. I never really stopped writing about him.
In 2005, three years before Sobell’s confession, Ivy Meeropol, a film-maker and daughter of the older Rosenberg son, Michael Meeropol, released a gripping film about the case, Heir to an Execution. Sobell is prominently featured in it, still maintaining his innocence and that of Julius Rosenberg. I recognised the old Morty. For one thing, as always he put everybody else down. He said of Julius and Ethel that “they were really very ordinary people.” For another, he was laughing his head off throughout, confusing Ivy, who was trying to treat him like a saint. How well I remembered that laugh. It may have been his embarrassment about what he was concealing from Michael Meeropol’s earnest and intelligent daughter. She tried to locate his anger about imprisonment and frame-up, but he kept laughing and gazing elsewhere. He realised the incongruity of his answers but could not reveal the simple truth. Instead he laughed. He was touched by her innocence but still liked being the centre of attention.
“Are you angry about prison?” she asked.
“But what about what was done to you?”
“An innocent man.”
“No, no. Anger is a wasted emotion.”
And then, for the first time, Sobell expressed his disaffection, a prelude to his confession in 2008.
“Do you still call yourself a communist?”
“I don’t know what the word means any more. I’ll tell you my problem. I know what the defects of the socialist system are. And I don’t know how they can be resolved the way their societies are set up. I don’t believe that cooperation is the answer. You have to have built-in constructive tension for the system to function best, rather than cooperation. You don’t have that under socialism. The biggest strength of this country is the tension that does exist between the different classes. This is what makes it strong. If that didn’t exist, it could easily be uprooted. You need to have that constructive tension.”
In 2011, Nancy Gruber and his stepdaughter, Kate Reilly, asked me to write an unauthorised biography of him. Sobell’s family was a sophisticated cultural and political one. Nancy played the violin and viola in a chamber music group; Kate was a professor of linguistics and cultural anthropology at Rutgers University. Coming from the left (the Trotskyite faction of it), they might have chosen someone who could be relied upon to write a sympathetic portrait. “But,” Nancy said, “you understand Morton better than anyone else.”
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