‘Courage?’ Guess it’s all relative

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for their roles in spying for the Russians.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for their roles in spying for the Russians. AP

Alzheimer’s disease is not the only thing laying waste to American memories. The brains of our political leaders seem afflicted with a terrible pathology that inverts morality and makes them remember hateful serial killers as heroes.

Just look at the photos of President Obama mugging with Cuban dictator Raúl Castro last week. Clearly the president has forgotten that Castro personally took part in the hundreds of executions of Cuban political prisoners. Or perhaps I’m being unkind; maybe the president simply admires the work ethic of Castro, who once ordered 72 executions in a single day.

Castro, at least, runs a country just a hundred miles or so from the United States that has occasionally threatened to send nuclear missiles our way, so there might be some arcane political point to humoring him.

But what earthly reason was there for the New York City Council last week to issue a proclamation honoring the “bravery” of Ethel Rosenberg, executed 62 years ago for her role in a Soviet spy ring that passed secrets of the U.S. atomic-bomb program to Joseph Stalin?

Technically, the bravery citation was for leading a strike in the New York shipping industry during the 1930s, but Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer left little doubt about what the City Council was really talking about.

“Ethel Rosenberg’s life was tragically stolen from her by the U.S. government at an early age,” she said. “She was not a Soviet spy. This innocent woman was unjustly executed during a shameful period of anti-communism hysteria in our country. It is a terrible stain on our country.”

Here again we have evidence of this mysterious memory problem. The Rosenberg spy ring is one of the most well-documented espionage cases in American history. We have thousands of pages of declassified FBI investigative files, Soviet intelligence archives, decoded KGB cables, memoirs by Soviet spymasters and confessions from the Rosenbergs’ co-conspirators, all describing its activities in detail.

The Rosenberg ring — organized and directed by Ethel’s husband Julius, a U.S. Army engineer and, like his wife, a secret Communist Party sympathizer — involved about a dozen people stealing secrets from the U.S. government and its defense contractors.

The material they handed over to the KGB included not only information on atomic-bomb components but also a sketch of the bomb’s design.

They also passed along a 32,000-page treasure trove of documents on top-secret American radar, jet engines, fire-control computers and even the complete blueprint of the first U.S. jet fighter. Much of this equipment was used by communist forces against U.S. troops during the Korean War. And when the Soviets shot down American pilot Francis Gary Powers as he flew a spy plane over Russian territory in 1960, their missile used a fuse based on designs provided by the Rosenberg ring.

Julius Rosenberg was the heart and soul of the spy ring, so much so that his KGB handlers sent worried cables to Moscow brooding that he might suffer a breakdown. When the KGB, fearing the ring had been compromised, broke contact for two years, Julius kept it alive by paying his spies out of his own pocket.

Ethel was not as instrumental to the ring’s operations as her husband, and because she didn’t work had no access to secrets that she could steal. But you don’t have to actually purloin secret documents to be a spy. KGB cables show that Ethel suggested inviting her sister-in-law Ruth Greenglass into the ring and, when Moscow approved, took part in the recruitment pitch. Eventually Ruth’s brother David, who worked on the secret atomic Manhattan Project, would join as well.

Whether that role was sufficiently large that Ethel deserved execution is certainly open to argument. But it’s also worth noting the U.S. government repeatedly offered to reduce her sentence to prison if she would just admit her spying. She refused, choosing to make her two young sons orphans rather than break faith with Stalin, the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century. If that counts as “courage” these days, we have problems with more than our memories.