Morton Sobell, who was convicted in the Cold War spy trial that delivered Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their deaths and divided the nation for decades, died in December in Manhattan, a relative confirmed today. He was 101.
Sobell, whose death was not reported at the time, had lived for many years on the Upper West Side and had recently been in nursing care. The family member asked not to be identified.
Serving 18 years in prison until he was released in 1969, Sobell proclaimed his innocence until 2008, when, in an interview with The New York Times, he startled his unflinching defenders by reversing himself and admitting that he had, indeed, been a Soviet spy.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he said. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”
In the interview, he also implicated Julius Rosenberg in a conspiracy that supplied the Soviets with non-atomic military and industrial secrets stolen from the United States government.
Rosenberg, an engineer from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was tried along with his wife and Sobell in 1951 on the same charge: conspiracy to commit espionage.
The government portrayed Julius Rosenberg as the mastermind of an espionage ring that provided Soviet scientists not only with classified conventional weapons technology, but also with vital know-how that had enabled them by 1949 to replicate the devastating plutonium bomb developed by the United States that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945 and ended World War II.
Ethel Rosenberg was portrayed as her husband’s partner and accomplice in a plot that prosecutors all but blamed for emboldening China, with Soviet coaxing, to invade Korea in 1950.
Testimony by government witnesses entangled Sobell in the spying conspiracy, though no evidence was presented that tied him directly to the theft of any nuclear secrets.
After a two-week trial, during which Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, gave the most damning testimony, the jury found all three defendants guilty of conspiracy. Judge Irving R. Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death, calling their crime “worse than murder.” Sobell was given a 30-year prison term and later remanded to Alcatraz. Greenglass later admitted that he had lied about the most incriminating evidence against his sister.
On June 19, 1953, after exhausting two years of legal appeals, the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in New York. They were the only Americans to have been put to death for espionage-related crimes since the Civil War.
The verdict, and particularly the penalty, which orphaned the Rosenbergs’ two young sons, generated global protests, scarred America’s psyche and divided progressives from pro-Soviet communists. It became an unbridgeable fault line that would open an enduring gulf between liberals and conservatives.
Questions and Revelations
Were all the defendants really spies? Did the information they delivered truly enable the Soviet Union to approach nuclear parity with the United States? Was the aggressive prosecution politically motivated, either to awaken Americans to the reality of Soviet espionage (as Sobell would acknowledge decades later) or to shift public opinion and expedite another round of wholesale red-baiting?
By the 1980s and ′90s, as the Cold War waned, new revelations about the case emerged. In memoirs, old Soviet leaders wrote about the role of the spy ring, and aging KGB agents spoke of their contacts with the Rosenbergs.
In 1995 the United States released the Venona papers, Soviet Embassy messages that U.S. cryptographers had secretly deciphered a half-century earlier. They referred to a spy ring headed by a man code-named Liberal and Antenna, who was married to a woman identified only as Ethel.
It was to be Sobell’s lot and burden to spend much of his life overshadowed by his co-defendants. For those who said that the Rosenbergs had been framed, or that their executions were unjustified, Sobel was at best a lesser martyr, ensnared in the case by prosecutors as further evidence of a conspiracy.
And for those who believed that the Rosenbergs were indeed spies, Sobell was, at best, a second-rate villain.
He often expressed ambivalence about his part in the episode. He would pay homage to the Rosenbergs — Julius had been his college classmate and Young Communist League comrade — as heroes who had refused to save their lives by confessing or implicating others.
Sobell, too, had resisted government hints of a reduced sentence if he confessed. But he would also differentiate himself from the couple on two grounds, arguing that he should have been tried separately and that the charges against him never mentioned the atomic bomb.
In an interview with The Times in 1998, Sobell implored a reporter: “When you write my obituary, please don’t say that I was accused of treason. I was charged and found guilty of conspiracy, which, you know, is like talking about espionage.”
He insisted that the secrets he had supplied to the Soviets involved only defensive radar and artillery devices rather than “stuff that could be used to attack our country.” But many military experts believe that one of the devices he mentioned specifically, the SCR-584 radar, was used against U.S. aircraft in Korea and Vietnam.
While the defendants were tried together, Kaufman distinguished between the Rosenbergs and Sobell when he sentenced them.
The Rosenbergs, he said, had enabled the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb years earlier than U.S. scientists had anticipated, leading to communist aggression in Korea, where U.S. troops were then fighting.
To Sobell, the judge said, “I do not for a moment doubt that you were engaged in espionage activities; however, the evidence in the case did not point to any activity on your part in connection with the atom bomb project.”
Still, the 30 years that Kaufman meted out was the maximum sentence under the law.
Morton Sobell was born in Manhattan on April 11, 1917, to Louis and Rose Sobell, who had come to the United States from the same Russian village before the Russian Revolution. His father, a pharmacist, opened a drugstore in the Bronx. In a 1974 memoir, “On Doing Time,” Sobell described Communist Party meetings held in his home.
At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan he befriended Max Elitcher. They both studied engineering at City College, where they joined the Young Communist League and met a fellow student, Julius Rosenberg.
After graduation, Sobell and Elitcher worked for the Bureau of Ordnance in the Navy Department and shared an apartment in Washington. After working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, Sobell was hired by the Reeves Instrument Corp. of New York in 1948 as lead engineer on a radar tracking system. He recruited Elitcher for the project. They lived next door to each other in Queens with their wives.
At the trial, Elitcher supplied the bulk of the evidence against Sobell.
He testified about a film canister that Sobell said he had at home — one that was too risky to keep but too valuable to destroy. According to Elitcher, at Sobell’s request he drove him to Lower Manhattan and parked two blocks from the Rosenbergs’ apartment. Sobell got out and went inside while Elitcher waited in the car.
Sobell returned a few minutes later and told him that “Julie” had said Elitcher no longer needed to worry about being followed, as he had been previously. In the 1998 interview, Sobell said he never heard from Elitcher again.
Much of the case against Sobell rested on Elitcher’s testimony and Sobell’s sudden departure to Mexico with his wife and children after the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother. In Mexico he used aliases, rented an apartment and sought ship passage to hospitable countries. On Aug. 16, 1950, armed men forced their way into the Sobells’ apartment and abducted Sobell, then turned him over to the FBI at the border.
Sobell never testified in his own defense.
Once he was imprisoned, informants told the government that Sobell might reveal details of the espionage ring in return for a reduced sentence, but apparently his wife, Helen, persuaded him not to.
In prison he met racketeers like Frank Costello and Mickey Cohen and union boss Jimmy Hoffa. By Sobell’s account, Hoffa once saw him looking at some personal photographs in the prison yard. “Hey, Morty,” Hoffa called out, “what do you have there, secret plans?”
In the prison library at Alcatraz, Sobell said, he discovered an issue of Scientific American with an article about Robert Stroud, a convicted murderer who was then being kept in isolation there. Stroud, who conducted ornithological studies in his cell, was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Sobell expressed pride that he was able to find a way to sneak the article to Stroud.
Later, when they were both being held at Springfield Medical Center in Missouri, the two men became friends. “I was the only one who would eat with the Birdman at Springfield,” Sobell said, “because after all those years in isolation without utensils, he only ate with his hands.”
While Sobell was in prison, his wife gave up her career as a physicist and mounted a grueling drive for his release through petitions, rallies and legal appeals, all of which were surreptitiously monitored by the FBI. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ultimately ordered his release on Jan. 14, 1969.
Sobell suggested that his wife had been aware of his guilt, but it was unclear what she knew and for how long.
While writing his memoir, Sobell studied electronics at Columbia University and taught at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the New York University Tandon School of Engineering). He also worked for a medical supply company and developed a low-cost hearing aid, which he helped to distribute in Cuba and Vietnam.
His confession in 2008, his stepdaughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, told The Times, “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.”
Sobell’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1980; Helen Sobell died in 2002 at 84. In 1993 he married Nancy Gruber. She died last July. His survivors include Gurewitz Clemens and a son, Mark. He also had grandchildren.
Most of the protagonists in the Rosenberg case, Sobell included, were Jews who became communists during the Depression, when capitalism seemed to be lacking and the Soviets claimed to have outlawed anti-Semitism. They remained committed to the cause when they spied, largely during World War II, when the Soviets were American allies against the Nazis.
“Now I know it was an illusion,” Sobell said of communism in 2008. “I was taken in.”