Morton Sobell awaiting transfer to New York in Laredo, Texas in 1950 after his apprehension in and extradition from Mexico. Getty Images.
Last December 26, at the age of one-hundred-one, Morton Sobell died. His name may be unfamiliar today, but the names of his associates are not: he was the co-defendant of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the 1951 atomic-bomb spy trial. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953, but Sobell lived on, one of the few remaining survivors of the corps of Americans who spied for the Soviet Union. He kept the faith, steadfastly and with gusto, proclaiming his innocence and that of the Rosenbergs until 2008, when he belatedly confessed in public to their conspiracy to commit espionage.
To the degree that this belated confession shattered the vision of innocence still held by the remaining defenders of the Rosenberg ring—the vision, that is, that an entire generation of Soviet spies, including Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Gregory Silvermasters, William Perl, Lauchlin Currie, and numerous others were pure and simple victims being hounded and persecuted by a paranoid United States government—then Sobell’s death marks the end of the entire sordid story.
But what exactly is his story? When I last saw him in 2016, at the age of ninety-nine, he threatened that if I wrote about him in a negative light, “You’ll take the consequences.” I found this strange, considering that he had already confessed to being a spy. But with his death it is at least possible to sketch that story in full.
I. The Quintessential Red-Diaper Baby
Morton Sobell was born in New York City on April 11, 1917, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and Communist-party members. His mother was an operative in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), his father a devoted member who every day read the Yiddish Communist paper Morgen Freiheit (“Morning Freedom”) and, in the New York Times, the Kremlin-fed “reportage” of that paper’s Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. One of his uncles ran Camp Unity, the party’s remunerative summer camp, where young Morton would work as an electrician before going to college; the other uncle was a member of the CPUSA’s disciplinary commission and a secret courier carrying messages between party officials in New York and the KGB in Moscow.
In short, he was the quintessential red-diaper baby; Jewish Communist royalty.
In 1938, Sobell graduated from City College with a degree in electrical engineering; Julius Rosenberg was a classmate. In 1939 he moved to Washington where he worked at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. Later he moved to the aircraft- and marine-engineering division of General Electric in Schenectady, New York. Assigned to classified work, he was exempted from military duty.
Sobell thus spent World War II in his General Electric office, sitting on American military secrets and giving them away. Recruited in December 1943 by his college friend Julius Rosenberg, he provided the KGB with a steady stream of information about radar, servo-mechanisms, early attempts to develop ballistic-missile-defense systems, the makeup of American military aircraft, and other critical technical data. His spying lasted past the end of the war; as late as 1948 (according to a statement by him in 2011) he was photocopying hundreds of pages of secret U.S. Air Force documents.
Until the end of his life, Sobell insisted that the stolen documents involved only artillery and radar devices, not the atomic-bomb data that the Rosenbergs were charged with having transmitted to the USSR. In reality, many of his purloined documents contained military and industrial secrets that significantly aided the Soviet military machine and had deadly consequences for American soldiers.
Starting in 1948, the Rosenberg ring fell like a house of cards. It began with the apprehension of Klaus Fuchs, a physicist and Soviet spy who worked in Los Alamos: the heart of the U.S. atomic-bomb project. Fuchs had provided information about work on uranium separation and (according to the historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes) “on the development of plutonium as an alternative to uranium U-235 as a bomb fuel and on the implosion mechanism as a way to detonate plutonium.”
Fuchs’s arrest and confession led to the apprehension of his courier, Harry Gold, who had been working for nine years as an industrial spy, and who also confessed. And with this began Sobell’s own downfall. Gold had given up information about David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, Julius’s wife, and a machinist at one of Los Alamos’s secret laboratories. On June 15, 1950, Greenglass confessed to espionage and implicated his own wife Ruth, his sister Ethel, and his brother-in-law Julius.
Sobell knew that Greenglass would lead the FBI to Rosenberg and, as a matter of course, to him. Six days after Greenglass was picked up, he fled in a frenzy to Mexico. There, thanks largely to his own incompetence, he was arrested on August 15, 1950 by armed Mexican security police. Attempting to wrest a .38-caliber pistol from one of them, he was subdued by a blow to the head and extradited to the United States.
At the atomic-bomb spy trial, the only witness against Sobell was a close friend, Max Elitcher, who had cooperated with the government. Sobell declined to testify in his own defense. Sentenced, like Gold, to 30 years, he arrived at Alcatraz on November 26, 1952. Until his release from prison eighteen years later, he would serve there, and in Atlanta, and at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.
Some of the other secondary players in the Rosenberg network were luckier. Two, escaping surveillance, had fled to Czechoslovakia and then to the Soviet Union, where, under false identities, they would head a secret electronics laboratory specializing in Soviet military technology. Another, urged to flee by Rosenberg—who sent him $2,000 by courier—instead elected to stay; he was convicted only of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison. Three others avoided prosecution altogether.
As for the Communist party, it had no interest in saving either the Rosenbergs or Sobell, and it assigned inept lawyers to defend them. Indeed, Moscow and the party saw the prosecution of the Rosenberg ring as a propaganda coup, invaluable for directing attention to these purportedly innocent victims of American legal terror and distracting attention from any number of Communist atrocities: Soviet concentration camps; the trials and executions of Rudolph Slansky and other Jewish Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia; the elimination of the entire Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee including its major artistic figures, Solomon Mikhoels (murdered in 1948), Itzhak Feffer, Peretz Markish, and David Bergelson (all executed by firing squad on August 12, 1952); and Stalin’s invention of the “Jewish Doctors’ Plot” just before his death in 1953.
It is difficult today to grasp just how well the Soviet strategy worked—difficult, that is, to conjure up the worldwide hysteria that surrounded the Rosenberg case after the execution of Julius and Ethel on June 19, 1953. With their death, the international Communist machine sprang into action. True believers around the world staged huge demonstrations of protest, spearheaded by Communist parties and “peace” groups and attracting major figures—among them, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bertrand Russell—proclaiming the Rosenbergs’ innocence.
In print, the CPUSA’s own paper, the Daily Worker, championed their cause, as did the saccharine National Guardian, edited by another Soviet spy. The journalist William A. Reuben applied his hack skills to a book whose principal finding was that, since espionage was banned in the Soviet constitution, it could not have occurred in the first place. Reuben would later confide to me that, whenever he visited the Rosenbergs in the death house, he made sure to take a girl along; thanks to the strong emotions evoked in his companions by these visits, he “always got laid” afterward.
This combination of deep cynicism and love of attention describes Sobell as well. Lurking in the shadows before the death of the Rosenbergs, he became in its aftermath the new designated victim/hero. His wife Helen, a celebrity in her own right, led picket lines and spoke at rallies across the United States and abroad. After Sobell came out of prison in 1969, the couple visited Moscow, where they were greeted as heroes by the KGB and assigned the private hotel suite of the pro-Soviet business tycoon Armand Hammer, complete with maid, chauffeur, and cook. Helen also received a mink coat.
Back in the U.S., Sobell proceeded to grow a white flowing beard and a long ponytail while trying to catch up with technological advances in engineering. Along with his subsequent work in medical electronics, he strenuously endeavored to make up for lost time with young women, an activity that led to his and Helen’s divorce in 1980.
II. Inside the American Communists
I first met Morton Sobell in 1982, having become interested in him because of my own teenage flirtations with the Stalinist swamp. The simultaneously cynical and wild-eyed American Communist scene was something I knew well. Half out of ambivalence, half out of curiosity, I had begun to hang around the party, fascinated by its continued infatuation with the Soviet Union even at so late a date as the early 1960s. Introduced as “a representative of the youth,” I was given a rare view of things.
It was impossible not to recognize the still-vast tentacles of the party and its Soviet benefactor: the huge number of front groups, institutions, hotels, camps, publishing houses, unions, schools, theaters, and real estate owned by the party, all paying homage to the USSR. Every iota of the party network was bound up with Moscow; you were tested at all times by your unblinking loyalty to its correctness; supporting it in every way was a solemn moral obligation. Anything whatsoever that advanced the Soviet cause was justified, including subterfuge and deceit, which were moral—so the thinking went— because they promoted the higher moral goal: namely, the realization of a Soviet America as formulated by party leader William Z. Foster in his book, Toward Soviet America, and in the 1935 oath of allegiance to Communism dictated to new members by another party leader, Earl Browder:
I pledge myself to remain at all times a vigilant and firm defender of the Leninist line of the Party, the only line that ensures the triumph of Soviet Powers in the United States.
At the same time, the American Communists delighted in accusing their critics—“McCarthyites,” “red-baiters,” and “fascists”—of slander for calling them . . . Communists. The same dynamic of assertion and denial was at work in the party’s approach to the Rosenbergs. The comrades knew, of course, about Stalin and the prison camps as well as the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary; they knew that the Rosenbergs were guilty. But their public stance exhibited fervor, sincerity, and the passionate outrage of a fair-minded and brokenhearted person who had been wronged. For external consumption, they were not Communists and what they felt about the Rosenbergs was: “Whatever you say they did, they didn’t do it.”
Attending Rosenberg/Sobell rallies in the late 1950s or early 1960s, I found them full of hysteria, music, fainting fits, unquestioning passionate love for the Soviet Union, and an unctuous brand of self-righteous anti-Americanism, the latter personified by Helen Sobell as, stretching out her arms, she spoke of how the Rosenberg prosecution signified the advent of fascism in the United States and a new Holocaust. “Concentration camps are ready!” she shouted. Immediately afterward, money was collected.
Many of these American Communists were Jewish, but they had absolutely no interest in Jewish history, culture, or the birth of Israel. This was Sobell, too. He was the kind of secular progressive Jew who seemed entirely Jewish in his manner and accent, sprinkled Yiddishisms in his speech, but had compassion only for non-Jews, and particularly for the enemies of Jews. Shopping on the Lower East Side, looking for a better deal, he would bargain in Yiddish with the shopkeepers but draw a blank when I asked him how he felt about the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel. He didn’t acknowledge any awareness of the Jewish Doctors’ Plot or the fate of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. An ex-girlfriend of his told me, “I’ve never heard him refer to himself as a Jew. He’s very critical of Israel.”
By contrast, my own final break with the American Communists had everything to do with Israel. In 1962 I went there to work at Kibbutz Sasa for the summer. Before I left New York, I met up with Comrade Sophie, a very Jewish, very warm woman who managed the party’s Jefferson bookstore and had taken me under her wing. She brought two whiskey miniatures out of her bag and mixed them with water so we could toast Fidel Castro’s revolution. She asked me, “Why in the world would you go to Israel, that imperialist outpost?” After all, I could have gone to the Soviet Union or any of the People’s Democracies instead.
But in Israel, picking cherries in the orchard, I could look up and see the tattooed numbers on the arms of some of the kibbutz members. That was my entry into the real world, and I was altered forever.
Yet even after my return from Israel and my personal break with them, the Stalinists and especially the Jews among them remained for me a source of passionate curiosity that has never abated. That is what led me to Sobell in 1982, and again in 2008, and from 2011 until he died.
III. Meeting Sobell
When I first got to Sobell in 1982, it was through Helen Sobell. They were divorced by then, and she was teaching at the “progressive” Elizabeth Irwin High School. I called her and said that I wanted to interview Morton. She came to my house and checked me out. “Turtles get a great deal of satisfaction sitting and getting sunned on a rock,” she told me, explaining how she herself had always been “attracted to a profound respect for things in and of themselves”—and that American capitalism lacked that “profound respect.” I asked how she would describe Morton. “He’s a hedgehog: a prickly outer shell which he uses to protect his soft inner self,” she said.
When I met Sobell, he was a very disillusioned man but—all outer shell—he would not admit it. In the 80s he adopted the stance of an ultra-radical, supporting the Black Panthers (long after their heyday), visiting the imprisoned Kathy Boudin (a member of the Weather Underground who had been convicted of felony murder), and espousing the cause of the Puerto Rican terrorist Rafael Miranda. Inveterately attracted to flame throwers, he kept traveling to dungeon utopias like Cuba and Vietnam, offering medical aid that in their bureaucratic and human indifference they spurned. But ideological belief didn’t seem to have much to do with his motivations. When I asked him why he kept going, he said “I just want to have fun!”
Fun was his motif. Just as he had been feted and toasted by the KGB when visiting Moscow with Helen after his release from prison, he remained a guest of honor in the self-declared “socialist” countries, At home he enjoyed Social Security benefits, and he had girls. “Whoo!” he told me once, “I’ve got two girlfriends.” Laughing, he might drop a name—”I met Abbie Hoffman for the first time at an affair for Nicaragua” (then under the rule of the Moscow-loyal Sandinistas)—or lapse into Marxoid jargon: “Of course you know that epilepsy is loaded with ideology coming from the ruling class!” His voice was Bronx-Jewish with little curls of refinement. There was whining in it, weeping, and a bubbling joy. He laughed buoyantly and munched pumpkin seeds.
Even back then, he was really itching to tell me he’d done what he’d been convicted of doing, but he was torn between wanting to stay the martyr that was his public image and wanting to be the hero for the USSR that was his self-image. Although I was certain he was guilty from the beginning, he never explicitly confessed to me back then. But between long silences, he said something that would stay with me.
The topic was Julius Rosenberg. “I never had a good hold on him,” he said.
“Did you like him?” I asked.
Sobell was silent for a long time. Then he looked down. “He was a comrade. This to me is saying a good deal. To understand what this meant is a whole story in itself.”
I tried again: “What’s the story?”
“My friend,” he said, looking down again, “beyond that, you’ll have to use your imagination.”
Those sentences would hang in the air until 2008.
So why did he come clean then, after all those many years of denial? Kate Reilly, Sobell’s stepdaughter and the person most devoted to his well-being in his last years, thought that the key was his need for attention. “People really had moved on,” she said:
It was a withering minority of people who would still say, “Oh, Morton Sobell!” I think by 2008 he realized he was losing his mind and he didn’t have much cachet any more with too many people. So it was to feel important. So: front page of the Times. He wanted one more big splash and his tongue had been loosened. At that moment Mort was really going for that: “Okay, I’m ready to talk! This is gonna be big!”
The confession rocked his remaining supporters and those closest to him whose good will and financial support he had exploited for 58 years, encouraging them to devote their lives to arguing his innocence when he knew he was guilty. Michael Meeropol, Julius Rosenberg’s son, was furious at Sobell’s confession and revelations about his father. He told Sobell’s last wife, Nancy Gruber, “My life would have been very different if I had known.” Following Sobell’s confession, the Rosenberg defenders were reduced to conceding Julius’ guilt, but they still held out the forlorn hope that Ethel was somehow innocent, despite the evidence that she was aware of Julius’s spying and had helped recruit her sister-in-law Ruth Greenglass into the Rosenberg ring.
And Sobell’s own dissembling continued after the confession; he never—he could never—come clean about everything, instead constantly devaluing what he and the other members of the Rosenberg ring had given the Soviets, calling it “garbage.” In actuality, as the historian Steven Usdin puts it,
The Venona decrypts [of Soviet code names for American spies], the memoirs of Alexander Feklisov [the Soviet consular official in New York who was Rosenberg’s contact], and the Rosenberg grand-jury records unsealed on the day Sobell admitted his guilt contain the astonishing news that Julius Rosenberg had been far more deeply involved in atomic espionage than anyone [that is, the FBI and the prosecutors] had imagined.
IV. Sobell in 2011
To me, the biggest puzzle of Sobell’s story remains his flight to Mexico after the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass. This not only amounted to a tacit admission of guilt but in the event resembled nothing so much as a farcical comedy of errors. Instead of enlisting Rosenberg’s help in obtaining an escape route to the USSR, he had reached Mexico without a passport, accompanied by his wife Helen, Helen’s eight-year-old daughter Sydney, and their one-year-old baby son Mark. He ran around the country like a headless chicken, rushing from seaport to seaport in vain search of passage to Russia. Even more inexplicably, he visited both the Soviet embassy and the Polish trade mission without explaining why he was there and without asking for help; he inquired only into the schedules of cargo ships.
In her book A Gathering of Fugitives, Diana Anhalt relates that on the night before Sobell’s apprehension in Mexico, an “unidentified man” desperately pounded on the door of Communist-party headquarters seeking help, but was turned away by a night watchman. Adding to these amateur proceedings, Sobell was using primitive maildrops and silly aliases (Morton Sand, M. Sowell, M. Sand) to send letters to his sister-in-law and William Danziger, a close friend and neighbor.
And so in 2011 I sat opposite a fragile but alert Sobell, now confined to a wheelchair. In our conversation, his frame of reference—books, personalities, friends—was a mix deriving from his Communist history. Sometimes what emerged was a matter of nostalgia, sometimes mental confusion: his lost youth, the fires of Communist solidarity.
We talked about his flight to Mexico. “Have you always been impulsive?” I asked.
”I don’t know. I never considered myself impulsive.”
“The Mexico flight was pretty impulsive, wasn’t it?”
“You might have gotten away. Others did.”
“Tell me about it!” Sobell said. “I didn’t consider it impulsive.”
“How did you consider it?”
“You didn’t meet anybody?”
“I didn’t look for them.”
“But you said it was well thought out.”
“It wasn’t. It was impulsive.”
“You had no contacts. You were flailing around.”
“So you must have felt very isolated.”’
”Yes. That’s the word.”
“It must have been very hard then to maintain all these years that you were innocent, that you had done nothing.”
“No,” Sobell said. “It wasn’t.” There was a long silence.
“You didn’t even have your passport with you. Why didn’t you get one?”
“Because it would have taken maybe a week or so. And I felt I had to get out. I wasn’t thinking straight!” He paused before adding,
“I could have asked them for help. It’s so obvious. I didn’t. I can’t explain it. I can’t. It doesn’t make sense.”
“You’ve thought of it over the years?”
“No, I haven’t. I didn’t think of it.”
“You just blocked it out?”
“What about the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee? Markish, Feffer, Mikhoels, Bergelson, all murdered.”
“The Jewish Doctors’ plot. The Gulag. The purges.”
“The Hitler-Stalin pact.”
“Stalin was buying time.”
“You still believe that even now?”
“I’m just trying to understand you.”
“You can’t understand a confused mind,” Sobell said.
“But why didn’t you contact Rosenberg for help?”
“I was afraid to contact him!”
“But you stole the secrets, right?”
“Stole? I transmitted them.” He became quiet.
“Genug? Enough? Can we call it a day? The air conditioner is off.”
V. “The Feeling is Mutual”
Sobell spent his last years at a nursing facility where he was carefully watched over by his family. On a visit once, I saw above his bed one of his most treasured possessions: a copy of an FBI memo he’d found in his files. It stated that Helen Sobell had visited him at the House of Detention accompanied by an “unidentified male Negro.” The memo notes that this information was subsequently discussed among the inmates and that many of them suggested to Sobell that his wife was “running around” with a black man. “This had no effect on Sobell,” the FBI memo asserts. “Ordinarily the fact that an inmate’s wife is unfaithful would have a terrific impact on the morale of the inmate. However, Sobell is not an ordinary individual.”
“Oh, he loves that thing,” Max Sobell, his grandson, told me. “He carries it around with him always—that Helen came in with a Negro. And that Mort seemed unfazed, [meaning that] he must not be human.” Max elaborated:
Not an “ordinary” human being. That’s exactly what he wanted! That quote probably motivated him for decades! It reinforced in him that he is not human. That means he doesn’t have to deal with these deep-seated emotions. If he can prove to everybody else he’s above them, and he’s separate from them, then he doesn’t need to face himself. The only reason he would care that the guy was black was because it would make a bigger impression.
“He completely dismisses people,” Max went on:
Nurture is really hard for him. He likes it, but he won’t admit that he likes it. I tell him frequently that I love him, just to let him know. And the only thing he could muster up in response was “The feeling is mutual.”“My dad [Mark Sobell] was one-year-old when [his father] Mort was arrested, and nineteen when he got out of prison. Morton wrote him that he didn’t understand why their relationship was so bad.”
Did you ever see the letters Mort wrote to my dad from prison? My dad [Mark Sobell] was one-year-old when Mort was arrested, and nineteen when he got out of prison. Morton wrote him that he didn’t understand why their relationship was so bad. Which is to me amazing, that he didn’t understand. Because he wasn’t there. The most basic thing, the only thing you have to do, is to be there. And he wasn’t there. He chose Communism, the Communist party, over his son. . . .
On my last visit with Sobell at the nursing facility in 2016, his wife Nancy and her daughter Kate left me alone with him for a while. He asked for a glass of water. I hesitated, looking around for a glass.“Water!” he bellowed, his voice seeming to bounce off the walls. “In the name of God, water!” When I handed it to him, he said pleasantly, “Thank you.”
Shortly afterward he sat up in bed and said he needed to go to the bathroom. I had never escorted him anywhere before, and we’d rarely been alone together. When he stood up—he was still a big man—he almost fell heavily against me. “We can’t do this,” I said. “I’ll call for a nurse.”
“Yes we can,” he insisted. “There’s no problem.”
On our second try he almost toppled me over again. I summoned a nurse. When he returned, he lay on the bed quietly. “Thank you, David, for your help,” he said, and shortly afterward fell asleep. I’d never before been with him like this. I listened to the rise and fall of his breath, as close to him as I had ever been.