Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of supplying the Soviet Union with nuclear bomb secrets, and subsequently executed.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
The hunt for Communists in the United States clearly reached the point of hysteria by the early 1950s, but what is often overlooked is that it had its origins in a very real phenomenon. The opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s, and the declassification of certain intercepted Soviet messages from the late 1940s, indicates that Soviet agents had penetrated the U.S. government before and during World War II, in some cases at very high levels. One particularly noteworthy instance of this involved Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted in 1951 of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Kremlin. The resulting trial, conviction, and death sentence of this young, middle-class couple divided the nation, and kept the issue of Soviet espionage before the American public for years to come.
This lesson will expose students to recently declassified FBI documents and transcripts of the Rosenberg trial. It will encourage them to think seriously about the extent of the Soviet espionage network in America, thus setting the stage for a proper understanding of later hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy.
Americans in the late 1940s awoke to a rude shock when they learned that since the mid-1930s significant numbers of Soviet spies had been operating in the United States. There were several factors that made this particularly disturbing. For one, most of these spies were native-born Americans, apparently motivated by sympathy for communism. In addition, some of these agents had been able to penetrate several agencies of the federal government—especially the Departments of State and the Treasury, as well as the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency)—and in some cases at very high levels. Perhaps most ominously, confessions by several spies made it clear that Soviet espionage had, during the Second World War, infiltrated the top-secret Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. When in 1949 the Soviets successfully tested their own atomic weapon, it did not take long for Americans to conclude that this had been more the work of Russian spies than of scientists.
Coming at a time when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were already deteriorating to the point of near-war, these revelations had a profound effect on the American public. Perhaps, they wondered, the Soviet strategy might not be to try to conquer the world through traditional military power, but rather by boring from within. If their spies had been able to infiltrate some of the highest levels of the federal government, where else might they be? Moreover, if these agents were motivated not by greed or ethnic connections, but rather by a belief in communism, what did this suggest about others who professed such a belief—or even those who appeared to be in sympathy with some communist goals? This would be the beginning of a dark period in the nation's history, a time when making even the most mildly controversial statements ran the risk of being accused of disloyalty—or worse. These matters are covered in the second and third lessons of this curriculum unit, The House Un-American Activities Committee, and The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy.
In fact, the hysteria that would ultimately flow from the espionage scare of the late 1940s would lead many to believe that even the original threat had been overblown, and that at least some of those who had been convicted, like Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were victims of a witch hunt. Recent research, however, has shown that this is likely not the case. The opening in the 1990s of the archives of the former Soviet Union showed that the penetration of American institutions was, indeed, significant, and was being directed locally by the Communist Party of the United States. Moreover, the 1990s also saw the declassification of the transcripts from the Venona Project. Under Venona, thousands of communications between Moscow and its agents in the United States during the 1940s had been intercepted and decoded, giving critical insights into the Soviet espionage network and, in many cases, revealing the identities of the spies themselves. However, because the FBI was unwilling to release this information at the time (it seems as though not even President Truman was aware of it), it was never used to prosecute the individuals involved. Whatever one might think of the tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, or those of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, there is little doubt today that the Soviet spy network in America existed, and that it was extensive.
For more information on the Rosenberg Trial, an excellent resource is "The Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," part of the site "Famous Trials", available via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters. For more on the Venona Project, see "Venona," located at the website of the National Security Agency.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
In the first activity students will learn about the FBI's ongoing investigation of suspected Soviet agents in the United States. They will do so by reading excerpts from actual recently-declassified FBI memoranda regarding the Venona Project, located at the FBI's website (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters), but available in excerpted form in the Text Document. Note that these are not the Venona transcripts themselves, but rather a series of internal FBI memos describing the project and summarizing its findings. While these memos were written in the 1950s, they are describing work that had been going on since 1948, when the Soviet code was first broken.
Teachers should divide their students into small groups. All will read an introduction to Venona, found on pages 1–4 of the Text Document. This provides an overview of the program, including the methods used to identify the real names of individuals referred to only by code names in the decrypted messages. It also offers reasons why the FBI chose not to reveal the Venona information. As the students read, they should answer the following questions, available as a worksheet on page 5 of the Text Document:
Next, each group will be responsible for reading about a particular individual or group suspected of spying for the Soviets. The Text Document contains information about all of the following individuals. However, teachers should not feel compelled to assign all of these. An asterisk has been placed next to those that are of particular importance, since the names of these individuals will come up in the next activity on the Rosenberg Trial, as well as in subsequent lessons in this unit:
After reading all these materials students will complete a worksheet, found on page 13 of the Text Document, with the following questions.
Finally, teachers should lead an in-class discussion regarding the nature of Soviet espionage in the United States, and the methods that were used to identify and prosecute spies. Drawing on what the students have read, they might, as a class, draw a web showing how the various individuals mentioned in the documents were connected to one another. One student should begin by writing the name of his or her subject on the board, along with lines connecting him or her to any other individuals named in the document. Others should follow, so that ultimately a large network of agents will be displayed.
The Venona transcripts would have no doubt been a bombshell had they been released at the time; however, they were not, and they therefore played no role in the most headline-grabbing trial of 1951. In an era when accusations of Soviet espionage were very much in the public mind, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was perhaps the biggest story of all. This seemingly average middle-class couple, with a loving marriage and two young children, stood accused of betraying their country by passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. From the beginning they protested their innocence, and ultimately the case divided the country between those who believed they were guilty, and those who believed the Rosenbergs were the innocent victims of a national case of paranoia. For the final activity teachers will stage a reenactment in their classrooms of this trial, using excerpts from the trial transcripts found at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's site "Famous Trials" (accessible via History Matters). Further abridged versions of these transcripts are available in the Text Document.
Teachers should begin the activity by informing students that the year is 1951, and that both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have been charged with conspiring to commit espionage against the United States, a crime for which, if they are found guilty, they could face the death penalty.
Seven students will take on the roles of the principal witnesses. Each of these will read an excerpt from the trial transcript, covering that witness's testimony, as well as a brief biographical sketch of the individual witness (to save class time, this reading might productively be assigned as homework). After doing so each of these students will make a five-minute presentation to the class in which they convey the information found in that testimony to the class. Teachers should insist that the witnesses convey all the relevant information found in the testimony, so that the jury can make an educated decision as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants.
The witnesses, and their relevant reading assignments, are as follows:
After the witnesses have given their testimony, have two additional students portray the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution. Each student should read one of the final statements below along with a biographical sketch (again, this might be assigned as homework), then make a five-minute presentation based on what they have read:
The remaining students will represent the jury in this reenactment. After all of the presentations are finished, the members of the jury will vote on whether or not they believe Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty. Individual jurors should be assigned a brief writing project (a good homework activity) in which they write a couple of paragraphs explaining why they voted as they did.
To conclude the exercise students should read the announcement of the actual verdict.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Revelations in 1946 that Soviet agents had penetrated the federal government was a goldmine for the Republicans, who had been out of power since 1932, and it helped them win majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1946 midterm elections. In an effort to prevent the GOP from exploiting this issue any further Truman in March 1947 issued Executive Order 9835, which authorized investigations into the political activities of federal employees. The text of this order may be found at Teaching American History, along with speeches by Truman and Rep. Chester E. Holifield (D-California) related to the loyalty program. These documents might be used for an in-class debate on whether or not the program was warranted.
It is important to note that the Soviet spy scare in the United States did not happen in isolation—the origins of the Cold War in Europe and Asia were critically important to creating a sense of crisis at home. To give students a sense for these events, they might examine this interactive timeline. Along the top there are four regions—United States, Europe and the USSR, Middle East and North Africa, and East Asia. Clicking on one of these, and then clicking on any of the years along the left-hand side, will bring up a list of events in that region relevant to the Cold War. Some of these can be clicked on to yield more information about the event.
4-5 class periods