Rosenberg, Hiss, Oppenheimer Cases

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The Cold War (1946–1991) had profound effects on American society and culture. Fresh from victory in 1945, Americans quickly disarmed and expected to focus their attention on domestic matters, in particular the adjustment to a peacetime economy and reintegration of millions of soldiers into society. The expansion of Soviet control in Eastern Europe and its acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1949, as well as the triumph of Communism in China in 1948, produced fears of Marxist expansion abroad and subversion at home. Three cases drew attention to the vulnerability of the nation's security because of espionage and treason. These cases reinforced the growing view that the United States was in a struggle for its existence and faced enemies within. During the late 1940s and early 1950s these cases contributed to a Red Scare and McCarthyism as well as to rearmament and foreign policies that defined postwar America.

rosenberg case

In the late 1940s American code breakers deciphered Soviet cables indicating that Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist who had worked with Americans on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, had been a Soviet spy. In January 1950 Fuchs confessed to British authorities. He also provided information allowing the FBI to identify the American courier who delivered his information to the Soviets as Harry Gold. Gold confessed and testified that he also picked up material from a second source at Los Alamos, the bomb project's chief site. The FBI identified David Greenglass, a skilled machinist who worked on the implosion fuse for the plutonium bomb, as the second source. He also confessed, as did his wife Ruth; they identified their recruiters into espionage as David's brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, and David's sister, Ethel Rosenberg, both secret Communists. The Rosenbergs, who denied all, were convicted of espionage and received the death sentence, with prosecutors hoping they would confess to win reprieves and identify other members of the large spy apparatus Julius supervised. Both, however, refused to talk and were executed in 1953. (Fuchs, Gold, and Greenglass served long prison terms.)

Evidence that has appeared since the collapse of the Soviet Union has confirmed Julius Rosenberg's role as a Soviet spy. The Rosenberg case reinforced in the public mind the link between Soviet espionage and sympathy for Communism. The case was particularly inflammatory because it surfaced during the Korean War, when American troops were engaged in difficult combat against Communist soldiers, and because it involved atomic espionage and the unexpectedly swift ability of the Soviet Union to overcome the American atomic monopoly that had existed in 1945. That monopoly had briefly appeared to guarantee American security.

hiss case

In 1948 Whittaker Chambers, a journalist, testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that in the mid-1930s he had known Alger Hiss as part of a covert Communist network. Hiss was at the time a State Department official; in 1945 he had presided over the founding United Nations conference, and in 1947 he had become head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss denied the charge and sued Chambers for slander. In pre-trial proceedings, Chambers produced documents from 1938 indicating that Hiss had been a spy turning over State Department documents to Chambers, acting as Hiss's courier to Soviet intelligence. Chambers's documents were turned over to the U.S. Justice Department; a federal grand jury examined them, called Hiss and Chambers as witnesses, and indicted Hiss for giving perjured testimony about how the documents, most from Hiss's State Department office, had come into

Chambers's possession. In the ensuing two perjury trials (the first ended with a hung jury), Chambers and Hede Massing, another former Soviet courier, testified that they had known Hiss as a Soviet source. Most damning were documents in Chambers's possession, some in Hiss's handwriting, some with Hiss's State Department stamp and initials, and others forensically proven to have been typed on his family typewriter. Hiss denied any sympathy for Communism and produced prestigious character witnesses who testified that someone of Hiss's background and probity could not have committed espionage. Hiss was convicted in 1950 and served nearly four years in prison.

Evidence that has appeared since the collapse of the Soviet Union has indicated Hiss's guilt. In the public mind, the Hiss case established that prestigious members of the government elite could be attracted to Communism and betray the United States.

oppenheimer case

J. Robert Oppenheimer, a distinguished theoretical physicist, was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. He is credited with recruiting the scientific talent needed to design the atomic bomb and coordinating the scientific work with the massive engineering projects required to produce fissionable uranium and plutonium. In 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission, after lengthy hearings, voted not to renew Oppenheimer's security clearance. He was never charged with espionage, and no American security agency ever concluded that he spied. However, according to his own testimony he had been a financial contributor to the Communist Party until 1941. Oppenheimer's wife was the widow of a militant Communist official and his brother a secret Communist Party member. In 1943 Oppenheimer informed security officials that he had been asked to provide information to the Soviets by a friend and identified colleagues whom he regarded as security risks. However, he changed his statement about this incident several times and later repudiated parts of it. He was also ambiguous and unforthcoming when later asked about his relationship to the Communist Party.

Although many scientists regarded Oppenheimer as the victim of paranoia, to much of the public Oppenheimer's unresponsive testimony appeared suspicious. Evidence appearing after the Soviet collapse suggests that Oppenheimer probably was a Communist Party member until 1941, something he denied, but his role, if any, in espionage remains unclear.


Haynes, John Earl, and Klehr, Harvey. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Herken, Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

Radosh, Ronald, and Milton, Joyce. The Rosenberg File. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Random House, 1997.

John Earl Haynes

See also:CIA and Espionage; Civil Liberties, 1946–Present; Communism and Anticommunism; Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI); McCarthyism; Nixon, Richard M.; Truman, Harry S.

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