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Refusing to Cooperate

Lawrence Kaplan, Professor Emeritus of History, City College of New York, is the author and editor of a number of books, including the forthcoming, Between Ocean and City: Rockaway Beach, New York. In the interest of full disclosure, he wishes to note that his wife is a cousin of Sobell.

Morton Sobell, On Doing Time (San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Association, 2001), 416 pages and CD-ROM, $15.95 paper.

When the Rosenbergs received the death penalty for what J. Edgar Hoover called “the crime of the century,” Morton Sobell was sentenced to a term of thirty years. A second edition of On Doing Time, his memoir of one of the most controversial cases in U.S. legal history, is now published in paperback by the Golden Gate National Parks Association. Included with this new edition is an exciting CD-ROM containing selections from Sobell’s partially released FBI file, as well as a new preface and additional photographs. His lawyer, the late Marshall Perlin, fought over the course of more than twenty-five years to obtain the files under the Freedom of Information Act. They provide important supplementation to the book.

After his conviction, Morton Sobell was banished to Alcatraz, one of the most notorious prisons in the country. Located on an island in the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, it housed the nation’s most hardened federal criminals. This prison had nothing to do with rehabilitation; inmates sent there were considered beyond redemption. A significant percentage wound up deranged and had to be sent away to Springfield Medical Center’s psychiatric unit. The FBI and the Justice Department deliberately shipped Sobell to Alcatraz in order to make his life sufficiently miserable that he might “cooperate” with the authorities. Interestingly, and contrary to official predictions, he was respected by his fellow prisoners because he had not “ratted” to save his own skin. On Doing Time describes Alcatraz from the viewpoint of an inmate who spent five years within its walls. It is the most objective extant account and, therefore, a unique historical document, which explains the Golden Gate National Parks Association’s decision to publish it. They have also signified their confidence in its accuracy regarding life on “the rock.” Sobell presents a vivid picture of the inhuman conditions existing in Alcatraz, as well as his survival mechanisms. Particularly fascinating is his account, contained in the CD-ROM, of a prisoner’s work strike that was inaccurately reported by the warden and the media at the time.

Far from being a dry recounting, this book is a deeply personal and moving narrative. The author is remarkably frank about how he and his then wife, Helen Sobell, managed to maintain a trusting, intimate relationship while separated for over eighteen years. As the FBI documents reflect, Roy Cohn (one of the prosecution team) suggested Alcatraz for Sobell (a New Yorker) as a way of putting an extra strain on his marriage and getting him to “talk.” Similarly, trying to break his confidence in Helen, the FBI had anonymous letters sent to him disclosing tales of her infidelity. However, the independent-minded Sobell had insisted that he and his wife maintain complete openness and honesty during his long imprisonment. Once that principle was firmly established, he could come to terms with his own situation. Most of Helen’s energy was, in fact, devoted to fighting for his freedom.

The FBI files demonstrate clearly the agency’s persistent assumption that Morton’s wife controlled him, and that she was the one who urged him to remain defiant. This view was encouraged by prisoners, serving as informers, who wished to gain favors for themselves. The FBI apparently believed these con men. Their erroneous slant was, in turn, accepted by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their 1983 book, The Rosenberg File, an example of how these authors accepted the FBI version of events, no matter how distorted.

The FBI was troubled by the existence of the Sobell Committee, which tried to effect his release and educate people about the case. The agency did its best to infiltrate the Committee, to impede its work and to discredit famous people—-such as Bertrand Russell—-who spoke out in support of Sobell. The FBI files also reveal that Judge Irving R. Kaufman, the presiding judge who had imposed the draconian sentences at the trial, appealed to the agency to stop production of a play favorable to the defendants. All these underhanded activities, violations of the first amendment, are documented in the files contained in the CD-ROM.

The book and accompanying files also reveal how Sobell refused to compromise his fundamental principles, even at great cost to himself. The FBI repeatedly tried to cajole him into offering information about an alleged atomic spy ring so that the prosecution could justify its case against the Rosenbergs, even after their execution, but he insisted that he knew nothing about any spy ring. The government’s strategy, of alternating threats and promises of relief, over many years, resulted from the weakness of their case. Actual FBI memos in the released files admit the lack of evidence against Sobell, including one from Myles Lane, the Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Although the prosecution presented absolutely no proof that Sobell had any connection with atomic bomb research, he was conjoined as a co-defendant with the Rosenbergs to give the impression that an extensive spy ring had been in operation. In this fratricidal case, involving a brother sending his own sister to the electric chair, Max Elitcher, the best man at the Sobell wedding, was the only person to testify against him. Particularly damning for the defendants was an uncorroborated Elitcher story that, although both vague and illogical, was apparently believed by the prosecution-friendly jury. Not surprisingly, we now have an FBI memo admitting that Elitcher, who himself faced a perjury charge, “knew very little concerning Sobell’s activities.”

The files also reveal how the FBI, in preparation for the trial, desperately sought evidence of Sobell’s wrongdoing to support the prosecution’s claims of a conspiracy. They interviewed people who had known him at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, where he had worked during the war, yet none could recall any instance of missing documents or anything resembling “suspicious behavior” on his part. Ultimately, the case against him was built on his decision in 1950, two days before the Korean War broke out, to leave the United States and go abroad by way of Mexico. Although he and his wife used their own names on the flight down to Mexico City, and in their local living arrangements, Sobell devised transparent pseudonyms when he went to Vera Cruz and Tampico seeking information about ocean passage to Europe. These activities, while used against him at his trial, do not actually establish a connection with the Rosenbergs or reveal any specific wrongdoing.

Mexico occupies a sizeable portion of the CD-ROM because Sobell was removed from that country illegally and the FBI tried to disguise this fact. In reality he was kidnapped, although at the trial the prosecution spoke about his “deportation.” Nevertheless, the FBI has still not released all the relevant documentation regarding this matter, on grounds of national security, although fifty years have passed. “National security” is also used to explain the redaction (blacking out) of large sections of the material that has been released. It appears that many people secretly informed on others and provided regular data for the FBI, but it is doubtful whether their names will ever be revealed. The most interesting aspect of On Doing Time is Sobell’s discussion of the trial. The book reminds us of the hysterical time in which it took place, a reality that cannot be ignored by anyone who tries to understand the case. The defendants’ legal team was intimidated and ultimately forced into crucial errors of judgment, many of which proved disastrous. Sobell relates the lawyers’ lack of preparation and the impossibility of matching the government’s resources. Although the verdict still remains controversial, few people now believe that the Rosenbergs and Sobell had a fair trial. Nor can any of the punishments be justified. The sketches allegedly copied at Los Alamos by David Greenglass, and impounded at the trial for security reasons, possessed little ultimate value. Recent studies, including Amy Knight’s Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant(1994), David Holloway’s Stalin and the Bomb (1994) and Bombshell by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel (1997) indicate that Soviet nuclear developments did benefit from information fed to them from western sources. But the key information appears to have come from two bona fide physicists who worked on the bomb, Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, neither of whom had any connection with either the Rosenbergs or Sobell.

This book and its accompanying documentation present a powerful case that Morton Sobell was tried and convicted for a crime he did not commit. The approach used by the U.S. government at the trial helped create an atmosphere that had important domestic consequences. The Rosenberg-Sobell case furthered a McCarthyism that stifled dissent and led ultimately to the creation of a conservative consensus in the United States. On Doing Time, and the associated FBI files on CD-ROM, remind us of an era of fear that saw shameful behavior on the part of public authorities. If Morton Sobell had taken the easy way out and helped the government spin tales of a great conspiracy, it is quite likely that the results for our country would have been far worse.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 04 (September)
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