A Tale of Two Trials: Soviet Propaganda at Home and Abroad

This year, the sixtieth anniversaries of two important trials will take place. The likelihood is that they will be scarcely noticed, although in their day these trials were monumentally important examples of the all-out propaganda offensive the USSR would wage during the coming years of the Cold War. Even now, these trials provide a unique window onto the way in which the Communist propaganda machine worked, denying and in effect erasing Soviet brutalities at the same time that it was projecting exactly the crimes Stalin had committed—in this case, a summary judicial execution based in large part on rank anti-Semitism—onto the American political and legal system.

The trial of Rudolf Slansky, and ten other top party officials, for the crimes of high treason and sabotage in Prague in 1951 was one of those travesties of justice that communist parties of the West would contort fact and logic to justify. In the totalitarian “people’s democracy,” the defendants were brutally tortured and forced to confess to intriguing to remove Czechoslovakia from the Soviet camp and restore capitalism. As in the show trials carried out earlier in the Soviet Union, it was a classic Stalinist operation. The arrest and indictment guaranteed a guilty verdict. Slansky, then general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, was scapegoated for the country’s economic failings and for fears about its possible political deviancy within the Communist bloc—“Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism” was the exact charge.

We now know that Slansky and his co-defendants were forced to memorize scripts they were presented; that interrogators monitored the proceedings from a secret room to see that they kept to what they were ordered to say; and that, at each day’s end, the prosecutors, judges, and interrogators met to plan the next day’s proceedings. Slansky’s own counsel said that guilt “has been clearly proven, their activity cannot be defended . . . from the legal point of view the indictment cannot be contested.” When given an opportunity to address the court before being sentenced, Slansky, former revered party leader who had tried to commit suicide in prison, also stuck to the script: “I deserve no other end to my criminal life than that proposed by the state prosecutor.”

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A major aspect of the Slansky trial that was underreported at the time, even by those who protested the travesty, was its virulent anti-Semitism. Of the fourteen defendants, eleven, including Slansky himself, were always described to the court as being of Jewish origin; all were accused of supporting Zionist groups, as well as of being supporters of Israel. As the trial concluded with sentences of death by hanging, there were no protests anywhere in Czechoslovakia. To the contrary, thousands of supportive resolutions poured in to the party from labor unions, government agencies, high schools, university groups, and so forth. Many of them, it turned out, also included anti-Semitic comments.


When Slansky was executed on December 3, 1952, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were in prison in New York awaiting President Dwight Eisenhower’s response to their appeals following their conviction, along with co-defendant Morton Sobell, for espionage almost a year earlier. The Rosenberg case had the elements of high drama and stood in stark contrast to the secretive, gray courtroom proceedings in the Slansky affair. The trial was widely covered by the press; witnesses were subjected to grueling cross-examination by the defense counsel; reporters arrived every day knowing there would be some new twist—Ethel Rosenberg’s betrayal by her brother; government charges that providing atomic secrets to the Soviets had led to the Korean War, all of whose American casualties were caused by the defendants; the introduction of hand-drawn sketches of nuclear weapons designs into evidence.

There were judicial irregularities; in particular, ex parte communication by the judge and prosecutor Roy Cohn, regarding the death sentence, and also use by the government of a secret jailhouse informer, Jerome Eugene Tartakow, who was planted in Julius Rosenberg’s cell. But when the prosecution ended its case, the jury had plenty of objective evidence on which to judge the Rosenberg couple, who had certainly had their day in court. Indeed, when asked political questions, Julius Rosenberg had gone out of his way to defend the Soviet Union, telling the judge and the jury “that the Soviet government has improved the lot of the underdog . . . has made a lot of progress in eliminating illiteracy, has done a lot of reconstruction work and built up a lot of resources.” He clammed up, citing his Fifth Amendment rights, only when asked in effect if he was a member of any pro-Soviet group, such as the American Communist Party.

Summations by both sides were made at the end of two weeks, and on April 5, 1951, Judge Irving Kaufman handed down his sentence: death by execution at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. The defendants were not executed the very next day, as was the case with the Prague defendants. Indeed, for the next two years, their counsel pushed the legal system to the limits, using every maneuver possible to have the sentence overturned, and the death sentence commuted.

The Rosenbergs were headline news everywhere but in the Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker. It remained mum except for a short editorial that protested the death sentence and argued that the couple was a scapegoat for the Korean War, but did not charge that they had been framed. When a major international movement emerged to defend the Rosenbergs—eventually becoming an international phenomenon—it began not in the Communist press, but rather in the fellow-traveling weekly, the National Guardian.

The Guardian’s two editors at the time, James Aronson and Cedric Belfrage (who we now know from the Venona decrypts was a KGB agent), met with the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, in August of 1951. After talking to him, Belfrage complained that the Communist Party was “too preoccupied and threatened by its own leaders’ trials to come to the defense of these obscure people.” The two men assigned the story to the paper’s “investigative reporter,” William Reuben. On August 15, 1951, the Guardian broke his story with a front-page headline: “The Rosenberg Conviction—Is This the Dreyfus Case of Cold War America?” The editors wrote that the accused were “victims of an out-and-out political frame-up.”

While readers found some of Reuben’s arguments persuasive, no movement emerged until two readers, a novelist named David Alman and his wife Emily, both of whom belonged to various Communist front groups, began a small committee on their own that they called the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. The committee’s first public appeal came in the paper in mid-January of 1952. When Emily Alman tried to persuade the disciplined and well-organized Communist Party USA to put its cadre into the effort, she got no answer, and was told only by its leaders that the Rosenbergs were “expendable.”

The small group put together by the Almans struggled on its own with little support, until suddenly, in November and December of 1952—almost overnight, it seemed—their committee was flooded with eager volunteers. Donations began pouring in. It became clear that suddenly the American Communist Party had reversed course and ordered its cadre to join the campaign and put all its efforts into the work. A rally was held in the New York theater district with appearances by the black baritone and secret Communist Party member Paul Robeson and the actress Ruby Dee. By Christmas, the committee had enough funds to charter a train to carry thousands of people to demonstrate on the Rosenbergs’ behalf at Sing Sing. Later, they would be able to charter trains to send thousands more to picket the White House.


A few major themes now emerged from the propaganda campaign waged by the Almans’ committee. One of the most significant was seen in the words of one Communist leader: “Every Jew knows . . . that the Rosenbergs have been convicted because of anti-Semitism.”

The American committee’s work, and its propaganda, spread quickly throughout Western Europe, with Rosenberg defense committees emerging in many countries. It was at this moment that the intersection with the Slansky trial became quite clear. It was on December 3, 1952—the same day that the French Rosenberg Defense Committee was founded—that Rudolf Slansky and his co-defendants were executed in Prague. Clearly, the Stalinist apparatus in Moscow desperately needed something to deflect the world’s attention from the sordid execution of the innocent in Prague. The Rosenberg case fit the bill perfectly.

Indeed, the persecution of these “innocent Jewish peace activists” was a perfect device for deflecting attention away from the crude and overt anti-Semitism of the Prague trial. The first to argue that the Rosenbergs were indicted precisely because they were Jews was the leader of the French Communist Party, Jacques Duclos, who had a few years earlier given his name to the so-called “Duclos letter,” which was actually written by Stalin, demanding the purge of Earl Browder as head of the American Communist movement for revisionism after Browder argued for a future of peaceful cooperation between the capitalist US and Soviet Russia.

First, the French audience was introduced to the Rosenberg case by the American Communist novelist Howard Fast, who authored an article in the French party paper L’Humanité in November of 1952. Denouncing the “stale smell of fascism” that pervaded America, Fast wrote that the Rosenbergs were simply “Jews with the opinions of Progressives, but they were not Communists to the best of anyone’s knowledge.”

Next, Duclos, speaking in December of 1952, proclaimed that “the conviction of US atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an example of anti-Semitism, but the execution of eight Jews in Czechoslovakia last week was not.” Echoing his statement, the American Communist Party leader and ideological soldier, historian Herbert Aptheker, wrote the following to the anti-Communist social-democrat philosopher Sidney Hook, who had written that Slansky was framed but that the Rosenbergs were guilty of a “heinous crime”:

In one trial defendants charged with specific acts of treason, sabotage and murder . . . confess their guilt—but you are sure they were “framed”; in the other case the defendants, though offered their lives if they confess, refuse the offer and persist in maintaining their innocence, but you are sure they are guilty.

Finally, the most august name in French philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre, called the Rosenbergs’ pending execution “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation.” Thus the Rosenbergs’ sentence proved “the bankruptcy of the Atlantic Pact” as well as America’s inability “to lead the Western World.” He warned his fellow countrymen to “be careful, the United States has rabies. Let us sever our ties—or we may in turn be bitten and catch the disease.”

Not until this past year, when the former KGB librarian Alexander Vassiliev released his “Notebooks” (verbatim renditions of documents he meticulously copied from the KGB archives, and eventually smuggled into London, where he now lives), was there corroboration that the American and Western European campaigns to gain clemency for the Rosenbergs had been created directly in Moscow from the very start.

Right after the couple’s trial ended, on April 14, 1951, the KGB posted its first messages for Soviet propagandists at home and their counterparts abroad. The document appears in a section of the Vassiliev notebooks called “Using the Press.” The first called on their followers to “organize a vigorous campaign in our press and, even more so, in the foreign press. It would be preferable to publish articles about the trial first and foremost in the non-Communist press.” The KGB then instructed the author what points to make in the propaganda articles:

1. Spy-mania is at its peak.

2. Its purpose—coarse anti-Soviet propaganda and a crusade against the CP USA.

3. The USSR is officially recognized as the number one enemy, even in peacetime; greater even than Germany during wartime.

4. Proof of this are the mild sentences for the Japanese spy Tokyo Rose (10 years) and the German spy Axis Sally (10 years).

5. The sentence, with its anti-Soviet goals, is aimed at worsening relations between the USSR and the USA, rather than improving them . . . 

6. Frightening the populace, [because] by a single denunciation, innocent people can be sentenced to death, no American can be certain about the future.

The KGB instructions went on to note that “the Americans need to understand that this is a trial balloon for the reactionaries, who seek . . . to turn the country completely fascist. . . . If the [death] sentence is not revoked, Americans will be threatened by repression the likes of which they have never dreamed of.”

The KGB went on to address the issue of the death sentence. As the Rosenberg defense would later do, it stressed Ethel’s plight; i.e., “the mother of two is sentenced to die by electric chair,” which it said should be portrayed as “the latest word from American civilization.” It argued that “the court’s verdict was decided before this judicial travesty began,” perhaps thinking of how verdicts were made in the Soviet Union’s own show trials, and stressed that propaganda underline “the immorality of a country capable of passing such a sentence.”

When it came to specifics, the KGB advised that an effort be made to besmirch the testimony against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg that came from Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, and his wife Ruth. Their prosecution, the directive argued, “was based almost exclusively on the testimonies of Z-r [Greenglass] and his wife, and attempt to refute these testimonies would be of significant interest.” It added their belief that neither Ruth nor David “were psychologically prepared for such a harsh sentence,” and hoped that they could “induce” David to “retract his testimony.”

There is no evidence indicating that such an overture was indeed ever made to Greenglass, or that if the KGB prepared it, that its agents in the US could find someone who could get it to Greenglass, who was by that time himself in prison.

As the propaganda campaign progressed, it became clear to the KGB, as well as to its American apparat, that the Rosenbergs would go to their deaths rather than betray the cause to which they devoted their lives. They entered into the propaganda realm on their own, just as the KGB had originally suggested. With publication and widespread dissemination of their “Death House Letters,” as they came to be called, the public at large could read what purported to be their personal correspondence with each other and to their soon-to-be-orphaned sons. These letters were filled with propaganda themes that could be used by their defense team. As Ethel was to write in one letter, for instance, they were incarcerated because they had been advocates of peace, and of “American democracy, justice and brotherhood.” Like Willie McGee, a black man who had been executed in Mississippi in 1951, Julius wrote, they too were to be given the same sentence of execution by the electric chair, because he and Ethel were “political prisoners.”

All of this now seems very far away, even farther than sixty years ago. Yet these two events show how the Soviets and their allies in the US ran a propaganda campaign on our own soil that convinced many Americans to adopt its themes and fight on behalf of a couple who indeed were, just as the US prosecutors claimed, spies for the Soviet Union. The KGB was able to use the Rosenbergs to offset the injustice of the Slansky trial and counter the anti-Semitism at its heart while also creating anti-American sentiment in Europe. Nowhere did the KGB campaign bear sweeter fruit than in France, where the Rosenberg Defense Committee was so successful that the American Embassy sent its young press attaché, future Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, back to the United States so he could research material to counter the Soviet disinformation campaign. The US ambassador to France, Douglas Dillon, reported to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that feeling was so strong about the Rosenbergs in France that it had reached crisis proportions and was affecting US-French relations. The French believed that the trial and the sentence were due “to political climate peculiar to the United States,” he wired Dulles, precisely what the KGB hoped Europeans would believe. Meanwhile, members of the French left, as we now know, not only did and said nothing about the Slansky verdict, but worked hard to make it disappear—almost as hard as they worked to inflate the Rosenberg trial to epic proportions as a way of prosecuting America for exactly the kind of crimes that the Soviets had committed.

Ronald Radosh, an emeritus professor of history at City University of New York and an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the co-author of The Rosenberg File and a columnist for PJ Media.

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