Eighty years ago this fall, officials at Fort Monmouth could have headed off the most notorious spy ring in United States history.

Instead, they let Julius Rosenberg talk his way out of trouble and spawn a network that handed over some of the military’s most precious secrets to the Soviet Union.

That was one of many fascinating insights presented by Stevens Institute of Technology professor Alex Wellerstein, a leading science historian, during a public talk Monday.

The son of poor Russian immigrants, Rosenberg landed a job with Fort Monmouth in 1940 as a quality inspector, making sure contractors were properly making equipment ordered by the the fort’s Signal Corps Laboratory — a crucial hub in the development of radar technology.  

“That puts him in a very good position if you’re a spy,” Wellerstein said. “You travel to lots of different places, you look at lots of different things, you get access to lots of different blueprints.”

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in New York in 1951.

Blamed his wife

A committed Communist, Rosenberg started spying in 1941, right around the time the FBI discovered that his wife Ethel had signed a Communist political petition. He was confronted and talked his way out of being fired.

“He said, ‘I’m not a Communist; my wife signs all sorts of stupid things,’” Wellerstein said. “Which would be a fair argument, except he signs all sorts of (Communist) stuff himself and they never found out.”

That lack of digging becomes a pattern as the government desperately stockpiles engineers during the run-up to World War II. Thus Fort Monmouth “becomes an incredible hub” for Soviet spying, Wellerstein said during Monday’s “Nuclear Espionage at Fort Monmouth: The Story of Julius Rosenberg and his Spy Ring,” which was presented by Montclair State University.

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Stevens professor Alex Wellerstein, a leading historian of science and nuclear technology

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg achieved worldwide notoriety in the 1950s, when they were convicted of espionage and executed. Ethel’s culpability remains questionable to this day, but Julius’ plundering of cutting-edge U.S. technology for the Soviets has become a matter of public record. And the most damage was done from his base at Fort Monmouth.

“Rosenberg is really famous for atomic-bomb spying, and that’s what he’s prosecuted for, but that’s not the most important stuff he gave,” Wellerstein said. “The most important stuff he gave was all that stuff he was doing with the Signal Force Laboratory.”

Like the proximity fuse.

From Left to right are Oscar John Vago, Julius Rosenberg with Harry McCabe, U.S. Marshall being brought into federal court, Dec. 1, 1950.

“A tiny little radar built into your artillery shell,” Wellerstein explained. “You can set it for how far you want it from (making contact with) something before it explodes.”

This “made it a lot easier to shoot things down,” Wellerstein said, by negating the need for a precise hit. Rosenberg pulled a proximity fuse that had failed inspection out of the garbage, fixed it up and presented it to his handlers. The Soviets used it to shoot down the American U-2 spy plane in 1960.

Some of the secret technology Julius Rosenberg and his accomplices stole from Fort Monmouth and turned over to the Soviets.

Lax security, no background checks

As spotty as security was at Fort Monmouth, it was even more lax with their contractors. Rosenberg recruited an entire spy ring, and two of them also worked at Fort Monmouth. Incredibly, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant were fired from Fort Monmouth for Communist activity and then went to work for military contractor Western Electric.

Barr made the switch first, in 1942.

“They (Western Electric) do not do any sort of background checking on him,” Wellerstein said. “If they had called Fort Monmouth and said, ‘Why did this guy leave?’ they would have known. They did not do that. He told them he decided to move over to a better opportunity, they took him at his word, so they put him on really top-secret projects.”

Allowed to take even the most sensitive documents home so they could work around the clock, Barr and Sarant turned over thousands of pages of secret plans to the Soviets.

By 1942, Wellerstein said, the FBI had “ample evidence” that Rosenberg, Barr and Sarant were Communist Party members.

An FBI memo flagging Julius Rosenberg and his accomplices years before they were caught.

“They just didn’t look into it that deeply,” he said.

Why not? It was during World War II, and the FBI was fixated on the Nazis. Remember, the Soviet Union was an ally in the war effort at that time.

Plus, Wellerstein said, the government “did not have a great screening system set up” — even for people working on top-secret military projects.

By the time the spy ring got busted in the 1950s, Barr and Sarant had fled to the Soviet Union, where they forged distinguished careers in technology. The Rosenbergs went to the electric chair. Ethel’s execution was so badly botched, it required five rounds of shocks.

At the end, witnesses reported, smoke rose from her head.

Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]

Source: Asbury Park

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