Special Report

Zealots Then, Zealots Now

What the Rosenberg spies can teach us about today's terrorists.

By 2.6.06

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Terrorist acts against the West have focused attention on fanatics who seek to overturn political and social order, even totally destroy society, in the name of an all-encompassing ideology. Comprehending the motivations of fanatical ideologues is critical to disrupting and preventing terrorism.

The September 11 attacks as well as the London and Madrid bombings were planned and conducted by men who lived in the West. As it has repeatedly over the last century, knowledge that the perpetrators have lived among us and fear that confederates may yet be at large accentuates the security threat, while the hunt for home-grown traitors disrupts innocent people's lives.

Fifty years ago, headlines around the world were also dominated by accounts of treason -- real and imaginary -- but at that time the focus was on zealots who idolized Marx and Lenin.

Although their goals and methods cannot simply be equated, there are commonalities between Americans who spied for Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s and those who dedicate their lives today to realizing the nightmares preached by radical imams. Communist spies hid behind a facade of legitimate political expression; the recruiters and organizers of terror are co-opting religious institutions.

ANALYZING THE EXPERIENCE AND MOTIVATIONS of Americans who spied for the USSR during the 1940s may help explain the actions of young men like the London bombers who have rejected the values of the country they grew up in and dedicated themselves to Jihad against the West. The history of Julius Rosenberg's espionage ring is especially instructive because several of its members and their comrades have described why they developed a religious faith in communism.

When he was asked in the 1990s why he had become a communist six decades earlier, Joel Barr, one of the most productive of the Rosenberg spies -- and, after defecting in 1950, a prominent engineer in Soviet military industry -- described his conversion in personal terms.

The Barr family was poor before Black Friday; it was destitute after the crash. Joel remembered returning home as a teenager in the early 1930s to see his family's belongings on the sidewalk, guarded by his sobbing mother. He witnessed the next eviction, "a tremendously harrowing scene, when the marshal came and put the furniture out on the street." The family ended up "with no toilet in the apartment, no hot water, [and] only a coal stove for heat," Barr recalled. His unemployed father was ashamed that he had to rely on charity to put food on the table.

Barr's family wasn't unique. Every day on the way to school, Joel passed men who had lost decent jobs and were reduced to selling apples on street corners and standing in soup lines.

For the poor anywhere in America in the 1920s and 1930s, it was difficult to believe that capitalism was the path to a prosperous future. It was particularly easy for the children of East European immigrants, raised like Barr and Rosenberg in the tenements and sweat shops of New York City, to put their faith in communism, the force that appeared to be transforming Russia, the most backward region in Europe, into a progressive, egalitarian nation.

Barr and many others who grew up in New York during the Depression used the same expression when asked how they first learned about communism. "It was in the air," they said. The Daily Worker was sold on street corners and, with other leftist literature, slipped under apartment doors.

Soviet propaganda films and articles depicting a fantastic world in which workers ascended from the coal mines, washed up, and attended operas in the evenings had a huge impact on boys like Barr. From his vantage point, communism wasn't a fringe movement. Rather, it was a vehicle that would carry him from his mother's world of superstitious religion, with America viewed through a haze from the bottom of society, into a dynamic future.

The fantasy version of Soviet life seemed as plausible to him as the Daily Worker's assertions that the U.S. was run by a gang of greedy plutocrats intent on exploiting the workers. The plight of unemployed men like his father seemed to verify this explanation.

Barr's family and those of his friends rarely traveled beyond New York's five boroughs and adjacent areas of New Jersey. Intellectually and emotionally they were more closely connected with Moscow and Kiev than with Minneapolis or Oklahoma City. The communist literary figure Lionel Abel reflected the mood when he wrote that in the 1930s "New York became the most interesting part of the Soviet Union." Barr was ignorant of how the vast majority of Americans lived, of their values and traditions, but he was aware of the discrimination that religious and racial minorities experienced.

EVEN IF HE COULD HAVE AFFORDED the tuition, Barr, like most of his classmates at City College of New York, would probably not have been accepted at elite colleges because they had unwritten but strictly enforced quotas on Jews. Similarly, he had no illusions that CCNY, where he met Julius Rosenberg and joined his Young Communist League cell, was the path to affluence. "We were all aware that the large corporations did not hire City College engineering graduates. For one thing, we were considered too radical; for another, most students were Jewish (to many people, this was redundant)," Morton Sobell, one of Barr's close friends at CCNY and later a member of the Rosenberg ring, wrote in his memoir Doing Time.

Pledging their lives to the communist cause during the Popular Front period when the CPUSA cloaked its true nature with talk of democracy and Americanism put Barr and Rosenberg on the edge of the American political spectrum. But, at a time when Earl Browder's speeches were carried on national radio networks, it did not mark them as fanatics. They crossed that line after August 21, 1939, the day the Nazi-Soviet Pact was announced. For Jewish intellectuals like Rosenberg and Barr, who were acutely aware of Hitler's anti-Semitism, remaining in the party required blind, religious faith.

Barr had no second thoughts about spying for the USSR. He considered it a duty and a privilege. Even more, it was an affirmation of his commitment. As Abel noted, "the prospect of committing a crime to further a cause in which you deeply believe is a very exciting one. Here is a test not only of what you believe, but also of what you are."

The decision to spy on America was not sparked by the urge to help an ally or even to fight fascism but by a desire to promote communism. Rosenberg's attempts to acquire military technology for Moscow began before the Nazi invasion of Russia -- that is, while Stalin was aligned with and providing assistance to Hitler.

Barr's self-image as a Soviet patriot explains why he continued to steal military secrets after the war in Europe was over. He believed that America's atomic weapons monopoly posed a threat to the USSR and that the Cold War had been "artificially stimulated by certain circles who were convinced that if the Soviet experiment were to succeed," it would be a threat to the U.S. and capitalism. During the Korean and Vietnam wars Barr enthusiastically worked in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union on military technology.

THE EXPERIENCES THAT MADE BARR a dedicated communist bear striking resemblances to the conditions in today's Parisian suburbs, whose high-rise housing projects are reminiscent of New York tenements in the first decades of the 20 th century. Even more than Barr's contemporaries, Muslim emigrants throughout Europe feel they are the subjects of racial and religious discrimination and have little hope for social or economic integration into the prosperous society surrounding them.

Like communist appeals for volunteers to combat fascism in Spain in the 1930s, radical Islam's recruiting messages for martyrs to fight in Chechnya and Iraq are "in the air," preached in mosques, propagated in pamphlets and promoted on the Internet.

Noting the similarities between the backgrounds and outlooks of Julius Rosenberg's confederates and Mohammad Atta's jihadists is not intended to suggest a moral equivalence in their actions. Nor is an analysis of the soil that nurtures fanatics in any way an excuse for espionage or terrorism.

Nonetheless, comprehending how fanaticism's roots lie in alienation from society, hopeless living conditions, and a desire to advance an ideological, romantic or religious fantasy -- and how attractive it is for people swept up in a secret world, especially young men, to commit crimes -- is relevant to understanding and fighting terrorism.

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About the Author

Steven Usdin is the author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley (Yale University Press), which tells how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant helped Julius Rosenberg give military secrets to the KGB, evade arrest and create successful careers at the pinnacle of Soviet military industry. Usdin is a senior editor at BioCentury Publications, where he is responsible for covering issues at the intersection of public policy, science and politics, ranging from stem cells and cloning to drug safety.