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The Soviet Spies of Fort Monmouth

Editor’s note: The story of Julius Rosenberg and the theft of the Manhattan Project atomic bomb secrets is one of the most chronicled events in American history.  Most of that coverage is focused on Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, and her brother, David Greenglass, whose testimony was largely responsible for the arrest, trial and ultimately the execution of the Rosenbergs.  Much controversy has existed over the guilt or innocence of Julius and Ethel with respect to the Manhattan Project espionage.  

Far less attention has been paid to what has been characterized in at least one investigatory book as “the other spy ring,” the one that came together at Fort Monmouth and stole radio and radar secrets from the U.S. Signal Corps.

As per Monmouth Timeline policy, we will not delve into the atomic bomb espionage ring or the controversies surrounding the Rosenberg executions, as this has very little to do with Monmouth County, and has been thoroughly covered elsewhere.  

For the same reason, we will not seek herein to provide highly detailed insights into the technology systems that were so crucial to the U.S. in World War II, and to the USSR in the Cold War.  The website of the InfoAge Science and History Center (infoage.org) is an excellent source of this kind of detailed technical and anecdotal information about the many different systems, devices and experiments carried out at Fort Monmouth during this period, and the site and museum are well worth the visit.

On June 22, 1938, Joel Barr graduated from the City College of New York (CCNY).  The following semester, his friend and classmate Julius Rosenberg would also graduate from CCNY.  They had bright futures ahead of them and could well have become exemplars of the American Dream: the sons of immigrants getting a good education and the promise of steady employment.  But they chose a different route, becoming traitors and spying against their nation on behalf of a country they’d never even visited.  This is the story of the Soviet Spies of Fort Monmouth.

Julius Rosenberg, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant were civilian electrical engineers employed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth during the early 1940s who stole military secrets and spied on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II.  All were American-born sons of European immigrants; all came of age during the Great Depression, and they were as disenchanted with what they saw as the inequities of American capitalist democracy as they were passionate about the promise of a better world under Soviet Union-style communism.  Rosenberg, along with his wife Ethel, was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for espionage and treason for stealing atomic bomb secrets from the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., unrelated to Fort Monmouth or the Signal Corps.  Barr and Sarant were never arrested, proved to be very successful spies, lived long lives, and ultimately founded Russia’s microelectronics industry, modeled after Silicon Valley.  Rosenberg is infamous for stealing atomic bomb secrets, but the top secret technologies that he, Barr and Sarant stole for the Soviets related to the U.S. Army Signal Corps are thought by many to have had a much greater impact on the Cold War.

Joyel “Joel” Barr (January 1, 1916 – August 1, 1998) and Julius Rosenberg (May 12, 1918 – June 19, 1953) were born and raised in New York City and studied electrical engineering at the CCNY, where they first became acquainted, and bonded over their admiration of the reforms they believed to be taking place in Russia following the overthrow of the Tsars.  Barr’s family name was originally Zbarsky, Ukrainian, changed to Barr at Ellis Island.

Alfred Epamenondas Sarant was born on September 26, 1918, and raised in Hempstead, N.Y., on Long Island, where he proved to be an outstanding student. His family name had been Sarantopoulos, Greek, but his father changed it to Sarant after emigrating to America.  

Like Barr and Rosenberg, Sarant also studied electrical engineering, at Cooper Union in New York City, graduating in 1941.  All three were members of various communist-sympathizing groups during their college years.

After graduating, Barr, and later Rosenberg, took the Civil Service exam and applied for government jobs, because at that time the large corporations that employed engineers rarely hired Jews.  On April 12, 1940, Barr reported to his new job in Washington, D.C., with the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA); later that spring, Julius’s wife Ethel Rosenberg was hired by the Census Bureau, and she and Julius then also moved to Washington, D.C., where they reconnected with Barr socially.  

Barr was soon bored with his first job, and, seeking greater opportunities during a time of technological innovation, was hired as a civilian engineer by the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth in July of 1941.  In September of 1941, Julius Rosenberg was hired at Fort Monmouth as well, where he and Ethel once again reconnected with Barr, his CCNY classmate.

Sarant, not Jewish, had an easier path to post-graduate employment, getting hired as an engineer at Western Electric, the manufacturing subsidiary of Bell Telephone in June of 1941.  Like Barr, he was quickly bored with his assignment, and joined the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth in late 1941, believing it offered opportunities to work with more advanced technologies.  There, he met Barr and Rosenberg.

This posting allowed the Rosenbergs, Barr and Sarant to live in New York City and be close to friends and family.  For Rosenberg, it was employment as an engineer that had not been easy to find, given that he was not a top student, and the salary allowed he and Ethel to move into an apartment in the new Knickerbocker Village housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  For Barr and Sarant, who were superior students, it was the opportunity they sought to work on sophisticated and experimental engineering-related projects.  They were tasked with helping to design and enhance manufacturing processes for defense systems and technologies being devised at Fort Monmouth, with the actual manufacturing carried out by private sector defense contractors.

As a security measure, senior scientists and engineers at Fort Monmouth were typically aware of the details of only those projects they worked on, and they were subject to intense security precautions.  Military security officials compartmentalized research by assigning projects to different facilities, but eventually, those ideas that received the green light to be implemented required that all the pieces be assembled and tested by mid-level engineers who understood how they fit together, and what they were supposed to do.  This is where Barr and Sarant worked.

In November of 1942, Rosenberg was posted to the Signal Corps procurement offices in Brooklyn.  He became a quality assurance inspector, traveling to defense contractor facilities to ensure they were adhering to Signal Corps manufacturing specifications and requirements.  

Manufacturing engineers like Barr and Sarant were encouraged to study weapons systems beyond those they were specifically assigned to work on, and so they had access to all Signal Corps facilities and were permitted to go into any other sections.  Thus, between them, Barr, Sarant and Rosenberg had unfettered access to detailed plans of all of the projects that received approval and were being implemented.

During this time, despite the rest of the world being either already at war or perched on the precipice, security within the Army Signal Corps was surprisingly lax.  Of primary concern was the potential for German saboteurs to wreak havoc, while communists were considered undesirable as employees, security risks, but not traitors and spies.

Julius Rosenberg conceived of the notion that providing U.S. defense secrets to the Soviet Union was the best way for American communists to help support their cause.  Engineers assigned to figure out how to mass-produce advanced American technologies were in an excellent position to teach the Soviets how to do the same.  He canvassed his connections within the New York City communist community seeking someone with a direct connection to Russian intelligence agencies.  In late winter of 1941, Rosenberg succeeded in being recruited to work with Soviet intelligence agents for the purpose of turning over U.S. military secrets.  

On December 14, 1941, FBI investigators determined that Joel Barr was a communist based on his college activities, but no action was taken.  On September, 6, 1942, Sarant was fired by the Signal Corps for his efforts to recruit civilian engineers to join a union.  With experienced electrical engineers in short supply during wartime, Sarant had little trouble finding new employment, and on September 30, 1942, he reported to his new job with his former employer, Western Electric, which was engaged in manufacturing radio and radar systems developed at Fort Monmouth.

On February 23, 1942, Joel Barr was finally fired from the Signal Corps for being a security risk.  Sarant introduced Barr to his Western Electric connections, and on March 16, 1942, Barr was hired and joined the company at its Bayonne plant in Kearny, N.J., to work on airborne radar systems.  No effort was made to check his background.

Julius Rosenberg continued on with his work for the Signal Corps, living in Greenwich Village, and he stayed in touch with Barr and Sarant, who were roommates also living in Greenwich Village.  It’s likely in Rosenberg’s role as field inspector that he had opportunity to visit with Barr and Sarant in their capacities at Western Electric.

In the “latter half” of 1942, Rosenberg invited Barr and Sarant to use him as a conduit for transmitting military secrets to the USSR, as he had already begun doing with documents available to him as a field inspector.  Ultimately, others would also be recruited, people who were not a part of the Signal Corps or Fort Monmouth, or the work done there, but who had access to other classified military information of possible use to the USSR.  Sarant and Barr had access to virtually every major defense technology at their respective defense contractor jobs.  They were encouraged to bring confidential documents home to study on their own time.

This group took advantage of this opportunity and began to work at a furious pace, converting thousands of pages of schematics, plans, technical drawings, process designs, procedural manuals, etc., into microfilm, which was then funneled to KGB cutouts.  This ring worked around the clock all the way through the end of the war and beyond.  Intercepted Soviet messages at one point suggested the KGB was concerned that Rosenberg might be exhausted from overwork.

Julius Rosenberg, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant were all physically together on the actual Fort Monmouth base in Monmouth County for only about a year.  All three were on the base as of late October or November of 1941, but about a year later, Rosenberg was transferred to the Signal Corps facility in Brooklyn, and by early 1942, all three were working outside of Monmouth County.  Julius Rosenberg remained on the Signal Corps payroll until 1945, when he was finally outed as a communist and fired for being a security risk.

While it is possible that each man lived for some short time in the Monmouth County area upon securing employment with the Signal Corps, all three chose to live in New York City, and so apparently they were never residents of Monmouth County for any meaningful amount of time.

They never lived in Monmouth County, and they spent a brief time working here. So how could they have been such a successful spy ring?

We believe that while they apparently did not steal secrets during their brief time together at the Fort Monmouth base, they bonded there around their loyalty to the USSR and came to realize they had an opportunity to share these secrets with Soviet intelligence agents.  And the secrets they did steal were systems that had been developed by the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth; they had access to secret documents at defense contractors specifically because they had worked on these systems at Fort Monmouth.  

So what kinds of secrets did they steal?

During World War II, Fort Monmouth was involved in research in a number of areas.  Many of the U.S. Defense Department’s most important technologies were being developed or refined at Fort Monmouth in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and manufactured according to Signal Corps specifications.  Rosenberg, Barr and Sarant turned over to the KGB tens of thousand of pages of plans, details and secrets, which were of great help to the Soviets in the early years of the Cold War.  In particular, all three were involved in the development and manufacturing of what has been described by some as the single most important technology of the Second World War: radar.

SOURCES:

BIG ROLE IN SOVIET COMPUTERS LAID TO ROSENBERG ASSOCIATE.  (1983).  Associated Press in The New York Times, September 19, 1983, Section B, P. 14.  Available: https://www.nytimes.com/1983/09/19/us/big-role-in-soviet-computers-laid-to-rosenberg-associate.html?searchResultPosition=2

Kling, Andrew A.  (2012).  The Red Scare.  Lucent Books, A part of Gale, Cengage Learning.  Gale eBooks.  Available:  https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2349300001/GVRL?u=monmouth_main&sid=GVRL&xid=1d1118c3. (library membership required).

Radosh, Ronald & Milton, Joyce.  (1983).  The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth.  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, N.Y.

Staff of the Historical Office.  (2008).  A History of Army Communications and Electronics at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey 1917-2007.  Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, U.S. Army CECOM Life Cycle Management Command, Fort Monmouth, N.J.  U.S. Government Printing Office, available: bookstore.gpo.gov.

Usdin, Steven T.  (2005).  Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.

Usdin, Steven T.  (2007).  Tracking Julius Rosenberg’s Lesser Known Associates: Famous Espionage Cases.  Central Intelligence Agency Library, April 15, 2007.  Updated June 26, 2008.  Available: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol49no3/html_files/Rosenberg_2.htm

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