After the first atomic fireball flashed in the Alamogordo desert in July 1945, Manhattan Project scientists vainly warned gloating officials that this awesome weapon was destined to be a short-lived American monopoly. They knew Soviet science soon would duplicate this terrible feat–with or without the help of cloak-and-dagger antics. But, as the confession of physicist Klaus Fuchs attested, espionage played a role in hastening the Soviet project toward success in September 1949. Amid a cold war hysteria (aggravated by a very hot and bloody 1950-1953 Korean war), federal authorities in 1950 pounced upon and prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in a trial that ranks in notoriety with the Sacco and Vanzetti case and the less lethal Chicago Seven courtroom carnival.

The prosecution’s case against the Rosenbergs and codefendent Morton Sobell depended almost entirely upon the testimony of Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, a mechanic (not a mechanical engineer) at Los Alamos who claimed the Rosenbergs induced him to copy atomic-bomb diagrams to relay to Stalin. At the whirlwind three-week trial, Manhattan Project scientist Harold Urey deemed Greenglass an extremely dubious (because dim-witted) conduit of complex atomic secrets. The evidence was not conclusive. It later came to light that Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves had shrugged off the Rosenbergs’ alleged crime, if true, as of quite minor aid to the Soviets. Still, the Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death. Though Ethel certainly could have saved her life by confessing, the Rosenbergs insisted they were innocent through June 19, 1953, the day they were strapped into the electric chair. Ethel was electrocuted twice, just to be on the safe side. After all, she was, as President Eisenhower wrote, a “strong and recalcitrant character.”

The republic was rescued. Or was it? The price imposed for “national security” was ferociously high. In the 1950s, any rebel with a remotely progressive cause was intimidated, ignored, or crushed. As Bob Dylan would pithily put it in the unreleased song “Ethel and Julius”: “Eisenhower was president / Senator Joe was king / Long as you didn’t say nothin’ / you could say anything.” The Rosenbergs’ plight generated provocative plays (Donald Freed’s Inquest, Alice Hamers’s Ethel), novels (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning), and films (the documentary The Unquiet Deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the features Les Rosenbergs ne dolvent pas mourir and Daniel, Sidney Lumet’s effective and overlooked 1983 adaptation of Doctorow’s novel). And now through August 19 at the Spertus Museum, Chicagoans may see what artists have made of the trial and executions in the touring exhibit “Unknown Secrets: Art and the Rosenberg Era.” It’s a trenchant assemblage of 60 works, virtually all created in either the 50s or 80s, that span a multiplicity of styles and media.

The bulk are new works; in 1985, 27 artists were commissioned by Rob Okun and Nina Felshin of Boston to create pieces commemorating the Rosenbergs, works that often wound up drawing parallels between the 1950s and the Reagan-Bush era. Other recent works were found and added to the exhibit. What all the new works have in common is outrage at the verdict in particular and a revulsion at apolitical (especially abstract expressionist) art in general. A furious realist and representational thrust can lapse into heavy-handed socialist realism (which, at best, is bad art in service of a good cause) but viewers here should cringe only once or twice, tops.

The earlier works (oil paintings, lithographs, posters) include Picasso’s two portraits of the Rosenbergs (sold to raise defense funds), Fernand Leger’s Liberte, Paix, Solidarite, and Arnold Mesches’s quartet of bleak revelations (and consolation, The Kiss), which highlight but hardly exhaust the grim beauties of art forged in the heat of those scoundrel times.

In the one 60s work, Witches’ Sabaath, Jack Levine mesmerizingly updates Goya to the era of the House Committee on Un-American Activities inquisitions. A 1983 piece by Dennis Adams melds his time and the Rosenbergs’, provocatively decorating contemporary New York bus shelters with huge blowups of the Rosenbergs or of Richard Nixon or of Roy Cohn whispering sour nothings into Senator Joe McCarthy’s ear. Adams single-handedly assaults the short and porous national memory.

Other 1980s contributors use collage and juxtaposition–and phototext, video, and audiotape–to draw pointed parallels between these decades. Greg Sholette, Marina Gutierrez, and Margia Kramer focus on U.S. militarism abroad in the 50s and today. Martha Rosler brings a keen feminist eye into play by framing a dish-washing Ethel with banal magazine adverts, and with children’s alphabetized building blocks. Deborah Small constructs an edifice of subversive words ranging from “bleeding heart” to “parlor pink.” “These are words that crop up,” observes Dr. Morris Fred, director of the Spertus Museum, “or keep cropping up over the last 30 years–in presidential campaigns and elsewhere.”

Opposite the entrance to the Rosenberg exhibit, the Spertus Museum is showing Pier Marton’s Say I’m a Jew, a 30-minute videotape featuring children of Holocaust survivors who quite movingly relate tales of their struggles to deal with the “legacy” of their parents’ ghastly pasts. The screening room is a mock-up cattle car.

In a special program at 6:15 PM Wednesday, June 6, Spertus will present Studs Terkel, who will speak on “Reminiscences of the Rosenberg Era,” and historian Ellis Rivkin, whose topic will be “The Jewish Perspective on the Rosenberg Era.” Admission is $4; free for Spertus members. The Spertus Museum, 618 S. Michigan, is open 10 AM to 5 PM Sunday through Thursday; 10 AM to 3 PM Friday; closed Saturday. Admission is $3.50 for adults; $2 for children, students, and seniors. For information call 922-9012, extension 248.