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The Untrue Believer By: Ronald Radosh
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, December 24, 2001


WE HAVE KNOWN for many years now the essential truth about the conspiracy trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Only a small and dwindling group of remaining true believers still argue that the couple were indicted and convicted for their political opposition to the Cold War policies of the Truman administration. Even the architects of the most well-known conspiracy theory, the one offered decades ago by the writers Walter and Miriam Schneir, reversed themselves in the pages of The Nation, after the first release of Venona papers in 1995, and conceded that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy. What remains to be explored are other questions raised by the trial of the Rosenbergs and their subsequent execution at Sing Sing prison in 1954. Especially intriguing is the Rosenberg family drama. The key witness against Julius and his wife Ethel was none other than Ethel's younger brother, David Greenglass. Sam Roberts spent sixteen years tracking down Greenglass, who lives now under a new name. Greenglass had granted an interview to Sol Stern and myself in 1978, but since then he had refused to speak to any other researchers. Roberts, who believed that Greenglass held the key to a proper understanding of the trial and the conviction, worked on Greenglass and urged him to tell his own story; and eventually financial considerations led Greenglass to accept Roberts's offer.

Greenglass agreed to cooperate with Roberts in exchange for a share of the royalties. Some critics have accused Roberts of "checkbook journalism," and have argued that this arrangement makes Greenglass's new testimony meaningless, since he supposedly would say anything that Roberts wanted him to say to get his share of the proceeds. I agree that paying for interviews is usually foolhardy, but Roberts told Greenglass that he would have no control over what Roberts would write, and that he would not even see the manuscript until publication. More importantly, Roberts has taken the trouble to corroborate any version of a story told by Greenglass, and to let the reader know when his subject's version conflicts with other testimony. For these reasons, I do not believe that Roberts's arrangement with Greenglass compromised his book.

For most people, the spectacle of a brother testifying against his sister, and thereby sending her to her death, is completely repugnant, and marks such an individual as a coward and a villain. And so Greenglass has been condemned by history, and by our popular culture: he has become synonymous with such a betrayal. But this makes it even more appropriate to have a book on the character and the background of Greenglass, even if it means yet another book on the Rosenbergs; still more appropriate to focus on what brought the younger brother to the point where he served as the government's main witness, whose testimony would ensure his sister's conviction.

At the trial in 1951, the defense tried hard to paint Greenglass as the kind of monster who would falsely testify against his kin to save his own neck. The Rosenbergs' counsel, Emanuel Bloch, told the jury that "any man who will testify against his own blood and flesh, his own sister, is repulsive, is revolting. He is the lowest of the lowest animals." This verdict about Greenglass, understandably, has stuck. Roberts recalls that Woody Allen had his own character in Crimes and Misdemeanors protest to his wife that despite his brother-in-law's vile behavior, "I love him like a brother," and then added: "David Greenglass." The name, Roberts observes, "remains a metaphor for misplaced loyalty and betrayal."

The provocative title of Roberts's book is a bit misleading: Greenglass did convict his sister, but he was not responsible for the death sentence that was put upon her; nor did he seek or desire such a terrible outcome. That unwarranted sentence was the work of Judge Irving Kaufman, who went to his death vociferously refusing to talk to anyone about what had led him to impose the harshest penalty possible. It has become a part of the historical consensus about the Rosenberg case that the death sentence for both man and wife was politically motivated, and not at all justified by the magnitude of the offense committed. They were spying, after all, for a wartime ally; and Klaus Fuchs, the atomic spy at Los Alamos, had been sentenced to a scant fifteen years by the British courts. The death sentence on Ethel, about whose role in the conspiracy the evidence was flimsy, aroused particular disdain. Even J. Edgar Hoover, who was not exactly soft on communism, wanted her life spared.

Moreover, martyrdom for the Rosenbergs was precisely what the international Communist movement wanted. The dead, after all, do not talk, and Moscow did not kindle to the possibility that its agents might one day become disillusioned and perhaps reveal what they knew. Writing to the court for mercy, Greenglass himself told the judge that "guilty they are, but the sentence is still one that puts a stain on the record of the United States. I know that if these people would tell their story they would be given a chance for life, but if they do not they will die." Greenglass added – accurately, as it turned out – that the death sentence "will be used as a motive for a new propaganda drive by the Soviet Government, charging the U.S. with 'brutality.'" He also warned that their deaths would only ensure that Julius Rosenberg's group of spies "will continue to operate without fear of detection."

The FBI, through its decoding of the then-secret Venona decrypts, already knew who the members of Julius Rosenberg's ring were. They included his friends and fellow City College alumni Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, as well as the government aeronautics scientist William Perl, all of whom were providing the Soviets, through Rosenberg, with top-secret military data. These cables, Roberts wisely writes, "might have gone a long way toward persuading some people that the Rosenbergs were guilty of more than belonging to the Communist Party and that the highest levels of the Communist Party were aware of and even involved in Soviet espionage." But information gathered through Venona could not be introduced in a courtroom or used to prosecute any individual, since the Soviets would then learn that their code had been broken. Indeed, the government allowed the Los Alamos physicist Theodore Hall, whose information given to the Soviets on his own was on the level of the most advanced and sophisticated nuclear data, to leave the country for Great Britain when he failed to crack under FBI questioning, even though they knew from Venona of Hall's guilt.

That is why Ethel was indicted in the first place. Knowing that she was guilty only as an accessory to her husband's espionage, the government hoped that her indictment and her conviction would be the lever that would force Julius Rosenberg to talk, and thereby to provide the information that would allow the government to indict the members of the ring who were still at large. Without Venona being made public, the government could not produce what Roberts calls "sustainable guilty verdicts" that would be upheld on appeal, and also accepted in the court of public opinion.

Roberts does not offer any particularly new information about the case, though he does include some fresh material that adds to our comprehension of its overall dimensions. His accomplishment, instead, is to have opened a window on the character of the Rosenberg and Greenglass families. What led them to engage in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union? Some have regarded David Greenglass as the villain of the family in this regard, but Roberts demonstrates that it was Julius Rosenberg who was the true believer, the hard-line (and naive) Communist, who saw only good in Stalin and only bad in the United States. And such a conclusion is confirmed in other sources. In his recent memoir, the KGB spymaster Alexander Feklisov, a man who is still an unrepentant Communist, remembers Rosenberg fondly as an "anti-fascist activist" who took upon himself the task of giving the Soviet Union whatever military data his ring could acquire. Feklisov praises Rosenberg as an "unreconstructed idealist," simply another soldier (albeit one on the Soviet side) who "brought our common victory closer to becoming reality."

The picture that Roberts paints of Julius and Ethel is not a pretty one. They are shown to have been tough and unsympathetic ideologues, people so committed to the Soviet Union and to Stalin's vision of the future that they would willingly sacrifice their lives, and condemn their own children to orphanhood, for the sake of the cause. When Ethel's mother visited her in Sing Sing in 1953, she urged her daughter to think of her children. Ethel responded, according to David's wife Ruth, with this remark: "Don't mention the children. Children are born every day in the week." Julius told the FBI informant Jerome Tartakow that he was "satisfied that his children will be placed in a progressive foster home and will be well taken care of." As Roberts puts it, "the assumption was that the [Communist] party would take care of the kids."

Greenglass, by contrast, had been sucked into espionage by his brother-in-law, whom he admired and was trying hard to please. When the stark reality of what the arrests meant hit home, he was not prepared, as were Julius and Ethel, to orphan his own children. Indeed, he told Roberts that "my kids, my family, my home" were the only three things worth sacrificing his life for. The Rosenbergs, he added, were not "innocent martyrs. They were spies and could have cleared themselves."

Indeed, Roberts confirms the role played by Julius Rosenberg as that of a committed master spy, whose life was circumscribed by his self-appointed role as a provider and a recruiter for a Soviet network. Rosenberg began to work for the KGB in 1942, and, as Feklisov has written, he went beyond assigned tasks by acting on his own to steal the proximity fuse from a firm in which he was working. That fuse, a device used to blow up planes without directly hitting them, was later used by the Soviets to bring down Francis Gary Powers's U-2 spy plane during the Eisenhower administration. But Roberts reveals that Greenglass also went beyond what he was asked to provide in order to ingratiate himself with Rosenberg. For the first time, we learn that David Greenglass gave his brother-in-law not only primitive sketches of the implosion device, which he drew up from what he learned working at the Los Alamos machine shop, but later actually stole the detonator switch to be used on the atomic bomb.

The Soviets had asked Greenglass to gather material on people whom they might recruit, as well as samples of material used in the bomb. While on leave in New York in September, 1945, he gave Soviet agents a cartridge for the exploding-wire detonator that was invented by Luis Alvarez and made in the machine shop where Greenglass worked. Roberts cites a memo from an NKVD agent to Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD, describing the electronic detonator for the bomb along with a diagram "obtained through our agents." When asked about this by Roberts, Greenglass recalled only that he probably slipped it in his pocket and walked out the door.

There is a problem with the identification of the sources used by Roberts. His narrative has the feel of a thriller, which is probably what his publisher desired. There are hardly any footnotes accompanying the text. Those that exist, printed in the back, are extremely cursory, and are hardly meant to enable readers to decipher what sources exist for Roberts's statements. Throughout his book, he quotes from KGB material whose sources are not identified. Obviously some of them are from Venona, others from Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's book The Haunted Wood, and still others from Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin's The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. But some of the KGB material that Roberts adduces is obviously not from any of these three sources, and the knowledgeable reader is left mystified as to Roberts's authority. Did he obtain his own previously unavailable files from a KGB source? If not, what is he citing? It is understandable that Roberts and his publisher would not want to alienate the general reader with an academic apparatus; but such a book is bound to raise controversial questions, and it is wrong to issue it without substantive documentation.

The most interesting parts of Roberts's book concern the culture of Los Alamos during the years of the Manhattan Project. One is immediately struck by the picture that he paints of the lax security at the laboratory. So many of the scientists and the soldiers working there were plainly on the political left, and so many of them were in fact pro-Soviet, that suspicion never fell upon someone such as Greenglass, who regularly advocated Marxism and openly praised the Soviet Union. Indeed, Greenglass frequently expounded to all who would listen the virtues of the Soviet motherland and communism. He was a loud-mouthed and rather unpleasant braggart who wrote home to his wife that he was working on his associates at Los Alamos, and would "have my company raise the Red flag yet."

His immediate supervisor told Roberts that Greenglass always "took the side of communism one hundred percent" and was "definitely pro-Russian." The irony, as Roberts writes, was that his co-workers never "put two and two together: his proselytizing on behalf of a largely Communist agenda and his insatiable curiosity" about the work being carried out, so as "to conclude that David Greenglass was systematically milking them for information on behalf of a foreign government." Few thought it likely that Greenglass, an outspoken Communist whom many at Los Alamos considered rather dim, could be a spy.

Still, Greenglass was not a true believer: for all his agreement with the Soviets and the Communists, he never joined the Party because it was too much to ask of him to get up early on weekends and deliver copies of The Daily Worker. And he was decidedly an amateur as a spy. Unlike his brother-in-law, whose life was framed by his career as a Soviet agent, Greenglass was a reluctant gatherer of data, a man who casually did what he was asked to do, and at the same time considered himself an American patriot doing his part for the war effort. (On the day of the test of the A-bomb at Los Alamos – the "Day of Trinity" – Greenglass slept through the test; after all, he told Roberts, he assumed that the bomb worked and so the test would be positive.) Speaking to Roberts decades later, he evinced no regret, no retrospective qualms, about having carried out espionage. He seems never to have given his deeds a second thought. Instead, like Theodore Hall, Greenglass expressed to Roberts a new post-hoc defense on behalf of spying for the Soviet Union: that by assisting the Soviet nuclear program he helped to maintain a balance of terror, and prevented nuclear war from breaking out, and contributed to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

Some critics have argued that Greenglass, who flunked his technical courses at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, would have been incapable, as a low-level machinist, of handing over anything of value to the Soviets. But in fact he was a good observer of what was taking place all around him. A skilled engineer gave him details about the bomb's trigger mechanism; and he also identified the precise amount of plutonium that was necessary to generate a critical mass. Contrary to the Rosenbergs' defenders, who have always argued that Greenglass's sketch of the bomb was primitive and useless, Roberts confirms what Joyce Milton and I argued in The Rosenberg File in 1983 – that scientists contacted by the defense team to prove that Greenglass could not have produced any meaningful data for the Russians actually responded to the contrary.

Hans Bethe is quoted as saying, for example, that to make the drawings that were offered as evidence by the prosecution, "a person must have a good memory, preferably a visual one, and must have had close contact with the making of lens molds. Mr. Greenglass must therefore have been very familiar with their shape." Roberts produces a previously unknown letter from Albert Einstein to the left-wing journalist William Reuben, who was the first person to wage a campaign on the Rosenbergs' behalf. Einstein refused to give Reuben what he had requested, a statement that would have the world's most famous scientist arguing that Greenglass could not have transmitted atomic information. He replied to Reuben that it was "impossible for me to issue a statement concerning the Greenglass testimony," and he emphasized that he was not "sufficiently sure about it to be able to say that a person like Greenglass could not have prepared it on his own, without outside help."

There remains, finally, the question of the extent of Ethel Rosenberg's participation in her husband's network. What did she actually do to involve herself in espionage work, and how much did she know about her husband's activities? In The Rosenberg File, we argued that "Ethel, though convicted on tainted evidence, was almost certainly [Julius's] accomplice." The Venona release of 1995 confirmed our judgment. It provided evidence from the decrypted KGB messages that revealed that it was Ethel who had recommended that the KGB recruit her sister-in-law Ruth Greenglass. Another KGB message stated that Ethel was "sufficiently well developed politically" and "knows about her husband's work" as well as that of Joel Barr, though it mentioned that because of her health she "does not work" herself.

The government indicted both Rosenbergs as part of a "conspiracy," which did not mean that Ethel's lack of direct espionage work on her own could be sufficient to leave her out of any indictment. But Ruth, who by her own testimony was much more involved in the conspiracy than Ethel, was left out of any prosecution as part of a deal for David's cooperation – a deal that made Ethel's subsequent execution even more horrendous. One of the reasons the jury thought that Ethel was actually involved in espionage, though, was that David and Ruth Greenglass had testified that at one meeting in the Rosenbergs' New York apartment, Ethel had typed up David's handwritten notes for submission to the Soviets. In fact, David had consistently left his sister out of accounts of espionage until a scant ten days before the trial, after which he confirmed the story that Ruth had just told the FBI about Ethel doing the typing. At the trial, the prosecutor seized on this information in his summation to the jury, noting that Ethel had "struck the keys, blow by blow, against our own country in the interest of the Soviets."

Roberts questioned Greenglass about this discrepancy in their story, about the last-minute change in testimony. He quotes from an interview in 1978 in which Ruth Greenglass told Sol Stern and me that she was horrified at the implication that her story had sent Ethel to her death. Roberts notes that no one actually knows whether or not Ethel typed up any handwritten notes in September, 1945. Even if she did, he notes, the material contained little that was new. Greenglass did admit to Roberts, however, that although he corroborated his wife's story, he did not actually remember it himself then; nor does he now.

As for guilt, Greenglass seemed "oblivious to the implications of what he was saying," Roberts remarks, and stressed how much he had done to try to save Ethel's life. His recollections to Roberts come down to a reiteration of what Greenglass told Sol Stern and me as he left the office building where we interviewed him. Shrugging his shoulders, he said that it was either "his wife or his sister." To Roberts, Greenglass repeated that "my wife is more important to me than my sister. She was the mother of my children." As for his sister, he argues now that Ethel should have thought of her own children, too.

In his own assessment of the matter, Roberts is clear and certain. The evidence against Julius Rosenberg, he writes, "overwhelmingly" suggests that he was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. Although he did not steal "the" secret of the atom bomb, as many have argued, Roberts correctly notes that in a conspiracy indictment he could have been found guilty even if the goal was not accomplished. As it turned out, the proximity fuse "was probably more valuable to the Russian military" than any of the nuclear information that Rosenberg handed to the Soviets. As for Ethel Rosenberg, Roberts agrees that she was "irrefutably personally supportive, philosophically in sync, and morally complicit." He stresses that she may actually or may not have committed some of the criminal acts attributed to her by the prosecution, given the KGB's identification of her as a lookout. But it remains true that had David and Ruth not testified about her typing, it was more than likely that Ethel might not have been found guilty, and most certainly would not have been handed the death sentence by Judge Kaufman. That sentence, Roberts writes, "backfired politically and legally."

And what can one say, in the end, about Greenglass? He seems to have been a rather average GI brash, opinionated, a man raised in the closed culture of Lower East Side Jewish-American communism, who was not smart enough to excel in his studies and by the luck of the draw was sent by the Army to work in the machine shop at Los Alamos as a replacement for someone who went AWOL. He was not willing to sacrifice himself and his family for Stalinism, and he put the truth ahead of his loyalty to his own sister and her husband. As he told Roberts, at least he is still here. Greenglass is right. The Rosenbergs "could have cleared themselves." All they had to do was tell the truth. It was their choice to persist instead in a lie, which they maintained until the very end.


Ronald Radosh, Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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