The Rosenberg Variations

The Rosenberg Variations

A new book concludes that it was really Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s in-laws who illegally passed classified information on the atomic bomb to the Russians. Does the news still matter?


A Chinese man walks into a bar. The man on the next stool introduces himself as Goldberg. They exchange small talk. Suddenly Goldberg punches the Chinese man in the nose. "Why did you do that?" asks the Chinese man. "That’s for Pearl Harbor!" says Goldberg. "But I’m Chinese, not Japanese," says the Chinese man. "Chinese, Japanese… What’s the difference?" says Goldberg. A few minutes later, the Chinese man punches Goldberg in the nose. "Why did you do that?" asks Goldberg. "That’s for the Titanic!" says the Chinese man. "But I had nothing to do with the Titanic," says Goldberg. "Iceberg, Goldberg… What’s the difference?" says the Chinese man.

I thought of that old joke when I first heard about Walter Schneir’s book Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, published posthumously with an introduction and afterword by his widow and collaborator, Miriam. Schneir was a lifetime student of the case, which for him ranked right up there with the Dreyfus case, Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys as an example of historic injustice. In the Schneirs’ 1965 book, Invitation to an Inquest, they had argued that the Rosenbergs were framed, "punished for a crime that never occurred." Thirty years later, after the National Security Agency released the Venona transcripts (declassified intercepts of Soviet intelligence cables during World War II), the Schneirs published an article in this magazine concluding that although the government’s case against Julius had relied on fabricated evidence, "the Venona messages reveal that during World War II Julius ran a spy ring," albeit one that played only a relatively minor role in atomic espionage [see "Cryptic Answers," August 14/21, 1995].

With Final Verdict, Walter Schneir came to a new, "final" and startling conclusion: that it was really the Rosenbergs’ in-laws, David (Ethel’s brother) and Ruth Greenglass, not Ethel and Julius, who illegally passed classified information on the atomic bomb to the Russians via middleman Harry Gold.

Assuming Walter Schneir is right, pardon me if I ask, "The Rosenbergs, the Rosenbergs’ in-laws… From the perspective of history, what’s the difference?" After all, aside from the not unimportant matter of rectifying a monstrous injustice to the Rosenberg family, both were poor, first-generation Americans whose immigrant parents had come from Russia. Both had joined the Communist movement. Both were Jewish in a post-Holocaust moment when fears of anti-Semitism were matched by fears of being charged with anti-Semitism (it was no accident that the sentencing judge, Irving Kaufman, was Jewish; that the prosecutor, Irving Saypol, was Jewish; and that his assistant, Roy Cohn, was Jewish). Since Julius had recruited his brother-in-law as a spy, both were members of the alleged "conspiracy to commit espionage," and both had thus broken the US espionage law by spying for the Soviet Union. But like Klaus Fuchs, who had illegally passed secret atomic information to the Russians and was sentenced to fourteen years, neither deserved the death penalty.

On the cultural front, both couples exchanged jailhouse letters that revealed a Marxist mindset. Cold war intellectuals put down Ethel’s death-house letters as party-line pamphleteering. Imagine the field day they might have had with the Greenglasses’ letters, made available for the first time by Schneir. In one, for example, David wrote, "I love you with all the love of Marx and humanity of Lenin."

In Final Verdict Schneir’s narrative is dramatic. He invites the reader to accompany him on his journey as he uncovers the various archival finds that inexorably led him to his conclusion. By comparing the Rosenberg trial record with documents now available under the Freedom of Information Act, or released through Venona or by the Russians and available in such books as The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (as well as Vassiliev’s notebooks) and Bombshell by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, Schneir makes his main points about the case. Remember that the Rosenbergs were accused of passing on crude lens-mold sketches of the bomb drawn by Greenglass, who said he delivered the sketch to Julius in 1945 (with Ethel allegedly typing up notes of the meeting). But FOIA documents show that in their initial FBI interviews, all under oath, the Greenglasses never mentioned such a meeting with the Rosenbergs. And other documents show that the Russians didn’t get the sketches until three months later. Schneir’s conclusion, as Miriam says in her afterword: the meeting "was made up out of whole cloth." Hence his four key points: first, that Ethel never typed up any notes and was not a spy; second, that Julius did not receive lens-mold sketches from David Greenglass; third, that Ruth Greenglass, rather than Julius, cut the famous Jell-O box that was to serve as a recognition signal; and finally, that if anyone was guilty of stealing the atomic bomb secret, it was the Greenglasses, not the Rosenbergs.

The New York Times‘s review of Final Verdict was written by Sam Roberts, David Greenglass’s biographer (The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case). Roberts concluded that "it’s hard to find any good guys in this entire affair." With all due respect to Roberts, a careful reporter, this is not a question of good guys and bad guys. Schneir’s book makes a difference for the following reasons: first, the truth always matters, and if Schneir (whose thesis Roberts calls "not completely implausible") is right, history will have been served. Second, whether or not Schneir is right, we live in a state of opinion trusteeship. None of us have the time and few of us the ability to do our own research on all the complex, problematic issues of our day. On the Rosenberg case, the Schneirs have earned the public’s trust—they scrupulously followed the facts wherever they led, revising their views when new evidence required it. The onus is now on those who disagree with Schneir to prove him wrong. And because he has used documents uncovered by those who (like Weinstein and Vassiliev) in the past have taken exception to his conclusions, Schneir’s book is yet another argument for opening long-closed files on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain. Finally, the book reminds us that although the cold war is over, when it comes to transparency the Iron Curtain has come back down. The Russians have reclassified files they briefly opened, and, to quote the Los Angeles Times, "The Democratic administration of Barack Obama, who denounced his predecessor, George W. Bush, as the most secretive in history, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than the Republicans did."

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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