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.