David Greenglass

David Greenglass

David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Greenglass, was born in New York in 1922. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL). Greenglass married Ruth Printz, a fellow member of the YCL, in 1942. Later the couple had two children.

During the Second World War Greenglass joined the United States Army. Promoted to the rank of sergeant, he was transferred to Los Alamos, where attempts were being made to develop the atom bomb.

In 1945 Greenglass left the army and open a small machine shop in Manhattan with his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. However, the business did badly and Greenglass left the partnership.

On 5th September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a KGB intelligence officer based in Canada, defected to the West claiming he had evidence of an Soviet spy ring based in Britain. Gouzenko provided evidence that led to the arrest of 22 local agents and 15 Soviet spies in Canada. Some of this information from Gouzenko resulted in Klaus Fuchs being interviewed by MI5. Fuchs denied any involvement in espionage and the intelligence services did not have enough evidence to have him arrested and charged with spying. However, after repeated interviews with Jim Skardon he eventually confessed on 23rd January 1950 to passing information to the Soviet Union . Six weeks later Fuchs was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

In June 1950 the FBI arrested Harry Gold, who confessed to helping Klaus Fuchs in his espionage activities in the United States. He named David Greenglass as being a member of the spy ring. In July Greenglass was arrested by the FBI and accused of spying for the Soviet Union. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a spy and named Julius Rosenberg as one of his contacts. He denied that his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, had been involved but confessed that his wife, Ruth Greenglass, had been used as a courier.

Julius Rosenberg was arrested but refused to implicate anybody else in spying for the Soviet Union. Joseph McCarthy had just launched his attack on a so-called group of communists based in Washington. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, saw the arrest of Rosenberg as a means of getting good publicity for the FBI. Hoover sent a memorandum to the US attorney general Howard McGrath saying: "There is no question that if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. Proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in these matters."

Hoover ordered the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg and her two children were taken into care. Julius and Ethel were put under pressure to incriminate others involved in the spy ring. Neither offered any further information.

Ten days before the start of the trial of the Rosenbergs the FBI re-interviewed David Greenglass. He was offered a deal if he provided information against Ethel Rosenberg. This included a promise not to charge Ruth Greenglass with being a member of the spy ring. Greenglass now changed his story. In his original statement, he said that he handed over atomic information to Julius Rosenberg on a street corner in New York. In his new interview, Greenglass claimed that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenberg's New York flat.

In her FBI interview Ruth Greenglass argued that "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told (Ethel) she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter... and proceeded to type info which David had given to Julius".

The trial of Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg began on 6th March 1951. David Greenglass was questioned by the chief prosecutor assistant, Roy Cohn. After Greenglass testified to his passing sketches of a high explosive lens mold he provided incriminating detail of the Rosenberg's espionage activity.

Ruth Greenglass testified as to how she was asked by Julius Rosenberg to inquire of her husband, recently stationed in Los Alamos, whether he would be willing to provide information on the progress of the Manhattan Project. She also testified that Ethel Rosenberg spent a January evening in 1945 typing her husband's handwritten notes from Los Alamos.

The Rosenberg's defense attorney, Emanuel Bloch, argued that Greenglass was lying in order to gain revenge because he blamed Rosenberg for their failed business venture and to get a lighter sentence for himself.

In his summation, the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, declared: "This description of the atom bomb, destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she, on countless other occasions, sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."

Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death and remained on death row for twenty-six months. They both refused to confess and provide evidence against others and they were eventually executed on 19th June, 1953. As one political commentator pointed out, they died because they refused to confess and name others.

As a reward for his co-operation, Greenglass was only sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released after only serving ten years. Greenglass went to live with his wife in the New York area under an assumed name.

In December 2001, Sam Roberts, a New York Times reporter, traced David Greenglass, who was living under an assumed name with Ruth Greenglass. Interviewed on television under a heavy disguise, he acknowledged that his and his wife's court statements had been untrue. "Julius asked me to write up some stuff, which I did, and then he had it typed. I don't know who typed it, frankly. And to this day I can't even remember that the typing took place. But somebody typed it. Now I'm not sure who it was and I don't even think it was done while we were there."

David Greenglass said he had no regrets about his testimony that resulted in the execution of Ethel Rosenberg. "As a spy who turned his family in, I don't care. I sleep very well. I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister... You know, I seldom use the word sister anymore; I've just wiped it out of my mind. My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife... My wife says, 'Look, we're still alive'."

Primary Sources

(1) Judge Irving Kaufman, sentencing Ethel Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg to death (5th April, 1951)

The evidence indicated quite clearly that Julius Rosenberg was the prime mover in this conspiracy. However, let no mistake be made about the role which his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, played in this conspiracy. Instead of deterring him from pursuing his ignoble cause, she encouraged and assisted the cause. She was a mature woman - almost three years older than her husband and almost seven years older than her younger brother. She was a full-fledged partner in this crime.

Indeed the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected - all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives - it was even greater than their love for their children.

The sentence of the Court upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is, for the crime for which you have been convicted, you are hereby sentenced to the punishment to death, and it is ordered upon some day within the week beginning with Monday, May 21st, you shall be executed according to law.

(2) The National World (7th March, 1997)

Breaking decades of silence on perhaps the most sensational espionage case of the Cold War, a retired Soviet spy says Julius Rosenberg helped organize a 1940s espionage ring for Moscow but was not directly involved in stealing U.S. secrets about the atomic bomb.

Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were executed in the Sing Sing electric chair in 1953 for what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the "crime of the century" - helping the Soviet Union get their hands on blueprints for the atomic bomb in World War II. The Rosenbergs went to their deaths, the only Americans ever executed for spying, insisting they were innocent.

The new twist in the long-argued story of treachery comes from Alexander Feklisov, 83, a retired KGB officer who has stepped forward with a detailed account of the Rosenbergs' role. Feklisov said he held clandestine meetings with Julius Rosenberg in New York from 1943 to 1946 and claims to be the only Soviet intelligence officer alive with first-hand knowledge of the Rosenberg case.

He told The Washington Post and The New York Times that Rosenberg passed valuable secrets about U.S. military electronics but played only a peripheral role in Soviet atomic espionage. And he said Ethel Rosenberg did not actively spy but probably was aware that her husband was involved.

He said neither he nor any other Soviet intelligence agent met Ethel Rosenberg. "She had nothing to do with this. She was completely innocent," Feklisov said in an interview with The New York Times in Moscow. The retired KGB officer also told his story to The Washington Post.

The Rosenbergs were convicted of spying and conspiracy mainly on the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, and his wife, Ruth, who were arrested for conspiracy and confessed. Greenglass named Julius Rosenberg as his recruiter and also implicated Rosenberg's wife.

Feklisov said Julius Rosenberg recommended David Greenglass to him as a possible recruit in 1944. Greenglass worked as a mechanic at Los Alamos, N.M., where the first atomic bombs were assembled. Feklisov insists that Greenglass provided little of use to Moscow, which had other valuable spies at Los Alamos.

Feklisov says the principal contributions by Rosenberg were secrets about U.S. military electronics. He cited Rosenberg's passing of a fully functioning proximity fuse, a secret World War II U.S. innovation that enables an anti-aircraft missile to bring down its target without hitting it. Rosenberg assembled a duplicate proximity fuse from discarded spare parts and smuggled it out of the Emerson Radio Factory in New York City in December 1944.

(3) Michael Ellison, The Guardian, (6th December, 2001)

One of the most enduring controversies of the cold war, the trial and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Soviet spies, was revived last night when her convicted brother said that he had lied at the trial to save himself and his wife.

"As a spy who turned his family in, I don't care," David Greenglass, 79, said on his first public appearance for more than 40 years.

"I sleep very well. I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister."

Mr Greenglass, who lives under an assumed identity, was sentenced to 15 years and released from prison in 1960.

He said in a taped interview on last night's CBS television programme 60 Minutes that he, too, gave the Russians atomic secrets and information about a newly invented detonator.

He said he gave false testimony because he feared that his wife Ruth might be charged, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to lie.

He gave the court the most damning evidence against his sister: that she had typed up his spying notes, intended for transmission to Moscow, on a Remington portable typewriter.

Now he says that this testimony was based on the recollection of his wife rather than his own first-hand knowledge.

"I don't know who typed it, frankly, and to this day I can't remember that the typing took place," he said last night. "I had no memory of that at all - none whatsoever."

(4) Harold Jackson, The Guardian (14th July, 2008)

David Greenglass, a technical sergeant involved in machining parts at the Manhattan Project, originally attracted the FBI's attention for stealing small quantities of uranium as a souvenir. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a Soviet spy at Los Alamos and named Julius Rosenberg as one of his contacts. But he flatly denied that his sister, Ethel, had ever been involved. Though he told the FBI at the time that his wife Ruth had acted as a courier, he said in his 2001 television interview that he had warned the bureau: "If you indict my wife you can forget it. I'll never say a word about anybody."

The difficulty with Hoover's proposed strategy of using Rosenberg's wife as a lever was that there was no evidence against her. Nonetheless, she was arrested and her two children were taken into care. The Rosenbergs' bail was set at $100,000 each, which they had no hope of raising, and the pressure on them to incriminate others increased. Neither offered any further information.

Ten days before the start of the trial, the FBI re-interviewed the Greenglasses. In his original statement, David had said that he handed over atomic information to Julius on a street corner in New York. In this new interview, he said that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenbergs' New York flat. Ruth then elaborated on this by telling the FBI agents that "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told [Ethel] she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter ... and proceeded to type the info which David had given to Julius."

Ruth and her husband repeated this evidence in the witness box and it became the basis of Ethel's conviction as a co-conspirator. However, the court verdict failed to induce a confession from Julius, as Hoover had hoped it might. There were innumerable unsuccessful appeals, and up until the night of the execution President Dwight Eisenhower was on standby to commute one or both of the Rosenbergs' sentences. But the couple remained silent.

(5) Dennis Hevesi, The New York Times (10th July, 2008)

A main element in the prosecution was the threat of indictment, conviction and possible execution of Ethel Rosenberg as leverage to persuade Julius Rosenberg to confess and to implicate other collaborators. Those collaborators had already been identified, largely from what became known as the Venona transcripts, a trove of intercepted Soviet cables.

But with little more than a week before the trial was to start, on March 6, 1951, the government's case against Ethel Rosenberg remained flimsy, lacking evidence of an overt act to justify her conviction, much less her execution.

Prosecutors had been interrogating Ruth Greenglass since June 1950. In February 1951, she was interviewed again. After reminding her that she was still subject to indictment and that her husband had yet to be sentenced, the prosecutors extracted a recollection from her: that in the fall of 1945, Ethel Rosenberg had typed her brother's handwritten notes.

Soon after, confronted with his wife's account, David Greenglass told prosecutors that Ruth Greenglass had a very good memory and that if that was what she recalled of events six years earlier, she was probably right.

The transcripts of those two crucial interviews have never been released or even located in government files. But at the trial, David Greenglass testified that his sister had done the typing. Called to the stand, Ruth Greenglass corroborated her husband's testimony.

(6) Benjamin Weiser, New York Times (23rd July, 2008)

A federal judge in Manhattan, weighing the secrecy of the grand jury process against the interests of public accountability, refused on Tuesday to unseal the grand jury testimony of a critical witness in the Rosenberg atomic espionage case.

But with no objection from the government about the release of testimony from three dozen or so other witnesses, those records could be released soon.

The witness who objected to having his testimony made public, David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, was a co-conspirator and a key government witness whose testimony helped convict Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executed at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953.

Mr. Greenglass, now 86, is one of the most controversial figures in the enduring spy case, historians say, as years after his sister’s execution he recanted his testimony that she had typed some of his espionage notes. He had testified against her to spare his wife, Ruth, from prosecution, and is widely seen as helping to cause Ethel’s conviction and execution.

A group of historians had petitioned for the release of the still-secret testimony, running more than 1,000 pages, of the witnesses who appeared before the grand jury in the Rosenberg case and a related one in 1950 and 1951.

The government agreed to the unsealing of testimony from most of the witnesses, objecting only to that of about 10, including Mr. Greenglass, who were still alive and did not consent or could not be found.

In refusing to release Mr. Greenglass’s testimony while he is alive, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein stressed the importance of grand jury secrecy as well as accountability.

But he added that not permitting others to disclose what a witness has said before the grand jury “is an abiding value that I must respect.”

Mr. Greenglass was not in court, but his lawyer, Daniel N. Arshack, wrote to Judge Hellerstein, saying that the circumstances that led to Mr. Greenglass’s testimony were “complex and emotionally wrought,” and had thrust him and his family “into an unwanted spotlight which has dogged their lives ever since.”

“The unequivocal and complete promise of secrecy,” Mr. Arshack wrote, “provided the protection that the guarantee of secrecy is designed to provide.”

Judge Hellerstein said that he would wait to rule on the other witnesses for whom the government was still objecting until further efforts were made to track them down or ascertain that they had died.

But he made it clear that he wanted that search to occur expeditiously, saying “time is precious” for historians and researchers.

The petitioners, led by the National Security Archives, a nonprofit group at George Washington University, had argued that the significance of the case, which they called “perhaps the defining moment of the early Cold War,” should trump the traditional confidentiality rules that govern the grand jury process.

The government, while not disputing the case’s historic importance, has said that the court should abide by the views of living witnesses who objected to the release of their testimony. Otherwise, the government said, witnesses could be discouraged from speaking candidly before grand juries in the future.

David C. Vladeck, a lawyer who argued for the petitioners, praised the outcome of the case and the expected release of the other testimony. “All of this is very good news,” he said.

He added that he was disappointed in the ruling on Mr. Greenglass, but said that “at some point we’ll get the records,” alluding to the government’s position that historians can renew their request after a witness’s death.

The historians supporting the release of the Rosenberg records hold diverse political views and opinions about the case. One of the petitioners is Sam Roberts, a reporter for The New York Times, who wrote a book on Mr. Greenglass.

One scholar who was not involved in the petition, David Oshinsky, said that even without release of the Greenglass testimony, the testimony of the other witnesses should help clear up questions about the evidence against Ethel Rosenberg.

“My sense is that what this may do is further implicate Julius while to some degree further exonerating Ethel,” said Mr. Oshinsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

He added that if there turned out to be very little other evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, “then the entire case does take a turn, and that is of vital importance.”