Ethel Greenglass was born at 64 Sheriff Street on the lower East Side of New York City on 28th September, 1915. She attended the Seward Park High School with her brother, David Greenglass. After taking a short secretarial course, she held a variety of clerical jobs and became an active trade unionist. She lived with her family , turning over her entire salary to them "except for carfare and lunches". (1)
In 1939 Ethel married Julius Rosenberg. After a year of doing odd jobs, in 1940, he was employed by the Army Signal Corps as a junior engineer. In 1941 he was recruited by Jacob Golos as a Soviet spy. However, he was later transferred by Vassily Zarubin to Semyon Semyonov. As Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) has pointed out that "because Golos had virtually no scientific or technical knowledge, though he was controlling dozens of sources providing information in these fields, it is difficult for him to supervise Rosenberg's group." (2)
The couple lived in Knickerbocker Village. One visitor later recalled: "The Rosenbergs lived in lower Manhattan, near the Brooklyn Bridge, at 10 Monroe Street, in a large low-rent project called Knickerbocker Village. They lived in a modest three-room apartment on the 8th floor of Building G, a dark brick ten-story tower... There was a sort of walkway held up by a metal structure connecting the sidewalk to the entrance... The electric lock buzzed and the door opened. I was in a clean, well-swept hallway in spite of the modest appearance of the building." (3)
According to Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, the authors of Invitation to an Inquest (1983): "To help her raise her children she had taken courses in child psychology at the New School for Social Research... In her Knickerbocker Village apartment, she had performed al the chores of a housewife and mother, hiring help only briefly after the birth of each child and, in 1944-45, during a period of ill health." (4)
In September 1944, Julius Rosenberg suggested to Alexander Feklissov that he should consider recruiting his brother-in-law, David Greenglass and his wife, Ruth Greenglass. Feklissov met the couple and on 21st September, he reported to Moscow: "They are young, intelligent, capable, and politically developed people, strongly believing in the cause of communism and wishing to do their best to help our country as much as possible. They are undoubtedly devoted to us (the Soviet Union)." (5)
Ethel Rosenberg was fully aware of her husband's activities. Feklissov recorded details of a meeting he had with the group: "Julius inquired of Ruth how she felt about the Soviet Union and how deep in general her Communist convictions went, whereupon she replied without hesitation that, to her, socialism was the sole hope of the world and the Soviet Union commanded her deepest admiration... Julius then explained his connections with certain people interested in supplying the Soviet Union with urgently needed technical information it could not obtain through the regular channels and impressed upon her the tremendous importance of the project in which David is now at work.... Ethel here interposed to stress the need for the utmost care and caution in informing David of the work in which Julius was engaged and that, for his own safety, all other political discussion and activity on his part should be subdued." (6)
However, as Alexander Feklissov, explained in his book, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999): "Ethel Rosenberg... obviously shared Julius's ideals and was certainly aware of the fact that he worked for Soviet intelligence. However, she had never participated in his covert activities. The best proof is that she was never given a code name in secret cables with the Cener (even Ruth Greenglass, despite her rather small contribution, had a code name: Ossa). The Venona files confirm this." (7)
According to a NKVD message dated 27th November 1944 from Leonid Kvasnikov: "Information on Liberal's (Julius Rosenberg's wife). Surname that of her husband, first name Ethel, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A (Communist Party member) since 1938. Sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband's work and the role of Meter (Joel Barr) and Nil (unidentified Soviet spy). In view of delicate health does not work. It characterized positively and as a devoted person." (8)
Alexander Feklissov reported that in January 1945, Julius Rosenberg and David Greenglass met to discuss their attempts to obtain information on the Manhattan Project. "(Julius Rosenberg) and (David Greenglass) met at the flat of (Greenglass's) mother... (Rosenberg's) wife and (Greenglass) are brother and sister. After a conversation in which (Greenglass) confirmed his consent to pass us data about work in Camp 2... (Rosenberg) discussed with him a list of questions to which it would be helpful to have answers... (Greenglass) has the rank of sergeant. He works in the camp as a mechanic, carrying out various instructions from his superiors. The place where (Greenglass) works is a plant where various devices for measuring and studying the explosive power of various explosives in different forms (lenses) are being produced." (9)
Greenglass later claimed that as a result of this meeting he verbally described the "atom bomb" to Rosenberg. He also prepared some sketches and provided a written description of the lens mold experiments and a list of scientists working on the project. He was also asked the names of "some possible recruits... people who seemed sympathetic with Communism." Julius Rosenberg complained about his handwriting and arranged for Ethel Rosenberg to "type it up". According to Kathryn S. Olmsted: "Greenglass's knowledge was crude compared to the disquisitions on nuclear physics that the Russians received from Fuchs." (10)
The Soviet spy network suffered a set-back when Julius Rosenberg, was sacked from the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, when they discovered that he had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). (11) NKVD headquarters in Moscow sent Leonid Kvasnikov a message on 23rd February, 1945: "The latest events with (Julius Rosenberg), his having been fired, are highly serious and demand on our part, first, a correct assessment of what happened, and second, a decision about (Rosenberg's) role in future. Deciding the latter, we should proceed from the fact that, in him, we have a man devoted to us, whom we can trust completely, a man who by his practical activities for several years has shown how strong is his desire to help our country. Besides, in (Rosenberg) we have a capable agent who knows how to work with people and has solid experience in recruiting new agents." (12)
Kvasnikov's main concern was that the FBI had discovered that Rosenberg was a spy. To protect the rest of the network, Feklissov was told not to have any contact with Rosenberg. However, the NKVD continued to pay Rosenberg "maintenance" and was warned not to take any important decisions about his future work without their consent. Eventually they gave him permission to take "a job as a radar specialist with Western Electric, designing systems for the B-29 bomber." (13)
After the war Rosenberg briefly worked at Emerson Radio, making $100 weekly with overtime but was laid off at the end of 1945. A few months later he established a small surplus products business and a machine shop, in which his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, invested. (14) He lived with his wife and two children in Knickerbocker Village. He continued working as a Soviet spy. According to one decoded message he "continued fulfilling the duties of a group handler, maintaining contact with comrades, rendering them moral and material contact with comrades, rendering them moral and material help while gathering valuable scientific and technical information." (15)
On 16th June, 1950, David Greenglass was arrested. The New York Tribune quoted him as saying: "I felt it was gross negligence on the part of the United States not to give Russia the information about the atom bomb because he was an ally." (16) According to the New York Times, while waiting to be arraigned, "Greenglass appeared unconcerned, laughing and joking with an FBI agent. When he appeared before Commissioner McDonald... he paid more attention to reporters' notes than to the proceedings." (17) Greenglass's attorney said that he had considered suicide after hearing of Gold's arrest. He was also held on $1000,000 bail.
On 6th July, 1950, the New Mexico federal grand jury indicted David Greenglass on a charge of conspiring to commit espionage in wartime on behalf of the Soviet Union. Specifically, he was accused of meeting with Harry Gold in Albuquerque on 3rd June, 1945, and producing "a sketch of a high explosive lens mold" and receiving $500 from Gold. It was clear that Gold had provided the evidence to convict Greenglass.
The New York Daily Mirror reported on 13th July that Greenglass had decided to join Harry Gold and testify against other Soviet spies. "The possibility that alleged atomic spy David Greenglass has decided to tell what he knows about the relay of secret information to Russia was evidenced yesterday when U. S. Commissioner McDonald granted the ex-Army sergeant an adjournment of proceedings to move him to New Mexico for trial." (18) Four days later the FBI announced the arrest of Julius Rosenberg. The New York Times reported that Rosenberg was the "fourth American held as a atom spy".(19)
The New York Daily News sent a journalist to Rosenberg's machinist shop. He claimed that the three employees were all non-union workers who had been warned by Rosenberg that there could be no vacations because the firm had made no money in the past year and a half. The employees also disclosed that at one time David Greenglass had worked at the shop as a business partner of Rosenberg. (20) Time Magazine noted that "alone of the four arrested so far, Rosenberg stoutly insisted on his innocence." (21)
The Department of Justice issued a press release quoting J. Edgar Hoover as saying "that Rosenberg is another important link in the Soviet espionage apparatus which includes Dr. Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass and Alfred Dean Slack. Mr. Hoover revealed that Rosenberg recruited Greenglass... Rosenberg, in early 1945, made available to Greenglass while on furlough in New York City one half of an irregularly cut jello box top, the other half of which was given to Greenglass by Harry Gold in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a means of identifying Gold to Greenglass." The statement went onto say that Anatoli Yatskov, Vice Consul of the Soviet Consulate in New York City, paid money to the men. Hoover referred to "the gravity of Rosenberg's offense" and stated that Rosenberg had "aggressively sought ways and means to secretly conspire with the Soviet Government to the detriment of his own country." (22)
Julius Rosenberg 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. Hoover saw the arrest of Rosenberg as a means of getting good publicity for the FBI. However, he was desperate to get Rosenberg to confess. Alan H. Belmont reported to Hoover: "Inasmuch as it appears that Rosenberg will not be cooperative and the indications are definite that he possesses the identity of a number of other individuals who have been engaged in Soviet espionage... New York should consider every possible means to bring pressure on Rosenberg to make him talk, including... a careful study of the involvement of Ethel Rosenberg in order that charges can be placed against her, if possible." (23) 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." (24)
On 11th August, 1950, Ethel Rosenberg testified before a grand jury. She refused to answer all the questions and as she left the courthouse she was taken into custody by FBI agents. Her attorney asked the U.S. Commissioner to parole her in his custody over the weekend, so that she could make arrangements for her two young children. The request was denied. One of the prosecuting team commented that there "is ample evidence that Mrs. Rosenberg and her husband have been affiliated with Communist activities for a long period of time." (25) Rosenberg's two children, Michael Rosenberg and Robert Rosenberg, were looked after by her mother, Tessie Greenglass. Julius and Ethel were put under pressure to incriminate others involved in the spy ring. Neither offered any further information.
Curt Gentry, the author of J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets (1991) has pointed out: "The FBI arrested Ethel Rosenberg. Despite the lack of evidence, her incarceration was an essential part of the Hoover's plan. With both Rosenbergs jailed - bail for each was set at $100,000, an unmeetable amount - the couple's two young sons were passed from relative to relative, none of whom wanted them, until they were placed in the Jewish Children's Home in the Bronx. According to matrons at the Women's House of Detention, Ethel missed the children terribly, suffered severe migraines, and cried herself to sleep at night. But Julius didn't break." (26)
Morton Sobell was the next person to be arrested. He had been the classmate of Julius Rosenberg. Sobell was an electrical engineer who had been employed on military work at Reeves Instrument Company in Manhattan. He had also worked with the General Electric Company in Schenectady and the Navy Bureau of Ordance in Washington. The New York Times reported that he was "the eighth U.S. citizen arrested on spy charges since British Physicist Klaus Fuchs began spilling what he knew of the busy Soviet espionage ring in the U.S." (27)
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appeared in court and pleaded not guilty. One newspaper reported: "As they met inside the courtroom Rosenberg slipped his arm around the waist of his wife and the two walked before the bar. Throughout the proceeding the Rosenbergs whispered to one another, held hands and seemed oblivious to arguments concerning the charge. If convicted they could receive the death penalty." (28) At the same time it was reported that Senator Harley Kilgore was drafting a bill to "grant the FBI properly safeguarded war emergency powers to throw all Communists into concentration camps." (29) On 10th October, 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, David Greenglass, Morton Sobell and Anatoli Yatskov were charged with espionage. (30)
On 7th February, 1950, Gordon Dean, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, contacted James McInerney, chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and asked him if Julius Rosenberg had made a confession? Dean recorded in his diary, McInerney said there is no indication of a confession at this point and he doesn't think there will be unless we get a death sentence. He talked to the judge and he is prepared to impose one if the evidence warrants." (31)
At a secret meeting the following day, twenty top government officials, including Dean met to discuss the Rosenberg case. Myles Lane told the meeting that Julius Rosenberg was the "keystone to a lot of other potential espionage agents" and that the Justice Department believed that the only thing that would break Rosenberg was "the prospect of a death penalty or getting the chair." Lane admitted that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was "not too strong" against her, it was "very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence." Dean stated: "It looks as though Rosenberg is the king pin of a very large ring, and if there is any way of breaking him by having the shadow of a death penalty over him, we want to do it." (32)
The problem of a weak case against Ethel Rosenberg was solved just ten days before the start of the trial when David and Ruth Greenglass were "reinterviewed". They were persuaded to change their original stories. David had said that he'd passed the atomic data he'd collected to Julius on a New York street corner. Now he stated that he'd given this information to Julius in the living room of the Rosenberg's New York apartment and that Ethel, at Julius's request, had taken his notes and "typed them up". In her reinterview Ruth expanded on her husband's version: "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it and when he came out he called Ethel and told her she had to type this info immediately... Ethel then sat down at the typewriter which she placed on a bridge table in the living room and proceeded to type the info which David had given to Julius." As a result of this new testimony, all charges against Ruth were dropped.
The trial of Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell began on 6th March 1951. Irving Saypol opened the case: "The evidence will show that the loyalty and alliance of the Rosenbergs and Sobell were not to our country, but that it was to Communism, Communism in this country and Communism throughout the world... Sobell and Julius Rosenberg, classmates together in college, dedicated themselves to the cause of Communism... this love of Communism and the Soviet Union soon led them into a Soviet espionage ring... You will hear our Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Sobell reached into wartime projects and installations of the United States Government... to obtain... secret information... and speed it on its way to Russia.... We will prove that the Rosenbergs devised and put into operation, with the aid of Soviet... agents in the country, an elaborate scheme which enabled them to steal through David Greenglass this one weapon, that might well hold the key to the survival of this nation and means the peace of the world, the atomic bomb." (33)
The first witness of the prosecution was Max Elitcher. He had met Morton Sobell at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Later they both studied electrical engineering at the College of the City of New York (CCNY). A fellow student at the CCNY was Julius Rosenberg. After graduation Elitcher and Sobell both found jobs at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, where they shared an apartment and joined the Communist Party of the United States.
Elitcher claimed that in June 1944, he was phoned by Rosenberg: "I remembered the name, I recalled who it was, and he said he would like to see me. He came over after supper, and my wife was there and we had a casual conversation. After that he asked if my wife would leave the room, that he wanted to speak to me in private." Rosenberg then allegedly said that many people, including Sobell, were aiding Russia "by providing classified information about military equipments".
At the beginning of September 1944, Elitcher and his wife went on holiday with Sobell and his fiancee. Elitcher told his friend of Rosenberg's visit and his disclosure that "you, Sobell, were also helping in this." According to Elitcher, Sobell "became very angry and said "he should not have mentioned my name. He should not have told you that." Elitcher claimed that Rosenberg tried to recruit him again in September 1945. Rosenberg told Elitcher "that even though the war was over there was a continuing need for new military information for Russia."
Elitcher was approached by Sobell in 1947 who asked him if he "knew of any engineering students or engineering graduates who were progressive, who would be safe to approach on this question of espionage. When he decided to quit his Navy job in Washington in June 1948, Rosenberg tried to dissuade him as "he needed somebody to work at the Navy Department for this espionage purpose." When Elitcher refused to stay on, Rosenberg suggested that he get a job where military work was being done.
David Greenglass was questioned by the chief prosecutor assistant, Roy Cohn. Greenglass claimed that his sister, Ethel, influenced him to become a Communist. He remembered having conversations with Ethel at their home in 1935 when he was thirteen or fourteen. She told him that she preferred Russian socialism to capitalism. Two years later, her boyfriend, Julius, also persuasively talked about the merits of Communism. As a result of these conversations he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). (34)
Greenglass pointed out that Julius Rosenberg recruited him as a Soviet spy in September 1944. Over the next few months he provided some sketches and provided a written description of the lens mold experiments and a list of scientists working on the project. He was gave Rosenberg the names of "some possible recruits... people who seemed sympathetic with Communism." Greenglass also claimed that because of his poor handwriting his sister typed up some of the material. (35)
In June 1945 Greenglass claimed that Harry Gold visited him. "There was a man standing in the hallway who asked if I were Mr. Greenglass, and I said yes. He steeped through the door and he said, Julius sent me... and I walked to my wife's purse, took out the wallet and took out the matched part of the Jello box." Gold then produced the other part and he and David checked the pieces and saw they fitted. Greenglass did not have the information ready and asked Gold to return in the afternoon. He then prepared sketches of lens mold experiments with written descriptive material. When he returned Greenglass gave him the material in an envelope. Gold also gave Greenglass an envelope containing $500. (36)
Greenglass told the court that in February 1950, Julius Rosenberg came to see him. He gave him the news that Klaus Fuchs had been arrested and that he had made a full confession. This would mean that members of his Soviet spy network would also be arrested. According to Greenglass, Rosenberg suggested that he should leave the country. Greenglass replied: "Well, I told him that I would need money to pay my debts back... to leave with a clear head... I insisted on it, so he said he would get the money for me from the Russians." In May he gave him $1,000 and promised him $6,000 more. (He later gave him another $4,000.) Rosenberg also warned him that Harry Gold had been arrested and was also providing information about the spy ring. Rosenberg also said he had to flee as the FBI had identified Jacob Golos as a spy and he had been his main contact until his death in 1943.
Greenglass was cross-examined by Emanuel Bloch and suggested that his hostility towards Rosenberg had been caused by their failed business venture: "Now, weren't there repeated quarrels between you and Julius when Julius accused you of trying to be a boss and not working on machines?" Greenglass replied: "There were quarrels of every type and every kind... arguments over personality... arguments over money... arguments over the way the shop was run... We remained as good friends in spite of the quarrels." Bloch asked him why he had punched Rosenberg while in a "candy shop." Greenglass admitted that "it was some violent quarrel over something in the business." Greenglass complained that he had lost all of his money in investing in Rosenberg's business.
The New York Times reported that Ruth Greenglass, the mother of a boy, four, and a girl, ten months, was a "buxom and self-possessed brunette" but looked older and her twenty-six years. It added that she testified "in seemingly eager, rapid fashion." (37) Ruth Greenglass recalled a conversation she had with Julius Rosenberg in November 1944: "Julius said that I might have noticed that for some time he and Ethel had not been actively pursuing any Communist Party activities, that they didn't buy the Daily Worker at the usual newsstand; that for two years he had been trying to get in touch with people who would assist him to be able to help the Russian people more directly other than just his membership in the Communist Party... He said that his friends had told him that David was working on the atomic bomb, and he went on to tell me that the atomic bomb was the most destructive weapon used so far, that it had dangerous radiation effects that the United States and Britain were working on this project jointly and that he felt that the information should be shared with Russia, who was our ally at the time, because if all nations had the information then one nation couldn't use the bomb as a threat against another. He said that he wanted me to tell my husband, David, that he should give information to Julius to be passed on to the Russians."
Ruth Greenglass admitted that in February 1945, Rosenberg paid her to go and live in Albuquerque so she was close to David Greenglass who was working in Los Alamos: "Julius said he would take care of my expenses; the money was no object; the important thing was for me to go to Albuquerque to live." Harry Gold would visit and exchange information for money. One payment in June was $500. She "deposited $400 in an Albuquerque bank, purchased a $50 defense bond (for $37.50)" and used the rest for "household expenses." (38)
Ruth Greenglass testified that she saw a "mahogany console table" in the Rosenberg's apartment in 1946. "Julius said it was from his friend and it was a special kind of table, and he turned the table on its side." A portion of the table was hollow "for a lamp to fit underneath it so that the table could be used for photograph purposes." Greenglass claimed that Rosenberg said he used the table to take "pictures on microfilm of the typewritten notes."
At the trial Harry Gold admitted that he became a Soviet spy in 1935. Time Magazine reported that "as precisely and matter-of-factly as a high-school teacher explaining a problem in geometry". (39) During the Second World War his main contact was Anatoli Yatskov. In January 1945 he met Klaus Fuchs at his sister's house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Fuchs was now stationed at a place called Los Alamos, New Mexico; that this was a large experimental station.... Fuchs told me that a tremendous amount of progress had been made. In addition, he had made mention of a lens, which was being worked on as a part of the atom bomb.... Yatskov told me to try to remember anything else that Fuchs had mentioned during our Cambridge meeting, about the lens." (40)
Yatskov told Gold to arrange a meeting with David Greenglass in Albuquerque. Yatskov then handed Gold a sheet of onionskin paper "and on it was typed... the name Greenglass." According to Gold the last thing on the paper was "Recognition signal. I come from Julius." Yatskov also gave Gold an odd-shaped "piece of cardboard, which appeared to have been cut from a packaged food of some sort" and said that Greenglass would have the matching piece. An envelope, which Yatskov said contained $500, was to be given to Greenglass or his wife.
Gold met Greenglass on 3rd June, 1945. "I saw a man of about 23... I said I came from Julius... I showed him the piece of cardboard... that had been given me by Yatskov... He asked me to enter. I did. Greenglass went to a women's handbag and brought out from it a piece of cardboard. We matched the two of them." The New York Times reported: "By an ironic quick of Gold's testimony, the cut-out portion of a Jello box became the first tangible bit of evidence to connect the Rosenbergs, the Greenglasses, Gold and Yatskov." (41)
On 26th December 1946, Harry Gold met Anatoli Yatskov in New York City. Gold told him he was now working for Abraham Brothman, a Soviet spy who had been named by Elizabeth Bentley as a spy. Yatskov was furious and he said: "You fool... You spoiled eleven years of work." Gold claimed in court that Yatskov "kept mumbling that I had created terrible damage and... then told me that he would not see me in the United States again." Records show that Yatskov and his family left the United States by ship on 27th December. (42)
Elizabeth Bentley worked closely with Jacob Golos, Julius Rosenberg's main Soviet contact. She recalled that in the autumn of 1942 she accompanied Golos when he drove to Knickerbocker Village and told her "he had to stop by to pick up some material from a contact, an engineer." While she waited, Golos had met the contact and "returned to the car with an envelope of material."
Irving Saypol asked Bentley: "Subsequent to this occasion when you went to the vicinity of Knickerbocker Village with Golos.... did you have a telephone call from somebody who described himself as Julius?" She replied that on five of six occasions in 1942 and 1943 she received phone calls from a man called Julius. These messages were passed on to Golos. Judge Irving Kaufman commented that it would "be for the jury to infer... whether or not the Julius she spoke to... is the defendant Julius Rosenberg."
Julius Rosenberg was asked if he had ever been a member of the Communist Party on the United States. Rosenberg replied by invoking the Fifth Amendment. After further questioning he agreed that he sometimes read the party newspaper, the Daily Worker. He was also asked about his wartime views regarding the Soviet Union. He replied that he "felt that the Russians contributed the major share in destroying the Nazi army" and "should get as much help as possible." His opinion was "that if we had a common enemy we should get together commonly." He also admitted that he had been a member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.
Rosenberg was asked about the "mahogany console table" claimed by Ruth Greenglass to be in the Rosenberg's apartment in 1946. Rosenberg claimed he had purchased it from Macy's for $21. Irving Saypol replied: "Don't you know, Mr. Rosenberg, that you couldn't buy a console table in Macy's... in 1944 and 1945, for less than $85?" This was later found to be incorrect but at the time the impression was given that Rosenberg was lying.
The "mahogany console table" was not presented in the courtroom as evidence. It was claimed that it had been lost. Therefore it was not possible to examine it to see if Greenglass was right when she said that a portion of the table was hollow "for a lamp to fit underneath it so that the table could be used for photograph purposes." After the case had finished it the table was found and it did not have the section claimed by Greenglass. A brochure was also produced to suggest that Rosenberg might have purchased it for $21 at Macy's. (43)
Ethel Rosenberg was the final defence witness. The New York Times described her in court as a "little woman with soft and pleasant features". (44) During cross-examination she denied all allegations regarding espionage activity. She admitted that she owned a typewriter - she had purchased it when she was eighteen - and during her courtship had typed Julius's college engineering reports and prior to the birth of her first child, she did "a lot of typing" as secretary for the East Side Defense Council and the neighborhood branch of the Civil Defense Volunteer Organization. However, she insisted that she never had typed anything relating to government secrets. (45)
Irving Saypol pointed out that she had testified twice before the grand jury and both times she had invoked her constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. Much of her grand jury testimony was read in court, disclosing that many of the same questions she had refused to answer before the grand jury she later answered at her trial. The New York Times reported that she "had claimed constitutional privilege... even on questions that seemed harmless." (46) Ethel gave no specific explanation for her extensive use of the Fifth Amendment before the grand jury, but noted that both her husband and brother were under arrest at the time.
Several journalists covering the trial noticed that no FBI agents were called to testify. The reason for this was that if they appeared the lawyers could have asked questions and the answers would have been very unfavourable to the prosecution. "For instance, what was the evidence of espionage activity against Ethel Rosenberg? Just one question of this kind could make the entire structure disintegrate." (47)
Emanuel Bloch argued: "Is there anything here which in any way connects Rosenberg with this conspiracy? The FBI "stopped at nothing in their investigation... to try to find some piece of evidence that you could feel, that you could see, that would tie the Rosenbergs up with this case... and yet this is the... complete documentary evidence adduced by the Government... this case, therefore, against the Rosenbergs depends upon oral testimony."
Bloch attacked David Greenglass, the main witness against the Rosenbergs. Greenglass was "a self-confessed espionage agent," was "repulsive... he smirked and he smiled... I wonder whether... you have ever come across a man, who comes around to bury his own sister and smiles." Bloch argued that Greenglass's "grudge against Rosenberg" over money was not enough to explain his testimony. The explanation was that Greenglass "loved his wife" and was "willing to bury his sister and his brother-in-law" to save her. The "Greenglass Plot" was to lessen his punishment by pointing his finger at someone else. Julius Rosenberg was a "clay pigeon" because he had been fired from his government job for being a member of the Communist Party of the United States in 1945. (48)
In his reply, Irving Saypol, pointed out that "Mr Bloch had a lot of things to say about Greenglass... but the story of the Albuquerque meeting... does not come to you from Greenglass alone. Every word that David and Ruth Greenglass spoke on this stand about that incident was corroborated by Harry Gold... a man concerning whom there cannot even be a suggestion of motive... He had been sentenced to thirty years... He can gain nothing from testifying as he did in this courtroom and tried to make amends. Harry Gold, who furnished the absolute corroboration of the testimony of the Greenglasses, forged the necessary link in the chain that points indisputably to the guilt of the Rosenbergs."
In his summing up Judge Irving Kaufman was considered by many to have been highly subjective: "Judge Kaufman tied the crimes the Rosenbergs were being accused of to their ideas and the fact that they were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He stated that they had given the atomic bomb to the Russians, which had triggered Communist aggression in Korea resulting in over 50,000 American casualties. He added that, because of their treason, the Soviet Union was threatening America with an atomic attack and this made it necessary for the United States to spend enormous amounts of money to build underground bomb shelters." (49)
The jury found all three defendants guilty. Thanking the jurors, Judge Kaufman, told them: "My own opinion is that your verdict is a correct verdict... The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapons known to man is so shocking that I can't find words to describe this loathsome offense." (50) Judge Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the death penalty and Morton Sobell to thirty years in prison.
A large number of people were shocked by the severity of the sentence as they had not been found guilty of treason. In fact, they had been tried under the terms of the Espionage Act that had been passed in 1917 to deal with the American anti-war movement. Under the terms of this act, it was a crime to pass secrets to the enemy whereas these secrets had gone to an ally, the Soviet Union. During the Second World War several American citizens were convicted of passing information to Nazi Germany. Yet none of these people were executed.
It soon became clear that the main objective of imposing the death penalty was to persuade Julius Rosenberg and others to confess. Howard Rushmore, writing in the New York Journal-American, he argued: "A few months in the death house might loosen the tongues of one or more of the three traitors and lead to the arrest of... other Americans who were part of the espionage apparatus." (51) Eugene Lyons commented in the New York Post: "The Rosenbergs still have a chance to save their necks by making full disclosure about their spy ring - for Judge Kaufman, who conducted the trial so ably, has the right to alter his death sentence." (52)
J. Edgar Hoover was one of those who opposed the sentence. As Curt Gentry, the author of J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets (1991) has pointed out: "While he thought the arguments against executing a woman were nothing more than sentimentalism, it was the 'psychological reaction' of the public to executing a wife and mother and leaving two small children orphaned that he most feared. The backlash, he predicted, would be an avalanche of adverse criticism, reflecting badly on the FBI, the Justice Department, and the entire government." (53)
However, the vast majority of newspapers in the United States supported the death-sentence of the Rosenbergs. Only the Daily Worker, the journal of the Communist Party of the United States, and the Jewish Daily Forward took a strong stance against the decision. (54) Julius Rosenberg wrote to Ethel that he was "amazed" by the "newspaper campaign organized against us". However, he insisted that "we will never lend ourselves to the tools to implicate innocent people, to confess crimes we never did and to help fan the flames of hysteria and help the growing witch hunt." (55) In another letter five days later he pointed out that it was "indeed a tragedy how the lords of the press can mold public opinion by printing... blatant falsehoods." (56)
Dorothy Thompson was one of the only columnists who complained that the sentence was too harsh. Writing in The Washington Star she argued: "The death sentence... depresses me... in 1944, we were not at war with the Soviet Union... Indeed, it is unlikely that had they been tried in 1944 they would have received any such sentence." (57) Thompson's views were unpopular in the United States, it did reflect the views being expressed in other countries. The case created a great deal of controversy in Europe where it was argued that the Rosenbergs were victims of anti-semitism and McCarthyism.
Judge Irving Kaufman suggested that the campaign against the death sentences was part of a communist conspiracy. "I have been frankly hounded, pounded by vilification and by pressurists... I think that it is not a mere accident that some people have been aroused in these countries. I think it has been by design." (58) Time Magazine took a similar view and argued "Communists the world over... had an issue they rode hard... the American couple who sit in the death house at Sing Sing, scheduled to be electrocuted." (59) However, the The New York Tribune pointed out that it was not only communists who were complaining about the death sentences: "The vast majority of non-Communist newspapers in France continued to urge today that the death sentences of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg... be commuted to life imprisonment." (60)
In December 1952 the Rosenbergs appealed their sentence. Myles Lane, for the prosecution argued: "In my opinion, your Honor, this and this alone accounts for the stand which the Russians took in Korea, which... caused death and injury to thousands of American boys and untold suffering to countless others, and I submit that these deaths and this suffering, and the rest of the state of the world must be attributed to the fact that the Soviets do have the atomic bomb, and because they do... the Rosenbergs made a tremendous contribution to this despicable cause. If they (the Rosenbergs) wanted to cooperate... it would lead to the detection of any number of people who, in my opinion, are today doing everything that they can to obtain additional information for the Soviet Union... this is no time for a court to be soft with hard-boiled spies.... They have showed no repentance; they have stood steadfast in their insistence on their innocence." (61)
Judge Irving Kaufman agreed and responded with the judgment: "I am again compelled to conclude that the defendants' guilt... was established beyond doubt... Their traitorous acts were of the highest degree... It is apparent that Russia was conscious of the fact that the United States had the one weapon which gave it military superiority and that, at any price, it had to wrest that superiority from the United States by stealing the secret information concerning that weapon... Neither defendant has seen fit to follow the course of David Greenglass and Harry Gold. Their lips have remained sealed and they prefer the glory which they believe will be theirs by the martyrdom which will be bestowed upon them by those who enlisted them in this diabolical conspiracy (and who, indeed, desire them to remain silent)... I still feel that their crime was worse than murder... The application is denied." (62)
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg now appealed their sentence to President Harry S. Truman. However, Truman vacated the Presidency on 20th January, 1953, without acting on the Rosenbergs's clemency appeals. He had passed the problem to his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was reported that he received nearly fifteen thousand clemency letters in the first week of his administration. He received a great deal of advice from columnists in the press. George E. Sokolsky, wrote in the New York Journal-American: "Everything has been tried by the Rosenbergs except the only step that can justify their existence as human beings: they have never confessed; they have shown no contrition; they have not been penitent. They have been arrogant and tight-lipped... It is impossible to forgive these spies; it would be possible to commute their sentences, if they told the story fully, more than we now know even after these trials... Klaus Fuchs confessed. David Greenglass confessed. Harry Cold confessed. The Rosenbergs remain adamant... let them go to the devil." (63)
President Eisenhower made his decision on 11th February, 1953: "I have given earnest consideration to the records in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and to the appeals for clemency made on their behalf.... The nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of the taking of the life of another citizen: it involves the deliberate betrayal of the entire nation and could very well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens. By their act these two individuals have in fact betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are fighting and dying at this very hour.... There has been neither new evidence nor have there been mitigating circumstances which would justify altering this decision, and I have determined that it is my duty, in the interest of the people of the United States, not to set aside the verdict of their representatives." (64)
In a letter to his son, Eisenhower went into more detail about his decision: "It goes against the grain to avoid interfering in the case where a woman is to receive capital punishment. Over against this, however, must be placed one or two facts that have greater significance. The first of these is that in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one. She has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring. The second thing is that if there would be any commuting of the woman's sentence without the man's then from here on the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women." (65)
Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg remained on death row for twenty-six months. Two weeks before the date scheduled for their deaths, the Rosenbergs were visited by James V. Bennett, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. After the meeting they issued a statement: "Yesterday, we were offered a deal by the Attorney General of the United States. We were told that if we cooperated with the Government, our lives would be spared. By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the Government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt. We will not help to purify the foul record of a fraudulent conviction and a barbaric sentence. We solemnly declare, now and forever more, that we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness and to yield up to tyranny our rights as free Americans. Our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity is not for sale. Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder. If we are executed it will be the murder of innocent people and the shame will be upon the Government of the United States."(66)
The case went before the Supreme Court. Three of the Justices, William Douglas, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter, voted for a stay of execution because they agreed with legal representation that the Rosenbergs had been tried under the wrong law. It was claimed that the 1917 Espionage Act, under which the couple had been indicted and sentenced, had been superseded by the penalty provisions of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act. Under the latter act, the death sentence may be imposed only when a jury recommends it and the offense was committed with intent to injure the United States. However, the other six voted for the execution to take place.
The Rosenbergs were executed on 19th June, 1953. "Julius Rosenberg, thirty-five, wordlessly went to his death at 8:06 P.M. Ethel Rosenberg, thirty-seven, entered the execution chamber a few minutes after her husband's body had been removed. Just before being seated in the chair, she held out her hand to a matron accompanying her, drew the other woman close, and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She was pronounced dead at 8:16 P.M." According to the New York Times the Rosenbergs went to their deaths "with a composure that astonished the witnesses." (67)
The execution resulted in large protests all over Europe. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Libération: "Now that we have been made your allies, the fate of the Rosenbergs could be a preview of our own future. You, who claim to be masters of the world, had the opportunity to prove that you were first of all masters of yourselves. But if you gave in to your criminal folly, this very folly might tomorrow throw us headlong into a war of extermination... By killing the Rosenbergs you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch hunts, auto-da-fe's, sacrifices - we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb." (68)
This was in direct contrast to the way the American media dealt with the issue. The New York Times reported the day after the execution: "In the record of espionage against the United States there had been no case of its magnitude and its stern drama. The Rosenbergs were engaged in funneling the secrets of the most destructive weapon of all time to the most dangerous antagonist the United States ever confronted - at a time when a deadly atomic arms race was on. Their crime was staggering in its potential for destruction. It stirred the fears and the emotions of the American people... The prevailing opinion in the United States... is that the Rosenbergs for two years had access to every court in the land and every organ of public opinion, that no court found grounds for doubting their guilt, that they were the only atom spies who refused to confess and that they got what they deserved." (69)
The execution of Ethel Rosenberg caused particular concern. Jacques Monod argued in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "We could not understand that Ethel Rosenberg should have been sentenced to death when the specific acts of which she was accused were only two conversations; and we were unable to accept the death sentence as being justified by the 'moral support' she was supposed to have given her husband. In fact the severity of the sentence, even if one provisionally accepted the validity of the Greenglass testimony, appeared out of all measure and reason to such an extent as to cast doubt on the whole affair, and to suggest that nationalistic passions and pressure from an inflamed public opinion, had been strong enough to distort the proper administration of justice." (70)
Joanna Moorhead later reported: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so." (71) Abe Meeropol and his wife eventually agreed to adopt Michael Rosenberg and Robert Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s... I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted."
In 1997, a senior Soviet agent, Alexander Feklissov, gave an interview to the The Washington Post where he claimed that Julius 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. Feklissov said neither he nor any other Soviet intelligence agent met Ethel Rosenberg. "She had nothing to do with this. She was completely innocent." (72)
Feklissov published The Man Behind the Rosenbergs in 1999. He admitted that both Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were spies. "This is the untold story that I have attempted to reconstruct as truthfully and in as much detail as I could... The pages that follow will distress those few persons still alive, the two Rosenberg sons and Morton Sobell, who have already been sufficiently traumatized by this event. However, I am convinced that to hear the truth is better than uncertainty and dark suspicion." (73)
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'." (74)
Jon Wiener has argued that both Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were atomic spies: "Two scientists at Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, did convey valuable atomic information to the Soviets; but neither had any connection to the Communist Party... The decoded Soviet cables show that Ethel Rosenberg was not a Soviet spy and that, while Julius had passed non-atomic information to the Soviets, the trial case against them was largely fabricated... Why didn't the FBI go after Hall? Did the government execute the Rosenbergs and let Hall go because it didn't want to admit it had prosecuted the wrong people as atom spies?" (75)
In 2010 Walter Schneir, the author of Invitation to an Inquest (1983), published a new book on the case, Final Verdict. Schneir admitted that after reading the Venona transcripts, he now realised that Julius Rosenberg had been guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. "The charge in the Rosenberg trial was conspiracy to commit espionage; the defendants were all alleged to have been participants in a scheme aimed at obtaining national defence information for the benefit of the Soviet Union. That was certainly true of Julius." However, he remained convinced that Ethel was not guilty of the charges and that her arrest was an attempt "to convict both Rosenbergs, by any means necessary, and obtain severe sentences in the hope that the threat to Ethel would cause Julius to break." (76)
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.
Last night at 10.00 o'clock, I heard the shocking news. At the present moment, with little or no detail to hand, it is difficult for me to make any comment, beyond the expression of horror at the shameless haste with which the government appears to be pressing for our liquidation.
Keep your chin up Ethel if we must suffer through this nightmare then in the manner we conduct ourselves we will contribute to the general welfare of the people by serving notice on the tyrants that they cannot get away with political frame-ups such as ours. It takes a lot of time and hard work to get them to overcome their inertia but now that grass root sentiments are aroused public opinion will have its effect. We've left a big chunk of suffering behind us these last two years and we are coming closer to our emancipation from all this torture.
What does one write to his beloved when faced with the very grim reality that in eighteen days, on their 14th wedding anniversary, it is ordered that they be put to death?
Over and over again, I have tried to analyze in the most objective manner possible the answers to the position of our government in our case. Everything indicates only one answer - that the wishes of certain madmen are being followed in order to use this case as a coercive bludgeon against all dissenters.
I know that our children and our family are suffering a great deal right now and it is natural that we be concerned for their welfare. However, I think we will have to concentrate our strength on ourselves. First, we want to make sure that we stand up under the terrific pressure, and then we ought to try to contribute some share to the fight.
My husband and I testified in our own defense. We denied, generally, and in detail, every part of the evidence introduced by the Government to connect us with a conspiracy to commit espionage. We showed that, during the years in question, we lived a steady normal existence. Even as late as May 1950, during the period when the Government claimed we were preparing for flight, my husband depleted our meager cash reserves and obligated himself, on a long term basis, to buy out the holder of the preferred stock of the business in which he was engaged, to gain absolute ownership and control.
Upon the birth of our two sons, I ceased my outside employment, and discharged the responsibility of mother and housewife. My husband, a graduate engineer, held a regular succession of low-salaried positions until his entrance into the machine shop enterprise with David Greenglass. The modesty of our standard of living, bordering often on poverty, discredits David's depiction of my husband as the pivot and pay-off man of a widespread criminal combination, fed by a seemingly limitless supply of 'Moscow gold'...
Our knowledge of the existence of an atom-bomb came with its explosion at Hiroshima, and David's connection with it at Los Alamos, from his revelations to us on his discharge from the Army in 1946.
We knew neither Gold nor Yakovlev, our alleged co-conspirators, nor Bentley-facts which the Government did not controvert.
Our relations with Sobell, our co-defendant, were confined to sporadic social visits. Following a complete six-year break, after graduation from college, our ties with Elitcher assumed similar, but even more tenuous, character.
Our relationship with the Greenglasses, both during and after the war, was on a purely familial and social level, the cordiality becoming strained to the breaking, however, with the advent of bitter quarrels which arose in the course of our post-war business ties...
Petitioner respectfully prays that she be granted a pardon or commutation of sentence for the following reasons:
First: The primary reason I assert, and my husband with me, is that we are innocent.
We stand convicted of the conspiracy with which we were charged. We are conscious that were we to accept this verdict, express guilt, penitence and remorse, we might more readily obtain a mitigation of our sentences.
But this course is not open to us.
We are innocent, as we have proclaimed and maintained from the time of our arrest. This is the whole truth. To forsake this truth is to pay too high a price even for the priceless gift of life-for life thus purchased we could not live out in dignity and self-respect.
It should not be difficult for Americans to understand this simple concept to be the force that gives us strength-even in the face of imminent death, knowing well that the abandonment of principle might, alone, save our lives - to adhere to the continued assertion and profession of our innocence...
Yet we have been told again and again, until we have become sick at heart, that our proud defense of our innocence is arrogant, not proud, and motivated not by a desire to maintain our integrity, but to achieve the questionable "glory" of some undefined "martyrdom."
This is not so. We are not martyrs or heroes, nor do we wish to be. We do not want to die. We are young, too young, for death. We long to see our two young sons, Michael and Robert, grown to full manhood. We desire with every fibre to be restored sometime to our children and to resume the harmonious family life we enjoyed before the nightmare of our arrests and convictions....
Second: We understand, however, that the President, like the courts, considers himself bound by the verdict of guilt, although, on the evidence, a contrary conclusion may be admissible.
But many times before there has been too unhesitating reliance on the verdict of the moment and regret for the death that closed the door to remedy when the truth, as it will, has risen...
We say to you, Mr. President, that the character of evidence on which we were convicted, and the force of the impact of certain circumstances in our case upon the mind of the jury, cannot assure the reasonable mind that this verdict was not corrupt.
In the summer of 1950... the general public fear engendered by the announced mastery of the atom bomb by the Soviet Union, was aggravated by the increased international tensions occasioned by the Korean War...
When we were arrested as spies for the Soviet Union, labeled as "Communists," charged, in the main, with theft of atomic-bomb information from the Los Alamos Project, the mere accusation was enough to arouse deep passions, violent antipathies, and fears as profound as the instinct of self-preservation...
It was hammered home, and kept alive by a virtual avalanche of publicity which saturated the communal mind with a consciousness that our country was imminently in danger of atomic attack and devastation by the Soviet Union, which had acquired the bomb by reason of its having obtained the "secret," from an espionage apparatus, ideologically motivated, of which we were "aggressive" members....
From this community the jurors who tried us were chosen. Should this not temper reliance-to death-on this verdict of a jury, in which the unconscious influence of the enveloping atmosphere may have overridden the overt desire to be fair and seduced it into a more ready acceptance for the prosecution's evidence as against our defense?...
Third: The Government's case against us stands or falls on the testimony of David Greenglass and Ruth, his wife.... How firm is a verdict predicated upon the testimony of "accomplices"? Even the rigorous canons of the law recognize that the overriding motive for falsehood requires that the accusations of a trapped criminal, testifying to mitigate or avoid his own punishment, be taken with care and caution, and brand a prosecution founded on such evidence as "weak" and suspect.
We have never been able to comprehend that civilized and compassionate consciences could accept a smiling "Cain" like David Greenglass - or the "serpent," Ruth, his wife - who would slay not only his sister, but his sister's husband, and orphan two small children of his own blood.
We have always said that David, our brother, knowing well the consequences of his acts, bargained our lives away for his life and his wife's. Ruth goes free, as all the world now knows; David's freedom, too, is not so far off that he will not have many years to live a life-if we should die-that, perhaps, only a David Greenglass could suffer to live...
Fourth: Only one tribunal, the sentencing court, has asserted the correctness of our sentences to death, and only one court has affirmed it: the sentencing court. In other words, only one human being in a position of power has said we ought to die.
Although our case was appealed to the higher courts, the appellate tribunals, denying their power to review the discretion of the sentencing judge, have not, on the assumption of our guilt, ruled on the propriety of the magnitude of the sentences of death.
You, Mr. President, are the first one who is empowered to review these sentences-and the last one...
We are told that the "confessions" and "cooperation" of Greenglass and Gold and others earned them more lenient sentences. While this is recognized practice, the coercive power of sentence beyond that justified by the nature of the criminal act cannot legitimately be made to substitute for the proscribed "thumbscrew and rack" to secure confessions which cannot in truth and good conscience be forthcoming...
Scientific judgment undermines the validity of the trial judge's claim that our alleged conduct, did or could have, put "into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb."
The judge, obdurately holding to his irrational consideration... reaffirmed our death sentences... The facts of our case have touched the conscience of civilization. The compassion of men sees us as victims caught in the terrible interplay of clashing ideologies and feverish international enmities. Adjudged war criminals, guilty of mass murders and the most ghastly crimes, are daily being delivered to freedom, while we are being delivered to death...
We appeal to your mind and conscience, Mr. President, to take counsel with the reason of others and with the deepest human feelings that treasure life and shun its taking. To let us live will serve all and the common good. If we are innocent, as we proclaim, we shall have the opportunity to vindicate ourselves. If we have erred, as others say, then it is in the interest of the United States not to depart from its heritage of open-heartedness and its ideals of equality before the law by stooping to a vengeful and savage deed.
Everything has been tried by the Rosenbergs except the only step that can justify their existence as human beings: they have never confessed; they have shown no contrition; they have not been penitent. They have been arrogant and tight-lipped... It is impossible to forgive these spies; it would be possible to commute their sentences, if they told the story fully, more than we now know even after these trials... Klaus Fuchs confessed. David Greenglass confessed. Harry Cold confessed. The Rosenbergs remain adamant... let them go to the devil.
I have given earnest consideration to the records in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and to the appeals for clemency made on their behalf....
The nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of the taking of the life of another citizen: it involves the deliberate betrayal of the entire nation and could very well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens. By their act these two individuals have in fact betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are fighting and dying at this very hour.
We are a nation under law.... All rights of appeal were exercised and the conviction of the trial court was upheld after four judicial reviews, including that of the highest court in the land.
I have made a careful examination into this case and am satisfied that the two individuals have been accorded their full measure of justice.
There has been neither new evidence nor have there been mitigating circumstances which would justify altering this decision, and I have determined that it is my duty, in the interest of the people of the United States, not to set aside the verdict of their representatives.
Dwight Eisenhower's answer all but closed the door of doom on the Rosenbergs. There are still a few desperate delaying actions to be made - and Lawyer Emanuel Bloch might succeed in winning more borrowed time - but the only real opportunity of escape lay with the Rosenbergs themselves. If they broke their long silence - if they confessed the secrets of their spy ring-then the President might consider a new appeal for clemency. But up to now the Rosenbergs have clung to their dark secrets, have shown no flicker of regret.
Yesterday, we were offered a deal by the Attorney General of the United States. We were told that if we cooperated with the Government, our lives would be spared.
By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the Government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt. We will not help to purify the foul record of a fraudulent conviction and a barbaric sentence.
We solemnly declare, now and forever more, that we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness and to yield up to tyranny our rights as free Americans.
Our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity is not for sale. Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder.
If we are executed it will be the murder of innocent people and the shame will be upon the Government of the United States.
History will record, whether we live or not, that we were victims of the most monstrous frame-up in the history of our country.
As you may know, the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg has aroused profound emotions in Europe, especially in France. It has also been the cause, or sometimes the occasion, of strong hostility and severe criticism being expressed in the press or by the public (I am referring here to the non-Communist press and public). In taking the liberty of writing to you on this subject I am urged, not by the desire to express criticism or reprobation but by my love and admiration for your country where I have many close friends.
As a scientist, I naturally address myself to scientists. Moreover, I know that American scientists respect their profession, and are aware that it involves a permanent pact with objectivity and truth - and that indeed wherever objectivity, truth, and justice are at stake, a scientist has the duty to form an opinion, and defend it. This, I hope, will be accepted as a valid explanation and excuse for my writing this letter. In any case, whether one agrees or not with what I think must be said, I beg that this letter be taken for what it is: a manifestation of deep sympathy and concern for America.
First of all, Americans should be fully aware of the extraordinary amplitude and unanimity of the movement which developed in France. Everybody here, in every walk of life, and independent of all political affiliations, followed the last stages of the Rosenberg case with anxiety, and the tragic outcome evoked anguish and consternation everywhere. Have Americans realized, were they informed, that pleas for mercy were sent to President Eisenhower not only by thousands of private individuals and groups, including many of the most respected writers and scientists, not only by all the highest religious leaders, not only by entire official bodies such as the (conservative) Municipal Council of Paris, but by the President of the Republic himself, who was thus obeying and expressing the unanimous wish of the French people. As your New York Times remarked with some irony and complete truth, France achieved a unanimity in the Rosenberg case that she could never hope to achieve on a domestic issue.
To a certain extent these widespread reactions were due to the simple human appeal of the case: this young couple, united in death by a frightful sentence which made orphans of their innocent children, the extraordinary courage shown by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, their letters to each other, simple and moving. All this naturally evoked compassion, but it would be wrong to think that the French succumbed to a purely sentimental appeal to pity. Public opinion, and first of all the intellectual circles, were primarily sensitive to the legal and ethical aspects of the case, which were widely publicized, analyzed, and discussed.
If I may be allowed, I should like to review briefly the points which appeared most significant to us in forming an opinion on the whole affair.
The first was that the entire accusation, hence the whole case of the American government, rested upon the testimony of avowed spies, the Greenglass couple, of whom David received a light sentence after turning state's evidence (fifteen years reducible to five on good behavior), while his wife Ruth was not even indicted. The dubious value of testimony from such sources was apparent to everyone.
Moreover, leaving the ethical and legal doubts aside, is it probable or even possible that a simple mechanic such as David Greenglass, with no scientific training, could have chosen, assimilated, and memorized secrets of decisive atomic importance, under the directions of the similarly untrained Julius Rosenberg? Scientists here always found this difficult to believe, and their doubts were confirmed when Urey himself clearly stated in a letter to President Eisenhower that he considered it impossible...
Greenglass is supposed to have revealed to the Russians the secrets of the atomic bomb. Though the information supposed to have been transmitted could have been important, a man of Greenglass' capacity is wholly incapable of transmitting the physics, chemistry, and mathematics of the atomic bomb to anyone. After that it was difficult for us to accept, as justification of an unprecedented sentence, the following statement of Judge Kaufman: "I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb, has already caused the Communist aggression in Korea with the resulting casualties." The mere fact that such statements should have found their place in the text of the sentence, raised the gravest doubts in our minds as to its soundness and motivation.
Indeed the gravest, the most decisive point was the nature of the sentence itself. Even if the Rosenbergs actually performed the acts with which they were charged, we were shocked at a death sentence pronounced in time of peace, for actions committed, it is true, in time of war, but a war in which Russia was an ally, not an enemy, of the United States...
We could not understand that Ethel Rosenberg should have been sentenced to death when the specific acts of which she was accused were only two conversations; and we were unable to accept the death sentence as being justified by the "moral support" she was supposed to have given her husband. In fact the severity of the sentence, even if one provisionally accepted the validity of the Greenglass testimony, appeared out of all measure and reason to such an extent as to cast doubt on the whole affair, and to suggest that nationalistic passions and pressure from an inflamed public opinion, had been strong enough to distort the proper administration of justice.
In spite of these doubts and fears, all those of us who know and love your country, followed each step in the case with anxiety, but also with hope. There were still further appeals to be made, new evidence to be presented, and in the last resort, the President would surely grant mercy where mercy was humanly and ethically called for. We thought a point would finally be reached above the level of irresponsible passions, where reason and justice would prevail.
Above all, we counted on American intellectuals and men of science. Knowing the generosity and courage of so many of them, we felt sure they would speak, and hoped they would be heard. We constantly had in mind our own Dreyfus case, when a handful of intellectuals had risen against a technically correct decision of justice, against the Army hierarchy, against public opinion and government which were a prey to nationalist fury, and we remembered that this handful of intellectuals had succeeded, after five years of stubborn efforts, in confounding the liars, and freeing their innocent victim. We felt that you American intellectuals could similarly turn what appeared at first a denial of justice into a triumph for justice. That is why the case assumed so much importance in Europe, particularly in France. And above all, it was important to liberal intellectuals who, in contrast to Communists, had hoped to find that the most powerful nation of the free world could afford to be at once objective, just, and merciful.
So we continued to hope through the last days of the young couple's life.... American scientists and intellectuals, the execution of the Rosenbergs is a grave defeat for you, for us, and for the free world. We do not for a moment believe that this tragic outcome of what appeared to us a crucial test-case, means that you were indifferent to it - but it does testify to your present weakness, in your own country. Not one of us would dare reproach you for this, as we do not feel we have any right to give lessons in civic courage when we ourselves have been unable to prevent so many miscarriages of justice in France, or under French sovereignty. What we want to tell you is that, in spite of this defeat, you must not be discouraged, you must not abandon hope, you must continue publicly to serve truth, objectivity, and justice. If you speak firmly and unanimously you will be heard by your countrymen, who are aware of the importance of science, and of your great contributions to American wealth, power, and prestige.
You, American scientists and intellectuals, bear great responsibilities which you cannot escape, and which we can only partly share with you. America has power and leadership among the nations. You must, for civilization's sake, obtain moral leadership and power in your own country. Now, as never before, the world needs a free, strong, just America, turned toward social and moral as well as technical progress. Now, as never before, intellectuals the world over must turn to you American scientists to lead your country in this direction, and to help her conquer her fears and control her passions.
Q: Your parents were executed for their political beliefs. Could you tell our readers how this happened?
A: My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were members of the American Communist Party and they were arrested in the summer of 1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. More particularly, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb and give it to the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2. There was no evidence presented at trial that they were directly involved in the transmission of anything to the Soviet Union. Testimony came from alleged co-conspirators, that is, people facing prison sentences or even the death penalty who agreed as part of a government deal to say my parents were involved with these other people.
Q: You've uncovered evidence that shows your parents were framed - what government agencies were involved in this?
A: Back in the 1970s, we sued under the newly strengthened Freedom of Information Act. We asked for the files of the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, Army intelligence, the State Department, etc. I think we asked for information from 17 different agencies and we got information from all of them. This whole effort sort of went across-the-board of the government bureaucracy. We got a lot of previously secret documents. And what did these previously secret documents show? They demonstrated that my parents did not get a fair trial - that the trial judge was in secret communication with the prosecutors before, during and after the trial; that the trial judge, according to FBI documents, had actually agreed to give a death penalty to at least my father and possibly to both of my parents before the defense even began to present its case; and that the trial judge interfered with the appeals process and kept the FBI informed of developments during the appeals process and was actually pushing for a rapid execution even when he was sitting on further appeals in the case.
The chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass and Harry Gold, all changed their stories. In their initial statements, for instance, David Greenglass said Ethel Rosenberg wasn't involved in anything. Then during the trial he testified that Ethel Rosenberg was present during their meetings and typed up the minutes to their meetings. We also have files showing that a few weeks before the trial the prosecuting attorneys, in briefing some of the Congressmen who were involved with the Atomic Energy Commission, stated that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was virtually non-existent but they had to develop a case against her in order to get a stiff prison sentence - to convince my father to cooperate. And then a few days later David and Ruth Greenglass gave the new statements that she typed up the minutes - and then that became the evidence that led to her conviction.
Q: Why do you think the government was so determined to execute your parents?
A: My parents were unknown. They were just two poor people, members of the Communist Party living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then they got arrested and charged with being master atomic spies. When my father refused to name other people, then they arrested my mother to get him to name other people. As the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case grew and as the defense that my parents mounted through their letters grew, articulating the fact that it was all based on phony government frame-ups, they became more and more dangerous. General Lesley Groves, who was the military general in charge of the production of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico - where my parents supposedly engineered the stealing of the secret of the atomic bomb - said he believed that the information that went out in the Rosenberg case was of minor value but he'd never want anybody to say that because he felt in the greater scheme of things that the Rosenbergs deserved to hang.
Q; What happened to you and your brother Michael after your parents were executed?
A: The FBI came to my parents very soon after the arrest and said, essentially, talk or die. They said think about what will happen to your children if you don't talk - and if you talk, Julius, you'll have a prison term and Ethel, you'll be released and you can take care of the kids. Well, they offered the same deal to David and Ruth Greenglass, who also had two kids, and they took the deal. So Greenglass got a prison sentence and Ruth was never indicted and never spent a day in jail even though she swore she helped steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Quite a contrast with my mother.
There were so many people who put themselves on the line to save me when I was a kid that I grew up with the most abiding respect for anybody who would take a chance in order to make this society a better place for all of us. So I grew up sort of as a child of the movement and it was no accident that I got involved first in civil rights and then anti-war stuff and then ultimately SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in college.
Q: You've published letters your parents wrote to you from prison. Is there anything about them you could share with us?
A: My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. They wrote that they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. And I think that has multiple meanings. I think it meant, on a personal level to me and my brother, that other people would take care of us after they were no longer able to do so. But I also think it meant on the political level their political beliefs, the principles that they stood up for, their refusal to lie, their refusal to be pawns of the McCarthyite hysteria, in other words their refusal to be used to attack the movements that they believed in - that even though they were no longer able to carry on those struggles, others would be able to carry them on their absence. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same. And in some ways I've dedicated my life to carrying on in their absence. The Rosenberg Fund for Children is my effort to justify that trust.
The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a public foundation that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities. What that actually means is that we find people today in this country who are suffering the same kind of attacks that my parents suffered and if they have children we provide the kind of assistance that my brother and I were provided with. We connect them with progressive institutions so the kids can be raised in a supportive environment.
Some of them are the children of political prisoners, whether they be Puerto Rican nationalists, whether they be ex-Black Panthers, whether they be white revolutionaries, whether they be people who have fought against racial discrimination or sexual harassment on the job and been fired, whether they be activists who have been bombed, maimed, killed in the course of their activism. There are people like this all over the country who have either been attacked by government forces of repression or right-wing non-governmental oppression or what I call corporate harassment by corporations trying to fight against their progressive work. We just had our ninth anniversary. We gave away $100,000 to help slightly over 100 children in 1998. We've really been growing by leaps and bounds. The demands upon us have been increasing and we'll probably give away $150,000 this year.
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."
As if progressives had not in recent years been battered and bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn that during the Cold War years (and even before) hordes of leftists were abroad in the land, stealing "our" atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery to Joseph Stalin.
In recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas, Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentar, Wall Street Journal, The National Review, the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).
This all-out blitz has been fueled by The Secret World of American Communism, written by Professor Harvey Klehr, of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have put together a "massive documentary record" from the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing "the dark side of American communism." These documents establish, they say, proof both of "Soviet espionage in America" and of the American Communist Party's "inherent" connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage services; and that such spy activities were considered, by both Soviet and the American CP leaders, "normal and proper."
Such assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover (and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what reinforces the authors' statements are not only the documents from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials of various Russian archives.
Reproduced in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence of what they say is the United States Communist Party's continuous history of "covert activity." These documents, according to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times Book Review, reveal that American Communists "relayed atomic secrets to the Kremlin" and also support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the American Government. The authors also say that the documents suggest that those "who continued to claim otherwise were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest."
In actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients. They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures; relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy with illegal spying.
The book's high points are sections relating to what the authors call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus. As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the Russian Center, and who over the past four decades has studied the trial transcripts of the major Cold War "spy" cases, I can state that "The Secret World of American Communism," notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments, is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship, it is nothing less than a fraud.
In this context, certain facts ought to be noted:
* The Moscow archives contain no material relating to these key figures in the Cold War "spy" cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document, responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to, any of the above-named persons.
* Despite the authors' assertion that the documents in this volume show that the CPUSA's elaborate underground apparatus collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged in stealing the secrets of America's atomic bomb project, not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports such a conclusion.
* The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers' allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert that the "subsequent documentation has further substantiated the case that Hiss was a spy." Yet, not one document from the Russian archives supports any of these damning statements.
A total of 15 pages in "Secret World" have some reference either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73 separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For example, the authors claim that J. Peters "played a key role in Chambers' story" that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Peters played no role in Chambers' story about espionage. Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities with Hiss was a Russian named "Colonel Boris Bykov," a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying to establish.
The authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees who "provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive government activities." In fact, Chambers testified to the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.
References to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the Rosenbergs' conviction was for "involvement in...atomic espionage." In fact they were convicted of conspiracy, and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over any information about anything to anyone.
The authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs, which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass, who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.
Discussing one other "spy" case, that of Judith Coplon, against whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt of official court records write that "there was not the slightest doubt of her guilt." In comments running no less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance, the authors say she "stole" an FBI report and she was arrested when she handed over' the stolen report "to a Soviet citizen." All these statements are false; in her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.
Even more than half a century on, it's hard to hear this story without being affected by its magnitude. As Robert Meeropol describes what happened on that evening 56 years ago, I have tears in my eyes. When Meeropol describes how, earlier that same day, his brother began moaning, "That's it then! Goodbye, goodbye"; when the news flashed on to the television that the executions were going ahead that night; and when he describes seeing the press reports counting down his parents' final days, I can hardly bear to listen.
Meeropol (whose name was later changed to that of the couple who adopted him) is used to journalists getting emotional on him. "It's different for you," he says understandingly, "I've lived with this all my life; I'm used to it." But how does anyone get used to the fact that their parents have been put to death by their country; how does anyone pick up the pieces of a childhood left that broken? What is most extraordinary about Meeropol, in fact, is how entirely ordinary he seems today. We meet in Berlin, where he is currently on a book and campaigning tour. Now 62, bespectacled and balding, he is every inch the liberal east-coast lawyer and grandfather he has become. Yet, as he's the first to point out, his life is permeated by the story of the parents he knew for such a short space of time: their legacy has taken up much of his life, certainly much of his last 30 years, and fighting against the death penalty, and being an advocate for children who suffer as he did because of their parents' politics, is now his full-time occupation...
Doesn't Meeropol ever feel, though, that the choice Ethel and Julius made was fundamentally selfish: that their most important role was as parents? "Absolutely not," he says. "The world was very different then: capitalism and communism were engaged in a globe-spanning battle to determine the world's fate. Lots of people chose sides in this life-and-death battle. Also, my mother didn't actively participate in what went on - maybe that was a conscious effort to ensure that at least one parent would be around to raise the children if my father was caught."
But even when they were arrested - Julius was taken first, then Ethel - there seems little doubt that they could have acted to save themselves. Wouldn't that have been better for their children? Again, Meeropol thinks not. "Neither of my parents had a choice whereby they could come forward and say, 'OK, I admit I've done this, now how can I save my life?' What the government wanted them to do - and remember this was the McCarthy era - was become puppets, to dance to their tune and to provide a list of others who would then be put in exactly the position they were in. They would have had to renounce all that they believed in. To save themselves, they'd have had to betray others and that was too high a price to pay."
But all this went way over the heads of the two small boys who suddenly found themselves without a mother and father, shunted from home to home while the sand ran through the timer counting down the final months and weeks of the Rosenbergs' lives. It's clear from everything he says that the events of that desperate time were almost unfathomable to him; it's clear, too, that he'd have given anything for an ordinary home and an ordinary family. He remembers, for example, seeing his cousins with their parents and thinking, why can't we be like that? But, interestingly, the adult Meeropol believes that, while the little boy he once was suffered for his parents' stubbornness in the face of death, the adult self he became has gained enormously from it. He is immensely proud of them, even grateful: he says he hopes that, in their shoes, he would have made the same decision they did - the decision not to betray their friends.
But more than that, what the Rosenbergs bequeathed to their younger son was something every life needs. They left him a purpose. Campaigning against the death penalty and working for his fund have given his life a structure and a cause: their decision half a century ago is continuing to shape his life.
Pull him back to his stories of the personal encounters he remembers with his parents, and it's clear, too, that he knows he was a much-loved little boy. The time Ethel and Julius had with him might have been short (he was three when they were taken away to prison), but they made it count with their love and concern. What is more - and this, too, is almost unbearably poignant - it's clear that they tried to parent him as best they could from their prison cells. There were letters - lots of them - all unfailingly upbeat and cheerful; there were visits...
The Meeropols, who were not friends of the Rosenbergs but were members of the American Communist Party, came into the boys' lives after a period of constant upheaval. From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.
It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. "I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted," he says.
His debt to Abel and Anne is profound: he feels he is at least as much a product of their upbringing as of that of Julius and Ethel. "They were childless, and like our birth parents they were people who believed in standing up for what they believed in," he says. "They were more artistically inclined than my parents [Abel wrote the anti-racism song Strange Fruit, sung most famously by Billie Holiday]."
It was, against the odds, a happy childhood, punctuated with visits to summer camp, music and fun. Very quickly, Robert began to call his new parents mommy and daddy; today, he says he feels he had not two but four parents in his life. "I'm the sort of person who finds the upside in life," he says. And having four parents was, he believes, a blessing.
Another blessing was Michael. In his book, Meeropol describes Michael as "the one constant presence ... in my life. Our four-year age difference diminished our sibling rivalry. We always slept in the same room." Before the Meeropols, Michael was "the only person I felt 100% safe with". To this day, the brothers are extremely close.
Having lost his parents, says Meeropol, family became paramount for both brothers: "Both of us married young, and both of us are still married to the person we married all those years ago. Creating a family, and maintaining it, has been central to both of us." Meeropol has two daughters, now in their 30s; the younger has a one-year-old called Josie. If there is anything that resonates down the years, he says, it is that he often finds himself thinking: if I was taken away, what would my family have to remember me by? What would my little granddaughter know of her grandfather if suddenly he was removed from her life?
If having the Rosenbergs as parents has given their sons a strong sense of family, it has also given them profound insight into what happens when a family is torn apart. Because one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial in 1952 was that it was Ethel's own brother, David Greenglass, who provided the testimony that sent the couple to their deaths.
Greenglass had been an army machinist at the plant where the atomic bomb was being developed, and was recruited by Julius as a spy; to save himself and his wife, Meeropol believes, he betrayed his sister and her husband. Unsurprisingly, this is a family split that never has been, and never can be, mended. "I have never had any connection with David Greenglass or the Greenglass family," says Meeropol. "I saw him interviewed on television once and the thing I noticed was how he denied responsibility for everything. Nothing was his fault - it was all someone else's fault." He pauses. "In some ways," he says, "I've defined myself, all my life, as someone who is not David Greenglass."
The fallout for his uncle and his family (there are two cousins, and now there are Greenglass grandchildren too) has been, in fact, a testament to what would have happened to the Rosenbergs if they had switched sides. "The Greenglasses had to have new names, they have had to live their lives in secrecy, they have lived in fear.
"What my parents gave me and Michael, though, was a life in which we have never had to hide, a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves and do the things we believe in." He pauses. "In a way," he says, "the best revenge is simply living a good life. And that's what I believe I'm doing."
Two scientists at Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, did convey valuable atomic information to the Soviets; but neither had any connection to the Communist Party...
Moynihan makes it clear that when the FBI put Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on trial for atomic espionage in March 1951, it had already learned, in May 1950, the real atomic secrets had been given to the Soviets by Theodore Hall... Hall was never charged with espionage and eventually moved to Britain, where he lived a long and happy life, while the United States executed the Rosenbergs for stealing "the secret of the a-bomb".
The decoded Soviet cables show that Ethel Rosenberg was not a Soviet spy and that, while Julius had passed non-atomic information to the Soviets, the trial case against them was largely fabricated... Why didn't the FBI go after Hall? Did the government execute the Rosenbergs and let Hall go because it didn't want to admit it had prosecuted the wrong people as atom spies?
Alexander Feklisov, 93, who was regarded as one of the Soviet Union's principal Cold War espionage agents, with connections to the Rosenberg spy case and atomic secrets, died in Russia on Oct. 26.
A Russian news agency said his death was reported by a spokesman for the Russian intelligence service.
In addition to obtaining key secrets of western technology for the Soviets during and after World War II, Mr. Feklisov was often credited with helping to defuse the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world close to nuclear war. He was then on his second tour in the United States, serving as Soviet intelligence chief, with an office in the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW, a few blocks from the White House.
For Mr. Feklisov, deception was a way of life. His employers were obsessively secretive. But revelations he made long after the events in question have won considerable acceptance.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Michael Dobbs, formerly a reporter for The Washington Post and now on contract to the newspaper, interviewed Mr. Feklisov.
Dobbs's story was published in 1997, around the time a TV documentary was shown about the former spy and four years before Mr. Feklisov's autobiography, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs, was published. Dobbs said this week that he believed Mr. Feklisov "was being pretty truthful," particularly in his account of his dealing with Julius Rosenberg.
Mr. Feklisov said there were dozens of meetings with Julius Rosenberg from 1943 to 1946. But he said Ethel Rosenberg never met with Soviet agents and took no direct part in her husband's spying.
Both Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 after a treason trial at which they were accused of giving the Soviets atomic bomb secrets. Their fate evoked protest around the world, and many insisted on their innocence.
In Mr. Feklisov's account, Julius Rosenberg was a dedicated communist, motivated by idealism. But Mr. Feklisov said Rosenberg, who was not a nuclear scientist, played only a peripheral role in atomic espionage.
Mr. Feklisov said Rosenberg did give him the key to another one of World War II's closely guarded secrets: the proximity fuse. This device vastly improved the effectiveness of artillery and antiaircraft fire by causing shells to detonate once they came close to their targets, rather than requiring direct hits.
A fully functioning fuse, inside a box, was turned over to Mr. Feklisov in a New York Automat in late 1944.
Important nuclear information was later passed through Mr. Feklisov to the Soviets by Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear scientist working in England who was a devoted communist. Historians have said that espionage advanced Soviet bomb development by 12 to 18 months.
In his activities, Mr. Feklisov, who used the code name Fomin, sometimes employed techniques made familiar in spy novels.
For example, he told Dobbs that when handing off contraband, he and those working for him "would arrange to meet in a place like Madison Square Garden or a cinema and brush up against each other very quickly."
During the 1962 missile crisis, the United States faced off with the Soviet Union after discovering that nuclear missiles had been delivered to Cuba. After days in which war seemed imminent, a plan was devised to resolve the situation.
Some accounts indicate that the way out was proposed informally by Mr. Feklisov to ABC news correspondent John Scali at the Occidental Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. There, it has been written, he broached the idea that the missiles would be withdrawn if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba.
But Dobbs, who is writing a book on the missile crisis, said stories about Feklisov's being a "back channel" to Moscow "were overblown." Feklisov, he said, "never confirmed them."
Mr. Feklisov told Dobbs that he decided to tell of his association with Julius Rosenberg because he considered him a hero who had been abandoned by the Soviets. "My morality does not allow me to keep silent," he said.
Dobbs said that when Mr. Feklisov visited this country for the TV documentary, the former spy, an emotional man, visited Julius Rosenberg's grave and brought Russian earth to place on it.