The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

On 12th September 1949, MI5 was sent documents that had been uncovered by the Venona Project that suggested that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet spy. His telephones were tapped and his correspondence intercepted at both his home and office. Concealed microphones were installed in Fuchs's home in Harwell. Fuchs was tailed by B4 surveillance teams, who reported that he was difficult to follow. Although they discovered he was having an affair with the wife of his line manager, the investigation failed to produce any evidence of espionage.

Fuchs was interviewed by MI5 officers but he denied any involvement in espionage and the intelligence services did not have enough evidence to have him arrested and charged with spying. Jim Skardon later recalled: "He (Klaus Fuchs) was obviously under considerable mental stress. I suggested that he should unburden his mind and clear his conscience by telling me the full story." Fuchs replied "I will never be persuaded by you to talk." The two men then went to lunch: "During the meal he seemed to be resolving the matter and to be considerably abstracted... He suggested that we should hurry back to his house. On arrival he said that he had decided it would be in his best interests to answer my questions. I then put certain questions to him and in reply he told me that he was engaged in espionage from mid 1942 until about a year ago. He said there was a continuous passing of information relating to atomic energy at irregular but frequent meetings." (1)

Fuchs explained to Skardon: "Since that time I have had continuous contact with the persons who were completely unknown to me, except that I knew they would hand whatever information I gave them to the Russian authorities. At that time I had complete confidence in Russian policy and I believed that the Western Allies deliberately allowed Russia and Germany to fight each other to the death. I had therefore, no hesitation in giving all the information I had, even though occasionally I tried to concentrate mainly on giving information about the results of my own work. There is nobody I know by name who is concerned with collecting information for the Russian authorities. There are people whom I know by sight whom I trusted with my life." (2)

A few days later J. Edgar Hoover informed President Harry S. Truman that "we have just gotten word from England that we have gotten a full confession from one of the top scientists, who worked over here, that he gave the complete know-how of the atom bomb to the Russians." (3) As Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) pointed out: "What Fuchs had failed to realize was that, but for his confession, there would have been no case against him, Skardon's knowledge of his espionage, which had so impressed him, derived from... Verona... and unusable in court." (4)

Fuchs was interviewed by MI5 about his Soviet contacts. It was later recorded that: "In the course of investigation, Fuchs was shown two American motion picture films of Harry Gold. In the first, Gold was shown on an American city street and impressed Fuchs as a man in a state of nervous excitement being chased.... After seeing the film... Fuchs identified Gold and gave testimony about him." (5)

The FBI interviewed Harry Gold about Klaus Fuchs. At first he denied knowing him. However, he suddenly broke down and made a full confession. On 23rd May, 1950, Gold appeared in court and was charged with conspiring with others to obtain secret information for the Soviet Union from Klaus Fuchs. Bail was set at $100,000 and a hearing scheduled for 12th June. The following day the newspapers reported that Gold had been arrested on evidence provided by Fuchs. (6)

According to Alexander Feklissov, attempts were made to get Julius Rosenberg out of the country: "The main task from the Center's point of view was to get the key members of the network out, namely Julius Rosenberg and his family.... All necessary documents were ready. Gavriil Panchenko, Julius' case officer, had an urgent meeting with him, telling him to leave the United States as soon as possible. Rosenberg refused; he felt he couldn't leave his sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, by herself. She had been hospitalized because of burns to her body and was pregnant." (7)

As a result of information provided by Gold, Alfred Dean Slack was arrested on 15th June, 1950. According to the newspapers he had been detained by FBI agents "in connection with the international atomic spying case." It was reported that he was a 44 year old, $75-a-week assistant production superintentendent at a Syracuse paint factory. He told journalists that "I am not now and never was a member of the Communist Party - and never will be." Slack was held in $100,000 bail. As he was taken away to prison he stated: "I believe the charges ultimately will be understood. Any charge against me with reference to the Manhattan project has no foundation. I am completely innocent of anything wrong." (8)

David Greenglass

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." (9) 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." (10) 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 adjornment of proceedings to move him to New Mexico for trial." (11) 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". (12)

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. (13) Time Magazine noted that "alone of the four arrested so far, Rosenberg stoutly insisted on his innocence." (14)

Arrest of Rosenberg

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." (15)

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

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 ifentity 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." (16) 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." (17)

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." (18) 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 migranes, and cried herself to sleep at night. But Julius didn't break." (19)

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." (20)

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." (21) 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." (22) On 18th October, Greenglass pleaded guilty. (23)

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." (24)

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." (25)

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.

Trial of Julius Rosenberg

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 allience 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." (26)

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".

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

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). (27)

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. (28)

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. (29)

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.

Testimony: Ruth Greenglass

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." (30) 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." (31)

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."

Testimony: Harry Gold

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". (32) 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." (33)

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." (34)

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. (35)

Testimony: Elizabeth Bentley

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 enginner." 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."

Testimony: 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." Aftter 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. (36)

Testimony: Ethel Rosenberg

Ethel Rosenberg was the final defence witness. The New York Times described her in court as a "little woman with soft and pleasant features". (37) 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. (38)

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." (39) 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." (40)

Summations & Verdict

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. (41)

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." (42)

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." (43) 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.

Response to the Conviction

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." (44) 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." (45)

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." (46)

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. (47) 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." (48) 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." (49)

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." (50) 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." (51) 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." (52) 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." (53)

Pleas for Clemency

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." (54)

Judge Irving Saypol 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." (55)

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." (56)

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." (57)

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." (58)

Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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."(59)

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." (60)

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." (61)

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." (62)

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." (63)

Primary Sources

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

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

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

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

(2) Ethel Rosenberg, letter to Julius Rosenberg, on hearing that their conviction had been upheld by the U.S. Circuit Court (26th February, 1952)

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.

(3) Julius Rosenberg, letter to Ethel Rosenberg (13th April, 1952)

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.

(4) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast from London (13th February 1953)

The execution date for the condemned atom spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, will be set on Monday. Federal Judge Irving Kaufman said today he didn't believe anything can be accomplished in too long a delay, "except bringing upon the prisoners mental anguish by instilling false hopes in them." Counsel for the Rosenbergs asked that the executions be delayed for a month or two. The judge said he had been harassed more than ever by various groups since the President denied the Rosenbergs' appeal for clemency. He said, "It is as if a signal had been given. I have received many telephone calls and telegrams and letters."

Alexander Kendrick cables from Vienna that today the whole Communist world opened an unbridled attack on the Eisenhower Administration in connection with the Rosenberg case. All Communist newspapers and radio stations called for world-wide agitation from what they called "democratic forces". All satellite newspapers and all Communist papers in West Europe led their front pages with the President's rejection of the clemency plea. The Communist line was that the Eisenhower Administration had started its term with a "cold-blooded double murder". One Vienna Communist paper said that the Jelke vice trial here in New York was being deliberately staged by the Administration in order to detract attention from the Rosenberg case. All stories reported as a matter of fact that the Rosenbergs are innocent and were convicted on framed testimony.

In France, the Communist papers, of course, followed suit, but the conservative and non-Communist papers were also highly critical. One said, "The correctness of Eisenhower's decision may not be questioned, but its wisdom is something else again. We had all hoped for clemency that would demonstrate democratic justice tempered by mercy." Another highly influential non-Communist French paper, Le Monde, front-pages an editorial saying, "A measure of clemency would not have endangered American security. The execution will not frighten Communist fanatics, who consider they have a holy mission to perform. It will only give them an extra theme of propaganda to exploit."

Judge Kaufman was obviously correct; a signal has been given. Totalitarian states, whether Communist or Fascist, know how to create and make use of martyrs. The Russians are using the Rosenbergs as expendable weapons of political warfare. And the Rosenbergs, who have refused to talk, are apparently still willing instruments of the conspiracy they once served. There has been no responsible claim here that the two defendants have not received every consideration and every opportunity provided under American law. No new evidence has been produced since their conviction.

Most people familiar with Communist tactics of political warfare would probably agree that the Rosenbergs dead will be of more use to the Russians than they would be alive. Dead they can be made a symbol; alive they might one day talk. But it seems to this reporter that there is here involved something more important than a small skirmish in propaganda warfare. There is a law - it provides certain penalties. There was a trial, complete and open, conducted under the law. A verdict was reached by a jury. A sentence was imposed. And, as President Eisenhower concluded in one of the best written statements to come from the White House in a long time, he "feels it his duty in the interests of the people of the United States not to set aside the verdict of their representatives." This case will - already has - damaged us abroad. But a departure from that principle might damage us fatally.

(5) Julius Rosenberg, letter to Ethel Rosenberg (31st May, 1953)

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.

(6) Alice Hamilton, letter to Felix Frankfurter, a member of the Supreme Court (15th July, 1959)

Why are we the only western country that lives in terror of native Communists. All the European countries have open and above-board political Communist parties some even have members of Parliament or whatever, and they do not have Un-Dutch Activities Committee. Look at the contrast between the English treatment of Klaus Fuchs and our treatment of the Rosenbergs. Fuchs is a scientist (which Rosenberg was not) he gave valuable atomic secrets to the Russians (Urey testified that Rosenberg did not know enough to do that) he confessed (the Rosenbergs refused to, though offered their lives as reward) Fuchs acted during the war, the Rosenbergs during peace.

(7) Jacques Monod, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (October, 1953)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(9) William A. Reuben, review of The Secret World of American Communism in the journal Rights (1995).

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.

(10) Eric Alterman, The Nation (29th April, 1996)

Here we go again. New York Post editor Eric Breindel, writing in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, insists that the recent release by the National Security Agency of an encrypted document sent by a Soviet spy in Washington to his superiors in Moscow on March 30, 1945, constitutes "the smoking gun in the Hiss case," proving "beyond doubt" that Hiss "was still a Soviet agent in 1945."

Since I am writing in what Breindel (who has died since this article was written) preemptively calls "America's leading forum for Alger Hiss apologia," one could be forgiven for expecting yet another plea for justice for Hiss. Sorry. I take no position on guilt or innocence (in truth, I still can't make up my mind). Today's lesson deals instead with a disturbing nexus of scholarship, journalism and Cold War fanaticism that, based on either a careless or a deliberately malicious reading of declassified national security documents, threatens our ability ever to make sense of the past half-century of our history.

The drill has become a familiar one: Hitherto secret documents or ex-spy confessions, often backed up by a major publishing campaign, reveal that so-and-so was a spy all along. Journalists trumpet the charge, calling on "respected" academics to either endorse or debunk the charges. Depending on the usually predictable political orientation of the academic in question, a person's reputation is either destroyed or merely damaged. The story then goes away until the next batch of documents appears or the next spy gets religion.

The latest cycle began back in 1990 with a book co-written by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, and Christopher Andrew, a respected British intelligence historian, titled KGB: The Inside Story. Though he did not endorse the charge himself, Gordievsky argued, in Andrew's words, that as a young agent he had been reliably informed by many important Soviet intelligence officials that Harry Hopkins, FDR's most trusted adviser, had been a Soviet "agent of major significance."

Time trumpeted the charges in a much-publicized excerpt but, owing to both the unbelievability of the charges and the authors' unwillingness to stand by them, they did not cause much of a stir. Most reviewers were decidedly unimpressed with the work. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. scored Time for publishing the excerpt and said "the whole Hopkins passage smells of sensationalism on the part of the book's authors." The great military historian Sir Michael Howard noted that nothing in the book was likely to surprise Western intelligence services, though "there is probably much that they know not to be true." The only reputations to suffer significant damage were those of Time and Andrew. (Being a KGB defector, Gordievsky did not have much to lose, reputation-wise.)

Recently, it is U.S. intelligence releases that have been making news. After classifying its intercepts as top secret for decades and refusing all scholars' entreaties for access, the National Security Agency called a press conference in July 1995 to announce the release of forty-nine intercepts, dubbed the Venona papers, that dealt with the case of the Rosenbergs. Sanho Tree, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, had applied for these same documents under the Freedom of Information Act in 1993 but was informed that they were properly classified as top secret. Tree received the documents by Federal Express just hours before the press conference began. Apparently, the NSA decided it would endanger national security if an IPS scholar saw the material before it had a chance to invite favored journalists to a screening, complete with fancy booklets and brochures.

This first batch of transcripts convinced many (including me) that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy. Even committed Rosenberg partisans Walter and Miriam Schneir were convinced. But Ronald Radosh, transformed from obscure New Left historian to well-funded, right-wing hatchetman during the Reagan era, crowed that the documents proved "the Rosenbergs were not only Communists" but "were recruited right out of the party for Soviet espionage." Radosh, however, only proved once again his ability to read into documents what he wished to believe in the first place. The intercepts did nothing to prove Ethel's espionage involvement or mitigate the accusation that the government executed an innocent woman in a failed attempt to extract a confession from her husband. (Radosh and Joyce Milton, his coauthor of "The Rosenberg File," had contended that "it seems almost certain that (Ethel) acted as an accessory.") Nor did the intercepts prove that Julius operated a spy ring on the order necessary to have carried out the plot for which he was executed, though this may have been the case.

(11) Martin Weil, The Washington Post (3rd November, 2007)

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.

(13) Jon Wiener, The Nation (21st December, 1998)

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?


(1) William Skardon, report on Klaus Fuchs (31st January, 1950)

(2) Klaus Fuchs, confession to William Skardon (27th January, 1950)

(3) J. Edgar Hoover, message to President Harry S. Truman (1st November, 1950)

(4) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) page 388

(5) Venona File 86194 page 232

(6) New York Times (24th May, 1950)

(7) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 252

(8) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 77

(9) The New York Tribune (17th June, 1950)

(10) New York Times (17th June, 1950)

(11) New York Daily Mirror (13th July, 1950)

(12) New York Times (18th July, 1950)

(13) New York Daily News (19th July, 1950)

(14) Time Magazine (31st July, 1950)

(15) Department of Justice, press release (17th July, 1950)

(16) Alan H. Belmont, memorandum to D.M. Ladd (17th July, 1950)

(17) J. Edgar Hoover to Howard McGrath (19th July, 1950)

(18) New York Times (18th August, 1950)

(19) Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets (1991) page 421

(20) New York Times (19th August, 1950)

(21) New York Times (23rd August, 1950)

(22) New York Daily Mirror (3rd September, 1950)

(23) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 88

(24) Gordon Dean, diary entry (7th February, 1950)

(25) Sol Stern and Ronald Radosh, The New Republic (23rd June, 1979)

(26) Irving Saypol, speech in court (6th March, 1951)

(27) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 124

(28) Alexander Feklissov report to NKVD headquarters (January 1945)

(29) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 125-26

(30) New York Times (15th March, 1951)

(31) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 125-26

(32) Time Magazine (26th March, 1951)

(33) Harry Gold, testimony at the Rosenberg trial (15th March, 1951)

(34) New York Times (16th March, 1951)

(35) Harry Gold, testimony at the Rosenberg trial (15th March, 1951)

(36) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 148

(37) New York Times (28th March, 1951)

(38) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 150

(39) New York Times (28th March, 1951)

(40) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 264

(41) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 153

(42) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 268-269

(43) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 153

(44) Howard Rushmore, New York Journal-American (3rd April, 1951)

(45) Eugene Lyons, New York Post (6th April, 1951)

(46) Curt Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets (1991) page 424

(47) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 176

(48) Julius Rosenberg, letter to Ethel Rosenberg (7th December, 1952)

(49) Julius Rosenberg, letter to Ethel Rosenberg (12th December, 1952)

(50) Dorothy Thompson, The Washington Star (12th April, 1951)

(51) Judge Irving Kaufman, statement (30th December, 1952)

(52) Time Magazine (1st December, 1952)

(53) The New York Tribune (14th January, 1953)

(54) Myles Lane, appearing before Judge Irving Kaufman (30th December, 1952)

(55) Judge Irving Kaufman, statement (2nd January, 1953)

(56) George E. Sokolsky, New York Journal-American (9th January, 1953)

(57) Dwight D. Eisenhower, statement (11th February, 1953)

(58) Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to John Eisenhower (June, 1953)

(59) Statement issued by the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the visit of James V. Bennett, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (May, 1953)

(60) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 253

(61) Jean-Paul Sartre, Libération (21st June, 1953)

(62) New York Times (21st June, 1953)

(63) Jacques Monod, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (October, 1953)