Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 67:25 December 6, 2001 p.13
New Light or New Dirt
on the Rosenberg Case?

Three Books Examine Recent Evidence Behind the
Controversial Conviction


A quarter of a century ago, as the Watergate revelations were diminishing faith in governmental truthfulness [changed by editor to "the credibility of government"], Michael and Robert Meeropol, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, began speaking publicly about the wrongful deaths of their parents. Convicted in 1951, on flimsy evidence and in an atmosphere of terror, of conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, they were executed in 1953 for having allegedly "stolen the 'secret' of the atomic bomb."

Michael spoke eloquently and compassionately, though not without bitterness, about his mother's brother, David Greenglass, whose FBI-coached testimony had been what assistant prosecutor Roy Cohn called "the smoking gun," and who was hiding--and is still hiding--from the public eye under an assumed name, which he took following his release from prison in 1960. Greenglass had been a low-level machinist at the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were researched and built. Like many technicians on the project, he took advantage of lapses in security and took home a piece of uranium as a souvenir. The FBI held that over his head, demanding that he "talk." Which he did.

Following hours of interrogation (the full transcript of which has never been made public, and may have been destroyed), he signed a statement, laughing: "I expect to have my day in court, at which time I will plead innocent, repudiate this statement, and claim I never saw you guys."[Roberts,p.243] In that signed statement, he incriminated himself, his wife Ruth, and his brother-in-law Julius (and only later his sister Ethel as well), for having passed information to a chemist named Harry Gold, allegedly for use by the Russians in the [Allies'] war against Germany. "As long as they had something over my head about my wife and my family, then they could probably get me to do anything..." Greenglass told Sam Roberts [p.497], in a series of interviews for Roberts' newly published book, The Brother.

Roberts has uncovered a good deal of material, substantiating beyond a doubt the truth of Ruth Greenglass's suppressed statement to their lawyer, John O. Rogge, who had broken with the Left over the Stalin-Tito split and was trying to ingratiate himself with anti-Communists: David, she said, "would say things were so even if they were not." [p.236]

Unfortunately, The Brother is deeply flawed[, both in the small and in the large]. [A young Ethel Rosenberg is described as "struck with stage fright" (p.40), which seems to be the opposite of what the author is trying to say about her eagerness to appear on stage. The song "The House I Live In" is attributed, both words and music, to Abel Meeropol--the man who adopted the Rosenbergs' sons --when in fact he wrote only the words; the music was by Earl Robinson.

But these two gaffes pale beside the fact that] Roberts takes extremely questionable background sources at face value, specifically "Venona," the trove of partially decoded wartime cable intercepts declassified by the government in 1995, and the statements by Alexander Feklisov, who claimed to be the KGB case officer for Julius Rosenberg.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, proud of his role in getting Venona declassified -- two years after [a jury of] the American Bar Association declared Julius and Ethel Rosenberg [to have been] not guilty, on the grounds that the evidence originally presented at the time [at their trial] was [i.e. should have been] insufficient to convict[, absent the atmosphere of hysteria in which the trial originally took place, at the advent of the Korean War] -- was nonetheless accurate in describing the results as a "house of mirrors." [Roberts, p.216]

One of the best of the efforts to make sense of Venona -- Bombshell by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel -- passionately yet nonjudgmentally details the story of Theodore Hall, an American-Jewish physicist who actually did contribute greatly to wartime Soviet knowledge of the bomb -- much more than Greenglass ever could -- and who died in London in 1999 at the end of a distinguished career in biophysics. The final chapters of this book describe in some detail how Russian and FBI files have been opened and closed arbitrarily, and manipulated by all manner of interests over the last decade.

As for Feklisov, [the similarity of his name to "feckless" (meaning ineffective, incompetent, and irresponsible) seems more than coincidental.] Every witness who could have corroborated his Zelig-like account of having been an inconspicuous party to so many momentous events has denied ever knowing him, from the late Joel Barr to the very-much-alive Morton Sobell. The latter was convicted of conspiring with the Rosenbergs, based on perjured evidence even flimsier than that which convicted them, and was released from prison only in 1969.

What's more, Professor Timothy Naftali, who conferred with Feklisov in Moscow in 1989, wrote the author of this review: "Mr. Feklisov provided an incorrect description of his meetings with ABC correspondent John Scali during the [Cuban missile] crisis. When confronted with the text of the dispatch that he sent to the KGB about that meeting, he denounced the text as a forgery. However there were two versions of that dispatch that were declassified in Russian archives and both contradicted his version. A contemporaneous report by the American participant, Scali, also contradicted Feklisov. The passion with which Feklisov denounced inconvenient textual proof created in our mind deep skepticism about his memory."

Ronald Radosh's introduction to the English translation of Feklisov's memoirs -- The Man Behind the Rosenbergs -- is [thus perhaps unintentionally prescient and] correct when he describes parts of the book as taking "on the cast of fantasy." [Even Robert Miller of Enigma, the book's publisher, admits cutting out of the original manuscript (written out in French by Sergei Kostin) a reference to Harry Hopkins as "probably an agent of influence."] "The Soviets would give a code name to practically everybody they ever met," he [Miller, not Radosh--as erroneously written in by the editor] conceded in a telephone conversation with this writer. [One can wryly conclude, as Richard Corey did, following a panel discussion at the New York Historical Society October 24, that Feklisov's widely publicized gesture of bringing earth from his Moscow dacha to spread on the tombstone of his "dear friend" Julius was little more than literally throwing dirt on the Rosenbergs.]

Sam Roberts's most important revelation turns out to be his 1999 interview with former Secretary of State William Rogers, who had been a deputy attorney-general in the Rosenberg case. Regarding Ethel Rosenberg, he confessed: "She called our bluff," by going to her death refusing to name names. The government had nothing on her except her brother David's confession, which he now admits was a lie, insofar as her involvement was concerned. [There should be no endquote here, as the editor erroneously added.]

The political and human dimensions of the Rosenberg case still fascinate. So does the story of Greenglass, even if it is, as Robert Meeropol accurately characterized it in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y, "like taking a bath in sewage."

Greenglass's price for speaking to Roberts was a portion of the book's sales, thus compromising the reliability of the accounts therein even further. The National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case will soon have a website worth visiting, as is the current exhibit at the New York Historical Society, and as will be, one hopes, the in-progress memoirs of Morton Sobell.

Sam Roberts, The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair. New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 0-375-50013-8. [543 pp.]

Alexander Feklisov and Sergei Kostin, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs: by the KGB Spymaster who was the Case officer of Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, and Helped Resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. [Originally published in French as _Confession d'un agent soviétique_. Éditions du Rocher, 1999.] Translated [into English] from the French by Catherine Dop. [Introduction by Ronald Radosh.] New York: Enigma Books, 2001. ISBN 1-929631-08-1. [428 pp.]

Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy. New York: Times Books, Random House, 1997. ISBN 0-8129-2861-X. [399 pp.]

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