What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case
by Walter & Miriam Schneir
Melville House, 208 pp., $23.95
The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Martin Sobell—Prosecutorial deceptions, suborned perjuries, anti-Semitism, and precedent for today’s unconstitutional trials
by Emily Arnow Alman & David Alman
Green Elms Press, 516 pp., $24.95
Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice
Elizabeth T. Bentley, Harry Gold, Roy M. Cohn, Irving H. Saypol, Judge Irving R. Kaufman, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Rehearsal for the Rosenberg Trial or How I Survived McCarthyism
by Miriam Moskowitz
Bunim & Bannigan, 312 pp., $20
The theme of Walter and Miriam Schneir’sFinal Verdictis not, as its subtitle claims, “what really happened in the Rosenberg case.” The real theme, as Walter himself writes, is “No apologies. No regrets.” For a historian or journalist whose first priority is accuracy, this is a strange remark. Walter Schneir and his wife Miriam (who contributed a preface and afterword to this short volume) spent most of their lives promoting the theme that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were total innocents who never participated in Soviet espionage, that David Greenglass was also never a spy, that Harry Gold had lied about his role as a courier picking up espionage information from Greenglass from the Los Alamos atomic bomb laboratory, and that the United States government knowingly railroaded an innocent couple into the electric chair.
The Schneirs allow that they have reached the “anguished” conclusion that they were wrong about these points that constitute the heart of their historical argument. Now any historian or journalist should have regrets about getting the essential facts wrong: Doesn’t it suggest that your judgment was in error and you need to give thought to what misled you, and why? That the Schneirs have no regrets is connected to their other declaration of “No apologies.” Not only did Walter and Miriam Schneir insist on the Rosenbergs’ complete innocence, they denounced historians who thought the evidence pointed toward guilt in vicious, angry tones as incompetents, fools, and willing stooges for an evil American government. Any historian or journalist with a minimum of civility would be abashed or contrite for harshly disparaging those who turned out to be right about the essential points of the case. The Schneirs, however, are polemicists for the pro-Communist left, and Final Verdict is a politically tendentious pamphlet, just as their prior efforts were propaganda disguised as scholarship. While they allow that they got the facts wrong, they clearly believe they got the politics right, so no regrets and no apologies.
Final Verdict is devoted to distorting, twisting, and spinning evidence to create a version of history that comports with the pro-Soviet left’s view of the essential evil of the United States and the heroism of anyone who served the Soviet cause. They try to move the goalposts by waving aside their former claims that the Rosenbergs were not involved with Soviet espionage and insisting, instead, that the most important issue is whether the government prosecutors dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in terms of legal procedures. This is pettifoggery. In the American criminal justice system, flaws, errors, exaggerations, corner-cutting, and sometimes tricks and bad faith, are, alas, too common; but the system counts on its adversarial nature to create a balance as prosecution and defense point out errors and rebut the other side. The heart of the historical issue was, and remains: Was Julius Rosenberg a Soviet spy? Did he recruit David Greenglass to commit espionage while the latter worked at the Los Alamos atomic facility? Was Harry Gold a KGB courier who picked up Greenglass’s espionage product and conveyed it to the KGB? The documentary evidence that is available today from multiple sources is that the answer to all three questions is an emphatic Yes.
Both Schneirs seek to spin their concession that Julius engaged in espionage by insisting that, while he passed military technology to the Soviet Union, he was not an atomic spy. This is absurd. Greenglass, obviously, stole atomic information; indeed, the Schneirs, in their version of the-other-dude-did-it defense, insist that Greenglass seriously understated his role as an atomic spy and he should get the blame, not Julius. (Keep in mind that, for decades, the Schneirs insisted that David Greenglass never spied for the Soviet Union.) As we noted in Spies (2009), new documents from KGB archives show that David Greenglass understated his espionage. This is hardly a shock, inasmuch as most people who confess tend to admit only to what they believe authorities already know and avoid saying more than they have to. But that Greenglass was more important a spy than he had confessed to being hardly lets Julius off the hook. Julius recruited him, and the more important an atomic spy Greenglass was, the greater was Julius’s contribution to Soviet atomic espionage.
Further, documents from KGB archives demonstrated that Greenglass was not the only atomic spy Julius recruited. (Aside from Julius, we do not know of any other Soviet operative who can claim credit for recruiting two atomic spies.) In early 1944 he enlisted a fellow Communist engineer, Russell McNutt, who worked at Kellex, the construction firm building the massive atomic facilities at Oak Ridge. Julius’s recruitment of McNutt is inconvenient for the Schneirs, so they wave it away as unimportant. Miriam Schneir insists that the KGB’s high hopes for McNutt were “never realized.” This is typical of the distortions with which Final Verdict is replete: McNutt worked at the Kellex design office in New York City; after the design work was done, he declined to leave his family in New York and move to the then-primitive living facilities at Oak Ridge, so at that point his usefulness to the KGB ended and he was dropped as a source. But the implication that the KGB’s disappointment that he did not become a long-term atomic spy was a statement about his never having provided valuable information, and never having been a useful source, is totally false.
From his position in the Kellex design office, McNutt supplied Moscow with detailed plans for the construction of the massive uranium separation facilities at Oak Ridge. Uranium separation was an essential step in building a working atomic bomb, but it presented enormous engineering difficulties. The American atomic project, at vast cost and after much experimentation, solved those difficulties. McNutt passed on to the Russians the engineering designs that actually worked, relieving the later Soviet atomic program of having to solve the problem independently. McNutt delivered his first set of plans to the KGB in February 1944, and Moscow was so pleased that, in April, it informed the New York KGB station:
A bonus in the amount of $100 has been allotted out of the 2nd quarter estimate for “Antenna’s” [Rosenberg’s] initiative in acquiring an agent [McNutt] to cultivate “Enormous” [the atomic bomb project].
The KGB recognized Julius’s contribution to atomic espionage with a cash bonus in 1944. The Schneirs’ denial of his contribution to Soviet atomic espionage serves their polemical goals, but it is historically false. Equally false is their spin that Ethel Rosenberg was an innocent housewife in the kitchen who did not know what her husband was doing and did not assist him. This fiction is the Schneirs’ attempt to save part of their old narrative. Julius was a spy, they admit, so no matter what shortcomings one finds in the prosecution, he was guilty of espionage. However, Ethel, they continue to insist, was totally innocent, the United States government knew she was innocent, but convicted and executed her anyway. Again, the evidence does not support this myth.
Julius Rosenberg was a major spy, recruiting and managing the largest network of military technology spies the KGB ever possessed. Ethel was not a spy in her own right; she simply assisted Julius. But her assistance was active, not passive. When, for example, Julius learned that the Army had sent David Greenglass to Los Alamos, he immediately wanted to recruit him. But David was isolated at the secret facility and Julius could not go there to meet with him. The only path to David was through David’s wife Ruth, who was allowed to visit him at a nearby city. So to get at David, Ruth first had to be recruited—and Ethel was key to Ruth’s recruitment. A September 1944 report from KGB officers in New York to Moscow reported Julius’s proposal to recruit Ruth and contained this justification: “Liberal [Julius Rosenberg] and his wife recommend her [Ruth] as an intelligent and clever girl.” Clearly KGB officers working with Julius knew Ethel and considered her recommendation about recruiting Ruth worth passing along to Moscow. A November report from the KGB office in New York further told Moscow that Ethel “is characterized positively and as a devoted person,” had been a Communist party member since 1938, was “well developed politically,” and “knows about her husband’s work” as well as that of the leading members of his espionage network.
In a report he himself wrote, Julius presented the recruitment as a joint effort by himself and Ethel. He had taken the lead; but Ethel’s participation assured Ruth that recruiting David Greenglass, her husband and Ethel’s brother, was the right thing to do. Without Ethel’s assistance, Ruth might not have agreed to draw her husband into spying for the Soviet Union. And if Ruth had not recruited David, there would have been no atomic espionage by David and no Rosenberg trial. A major spy she wasn’t, but Ethel was an active participant in espionage.
The Schneirs’ earlier position was that the Rosenbergs did not confess because they were innocent, there was nothing to confess, and they accepted execution and the orphaning of their children rather than confess to a lie. That reasoning, obviously, will no longer work. The new position is “of course they lied and lied”—but their lies were justifiable because confessing would have meant identifying other members of Rosenberg’s extensive espionage network. And in the worldview of Final Verdict, identifying people who spied for Stalin against the United States was a very bad thing. In particular, “Julius was privy to the dark secret that the American Communist Party under Earl Browder had involved itself in enlisting dozens of members for espionage.” To the Schneirs and the pro-Communist left, to have admitted this blockbuster at the time would have confirmed the suspicions of anti-Communists and further discredited the Communist party. So the Rosenbergs did right to accept execution rather than tell the truth about the key role American Communists played in Soviet espionage.
Like the Schneirs, Emily and David Alman were associated with the Rosenberg defense since the early 1950s. Fellow residents of the Knickerbocker Village cooperative apartments, they became interested in the case and founded the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, which agitated for a commutation of the death sentence and later campaigned to have the historical verdict reversed. Emily Alman died in 2004 and her husband finished Exoneration, an exhausting hodgepodge of confusion and misinformation.
While the Almans now accept that the Rosenbergs were guilty of espionage, they insist that they were unfairly convicted of an “oral indictment” of treason, and the guilty verdicts were based on this unjust charge. Despite the rhetorical excesses of the prosecution and the judge—in his sentencing, he accused the Rosenbergs of being responsible for the deaths of 50,000 Americans in Korea—the evidence that was produced against the defendants in court was sufficient to convict them of conspiracy to commit espionage, and the material that has emerged from Russian archives and memoirs in the past 20 years has confirmed most of it.
Most notably, the key prosecution witnesses, Harry Gold and the Greenglasses, were not serial liars, as the various Rosenberg defenders have long maintained. Allen Hornblum’s excellent new biography, The Invisible Harry Gold, demonstrates that he told the truth. The Almans are reduced to suggesting that Gold lied about being the Soviet courier who met with Klaus Fuchs because he wanted “historic immortality”—oblivious to all of the evidence that he did exactly what he testified to. They question whether Gold ever met with the Greenglasses in Albuquerque in 1945, despite evidence so conclusive that even the Schneirs (who also once claimed the meeting never happened) have given up on that notion. Exoneration is filled with historical absurdities and pitiful efforts to suggest that the prosecution was part of an anti-Semitic plot orchestrated by
J. Edgar Hoover.
Of course, the Schneirs and the Almans have not made the only recent efforts to rehabilitate spies. Miriam Moskowitz was convicted in 1950, along with her boss and lover Abe Brothman, of conspiracy to obstruct justice in an espionage investigation, largely on Gold’s testimony. No one ever accused Moskowitz of espionage, although her association with Brothman, who was a Soviet source, has tainted her ever since. In Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice she washes away any sympathy for her as collateral damage in a spy case by a series of mendacious statements and distortions and by demonstration of a mindset that displays the Stalinist mentality in full flower.
Moskowitz lacks a reliable grasp of history, crediting the New Deal with building the interstate highway system (Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed it in the 1950s) and using domestic spending to buy the country out of the Great Depression. (Industrial mobilization for World War II ended the Depression.) The Marshall Plan, she claims, inaugurated the Cold War by propping up capitalism, lest American workers look to the Soviet Union for a model! Unsurprisingly, she had joined the American Communist party in 1950.
Her troubles began with Brothman, a chemical engineer who had covertly supplied the Soviet Union with industrial information for years via Harry Gold. She and Brothman were lovers, even though “he was devoted to his family.” Gold broke a cardinal rule of espionage tradecraft, going to work for Brothman after serving as his courier. And although Moskowitz insists that the only information Brothman supplied to Gold was his own intellectual property and was not secret, the KGB was livid at Gold, correctly surmising that Brothman’s relationship with Elizabeth Bentley, a Soviet spy who had defected, would lead the FBI to him and then to Gold. When the two men were called before a grand jury in 1947, they concocted a story and lied; when Gold was arrested in 1950 and confessed, Brothman and Moskowitz (who had backed up Brothman’s lies) were convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, for which she served two years in prison.
Phantom Spies reads as if it were written in the 1970s, the high tide of revisionism when, in the intellectual world, it became fashionable to hold that everything done in the anti-Communist era after World War II had been mistaken, fraudulent, hysterical, and destructive. None of the evidence that has emerged in the last 30 years appears to have intruded into Miriam Moskowitz’s world. She writes that the Rosenbergs and those named by Bentley were victims of hysteria, that Gold and Bentley were liars, that none of the accused spies held important positions anyway, and that Harry Gold did it all for the money—actually, Gold’s confession got him a 30-year prison term—and because she had rejected his sexual advances.
Neither the Schneirs nor the Almans seem perturbed that Morton Sobell, one of the few surviving spies, has finally confessed and admitted that he lied to everyone who had foolishly defended him for half a century. But lying for the higher cause of communism and the Soviet Union has never troubled the Rosenbergs’ loyalists.
Is there anything of value to be gained from these three volumes? In terms of insight on the Rosenberg case, none. In terms of a look at the fantasy world of the remnants of the pro-Communist left—well, yes. If any reader has a taste for that sort of voyeurism, they are quite illuminating.
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes are coauthors, with Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).