The Magazine

A Very Cold War

The dying gasps of the Rosenberg apologists.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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Final Verdict

A Very Cold War

Bettmann / Corbis

What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case

by Walter & Miriam Schneir

Melville House, 208 pp., $23.95

 Exoneration

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’s Final Verdict is 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.

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