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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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.

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