A front-page obituary of David Greenglass published this week in the New York Times is seriously flawed. Not only does it contain inaccurate statements of fact, it also misrepresents the views of historians about the Rosenberg atomic espionage case.
The obituary stated that there is a “consensus among historians” that “the Greenglass-Rosenberg atomic bomb details were of little value to the Soviets, except to corroborate what they already knew, and that Ethel Rosenberg had played no active role in the conspiracy.” As five historians who have written six books on Soviet espionage, three specifically on the Rosenberg network and three in which the Rosenberg case was a major focus, we cannot fathom how that statement can be supported.
The obituary states that Greenglass, who worked in the Los Alamos machine shop that produced models of the implosion detonator for plutonium bomb designers, admitted providing to Rosenberg “a crude sketch” of the detonator, a key technical breakthrough by the Manhattan Project. It fails to mention that documents from the KGB archive made available in 2009 state that Greenglass gave Soviet intelligence the ignition cartridge of the detonator and a 33-page letter of details on the bomb that a KGB officer called “highly valuable.”
Soviet archival documents also show that Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, provided her personal evaluation of individuals Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources. They also demonstrate that Julius reported to the KGB that Ethel persuaded Ruth Greenglass to travel to New Mexico to recruit David as a spy.
Julius Rosenberg’s spy ring provided an extraordinary trove of non-nuclear espionage on radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines to the Soviet Union, but the Rosenbergs' contributions to the Soviet nuclear weapons program were also important. The information from David Greenglass and from a second nuclear spy recruited by Julius Rosenberg, Russell McNutt, was welcomed by the KGB as valuable and practical confirmation of data it was receiving from Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, the two major Soviet nuclear spies in the Manhattan Project. Further, their activities did not cease with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Believing that war between the U.S. and the USSR was inevitable, Rosenberg, Greenglass, and other members of their network continued to provide the Soviet Union with American military secrets until their exposure in 1950.
It is long past time that the New York Times stops abetting the continuing efforts by the Rosenberg sons and others who have spent decades misrepresenting the espionage activities of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are authors of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009), Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2006), & Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale University Press, 1999). Allen M. Hornblum is author of The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb (Yale University Press, 2010). Ronald Radosh is author of The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983 and new edition, Yale University Press, 1997). Steven Usdin is author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley (Yale University Press, 2005).