Commentary Magazine

Revisiting the Rosenbergs

To the Editor:
In his review of Walter Schneir’s Final Verdict, Ronald Radosh reveals his unwillingness to view the case of my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, in any way other than through a Cold War lens [December 2010]. He criticizes Mr. Schneir for ignoring “the reality of the espionage and treason in which the Rosenbergs engaged.” With that characterization, Mr. Radosh channels the worst of Cold War America.

The whole justification for the death sentence by the judge and the basis for President Eisenhower’s refusal to grant clemency was that my parents had indeed committed treason—that they had delivered to the Soviet Union single-handedly (according to the prosecution, “through David Greenglass”—the chief prosecution witness) the secret of the atomic bomb. One would never guess that The Rosenberg File, a book that Mr. Radosh co-wrote in 1983, concluded that the charge from the prosecutor and the judge was ludicrous, particularly in light of the expert scientific information transmitted by the German-born British spy Klaus Fuchs. Since the publication of The Rosenberg File, we have learned of another scientist spy at Los Alamos, Theodore Alvin Hall, as well as the spy George Koval, who had infiltrated the Oak Ridge facility.

And then there is that word, “treason.” How is it possible to commit treason in support of an ally? When Jonathan Pollard was arrested for being an Israeli spy, no one called him a traitor. Had Julius Rosenberg been arrested in 1945, as Walter Schneir suggests, the government might have merely hushed it up to avoid embarrassment. Unfortunately for my parents, they were not arrested until 1950, when the Soviet Union was an enemy and the United States was soon to be fighting a very hot battle of the long Cold War in Korea. If every overt act my parents were charged with (and have been charged with since) had actually occurred, a treason indictment could not have even been returned, let alone successfully prosecuted. However, in the mind of the public, my parents were guilty of treason. Thus they were sentenced for treason and executed for treason without any of the constitutional protections of the treason statute. So despite Radosh’s assertion in the review, my parents were victims of a gross political frame-up—they were framed for treason, a crime they had not committed.

There are so many misstatements in the review that I cannot list them all. Instead, I will mention only one. When Radosh gloats that Walter Schneir now acknowledges that the Soviet courier Harry Gold did meet David Greenglass in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in June of 1945, he states, “[Gold] had been handed the very information at the heart of the government’s case.” That is false. The information Greenglass passed to Gold concerned the creation of experimental molds that were used to make the shaped charges of explosives that would be utilized in an implosion-triggered atomic bomb.

The so-called “secret” of the atom bomb (“the heart of the government’s case”) was allegedly contained in a cross-section drawing and descriptive material that David Greenglass testified about at the trial. That material, according to the government, was delivered by David Greenglass to Julius Rosenberg in September of 1945, not to Harry Gold in June of the same year. Walter Schneir discovered that this material did not reach the Soviet Union until December of 1945. The was because, contrary to the Greenglass trial testimony, the information was given to a Soviet contact directly, probably by Ruth Greenglass at a December 21, 1945, meeting. Julius Rosenberg’s Soviet superiors had removed him from active espionage activity in February of 1945, because he had just been fired from his government job for being a Communist. His Soviet handlers feared the government might be onto his other activities. The September 1945 meeting never took place. The charge of the prosecutor, judge, and president was false.

Anyone who wants more details can go to the website of the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, at Meanwhile, Ronald Radosh and his Cold War buddies can continue to retry my parents for treason. The rest of us will try to actually use historical evidence to determine the truth as best we can approximate it.

Michael Meeropol
Cold Spring, New York


Ronald Radosh writes:
The entire premise of Michael Meeropol’s argument is based on a major falsehood that he repeats implicitly in this question: “How is it possible to commit treason in support of an ally?”

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were not supporting an ally—or at least not an ally of the United States. The newest evidence has revealed that Julius Rosenberg set up his network during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when the Soviet Union’s only ally was Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Loyalty to Joseph Stalin came above everything else for the Rosenbergs, even when Stalin was allied with Hitler, colluding in the brutal occupation of Eastern Europe. Nor was the Soviet Union an “ally” of the United States after August 1945. Yet Rosenberg continued to gather material and hold his group together until the day of his arrest in 1950. The Cold War by then was well under way.

Nevertheless, both Ethel and Julius were indeed traitors who betrayed their own country on behalf of Joseph Stalin’s USSR. Mr. Meeropol argues that it does not matter whether the actual charge was treason, since “in the mind of the public, my parents were guilty of treason.” But it was the U.S. government, and not a vague entity known as “the public,” that indicted them for “conspiracy to commit espionage,” not treason. Public perception, even if Mr. Meeropol were right, is irrelevant.

Therefore, Mr. Meeropol’s argument that the Rosenbergs “were sentenced for treason and executed for treason without any of the constitutional protections of the treason statute” is completely unsound. The Rosenbergs, despite judicial misconduct the late Joyce Milton and I addressed in The Rosenberg File, were afforded the full protection of the law. Indeed, the Rosenbergs were guilty of far more than they were charged with, as were associates like William Perl and Morton Sobell. Many of the members of Julius’s ring suffered no legal consequences for their actions.

Mr. Meeropol makes a lot out of his claim that Walter Schneir found that Greenglass’s data reached the Soviets only in December of 1945, rather than earlier in the year, and was not transmitted by Julius Rosenberg, but most likely by David’s own wife, Ruth Greenglass. Even if this were the case, Mr. Meeropol and the Schneirs completely ignore that David Greenglass was recruited into Julius’s network at the suggestion of his sister Ethel, and with Julius’s support and knowledge. He was Rosenberg’s agent all the time, working hard to produce whatever successes he could.

As for the import of the Greenglass material, Richard Rhodes, who researched Soviet archives, reveals the following in his book Dark Sun: “Greenglass’s information on implosion, however limited, was the first news the Soviets had of the radical new approach” (my emphasis). This means that the sophisticated data the Soviets received from Klaus Fuchs—who gave his material to Greenglass’s courier, Harry Gold—provided the complete verification that Greenglass’s material was of importance.

In his book Stalin and the Bomb, David Holloway notes that the Soviet atomic scientist Igor Kurchatov had written a memo on March 16, 1945, mentioning his interest in material obtained about the implosion method that, as Holloway writes, was “written in response to information provided . . . possibly by David Greenglass.” Note that this memo was written at the beginning, not the end, of 1945.

Finally, I thank Mr. Meeropol for confirming that he does indeed adhere to an ideological agenda and is anything but a disinterested scholar trying to find out the truth about Soviet espionage. Readers know that my “Cold War buddies” and I are hardly retrying his parents for treason. To the contrary, it is we who use historical evidence to make a case and seek to determine the truth. It is Mr. Meeropol, and the late Walter Schneir and his widow Miriam, who bend evidence to fit their warped narrative.

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