What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case
By Walter Schneir, edited with preface and afterword by Miriam Schneir
Melville House Publishing, 272 pages
The late Walter Schneir and his wife, Miriam, are best known for an influential book about the 1951 trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In Invitation to an Inquest, first published in 1965 and updated in 1983, the Schneirs argued that the Rosenbergs had been framed by the United States government for supposedly having passed the plans of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Instead, the Schneirs maintained that not only were the Rosenbergs (and their co-defendant, Morton Sobell) “unjustly convicted” of the crime of conspiracy to commit espionage but also that they had been “punished for a crime that never occurred.”
The government had alleged that the Rosenbergs were part of a spy ring of Americans who sought to give military and atomic secrets to the USSR. This was, the Schneirs argued, a malicious invention of the FBI and its allies elsewhere in the government, whose aim it was to destroy the American left. The Rosenberg case for them was America’s Dreyfus case; the Rosenbergs, electrocuted in 1953, were nothing less than martyrs. For more than four decades, Invitation to an Inquest has been the go-to document for anyone who wished to argue for the innocence of the Rosenbergs as innocent bystanders who ended up as dead combatants on an ideological battlefield.
Walter Schneir died suddenly in 2009 as he was finishing a new book on the case. Final Verdict has now been published after being completed by his widow, who also wrote its preface and afterword. Walter, she says in the preface, came “finally” to know “what really had happened” in the Rosenberg matter: there was, in fact, a Soviet espionage ring at work in the United States that stole atomic secrets.
This finding gives the lie to the arguments, theory, and conclusions of Invitation to an Inquest, though one would never know this from the text of Final Verdict. For example, in Invitation to an Inquest, the Schneirs had claimed that during the trial, a courier for the KGB named Harry Gold had lied when he said he had obtained sketches of the atom bomb from David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother and Julius’s brother-in-law. Gold testified that he had visited Greenglass in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Greenglass lived while working at the secret Los Alamos laboratory from which the atom bomb emerged. The Schneirs had argued that Gold had never been to Albuquerque and that a hotel registration card that the prosecution offered as evidence had been forged by the FBI. In Final Verdict, Walter Schneir admits Gold had indeed been to Albuquerque to see Greenglass and had been handed the very information at the heart of the government’s case.
Walter Schneir also acknowledges that Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant—members of Rosenberg’s ring who disappeared after Greenglass’s arrest and who turned up in Moscow—“had close ties to Soviet intelligence.” But he does not tell the readers of the new book that in Invitation to an Inquest he and Miriam had asserted that this claim had been a falsehood and that Sarant had most likely died in Mexico in a car accident.
The central argument of Final Verdict is that the ringleader of the Soviet-espionage network had been David Greenglass, who, Schneir now says, was far more involved in Soviet espionage than he revealed during the trial. Greenglass had testified that he had been acting at the behest of his brother-in-law, who had recruited him. To make this argument, Schneir quotes extensively from Greenglass’s letters. Those letters are not in any way new. They had been in FBI files released decades ago. I know this because those letters—indeed, the very same excerpts Schneir features in his short book—were first published in The Rosenberg File, a book I wrote together with the late Joyce Milton and published in 1983, and they demonstrated that Greenglass had accepted an offer to become a spy made by his sister and Julius Rosenberg.
The Schneirs completely ignored those letters when they published the updated Invitation to an Inquest that same year. It is, I suppose, an advance of sorts that Walter and Miriam are willing to acknowledge some parts of the truth about the Soviet espionage ring. But the charge that the truly guilty party had not been Julius Rosenberg but rather David Greenglass—since David had stolen atomic-related material and Julius had not—is spurious. Schneir simply ignores the fact that Julius had recruited David after learning his brother-in-law had been stationed at the Manhattan Project. Indeed, we now know that Julius Rosenberg had actually recruited another major atomic spy, the previously unknown Russell McNutt. This revelation appeared in the 2009 book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev (whose chapter on I.F. Stone was excerpted in COMMENTARY).
In her afterword, Miriam Schneir does try to address this point, as it does interfere with her late husband’s conclusion that the only would-be atomic spy had been David Greenglass and that Julius had had nothing to do with atomic espionage. She writes that although McNutt did meet with Anatoli Yatskov—a Soviet diplomat in New York City who was the intelligence service’s spymaster in the United States at the time—McNutt had not been aware who Yatskov was.
This argument is, to put it mildly, unconvincing, since Miriam Schneir also acknowledges that McNutt actually gave material to Yatskov! Miriam may not now think, and Walter may not have thought at the time of his death, that Julius Rosenberg and McNutt had been atomic spies, but the KGB certainly thought so back in 1944. Indeed, a letter dated May 26 of that year from the KGB indicated that Rosenberg had been given a bonus for his “initiative in acquiring an agent [McNutt] to cultivate ‘Enormous,’” the intelligence service’s code name for the Manhattan Project.
As for David Greenglass, it has long been claimed that whatever information he had passed to the Soviets had been inconsequential. But new evidence proves this to be false. Spies revealed that Greenglass gave Rosenberg in September 1945 the actual “model of…a detonator” for the fuse of the bomb’s explosive substance built in his workshop—not, as previously thought, only a primitive sketch of the mechanism. Ignoring this new evidence, Miriam Schneir tries to prove that a secret meeting at which Greenglass later admitted he had presented sketches of the lens mold to the Soviets never actually took place.
Walter Schneir offers his readers a convoluted and unpersuasive argument for why the Rosenbergs could not have afforded to tell the truth and admit they were Soviet spies. “It would have been difficult, probably impossible, for them to save themselves” had they done so, because they would have had to say they had been guilty of “atomic espionage deeds they had never done.” But since in fact they had been atomic spies, this argument collapses of its own weight. Moreover, Schneir says that if Julius had broken down and testified about the ring he had created, it would have forced him to name “the very friends whom he had himself recruited.” Also, Julius knew “the dark secret” that the American Communist Party and its former head, Earl Browder, “had involved itself in enlisting dozens of members for espionage.”
Thus, had the Rosenbergs told the truth, Walter Schneir writes, they would have “fueled the hysteria of the times.” That sentence alone reveals the rigid ideological nature of the life’s work of Walter and Miriam Schneir. For although the Schneirs are now willing to acknowledge some facts they denied before, they are constitutionally incapable of reaching the obvious conclusions that the truth reveals. They cling instead to a core belief that cannot be invalidated by fact—a belief that the Rosenberg case was an anti-Communist show trial and that the Old Left did the right thing by denying the existence of Soviet espionage, because any admission would have provided their enemies with invaluable ammunition. “The Rosenbergs,” Walter Schneir writes, “could never have brought themselves to do that.”
Indeed, they could not. And so the Rosenbergs preferred to sacrifice the well-being of their own children for the cause, to deceive those children, to force upon those children a lifelong mission never to give up the fight to prove their parents’ innocence, and all for a lie they knew to be a lie. Their loyalty was not to the children they bore, or to the nation in which they lived, but to the Soviet Union.
For their supporters, the Schneirs foremost among them, the reality of the espionage and treason in which the Rosenbergs had been engaged would have been as nothing compared with the offense of “naming names.” Giving up other members of their spy ring was “not a price they were willing to pay,” Walter writes. The Rosenbergs were locked in a pitched battle with the witch hunters.
But the witches were real. They were the witches.
What Final Verdict reveals is the inability of the few remaining remnants of the pro-Communist left to surrender the fantasies that have blinded them for generations. Walter and Miriam Schneir still argue that the Rosenbergs were “victims of a crude political frame-up” in a book that itself reveals—even if inadvertently—that the long-derided case against them was anything but.