Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, by Walter Schneir, Melville House Publishing Co., Brooklyn, N.Y., 203 pages, $23.95
Time, we are told, heals all wounds. It has not done so in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Well over a half century has gone by since the matter supposedly came to an end. Yet the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs still haunt the American conscience. In “Final Verdict,” Walter Schneir, who died last year, has added another volume to the library of books on the subject. His effort to straighten out the facts of the case deserves serious consideration.
The Rosenbergs, husband and wife and the parents of two small boys, died in the electric chair at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953. They had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in the delivery in 1945 of atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The death sentence and its carrying out, older readers will remember, provoked huge protest demonstrations in this country and abroad.
In 1965, the author, together with his wife Miriam, published a book that declared the Rosenbergs innocent. Since then, additional material has become available. It includes documents from both U.S. and Soviet archives. It has resulted in a revised, “final” conclusion.
The principal evidence against the Rosenbergs came from Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. The Army in 1944 had stationed him at its installation in Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was in creation. He testified at the trial in 1951 that while on furlough in New York on Sept. 20, 1945, he gave Julius a sketch of “the atom bomb itself” (the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Cohn in a leading question). He also handed over 12 pages of handwritten explanatory notes, which Ethel then and there, he swore, typed.
The author mounts his most effective attack against this crucial testimony. To begin, Greenglass’ sketch, his copy of which became the prosecution’s Exhibit 8, did not depict “the atom bomb itself.” It was an imperfect attempt to show the component, a lens mold, on which Greenglass, as a machinist, had worked.
More seriously, the date—Dec. 27, 1945—of a Soviet memorandum delivering Greenglass’ material to Lavrenti Beria, who had charge of the Soviet atomic-bomb project, casts doubt on Greenglass’ testimony. Why, the author asks, should it have taken over three months to convey the sketch and notes to their intended destination? More likely, suggests Schneir, Greenglass’ wife Ruth, who was named a co-conspirator but never indicted, delivered the material to Harry Gold, a confessed Soviet spy, at an encounter in New Mexico on Dec. 21. Neither of the Rosenbergs was present at that meeting.
The author concedes that for years, beginning in 1941, Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union. His dedication and diligence impressed Soviet authorities. He came to head a network of eight agents.
But in a chapter headed “A Pink Slip From Moscow,” Schneir shows that the KGB discharged Rosenberg in February 1945. It ordered him to keep his distance from the Soviet agents who had been his contacts. It did so because Rosenberg had been fired from a government job when the FBI learned of his former membership in the Communist Party. Moscow feared that this would subject Rosenberg to dangerous surveillance. It follows, goes the author’s argument, that Julius Rosenberg was not, seven months later, a likely custodian of secrets to be passed along to Moscow.
As for Ethel, David Greenglass made headlines in 2001 when he repudiated the testimony that had sent his sister to the chair. In a TV interview he said in part, “And to this day, I can’t even remember that the typing took place, see.” Roy Cohn, he said, had encouraged him to testify that he saw Ethel type his notes.
Testimony of Ruth Greenglass linked the Rosenbergs to the recruitment of David Greenglass as a spy. A Soviet document contradicts this testimony by not mentioning Ethel in a report of the episode. Julius, on the other hand, seems unquestionably to have participated in the recruitment.
Many Americans, including this reviewer, have been troubled through the years less by the guilty verdict against the Rosenbergs than by the severity of the penalty imposed. Greenglass’ material went, however it got there, to a power that was in 1945 still an ally. Klaus Fuchs, a German-born English physicist who worked at Los Alamos, gave the Soviets data of immeasurable value. A British court in 1950 sentenced him to 14 years. David Greenglass pleaded guilty and got 15 years. He walked out of prison on parole in 1960.
The author maintains that the Rosenbergs’ trial, and implicitly their sentencing, were “shaped by the climate of the times, a climate of pervasive fear bred by the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and McCarthyism.”
Schneir, moreover, quotes several authorities, including the publication Scientific American, to the effect that Greenglass’ sketch and notes were unimportant in the development of the bomb. A Soviet document stated that owing in part to Greenglass’ “insufficient qualifications” (he was a high-school graduate), his material was “low in quality and far from processed.”
Schneir criticizes the Rosenbergs’ lawyers as submissive and inept. He denounces the prosecution for having perpetrated “the Big Lie.” He quotes, for example, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School as reporting that Roy Cohn “proudly told me shortly before his death [in 1986] that the government had ‘manufactured’ evidence against the Rosenbergs because they knew Julius was the head of a spy ring.”
One must admire the scholarship, candor and perspicuity of Walter Schneir and his widow, who wrote a preface and “afterword,” both extensive, to the book. The question remains whether they have in fact uttered the final word on the Rosenberg case.
The history of the matter all but promises that future writers will challenge some of their observations. Yet it is hard to deny that in this book they have put together a powerful argument, mere fragments of which appear above, that the Rosenbergs, especially Ethel, suffered a shameful miscarriage of justice.
Walter Barthold has retired from the practice of law in New York City.