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The Rosenbergs: What Is Left to Say?

January 31, 2011

by Carol Jochnowitz


Exoneration: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell, by Emily Arnow Alman and David Alman. 2010, Green Elms Press, 516 pages.

Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, by Walter Schneir. 2010, Melville House, 208 pages.

I had just finished reading the books discussed in this essay and took time to visit friends. In their living room I met a woman of about my age to whom I unpacked what was uppermost in my mind: I asked what she remembered about the Rosenberg Case.

She thought for a moment and then answered, “Well, I remember they were found guilty of treason because they had given atomic secrets to an enemy country. But I thought it was terrible that they killed Ethel, because she was the mother of two small children. Later, though, I found out that she was the real ringleader.”

I found it fascinating that every single thing this woman remembered was wrong. The Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage (a capital crime under the Espionage Act of 1917), but atomic spying was not listed in the indictment. The materials they passed were transferred during World War II, when the recipient, the Soviet Union, was not an enemy but an ally. As for Ethel’s being the mastermind, the Venona decrypts of Soviet intelligence cables of the time, revealed to the public in 1995 although known to the U.S. government since the late 1940s, made clear that the Soviets had never even considered her a candidate for espionage. The most consequential accusation against her — that she had typed atomic-related materials obtained by her brother David Greenglass — was recently shown, in Sam Roberts’ book The Brother, and in a sensational interview Greenglass gave to CBS’ 60 Minutes, to be his fabrication to shield his wife.

Rosenbergs by LB

All this was not the accident of an individual’s faulty memory after sixty years. Rather, the woman had recalled precisely the scenario that had been promulgated by the government in the case. True, “conspiracy to commit espionage” were the words that appeared on the court’s written indictment. But in what David Alman calls throughout his book the “oral indictment,” namely the rhetoric hammered throughout the trial — notably climaxing in Chief Prosecutor Irving Saypol’s summation to the jury and Judge Irving Kaufman’s sentencing speech — the operative word was “treason” and the defining context was the postwar confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. That was the trial in the minds of most Americans at the time and for many years afterward, and that is the situation that Exoneration, by Emily Arnow Alman (who died in 2004) and David Alman, is addressed to repairing.

David Alman writes that they “initially accepted the official version” of the case until a series of articles by William Reuben appeared in the National Guardian in 1951, branding the government’s case a hoax. (Another series by Reuben, published in Jewish Life, the predecessor magazine to Jewish Currents, can be accessed at our Sid Resnick Archive, under the letter “R” -- Editor). Increasingly troubled, Emily joined with Reuben to assemble what would become the Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, to organize public opinion for a new trial or a mitigation of the death sentence. Among its members were Louis Harap, then editor of Jewish Life, and Yuri Suhl and Milt Ost, both of whom wrote for the magazine.

The Communist Party, seeking to distance itself from the question of espionage, would have nothing to do with the Committee, while the Justice Department emphatically declared it a Communist group. Nevertheless, starting with nothing and running on empty, the Committee eventually generated its own traction, most visibly in the organization of a White House vigil for clemency that eventually numbered into the thousands.

One of the Committee’s most important achievements was its printing up thousands of copies of the trial transcript, many of which were sent overseas. Reading a transcript caused Fyke Farmer, a young lawyer from Tennessee transplanted to France, to conclude that the defendants had been tried under the wrong law — grounds on which he successfully persuaded Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to issue a stay of execution in 1953, the day before the execution was to take place.

The Almans’ book is a full-dress history of the trial and its sequelae to the present day, including the revelations of the Venona transcripts and the ineluctable, ultimate smoking gun of Morton Sobell’s 2008 confession to the New York Times of his own fifty-year perjury. Why then is it called Exoneration? In a comment facing the title page, the Rosenbergs’ son Robert Meeropol writes, “While many people equate the word ‘exoneration’ with ‘innocent,’ the two words are not synonyms... Even if my father and others conspired to commit espionage, they did not ‘steal the secret of the Atomic Bomb,’ and they did not commit treason, and the U.S. Government was aware of this distinction all along.”

In the end, Exoneration is as much an indictment of the government for judicial murder as it is an exoneration of the victims. I found it more, not less, harrowing to follow the hour-by-hour countdown to the execution after being familiar with it for so many years. I had always read the extraordinary maneuverings of the government to maintain the execution date in the face of Justice Douglas’ last-minute stay as simple judicial bloodlust, but Alman’s account of the trial makes clear that the government was not so much desperate to kill the Rosenbergs as to foreclose the possibility of an appeal and the review of the conduct of the trial that would bring. It is instructive to note that when American consulates in Europe, facing the demonstrations for clemency that had arisen in many countries (mostly seeded by copies of the transcript the Committee had procured!) petitioned the Justice Department for copies of their own with which to frame a rebuttal, the Department refused to release them. To this day the government has withheld 80 percent of the documents in the case, including the memo sent by J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Herbert Brownell on June 5th, 1953, laying out the “secret evidence” that Hoover claimed definitively established the government’s case.

Alman painstakingly blocks in the background of the time against which all of this unfolded: first, what he calls “the Turnabout,” the postwar switch from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union as our philosophical and existential nemesis; then the peculiar hysteria of the early Cold War. And then there was the question of anti-Semitism: Alman bitterly uses the word “spectacle” to characterize this aspect of the trial, linking it to the Prague and Moscow trials soon to come on the other side of the (ideological) world, and to the betrayal of Jonathan Pollard some years later. (Convicted of spying for Israel, another ally, Pollard made a plea bargain which the court then voided, imprisoning him for life.)

In deciding in favor of mounting its clemency vigil, the Committee had been bitterly mindful of the silence of parts of the Jewish community in the face of the Holocaust, a silence arising from the fear that overt protests might ultimately function as a provocation that would do more harm than good. It was the classic perplex that had bedeviled Jews since their emancipation: Don’t make waves. Leaders of the major Jewish organizations followed this caution, adjuring their members not to criticize the conduct of the trial in Jewish terms. Yet in the Jewish press, interestingly, even among organs like the Forverts, whose anti-Communism was the stuff of legend, there was a spontaneous outrage at the forces that had been released. “What led the judge to give the extreme penalty?” asked the Yiddish Tog. “Is it not perhaps that the judge is a Jew and the defendants are Jews? He [was] afraid that perhaps, if he were not to give them the death penalty, he would be suspected of not having done so because he is a Jew... Precisely because the judge should have been free from every Jewish complex — he should under no circumstances have issued the death sentence...”

Alman agrees with this editorial (and many others) as to the genesis of Kaufman’s severity in sentencing the Rosenbergs. I myself always assumed Kaufman was perfectly sincere in his apparent conviction that Communist spies should burn — but was I wrong? We learn in Exoneration that at some point between the Rosenbergs’ trial and their execution, Judge Kaufman telephoned President Harry Truman to ask him to commute their death sentence to life imprisonment. Truman replied that if Kaufman felt that way he should do it himself.

I also learned that on May 2nd, 1952 the ACLU declared of the sentences, “This was a conviction for espionage, which we believe to be the proper way to deal with Communist totalitarianism.” Perhaps this is well known to serious students of the case, but even they may not all be aware that in April, 1953 Aaron Schneider, a member of the Committee, had a talk with a supporter in Milwaukee who suggested that a friend of his with the appropriate access approach Senator Joseph McCarthy to appeal to President Eisenhower for clemency. The supporter reminded Schneider that McCarthy had been mysteriously silent on the case.

Alman writes drily, “The Senator’s irresponsible tactics toward those he called ‘Communists’ did not inspire trust.” Nevertheless the approach was made. McCarthy replied that he would not be critical if Eisenhower granted clemency, but that if he approached the president to tell him so it might backfire, as Eisenhower was on the outs with him at the time. Even so, McCarthy said he would do it if the Committee wanted him to. The Committee decided against it.

Exoneration has an appendix on clemency movements in Europe, the Middle East, Canada and Latin America. American consulates through whom the many reports of demonstrations came were unanimous in their characterization of the organizers as Communists, with the single exception of Douglas Dillon, Ambassador to France. The situation in Israel reflected the extreme chariness of the organized Jewish community in the U.S. about making any public representations against the conduct of the case. Nevertheless, the chief rabbi of Israel conveyed an appeal for clemency to President Truman, and numerous Israeli newspapers, careful not to impugn the nature of the trial, nevertheless ran editorials emphasizing the irreversibility of the death sentence and the plight of the two children who would be orphaned.

Israel was also home to the one community in the world that greeted the execution of the Rosenbergs with unalloyed rejoicing. The American consul in Jerusalem reported on July 14th that the Palestinian refugees “were overjoyed” at the news that the death sentence had finally been carried out. He cited a Palestinian editorial declaring that “the Rosenbergs’ action was typically Jewish in its betrayal of the nation to which they were supposed to owe allegiance and in its contribution to the Communist cause (which to the Palestinian is something almost exclusively a Jewish movement)” and quoted an observer who “felt that the net effect of the execution was to create a warm glow for America.”

The Almans’ book has the heft and something of the feel of a historical novel; you can feel the author still pushing against the forces that isolated and marginalized the left so efficiently at the time. Walter Schneir’s book, a miniature by comparison, is rather a detective story, the account of an investigation the author undertook some forty years after the case played out. (Schneir died in 2008. His widow Miriam provided a Preface and an Afterword.)

In 1965 Walter and Miriam Schneir published Inquest, considered for years to be the definitive exculpation of the Rosenbergs. It went through four editions by 1983. In 1995, when the Venona transcripts came out, the Schneirs found themselves forced to reconsider their position. In an editorial on the subject in the Nation they wrote, “We know that our account will be painful news to many people, as it was to us.”

Final Verdict is the continuation and conclusion of that account. It describes the couple’s use of the Venona decrypts, FBI documents, and other sources. Walter Schneir declares the ultimate impact of these texts, once he had plumbed their significance, to be “mindblowing,” eventually leading him to a demolition of the government’s case more radical than any ever previously mounted.

According to the prosecution, Julius had recruited his wife’s brother, David Greenglass, and Greenglass’ wife Ruth to espionage in 1944 after learning of the work being done at Los Alamos, where David Greenglass was stationed. In January of 1945, when Greenglass was in New York on furlough, he visited the Rosenbergs and gave Julius some drawings of relevant machinery and some written materials, which Ethel typed. On this occasion Julius cut a Jello box in half, gave one half to Greenglass and said a courier would visit him in New Mexico with the other half (a “material password” in espionage usage) and the verbal password “I come from Julius.”

In September Greenglass was in New York again; on this occasion he gave Julius the famous sketch of the detonator of the atom bomb and more materials for Ethel to type. This was the occasion about which Irving Saypol described Ethel sitting before the portable typewriter in her living room and striking, “blow by blow, the keys against her country in the interests of the Soviets.”

These were arguably the most dramatic and vivid scenes conjured at the trial, the ones that seared the memory of a generation and galvanized the jury to find the Rosenbergs guilty. Schneir is preoccupied with how documents in the pretrial process -— the Greenglasses’ signed confessions of July, 1950, the preparation for their grand jury testimony the following month — contained absolutely no references to Ethel’s involvement, to her typing documents, to the name “Julius,” or to a meeting in the Rosenbergs’ apartment in September. Rather, David Greenglass said he had met men, including his Soviet handler, on the street; that he had given documents to his wife, not to Ethel, to transcribe, and that she had done this in longhand. Harry Gold, the courier with the passwords, was telling his lawyers that he had been told to say “Bob sent me or Benny sent me or John sent me or something like that.” In fact, the first attestation to Ethel’s typing anything dates from late February, 1951, ten days before the trial began.

Turning to the Soviet documents, Schneir was astounded to learn that the KGB had terminated Julius as an agent in February, 1945, upon learning that the Signal Corps had dismissed him after discovering his Communist Party membership. Furthermore, one month after the supposed Jello box meeting, the KGB had still not yet determined on a “material password,” but was waiting for Ruth Greenglass to let them know of one before she left for Albuquerque at the end of the month to join her husband. The same source revealed that it was Ruth who was to be responsible for gathering materials from her husband and passing them to a courier on December 21st, 1945.

That date tallied with another that had mystified Schneir ever since he uncovered it — namely, that Lavrenti Beria (in charge of the Soviet bomb project) had not received David Greenglass’ famous detonator sketch until December 27th, 1945. Why so late, if it had been passed to Julius in September of that year? But if it had instead been given to Ruth Greenglass and only passed by her on December 21st, the date suddenly made sense. Schneir concludes that the two dramatic meetings on which the government hung its case — with the Jello box and the typing — never happened. The government’s case and the trial were a charade to a degree never before suggested by their most passionate critics.

What shall we say of all of this now, almost sixty years after the fact?

I am not interested in “exonerating” the Rosenbergs or the reverse. What I want to do is reconstruct the terms of the conversation. For many years the case was a paradigm of how people understood the moral and political nature of the world: Which side are you on? Many readers of this magazine, and the magazine itself, saw the Rosenbergs as obviously innocent of the crime with which they were charged, or of any crime at all, because their guilt would have been a philosophical impossibility. (Just as, for the opposite side, there was no way a Communist could not be a traitor.) Forty years after the fact, there were still people who could not accept the validity of the Venona files when they came out, and who regarded those who changed their minds publicly as betrayers or dupes.

Which said, let it not be forgot that this was a bloody, bloody business and the Rosenbergs were not the only people who died from it. There were heart attacks, seizures, strokes. There were children who grew up knowing they were the ones who had opened their parents’ doors when the FBI agents rang the bell. For a whole generation, the prosecution of the Rosenbergs was a nightmare that at any moment might come true for them all.

But to make allegiance to the Rosenbergs’ innocence a kind of reverse loyalty oath, a shibboleth that forecloses further thought, is to collapse the issue back into the trope the government sought to impose on it in the trial it constructed, that of the morality play — a speechless model of piety and burning. Today we are in possession of a congeries of information that comes from both sides, ideologically speaking: it vindicates neither position, nor does it invert the original narrative wholesale. Rather, it reconfigures the case into something complicated and nuanced that actually took place in history, and which we must begin to understand on its own terms.

Most important, the history of the Rosenberg Case calls us to the highest moral obligation of all, that of thought. We owe the Rosenbergs no less. It’s too late to rescue them from the pathologies that killed them. But perhaps these books can help us begin to reinter their memories in a quieter, more contemplative place.

Carol Jochnowitz was the production editor for Jewish Currents for many years, retiring in 2003. Her “Viewpoint,” “The Manhattan Project Spy: Were the Rosenbergs Killed to Hide a Government Blunder?” was published our in May-June, 2008 issue.