Surprise Ending

I don’t consider myself the world’s foremost expert on my parents’ case. For one thing, my brother, who has a better head for details and more patience for pinning them down, can recount more of the finer points than I can. Still, there are very few people in the world who know more about my parents’ case than I do.

One of them, Walter Schneir, perhaps the world’s greatest expert on the case, died in April of 2009. He was in the midst of writing a political memoir about his 50-year career as an investigative journalist. This book contained several chapters on what he’d recently discovered about my parents’ case. After his death, his wife Miriam, also a Rosenberg case expert, extracted these chapters from the larger work, edited them, wrote a preface and an epilogue and found a publisher. The new book, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, will be published on October 12th.

It was a humbling experience to discover that despite my expertise, and after 40 years of reading, research, discussion and thought about this major historic event, I was wrong about some of what actually happened. I’ll set the stage, before exploring what this new book has taught me. This requires a brief précis of my parents’ case.

Because the charge against them was Conspiracy to Commit Espionage, my parents’ conviction required no tangible evidence that they had stolen anything or given it to anybody. David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and sister-in-law, testified that Julius with Ethel’s help recruited David into an atomic spy ring in 1944. At that time David, an Army sergeant, worked as a machinist at Los Alamos in New Mexico where the first Atomic Bomb was being built. The Greenglasses swore that David provided a sketch and an accompanying theoretical description of the bomb to Julius Rosenberg in New York City, in September 1945, and that Ethel was present and typed up David’s notes.

David also testified that he gave another set of sketches to Harry Gold who had used the recognition signal “I come from Julius” to identify himself to David when they met. This signal was the only connection drawn between Gold and my father at the trial. Gold swore he was a spy courier transmitting information from atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs to the Soviet Union, but that on this one occasion he received information from Greenglass.

FBI documents first made public in the late 1970’s show that Greenglass originally claimed Gold identified himself as “Dave from Pittsburgh” while Gold said he identified himself to Greenglass as “Ben from Brooklyn.” One FBI file shows that after several months in prison, but before the trial, prosecutors brought Gold and Greenglass together to iron out this discrepancy. It was at that meeting that they suddenly “remembered” the name “Julius” was the recognition signal, rather than “Dave” or “Ben.”

On September 11, 2008 almost all of the Grand Jury transcripts that led to my parents’ indictment were made public. David Greenglass’s was not released, but Ruth’s was. Under oath, in front of the Grand Jury as a cooperating witness, Ruth did not mention the September 1945 meeting described above, the atomic bomb sketch, any hand-written notes, Ethel Rosenberg’s typing, or Ethel’s presence at the alleged meeting.

This revelation caused even the mainstream media to question the veracity of Ruth Greenglass’s trial testimony about Ethel’s presence and typing. Yet this was virtually the only evidence presented against my mother at trial. The absence of evidence meshed with material released by the National Security Agency in 1995 (The “Venona” Transcriptions) that indicated Ethel did not engage in spying.

On the same day that the Grand Jury information was revealed, Morton Sobell acknowledged for the first time that he, along with Julius Rosenberg, passed non-atomic, military-industrial information to the USSR. The primary purpose of this work was to help the USSR defeat the Nazis during World War II.

So up until the publication of Final Verdict I would have summarized my parents’ case as follows: Julius Rosenberg engaged in non-atomic espionage during World War II with Morton Sobell and several others. David and Ruth Greenglass were not atomic spies. The Greenglasses were a cowardly couple who committed other illegal acts and under government pressure invented the sketch of the atomic bomb and the September atomic espionage meeting in order to save themselves by helping the government “prove” that Julius Rosenberg was a master atomic spy who organized the theft of the secret of the atomic bomb. Despite the Greenglass’s testimony, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg was a member of an atomic spy ring that stole the secret of the Atomic Bomb. The United States government knew all along that Ethel Rosenberg was not an espionage agent, but executed them both anyway.

I will explain how Final Verdict alters this picture in my next blog next week.

(Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.)

Listen to a public radio interview with co-author Miriam Schneir, and Rosenberg son Michael Meeropol, here.

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