The real crime of the century

An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey

By Robert Meeropol
St Martin's Press, 2003
273 pages, $59 (hb)
The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case
By Sam Roberts
Random House, 2003
549 pages, $32.95 (pb)


Two-thousand volts will kill by raising the brain to the boiling point of water. Julius Rosenberg was killed by three surges of 2000 volts in Sing Sing Prison's electric chair on June 19, 1953. It took five surges to kill Ethel Rosenberg.

In a case regarded by the FBI as "not strong legally", the US government had to rely on the testimony of one person -- David Greenglass, Ethel's brother -- to seal the fate of the Rosenbergs, members of the US Communist Party who had been charged with conspiracy to pass the secrets of the US atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

Robert Rosenberg was only six when his parents were killed and his life's quest, as recounted in An Execution in the Family, was to sort the fact from fiction about his parents. Sam Roberts' The Brother, about Greenglass, uncorks Greenglass' very different brew of fact and fiction.

After the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Americans feared a US nuclear monopoly and many scientists argued for sharing information on the nuclear bomb to make any government think twice before using it. A handful of scientists involved with making the bomb acted on these beliefs and passed information to the Soviet Union.

Were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg "atomic traitors"? The FBI said they were. In the FBI's tale, Julius (an electrical engineer) recruited David Greenglass (a left-wing army mechanic at the atom bomb-making Manhattan Project in New Mexico) into a spy ring in 1944. Greenglass, the FBI said, gave Harry Gold, a Soviet courier, a sketch of the triggering mechanism of the bomb. He used the code phrase, "I come from Julius", to identify himself to Gold. According to the FBI, Greenglass, his wife Ruth and the Rosenbergs also met in the Rosenberg's New York apartment in 1945, where Ethel typed up Greenglass' description of his sketch of the bomb.

The Rosenbergs denied the charges. David and Ruth Greenglass testified in court that the charges were true. They lied. Government documents obtained by Robert Rosenberg show that the recollections of Gold and David Greenglass were contradictory, that the prosecution coached them to get their stories straight and that it was the FBI that invented the code phrase "I come from Julius", the crucial piece of "evidence" linking Gold, Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg in a "conspiracy".

The evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was also concocted. The prosecution declared that in typing up Greenglass' notes on the bomb, Ethel "struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets". Yet 50 years later, Ruth Greenglass admitted to Sam Roberts that she could not remember whether Ethel did the typing and merely believed "that's the way it would have been done". David Greenglass admits that now, and "frankly, I think my wife did the typing", he told Roberts.

Robert Rosenberg also exposes the legal farce of the Rosenbergs' trial and how Judge Kaufman (praised by Time magazine as the "nation's number-one legal hunter of top communists") acted as part of the government prosecution team. Kaufman, despite his instructions that "communism was not on trial", behaved as though it was, joining with the prosecutor in blaming the Rosenbergs for "our boys" dying in the Korean War. Kaufman and FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover swapped congratulatory telegrams after the guilty verdict and the US attorney-general and the chief justice of the Supreme Court conspired to obstruct justice by unfairly dismissing the Rosenbergs' appeal.

To gain the cooperation of Greenglass, the FBI offered a deal whereby if Greenglass agreed to testify as chief prosecution witness, he would receive a lenient sentence (he was eventually released from prison after only 10 years) and his wife would be left out of the frame as an unindicted co-conspirator.

The alternative was to face execution. Greenglass (by now an anti-communist Democrat) accepted the deal out of "cynical self-interest". The government bears ultimate responsibility but if Greenglass hadn't sung like Pavarotti there would have been no legal case against any of the accused, especially in the face of the massive international campaign in the Rosenbergs' defense.

Robert Rosenberg's research strengthens his contention that his parents were framed for atomic espionage, but he does not dismiss the probability that his parents "illegally" assisted the Soviet Union in other ways. In 1995, the US government released decrypts of 1944-45 electronic transmissions between the KGB in Moscow and its overseas intelligence posts. Robert Rosenberg treats these "Venona Papers" with cautious scepticism (they are the product of "professional deceivers" -- US government spy agencies), and also holds at arms' length the self-seeking "revelations" of former KGB spies keen to ingratiate themselves with their new political masters. But he does not totally discount them.

The Venona Papers suggest that Julius passed non-atomic military and industrial information (such as a proximity fuse for anti-aircraft weapons), but they confirm that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had absolutely no role in atomic espionage, the "crime" they were executed for. Even on the probable non-atomic espionage of Julius, he did this at a time, during the war (when even the US establishment was officially anti-fascist and an ally of Moscow) from a desire to assist the defeat of Nazi fascism. Was this illegal? Yes. Was it wrong? No.

Robert Rosenberg spurns dogmatic insistence that his parents were innocent of all espionage, but new intelligence information strengthens the case that the Rosenbergs were executed by the US government for something the government knew they did not do, or rather for something they were -- socialists.

Robert Rosenberg continued his parents' political tradition. Orphaned, he and his brother Michael were adopted by Anne and Abe Meeropol (Abe, the songwriter who penned the anti-lynching anthem, "Strange Fruit", made famous by Billie Holiday). Robert felt he gained from his new political family as much as he lost from his biological family.

By taking the name Meeropol, Robert Rosenberg was shielded from the emotional turmoil of being a Rosenberg. However, the release in 1973 of a book on the Rosenbergs' case compelled him to "come out" as a Rosenberg. It was not the first bad book on his parents but this one asserted that because the Rosenbergs' sons were incognito, they had rejected their parents' values. This slander stung and the sons went public.

To his left-wing political activity, already sharpened in the radical 1960s, Robert Rosenberg now added a campaign to re-open the Rosenbergs' case, forcing the government to release documents showing that his parents' trial had been unfair and that Greenglass had lied to save himself. Robert Rosenberg also joined the battle against the death penalty, and set up the Rosenberg Fund for Children to assist the children of all those targeted by the US government for their politics.

History will look less kindly on David Greenglass. He showed no remorse for his behaviour. In a 2001 television documentary, he admitted to lying under oath, and topped it off by saying, "I don't care ... I sleep very well". He also profited from the Rosenbergs' deaths, agreeing to Sam Roberts interviewing him for a share of the book's profits. Roberts' book, by allowing Greenglass 500 pages of unverifiable recollections from 50 years ago, does its best to rehabilitate Greenglass. Roberts' bias against the Rosenbergs occasionally breaks through the Greenglass monologue with his belief that it is "mythology" that the Rosenbergs were "martyrs to Cold War paranoia and repression".

Robert Rosenberg's book is far closer to the mark and the millions worldwide who protested against the Rosenbergs' execution were right to do so.

J. Edgar Hoover called the Rosenberg case "the crime of the century" but far more worthy of that tag is the frame-up and murder of the two socialists by the US government.

*Green Left Weekly, October 15, 2003.