The Strange Trial of the Rosenbergs

Invitation to an Inquest

by Walter Schneir, by Miriam Schneir
Doubleday, 467 pp., $5.95

There have been several books on the Rosenberg case, none of them very satisfactory and at least two (taking diametric views of the case) quite appallingly bad. Invitation to an Inquest is in another category altogether. Mr. and Mrs. Schneir have not only examined the record with care but, going beyond the record and exhibiting the most admirable tenacity, have uncovered significant facts not previously brought to light. The net effect of their researches is to cast considerable doubt on the veracity of Harry Gold and David Greenglass, the principal witnesses against the Rosenbergs, and on that of Max Elitcher, who supplied the only testimony directly linking Morton Sobell to the alleged Rosenberg spy ring. If the information now brought forward by Mr. and Mrs. Schneir had been used by the defense at the time of the trial, the result might have been different. And if their data had been marshalled when application was made for a new trial, some two years after the original trial and on the eve of the scheduled executions, it seems likely that a new trial would have been granted. To say this much, however, is not to say that the Rosenbergs and Sobell were unfairly convicted or that they were innocent of the charges against them. It is their failure to perceive this only superficially paradoxical distinction that deprives the Schneirs’ work of what would otherwise be its strong claim to credibility.

Fairness in the trial process can be judged only in the context of what the participants knew at the time: it is not a matter of hindsight. And innocence, in the face of a jury verdict of guilt, cannot be established merely by showing that this or that item of evidence is not entitled to the weight that it originally was given. But doubts of this sort do not trouble Mr. and Mrs. Schneir. Theirs is not, in the end, an invitation to an inquest; for them, the inquest is over and the results are clear: “Not only were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—and Morton Sobell—unjustly convicted, they were punished for a crime that never occurred” (p. 403). They may be right, but they have not discharged the heavy burden of proof that rests upon them, a burden which, given their theory, requires the demonstration that officials of this government knowingly participated in a conspiracy quite as infamous as that which resulted in the Dreyfus affair.

The case against the Rosenbergs rested primarily on the testimony of two witnesses: Harry Gold and David Greenglass. Gold, according to his own testimony, was an espionage courier for the Russians, the American contact for Klaus Fuchs, and the person to whom David Greenglass, allegedly recruited by his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg, delivered data on the atom bomb in June, 1945. Much of the Schneirs’ effort is devoted to showing that both Gold and Greenglass were highly suggestible, vulnerable, mentally unstable men who were brainwashed by the F.B.I. into concocting a story of atomic …

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