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Were the Rosenbergs Framed?

Invitation to an Inquest

by Walter Schneir, by Miriam Schneir
Pantheon, 522 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman in 1951 and were executed on June 19, 1953. The Rosenbergs were accused of conspiring to spy for a wartime ally, the Soviet Union, and not for the nation’s enemies. Judge Kaufman, nevertheless, justified killing them on the grounds that their crime was uniquely repugnant. The Rosenbergs, he charged, were not only responsible for putting the atomic bomb into the hands of the Russians, but their treachery had “already caused the Communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000.”1 The Rosenbergs maintained that they were wholly innocent and went to their deaths supported by the knowledge that their case had produced a worldwide outcry of protest.

The Rosenberg case continues to generate ideological heat in numerous books, articles, and plays. Nearly all of the voluminous literature on the Rosenbergs is highly partisan. Either the case is judged an example of the fairness of American justice, or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are portrayed as innocents—the “sacred couple,” as the American communist leader, Gus Hall, recently referred to them.2

Of all the books in the Rosenbergs’ defense, certainly the most influential has been Walter and Miriam Schneirs’ Invitation to an Inquest, which was first published in 1965 and updated in 1968 and 1973, and which appears now in a revised edition. The Schneirs maintained that not only were the Rosenbergs and their codefendant Morton Sobell unjustly convicted, but “they were punished for a crime that never occurred.” The government alleged that the Rosenbergs were part of a considerable spy ring of Americans who sought to give military secrets to the USSR. For the Schneirs the entire conspiracy was invented by the FBI and its cold war allies in the government, for the purpose of destroying the American left. The Rosenberg case for them was America’s Dreyfus case.

Far-fetched as the Schneirs’ frame-up theory may have seemed, their book gained a certain degree of credibility through its citations of numerous “discrepancies” in the record and its repeated demands for full disclosure. Most of the documents that the Schneirs called for have now become available for examination through the Freedom of Information Act. In the new edition of their book, timed to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ execution, the Schneirs claim that they have examined over 160,000 pages of documents, “the largest collection of FOIA documents in the nation.” Yet they have not chosen to undertake a full-scale review of this material. Instead, they have reprinted their original book verbatim, adding only a fifty-three-page section in which they attempt to show that the newly released FBI files “confirm” and “supplement” their original theories, “rather than contradict” them.

Their brief new essay is highly selective. Many important aspects of the case are disposed of in a few dismissive paragraphs. The Schneirs do not satisfactorily confront new evidence showing that the former communist Elizabeth Bentley told the FBI as early as 1945 about an engineer named Julius who was engaged in espionage. Nor do they fully consider the new evidence that an allegedly unreliable informer, Jerome Tartakow, nevertheless gave the FBI important information—later verified by the FBI—from his conversations with Julius Rosenberg in a New York prison. The FBI’s investigations of the Rosenbergs’ alleged accomplices in espionage—several of whom fled the ountry when the Rosenbergs were arrested—are dealt with cursorily.

Instead, in the new section the Schneirs have chosen to concentrate on the one issue that was the heart of the case made in their earlier editions—the credibility of the key prosecution witness, Harry Gold. Gold had previously been convicted of acting as the liaison between the British atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs and Soviet intelligence in the United States. He was the only witness against the Rosenbergs who claimed to have worked on atomic espionage with an agent who was a Soviet national. At the trial, his testimony was extremely damaging. He swore that during the first weekend of June 1945, he traveled to New Mexico at the request of his Soviet control, Anatoli Yakovlev. After meeting with Fuchs in Santa Fe on Saturday afternoon, June 2, Gold said, he went to Albuquerque, where he attempted to seek out another person whose name he had been given by Yakovlev.

This was David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, then a Los Alamos army machinist, who kept an apartment in Albuquerque where he joined his wife Ruth on weekends. Finding that the Greenglasses were not at home and that hotels in the town were fully booked, Gold spent a sleepless night at an overcrowded rooming house. The next morning, after visiting the Greenglasses and learning that the material he intended to pick up was not yet ready, Gold checked into the Albuquerque Hilton for a few hours’ rest. Later that day, he returned to the Greenglasses’ apartment, gave them $500 in exchange for information on the atomic bomb, and then left the city by train.

That Gold would tell this story on the witness stand was central to the government’s case. By showing that Greenglass was guilty of espionage, he set the stage for Greenglass’s detailed testimony that he was acting on his brother-in-law’s instructions. Those who expected that counsel for the defense would pick Gold’s story apart were astonished to find that the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, chose not to cross-examine Gold at all. Instead, Bloch explained in his summation to the jury, Gold had not claimed any personal contact with the Rosenbergs and there was only the Greenglasses’ word for it that Julius Rosenberg had any part in arranging for information to be picked up.

Analyzing the case in retrospect, the Schneirs apparently realized that Bloch’s strategy of discrediting David and Ruth Greenglass was inadequate. If the Greenglasses were telling the truth about their meeting with Gold, an admitted courier for the Soviets, then what grounds were there for believing that they were lying about their dealings with the Rosenbergs? The Schneirs solved this problem by deciding that Gold had never been involved in Soviet espionage at all. His entire career, they argued, was the figment of a disordered mind; his identification of the Greenglasses and other contacts was based on information fed to him by the FBI. In fact, they argued, Gold had never been in Albuquerque at all on June 3, 1945.

In support of this theory, the Schneirs cited tapes of Gold’s pretrial conversations with his lawyers, which showed that Gold had not begun to talk to them about his June 1945 visit until June 14, 1950—only one day before the FBI arrested David Greenglass. By this date Gold had been in custody for three weeks, presumably time enough to have been supplied with a false story. The Schneirs also examined the photostat of the Hilton Hotel registration card which had been placed in evidence during the trial. They were shocked to find that while the front of the card bore the date June 3, 1945, the reverse side carried a date stamp that read “RECEIVED June 4 12 36 PM ‘45.” Why this discrepancy in dates? To the Schneirs, it was obvious evidence of FBI forgery.

To buttress their forgery theory, the Schneirs interviewed Anna Kindernecht, the clerk whose initials appeared not only on the June 1945 photostat but on a second Hilton Hotel card dating from Gold’s stay at the same hotel the following September. Kindernecht gave the Schneirs samples of her handwriting which they submitted along with photostats of both hotel cards to a noted handwriting expert, Elizabeth McCarthy. Mrs. McCarthy concluded that there were “some very real doubts” about the authenticity of Kindernecht’s initials on the first card, and she pointed out that the stationery used in the two cards was clearly not the same.

When their book was first published, the Schneirs’ logic was challenged by some reviewers.3 Now we are able to examine whether or not the newly available information substantiates their conspiracy theory, as they claim. It does not. In fact, the FBI’s file on Harry Gold shows that when he made his confession—on May 22, 1950—Gold told FBI agents T. Scott Miller, Jr., and Richard Brennan that on two occasions, in June and September of 1945, he had passed through Albuquerque on his way to meet Klaus Fuchs in Santa Fe.4 And on June 1, 1950—not June 14—Gold agreed for the first time to talk about three people, apart from Fuchs, who were implicated in espionage. Two of these confessed their involvement after Gold named them. The third man, the only one whose name Gold could not recall, he described as “a soldier, non-commissioned, married, no children.”5

Gold was describing a man he had met only once five years earlier, and he said his memory was fuzzy on some points. He could not recall the first name he had used as a recognition signal at the time of the meeting—at the trial he testified it was “I come from Julius.” He claimed that the soldier had given him the address of a relative in New York—possibly, Gold said on June 2, 1950, a father-in-law “whose name may have been Phillip.” Gold also thought at first that he had met the GI in September 1945, although the next day he corrected himself to say that the rendezvous took place in June 1945.

More significant than these few lapses of memory, however, is the fact that Gold gave the FBI sufficient information to lead them eventually to David Greenglass. Indeed, Gold had described the man he saw as either a machinist or a draftsman; a Jewish New Yorker whose “wife’s name may have been Ruth, although I am not sure.” Gold also described Greenglass’s physical appearance accurately; he offered to pinpoint the location of his apartment on a map of Albuquerque; and he told the bureau that he had given the man and his wife $500 in exchange for the information. Subsequent research by the FBI established that Ruth Greenglass had opened a savings account the next day with a $400 deposit.6

How do the Schneirs deal with this new evidence, which tends to confirm the credibility of Gold’s courtroom testimony? They reluctantly conclude that Gold came up with a few “nuggets” which obviously applied to Greenglass. Yet they assert, on the basis of no evidence whatever, that “everything about the FBI’s behavior is consistent with the view that on June 1 Gold told a story for which he had been previously primed.” The Schneirs never say why the bureau would have bothered to construct a false interrogation record since the existing one was intended for internal FBI use only. Nor do they explain why they would then allow so many inconsistencies to exist if they had “primed” Gold. Nor do they let readers know that the interrogating agents thought the unknown GI was named either Hall or Saks.7

  1. 1

    Transcript of Record, United States of America v. Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, Anatoli A. Yakovlev, David Greenglass and Morton Sobell, US District Court, Southern District of New York, C. 134-245, March 6-April 6, 1951. The transcript was printed by the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case in 1952, in eight volumes, with new pagination. We have used these volumes. Kaufman’s statement is on p. 1615.

  2. 2

    Gus Hall, “Loathsome Duo and the Rosenbergs,” Daily World, July 26, 1979.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Herbert L. Packer, “The Strange Trial of the Rosenbergs,” The New York Review, February 3, 1966, pp. 5-7. Packer wrote: “They do not offer an explanation of why the forgers were so clumsy as to have one date on the front and another on the back of the fake card…nor do they tell us whether their expert examiner was forewarned as to which card was suspected to be a forgery, an omission which…renders the conclusion suspect.” Also see Alexander M. Bickel, “The Rosenberg Affair,” Commentary, January 1966, pp. 69-76. Bickel wrote: “The poorest possible explanation is FBI forgery. Surely anyone going to the trouble to forge evidence in support of Gold’s presence in Albuquerque…would not make the idiotic mistake of putting an inconsistent date on the back of the card.”

  4. 4

    Signed statement of Harry Gold, May 22, 1950, Harry Gold file, FBI Building, Washington, DC.

  5. 5

    C.E. Hennrich to A.H. Belmont, June 1, 1950, Gold file.

  6. 6

    Signed statement of Harry Gold to Special Agents Richard E. Brennan and T. Scott Miller, Jr., June 2, 1950; and D.M. Ladd to J. Edgar Hoover, June 2, 1950, Gold file; trial transcript, p. 702.

  7. 7

    A.H. Belmont to Hoover, June 2, 1950, Gold file; and D.M. Ladd to Hoover, June 2, 1950.

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