Invitation to an Inquest
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.” 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.
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 …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
‘Invitation to an Inquest’: An Exchange September 29, 1983