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A Family Affair

The Brother is the first full-scale account of the “atom spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to appear since archival materials released in the 1990s documented their part in a Soviet espionage ring that flourished in the United States during World War II. Sam Roberts, a veteran reporter at The New York Times, draws on the most important new evidence: the VENONA decryptions—intercepted wartime cables sent between Moscow and its KGB stations in the US—and published extracts of relevant Soviet dossiers.1 He has also added a new layer of detail gleaned from extensive interviews, some fifty hours’ worth, with the case’s most enigmatic figure, David Greenglass, the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg who confessed to having spied at Los Alamos and then testified against his sister and brother-in-law in exchange for a reduced sentence in 1951.

Released from prison in 1960, Greenglass changed his name and has lived pseudonymously ever since, breaking his silence on the case only once, in 1979, when he granted an interview to the writers Ronald Radosh and Sol Stern.2 Roberts, who began working on his book in 1983, went to extraordinary lengths to secure Greenglass’s cooperation, first tracking him down, then trying for thirteen years to get him to talk, and finally promising him a share of the book’s proceeds, though no control over the result: “No vetting of the manuscript. No veto over what I decided to put in or leave out.”3

Greenglass’s reminiscences have yielded no startling revelations but they have helped Roberts to write a clear narrative of two couples whose intertwined stories are best understood, he suggests, within the larger history of “all those immigrant families that struggled to escape the ghosts of the ghetto.” In this case it was the ghetto of the Lower East Side, where all four principals grew up. Roberts evokes this vanished milieu—the six-day workweeks, the shouting matches at the kitchen table, the petty squabbles—along with the anguished comedy of doomed hopes, of children fated to rise no higher than their parents. “Between 1922 and 1930, so many strivers graduated from the Lower East Side that, by one count, the area’s Jewish population plunged by two thirds,” he writes. “All the Greenglasses got were good-byes. Many who were left behind bitterly matched their lot against what might have been. Or, worse still, against what already was, but for someone else.”

Prospects dimmed further in the Great Depression, the period in which the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses came of age. Julius, who alone of the four finished college, limped through City College with a degree in electrical engineering, scarcely attending to his studies. All his energy went into radical politics. These were the peak years of the Popular Front, the high tide of American communism. Julius organized the campus Steinmetz Society, an affiliate of the Young Communist League, and at age seventeen was in the group of protesters who in 1935 stormed the German liner Bremen when it was anchored in New York Harbor, ripping the swastika standard from its mast, a celebrated incident at the time. That same year he met Ethel Greenglass, an aspiring stage performer who had gone from high school to a typing course and then to a clerical job in the garment district. Soon she joined picket lines and sit-ins. “For some Depression-era Jews,” Roberts writes, “anti-Semitism, which exposed the cruel hypocrisy of America’s meritocracy, was what provoked them into radical causes. Even in New York, anti-Semitism was a fact of life.”

But of course, after August 23, 1939, when Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, it was very difficult to uphold the USSR as either a champion of Jews or as the leader of worldwide antifascism. “Let me tell you, that tried men’s souls,” David Greenglass admitted to Roberts when asked about the pact. “But when you want to believe, you want to believe.” Roberts comments: “Once he hurdled that ideological chasm, any subsequent inconsistency was an inconsequential furrow.”

In the spring of 1942, Julius Rosenberg, who had been hired by the US Army Signal Corps to inspect electrical equipment being manufactured by defense contractors in New York and New Jersey, began working secretly for the USSR. Greenglass recalls his brother-in-law presenting himself one day at the Soviet consulate and volunteering his services. In his new memoir, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs, Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg’s prime Soviet handler, describes him as a special case, no mere opportunist looking to peddle his wares. “Julius never accepts any kind of compensation,” a KGB officer cautioned Feklisov early on. “He will no doubt be shocked if you take him to a fancy restaurant and order expensive wine. He feels we have no right to celebrate since our country is at war.” Rosenberg “was not just a valuable source himself,” Feklisov adds, but “also the linchpin of a network growing in importance from month to month,” its other members CCNY friends whom Julius had first brought into the Steinmetz Society and then into the Soviet spy ring. All were engineers working either on military bases or in defense-related companies who took home and photographed documents and then transmitted the material to Soviet contacts, directly or through Rosenberg.

Like most successful spies, Rosenberg relished the excitements of a double life, the important clandestine missions, the risks and challenges, the tests of courage. He was “the kind you have to hold back all the time,” says Feklisov, who confirms a startling allegation made during the trial that Rosenberg, when he was the on-site army inspector at Emerson Radio and Phonograph, an Eighth Avenue electronics manufacturer, daringly stole a proximity fuse, a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft device, and gave it to the Soviet Union. He accomplished this by setting aside a defective fuse and methodically replacing its parts, over the course of months, until he had built a working model which he smuggled out of the factory in a delivery van in December 1944. The fuse “was carefully examined by Soviet specialists,” Feklisov reports, “and, based on their conclusions, the Council of Ministers of the USSR created by emergency decree a special laboratory and factory to produce these devices.”

The man who could thus impress Moscow likewise dazzled his wife’s adolescent brother when they first met. David Greenglass, the “baby” of his family, seven years younger than Ethel, was spoiled, lazy, and, some thought, dimwitted. He flunked all six of his first-semester courses at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute but happily sat for Communist tutorials with “Julie” Rosenberg, who was well versed in Party scripture and lent David books and pamphlets, explaining what they meant, “patiently and passionately.”

Drafted in 1943, six months after he married Ruth Printz, his childhood sweetheart, Greenglass, a machinist, was added to the technical support staff at the Manhattan Project, where the bomb was secretly being built. He was not told at first what project he was working on, for security reasons, but suspected it was important. “Not a word to anybody about anything except maybe Julie,” he wrote Ruth in August 1944 while en route to Los Alamos. Rosenberg instantly surmised what his brother-in-law must be up to, and “was beside himself,” says Roberts, excited by what it might mean for the USSR. Feklisov had doubts about giving the immature Greenglass so sensitive an assignment, but Julius vouched for him: “He is a one hundred percent reliable guy devoted to our cause and would never fail us—and he is our relative. I will give my right hand to be chopped if he lets us down.” Ruth, also a Communist, traveled to New Mexico and encouraged her husband to collect as much information as he could. Later, both Greenglasses would testify that they had accepted this assignment reluctantly. In fact, both eagerly obliged.

Roberts’s pages on Los Alamos are the most illuminating in the book. He has interviewed several of Greenglass’s colleagues in the Special Engineer Detachment and combed New Mexico newspapers and the ample published literature on the Manhattan Project. The picture he gives is of an atmosphere in which the most secret of wartime programs was compromised from the beginning by the collegial informality of scientists and technicians who found the strictures of military discipline alien and even absurd. Greenglass was part of a team that constructed precision molds for the bomb’s high-explosive “lenses.” Physicists who dropped by the machine shop with jobs for him freely answered his many innocent-sounding questions. One acquaintance, a mathematician, “described the exact amount of plutonium needed to produce a critical mass,” Roberts writes. Greenglass, who scored high on mechanical aptitude tests, easily grasped the applied principles of the weapon under construction. In January 1945 he traveled to New York on furlough and relayed his stored-up information to Julius: he wrote out a plan of the layout at Los Alamos, plus a list of the leading scientists on the project, and made a sketch of the bomb with a dozen pages of notes. He later furnished materials to two other agents, Harry Gold, the courier for the physicist Klaus Fuchs, and Anatoly Yako-vlev (or Yatzkov), Feklisov’s colleague in the Soviet consulate. In 1951, when a team of government scientists quizzed Greenglass in preparation for the trial, they found the extent and range of his knowledge “somewhat shocking.”

Pleased with Greenglass’s “development,” the Soviets provided funds, through Julius, for Ruth to take up full-time residence in Albuquerque, a two-hour bus ride from Los Alamos, so she could receive regular weekend reports from her husband. Later they considered making both Greenglasses, young though they were, couriers and “group handlers,” replacing Julius, who had been deactivated after a security check turned up his Communist Party membership and cost him his job at the Signal Corps in March 1945.

Already the mood was changing. Contrary to Greenglass’s expectation, Hitler’s defeat did not lead to a “Socialist America.” For the two couples, back on the Lower East Side, it was as if the Depression had never ended. The Rosenbergs were still living in a small apartment on Knickerbocker Place, a drab housing complex near the Manhattan Bridge where they had moved after their marriage in 1939, the three rooms now crowded by the addition of their two young sons. The Greenglasses, cramped in a cold-water flat, dreamed of buying one of the new bungalows being mass-produced in Levittown but they cost $65 a month, out of David’s range.

In contrast the romance of espionage looked all the brighter. Julius longed to get back into the game, but the Soviets, alert to heightened FBI surveillance, kept him sidelined except for the occasional mission such as his unsuccessful attempt to persuade another CCNY–Steinmetz recruit, Max Elitcher, to remain in his job at the Navy Bureau of Ordinance rather than move to a private electronics firm in Manhattan. Unemployable because of his Communist history, Rosenberg pooled funds with David and another Greenglass brother, Bernie, and the three men opened a machine shop on the Lower East Side, exactly the sort of dead-end business that had bruised the spirits of their immigrant fathers.

  1. 1

    The most complete study of the VENONA decryptions is John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale University Press, 1999). The Moscow dossiers appear in Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassilev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era (Random House, 1999) and in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (Basic Books, 1999). See Thomas Powers’s review of all three books in The New York Review, May 11, 2000.

  2. 2

    Highlights of the interview are quoted in Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983). A second edition of the book (Yale University Press, 1997) includes some of the new material which also appears in Roberts’s book.

  3. 3

    Greenglass broke his silence further when he was interviewed on 60 Minutes II on December 5, 2001.

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