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

Even more remarkable is the Schneirs’ interpretation of the FBI logs—longhand jottings made by the agents as a basis for their typewritten reports. The log for June 1, 1950, shows that Gold was read a list of suspects’ names in order to jog his memory about the identification of the GI. David Greenglass had been briefly investigated by the FBI months earlier in connection with his theft of a small souvenir of uranium from Los Alamos—a not uncommon practice. Thus his name was on the list, and Gold immediately picked it out, although it was his second choice. He said that “the name Greenglass rings a bell.” The Schneirs charge that the inclusion of obvious ringers on the list—including Manny Wolf (a restaurant) and Hank Greenberg (a baseball player)—proves that the list “was never taken seriously by anyone.” They ignore the likely possibility that the agents were testing Gold to see if he would respond to a familiar name. Their assertion that the FBI “played with a stacked deck,” since the other names shown Gold were “rather unlikely choices for a Jewish New Yorker,” is simply false. The list included names such as Max Schwartz, Sid Gordon, Jacob Cohen, David Isaacs, and Joseph Lustig—all equally plausible.8

The Schneirs go on to cite the log of June 17, 1950. “Incredibly,” they write, “T. Scott Miller wrote in his log regarding Gold: ‘Has no memory of registering at the Hilton, on June trip….”‘ Wondering what followed the four dots at the end of the quote, we checked our copy of the same log and found that Agent Miller actually wrote the following: “Has no memory of regis’tring at Hilton, on June trip, but sd he easily could have done so—possible that reg’d.”9 Gold made this statement right after he gave Miller a long account of how he had run out of money during his September visit to Albuquerque and was forced to wait in the lobby of the Hilton for funds cabled to him by his friend Thomas L. Black. Little wonder that this September 1945 incident, and not his very brief stop the previous June, remained Gold’s most vivid memory of the Albuquerque Hilton.

By this time—June 17, 1950—the FBI already had obtained a copy of Gold’s June 3, 1945, Hilton registration card. The Schneirs acknowledge the existence of the FBI memo of June 6, 1950, which records receipt of the card by the bureau. However, they unhesitatingly dismiss this memo as part of a “paper history” created to cover up the fact that the card was an FBI forgery. The only evidence they give for this remarkable assertion is that Agents Miller and Brennan did not inform Gold of the card’s existence, but continued to allow him to puzzle out for himself the details of his movements on June 3, 1945. In the Schneirs’ eyes, the FBI is in the wrong no matter what it does: on the one hand the bureau is accused of “priming” Gold with information; and on the other of withholding knowledge of vital information—the hotel card—because it would have been “potentially dangerous” to trust Gold with the secret of their forgery.

The June 6, 1950, FBI memo also revealed something else—that the bureau immediately noted the discrepancy between the dates on the front and back of the June card—something claimed by the Schneirs as their discovery, indeed as the very proof of forgery.10 Why, then, if the card was forged, didn’t the FBI simply manufacture a new one? The Schneirs never ask that question. The FBI files show feverish activity by the bureau to uncover the mystery of such a glaring discrepancy. The answer came in an interview by the bureau with the Hilton manager, Fletcher Brumit, who explained that all registration cards for June 3 were stamped June 4, because the hotel’s date-time stamp machine had been set incorrectly.11

Simple mechanical error is certainly a more straightforward explanation for the difference in dates than a botched forgery, yet the Schneirs find this explanation impossible to accept. They complain that Brumit (now dead) did not mention this interview with the FBI when they spoke to him in the early 1960s. In fact what he had told them was that “he had no specific memory of having seen or initialed the card.” The FBI report notes that Brumit “has placed his initials in pencil on the reverse side of the card,” but the Schneirs continue to refer to initials “allegedly put there by manager Fletcher Brumit.”

The Schneirs proceed to ask why the agents did not “quickly” obtain affidavits from Brumit and other employees stating that the date stamp was incorrectly set. The absence of this sworn proof does not, as they imply, disprove the explanation. The FBI saw no need to solicit sworn affidavits on this minor point: its files indicate that both Brumit and the assistant manager, Coby Briehn, confirmed the error in setting the date stamp, and that both were willing to testify at the trial. 12

But the FBI documents give more convincing evidence that Harry Gold had registered at the Albuquerque Hilton on June 3, 1945. On April 21, 1950, as part of the FBI’s investigation of Fuchs, agents were asked to compile a list of people who had registered at all local Albuquerque hotels in June 1945—during the time Fuchs had said he saw his courier. The list was completed by April 27, 1950—almost one month before Harry Gold’s arrest and before he was a prime suspect. In the middle of page 125 of the list, one finds the name of Harry Gold as having registered at the Albuquerque Hilton on June 3, 1945. Agents had underlined it and put a check next to it.13

The Schneirs deal with this important document by simply asserting, without evidence, that it too is a forgery. They argue their case by stating that the list is not mentioned again in FBI files until a June 6 memo by J. Edgar Hoover. Thus it “seems fair to assume that it was not there,” and that “Gold’s name was inserted into the typewritten April 27 list of June registrants.” Anyone who looks at the FBI list itself will find no indication that Gold’s name was inserted—it appears no differently from any other name on the list. But let us suppose that the files turned up other previous references both to this list and to Gold’s name. Would not the Schneirs explain them away also as additional links in a forged “paper history”? No matter how much documentation and supporting testimony appears to contradict their thesis, the Schneirs deal with it by proclaiming forgery. They simply cannot admit to the possibility that Harry Gold stayed at the Hilton on June 3, 1945, after all.

The Schneirs’ only solid evidence to the contrary is the opinion of their handwriting expert, Elizabeth McCarthy. The Schneirs mention in their new section that in 1966 Mrs. McCarthy made yet another examination of the photostats, this time for the lawyers William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy, who were defending Morton Sobell. Using the clearer copies available at the Foley Square courthouse, she said she was convinced that Anna Kindernecht “definitely had not written either the initials ‘AK’ or any other writings or figures on the June card.” In the 1968 and 1973 editions of their book, the Schneirs include a 1967 postscript, now omitted, in which they quote counsel William Kunstler’s oral argument to Judge Edward Weinfeld. As a result of McCarthy’s new examination of the photostats, Kunstler argued, “we do not have to convince you that this is a forgery now.”

But Kunstler and Kinoy did not reveal the contrary findings of Hannah Sulner, a second highly regarded handwriting expert they had hired. Their reasons for not doing so are obvious. But the Schneirs, who claim to be objective analysts—not lawyers for the Rosenbergs and Sobell—have no grounds for hiding this contradictory statement from their readers. It is readily available for examination in the files of the Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell.

Hannah Sulner’s report to Kunstler and Kinoy states that a difference in hotel stationery could not be construed as evidence of forgery; that handwriting differences on the two hotel cards had to be disregarded because of possible stains on portions of the paper that would not be visible on photostats. While Mrs. Sulner concurred that portions of writing on both cards had not been written by the same hand, and that the initials “A.K.” may indeed have been more hesitant on the June 1945 card, she argued that this was not evidence of forgery:

As to the identity or difference between certain words on the Hilton Hotel cards and Anna Kindernecht Hockinson’s handwriting; there is no basis for comparison because of the 14 years of date difference. A 1947 [sic] handwriting sample certainly cannot be compared with writings obtained in 1961.14

Such a comparison, however, was precisely the basis for the conclusion of forgery reached by Elizabeth McCarthy and used as proof by both counsel for Sobell and by the Schneirs.

In their new edition, the Schneirs have made their failure to do additional research, apart from their work on a few FBI files, into something of a virtue. “In preparing this final section,” they explain, “we made the decision to use no interviews. When one’s object is specific facts—precise dates, names, and places—it is risky to rely on unsupported recollections of events that occurred over thirty years ago…. Thus, we chose not to question survivors of the case and the era, but to listen instead to the voices that speak from the files in words unaltered by the passage of time.”

Coming from authors who unhesitatingly brand FBI documents as forgeries whenever it suits their purpose, the claim of devotion to “the files” is singular indeed, since they persist in ignoring much other evidence in the FBI files that contradicts their arguments in the original edition. One glaring example is their discussion of David Greenglass’s 1957 testimony to the Senate Internal Security Committee. Greenglass told the committee that Julius Rosenberg had once spoken of an agent of his who was a “$200 a day consultant for the government…and he was working on the Aswan Dam project in Egypt.” Greenglass had not made such a statement about this person during the trial. The Schneirs comment that in 1956 the Aswan Dam

had been very much in the news…. But there had been no “Aswan Dam project” at all in 1948, when Greenglass claimed that one of Rosenberg’s agents, an “engineering consultant,” had been working on it.

This to them was a good example of how “the Greenglass story has grown.”

As it happens, there was an Aswan dam project in 1948—not the famous high dam of today, but a more modest structure. The FBI files reveal that David Greenglass first told them about this consultant in a signed pretrial statement made in July 1950.15 The bureau eventually established that the Hugh L. Cooper Company of New York had hired a young scientist to do calculations on aerodynamics principles relevant to the design of the dam.16 His name was William Perl—an aeronautical researcher for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics who was suspected by the bureau, for unrelated reasons, of having been one of Julius Rosenberg’s accomplices. Greenglass’s story was legally hearsay, and it could never be used as hard evidence that Perl was involved in espionage. But the FBI had little trouble in establishing that Perl had worked on the Aswan project as a consultant. He had listed the job in his résumé.17 How can the Schneirs simply reprint their original comments on Greenglass’s story and allow them to stand in a new edition as proof that David Greenglass was a liar?

It is true that the FBI files released so far by no means vindicate every aspect of the government’s case. They reveal, for example, that even J. Edgar Hoover was well aware that the dangers to national security of the Rosenbergs’ espionage ring had been greatly exaggerated. They show also that Ethel Rosenberg was arrested and prosecuted on the slenderest of evidence, so that she could be used as a hostage to pressure her husband into confessing. One of the most shocking documents in the FBI files shows that among the questions the FBI agents at the death house planned to ask Julius Rosenberg if he decided to talk was this: “Was your wife cognizant of your activities?”18

The FBI documents also reveal deeply improper behavior on the part of Judge Irving Kaufman. He privately discussed the sentence with the prosecution during the trial, a clear violation of judicial standards. In sentencing the Rosenbergs, he said, “I have refrained from asking [the Justice Department] for a recommendation.”19 The documents show that this was false. After the jury’s verdict, he asked the prosecutor to get the department’s views on what the sentence should be and then hid the fact that the prosecutor told him that opinion in the department was divided.20

It is a long way from these revelations, however, to the Schneirs’ claim that the files prove the existence of a frame-up. They do not. The Schneirs apparently believe that a witness’s inability to remember certain details of an incident during his first interrogation renders his entire testimony invalid. Their understanding of police procedure, and of the limitations of human memory, seems at best naive.

Indeed, if the FBI files showed Harry Gold or other witnesses giving letter perfect recitations on the day of their arrest, that alone would be grounds for suspicion. Moreover, the FBI files show hundreds of examples of agents being assigned to check out leads provided to them by witnesses such as Gold and Greenglass. The Schneirs ignore this internal evidence of routine investigative procedure and simply decide whether a given document is forged or genuine according to their self-established criteria of how the investigators ought to have behaved. They have produced not a shred of new direct evidence—forensic, documentary, or testamentary—to support their charges.

Painful as it may be for those who have long held the Rosenbergs innocent, the evidence available today makes it clear that they did indeed take part in an espionage conspiracy—and that Julius Rosenberg, in particular, was deeply involved. To recognize this in no sense validates Judge Kaufman’s reasoning in condemning them to death. Nor does it contradict the conclusion that the Rosenbergs died essentially for political reasons. They were—as the critics charge—made the scapegoats for American insecurity over the loss of its nuclear monopoly. Three decades after their execution, we know that the Rosenbergs were not the archtraitors Judge Kaufman accused them of being. They did not give away “the secret” of the atomic bomb, although the Russians may conceivably have used Greenglass’s inadequate sketches to confirm the expert information of Klaus Fuchs—who went to jail for only nine years. They certainly did not cause the Korean War. They were shamefully treated by the court and by some of the officials responsible for prosecuting them. But they were not blameless martyrs.

This Issue

July 21, 1983