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.

The business foundered, its only dependable clients Julius’s Communist contacts and a few family friends, and the partners squabbled. David, stuck in the back room at the shop, resented his brother-in-law’s lordly manner. “Julie has to be King Tut or nothing,” Bernie Greenglass told Rosenberg’s lawyer at the time of the trial. Ruth, too, objected to his highhanded ways: it “galled her that Julius had no qualms about sacrificing David’s future to his precious cause,” write Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in The Rosenberg File, the most thorough study of the case, published in 1983.

The final straw for her had come when Julius forced her husband to give up the technical courses he had registered for [in 1948] because they kept him away from the shop two afternoons a week, even though [Julius] was willing to drop his own work to carry out a mission for the Russians whenever the need arose.4

By this time the FBI was well aware that the Soviets had stolen atomic and military secrets. The first decoded VENONA messages referred to ENORMOZ, a cryptonym for the Manhattan Project. There was testimony too from a pair of Communist defectors, the Russian Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk employed at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, and the American Elizabeth Bentley, who had been the courier in a wartime spy ring centered in Washington, D.C. Alarmed, Moscow recalled Feklisov and Yakovlev in late 1946 and suspended the American operation. It had been, according to Feklisov, a remarkable success. He estimates that Rosenberg’s group gave him, in the years 1943–1946, “over 20,000 pages of technical documents plus another 12,000 pages of the complete design manual for the first US jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star.”

With the news, in August 1949, that the Soviets had detonated an atom bomb, following the announcement earlier that month that China was “lost” to communism, the FBI’s search for atom spies grew urgent. The first breakthrough was Klaus Fuchs’s arrest and confession, in Great Britain, in early 1950. Gold confessed next. Moscow alerted key members of Rosenberg’s ring. Two of them, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, fled to Europe and later surfaced in the Soviet Union, where they became leading computer scientists. A third, Morton Sobell, fled to Mexico but was captured by authorities and stood trial with the Rosenbergs (since there was no evidence linking him to Los Alamos, he received a thirty-year sentence). A fourth, William Perl, stayed behind and was convicted of perjury. A fifth, Max Elitcher, confessed and testified for the prosecution. The KGB fretted most about the two couples who could be linked to Los Alamos. “The entire future of Soviet intelligence work in the United States depended on the successful evasion of arrest by the Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs,” notes Allen Weinstein in The Haunted Wood (1999), the book that introduced many of the Moscow dossiers quoted by Roberts.

Warning his brother-in-law that he was “hot,” Rosenberg gave Greenglass $4,000 supplied by the Soviets, who proposed that he escape via Mexico. But Ruth couldn’t travel. She was recovering from a horrific accident: her dress had caught fire from the gas heater in the couple’s flat. Six months pregnant, she had been taken to a hospital. The baby survived, but Ruth was still under treatment when FBI agents appeared at the Greenglass apartment in June and questioned David about his activities at Los Alamos. Like Fuchs and Gold before him, Greenglass confessed, implicating first his wife and then Julius Rosenberg. Told of the confession the next day, Julius denied everything, explaining that the “entire plot was implausible from the start for one fundamental reason: He did not, he insisted, even know any Russians.”

Thanks to VENONA, the FBI knew Julius was a leading figure in the network, “the linchpin,” but since the decryption program was top-secret it could not be used as evidence. Interrogators chose to exert pressure through Ethel, though well aware she was only an accessory, her part limited to performing small errands. She had ferried cash from Julius to David and back, acted as a lookout, joined in conversations about Los Alamos and other operations. From the VENONA intercepts, Russian intelligence described Ethel as a helpmeet, not an agent: “Sufficiently well-developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of [others]. In view of delicate health does not work [for the spy ring]. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.” Feklisov, who estimates he had fifty meetings with Julius, states, “The fact is, I never did meet Ethel.” The grand jury, handing down indictments in January 1951, wanted to include Ruth, the go-between, rather than Ethel. But prosecutors argued that Ruth, who was willing to testify, was more valuable as a witness.

As the trial date neared, Ethel, as staunch as her husband, maintained her innocence, even after she was arrested and jailed and separated from her children. Then, ten days before the trial, Ruth produced a new allegation: Ethel had typed up David’s first set of notes from Los Alamos. Neither she nor David Greenglass had said anything about this previously. But David now revised his testimony to match his wife’s. Interviewed by Roberts nearly fifty years later, Greenglass said, “I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember…. I can only assume my wife didn’t make it up.”5 The couple repeated the allegation against Ethel on the witness stand and so “provided the prosecution with a vital missing link,” delivering “the single most damning testimony” against her, Roberts says.

This treachery is a major concern of The Brother. “How to fathom this self-destruction of a Jewish family?” Roberts asks. “As a survivalist’s cunning act of betrayal, too callous and cynical even to contemplate? Or as a baby brother’s first—and perhaps final—act of conscience?” Roberts again summons the immigrant “ghosts,” reporting that Tessie Greenglass, the family matriarch, and her two elder sons sided with David and Ruth and cruelly isolated Ethel and Julius. Ruth, the shrewdest of all the principals, “embarked on a public relations campaign to distinguish the gullible Greenglasses from the bewitching Rosenbergs,” taking her case to the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication keen to dispel the widespread perception that communism was a “Jewish problem.”

The ethnic aspect of the case was painfully apparent in the courtroom. “It was, after all, no coincidence that the prosecutor was Jewish, that the trial judge was Jewish,” Roberts observes, “and that the government had secretly enlisted the heads of major Jewish organizations to publicly rebut any charges of religious persecution.” All this fed the impression that the case was a penitential exercise in Jewish theater staged for the benefit of leering Gentiles. So did the stark absence of any Jews from the jury. The foreman, a thirty-year-old assistant sales manager, later said, “I felt good this was strictly a Jewish show. It was Jew against Jew. It wasn’t the Christians hanging the Jews.”

Yet the trial, though it attracted great publicity, was not a controversial event. The entire proceedings lasted from March 5 to March 28, 1951, a mere fifteen days in the courtroom. The formal charge, “conspiracy to commit espionage,” required no proof that the defendants had actually spied, only planned to. It was not a hard case to make, given the Greenglasses’ and Gold’s testimony, the mysterious disappearance of Barr and Sarant, the attempted flight of Sobell. The lead defense attorney, Emmanuel Bloch, called only four witnesses. They included the Rosenbergs, who invoked the Fifth Amendment when cross-examined about their political affiliations. Julius unwisely blurted out that money he’d given Greenglass was “blackmail”—meaning he had paid Greenglass off in exchange for keeping the spy operation secret.

Bloch, inexperienced in criminal law, mishandled the only important physical evidence, a sketch of the bomb that Greenglass reproduced from memory in an attempt to duplicate the drawing he had given the Rosenbergs in 1945. Bloch insisted this evidence be impounded in the interest of national security, a show of patriotism which had the effect of enhancing its mystique when he might easily have summoned scientists to make the opposite case, that the sketch was so crude as to be nearly worthless.

When the guilty verdict came in no one was surprised, and there was little outrage. Nor should there be today. Roberts sums it up: “Was Julius guilty? And of what? Of conspiracy to commit espionage, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the answer is yes,” although the “proximity fuse, as it turned out, was probably more valuable to the Russian military than whatever Julius volunteered about atomic energy.” Ethel, for her part, was, Roberts writes, her husband’s accomplice, “irrefutably personally supportive, philosophically in sync, and morally complicit” and likely “committed some or even all of the few overt criminal acts attributed to her by the prosecution,” though she might well have escaped conviction had the Greenglasses not suddenly “remembered” that she had typed documents.

Even the death sentence occasioned little protest at first, excessive and appalling though the punishment was. No other atom spies had been executed, and as Bloch pointed out, Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally, convicted of the graver charge of treason—on behalf of a wartime enemy, not any ally—got only ten to fifteen years. The Rosenbergs’ zealous prosecutor, Irving Saypol, did not recommend the death penalty. The responsibility for sentencing lay solely with the trial judge, Irving Kaufman, who discharged the task with ill-concealed enthusiasm. He outdid the prosecution in his condemnation of the defendants, pronouncing them guilty of a crime “worse than murder…putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect [it].” This, in turn, caused “the communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.”

This verged on fantasy. There was no single atomic secret, and even if there had been one, the Rosenbergs were in no position to procure it. Fuchs, a brilliant physicist involved in building the bomb, had conveyed far more information than they did, and had saved the Soviets no more than a year or two of experimentation and wrong guesses.6 But while Fuchs was spared by the more lenient British law—and another spy, the American physicist Theodore Hall, escaped prosecution altogether—the Rosenbergs paid with their lives, victims, Roberts writes, of “the first peacetime execution of American civilians for espionage.”

This is technically accurate but somewhat misleading, because the case, from inception to conclusion, mirrored the progress of the Korean War, which many at the time saw as the first skirmish in an inevitable showdown between the US and the USSR. Julius Rosenberg’s arrest, in July 1950, came three weeks after North Korea invaded the South. The guilty verdict shared the front page with reports of clashes between United Nations troops, supported by US Air Force strikes, and “the Chinese and North Korean enemy.”7 President Eisenhower’s final refusal to commute the death sentence, in June 1953, came as the US was negotiating a troublesome peace in Korea. The Rosenbergs’ crime had occurred during World War II, but they had the misfortune to be tried during a particularly tense moment of the cold war.

But it was not only the US that made casualties of them. The Communists exploited them too. As the couple languished on death row they became, as Roberts notes, “highly prized props in a globally choreographed propaganda campaign,” which included CP-sponsored “Save the Rosenbergs” organizations in Belgium, Holland, Scan- dinavia, Switzerland, and England. The French Communist publication L’Humanité ran a drawing by Picasso of the couple seated in twin electric chairs, holding hands.8 The Rosenbergs were not simply props, however, but participants in this campaign.

In an essay on their published “death house” letters, the cultural critic Robert Warshow pointed out that the pair sounded less like two people facing a barbarous death than like activists enlisted in someone else’s cause, “as if, one might say, they were only the most devoted of their thousands of ‘sympathizers.'”9 Reading the letters today one is indeed struck by their pamphleteering tone, even when the couple address each other. They speak of “our social duty to our fellow man” and reaffirm their vow to “take our stand with the people fighting for peace and right.” In other letters “the people” appear as “progressives,” “liberals,” “unorthodox” enemies of “conformism.” But never as members of the Communist Party. That pretense had to be maintained until the end. As with testimony before congressional committees and trial itself, CP membership could never be admitted. Ethel, pleading for clemency in a letter to President Eisenhower, in June 1953, protested that Nazis, “these ghastly mass butchers, these obscene racists, are graciously receiving the benefits of mercy and in many instances being re-instated in public office,” even as “the great democratic United States is proposing the savage destruction of a small unoffending Jewish family.”10

This was written at a time when the USSR, not the US, was sponsoring anti-Semitism. In Moscow Stalin had been rounding up Jews falsely accused of taking part in the “Doctor’s Plot” against him. In France the Rosenberg defense committee was formed on the same day, December 3, 1952, that Rudolf Slansky and ten other former leaders of the Czech Communist Party were executed in Prague after a trial thick with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist overtones. These events provided a jarring background for the Rosenbergs’ continual references to anti-Semitism and their invocations of “our heritage.”

Roberts accepts the Rosenbergs’ idealism at face value and seems convinced that their politics was of a piece with their Jewish pride and family loyalty. He emphasizes their moral superiority over Greenglass, twice citing Greenglass’s comment that had the couples’ positions been reversed—had Julius and Ethel been apprehended first—they would never have implicated David and Ruth. “The name David Greenglass remains a metaphor for misplaced loyalty and betrayal,” Roberts declares. “David was indisputably a rat,” who derived “self-aggrandizing psychic satisfaction …from posing, with government complicity, as someone more important than he really was.”

All this reflects Roberts’s belief, stated in his subtitle, that the self-serving Greenglass, eager to save his own skin and Ruth’s, knowingly “sent” his sister to the electric chair by collaborating with his wife in giving testimony against Ethel that was partly false. He makes a troubling case that the Greenglasses may well have been lying when they alleged that Ethel typed documents. But the cumulative evidence in The Brother also suggests that Greenglass assumed his sister would come to her senses and cooperate with US intelligence, an option that remained available to the Rosenbergs up until the hour they were put to death. Nor did the government at first intend to execute either Julius or Ethel. The threat of the electric chair was used as leverage to pry loose the names of all their accomplices. Instead the Rosenbergs “called our bluff,” as one official said, virtually daring the government to pull the switch.

The Eisenhower administration, which inherited the case in its last phase from the Truman administration, went ahead with the execution as if Judge Kaufman’s exaggerated claims were true. In fact, Eisenhower echoed them, saying, “The Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world.” His refusal to commute the death sentence ensured that the Rosenbergs would never be able to supply further information and provided an occasion for anti-American protests throughout the world. Even J. Edgar Hoover opposed killing Ethel.

But Roberts never acknowledges the most salient fact in the case, corroborated by the flood of archival evidence: the preponderance of David Greenglass’s testimony was accurate while the Rosenbergs dissembled from beginning to end about matters great and small. It is easy to understand why they lied in the courtroom, when there was some hope of acquittal. But why did they stick to the script afterward, when when a truthful confession would have spared them?

Alexander Feklisov, still devoted to the memory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, points us toward the most plausible answer. At their many meetings, Feklisov recalls, Julius seemed preoccupied with the Red Army, anxiously discussing its advances and retreats. “His heart was beating in the eastern hemisphere,” Feklisov writes.

To him the announcement of a victory was never simply a few lines in the newspaper. He imagined the thousands of soldiers who had given their lives for it, who lay dead on the battlefields or in the mass graves. He was always thinking there were so many because his country wasn’t doing enough to help and he felt ashamed and remorseful because his own efforts couldn’t repair this injustice.

He was also “full of admiration for the resistance fighters struggling behind enemy lines,” and once asked Feklisov, “Tell me truthfully, Alexander. Do you think my friends and I are like partisans as well?”

Here, then, was the ideal to which the Rosenbergs clung as they completed their last, most important assignment, and stolidly faced execution. It was an ideal that would have demanded they not budge from their claim of total innocence and not inform on their fellow conspirators, even if informing meant simply corroborating information the Rosenbergs knew the government already had. “By martyring themselves,” Roberts says, the Rosenbergs “contributed considerably more to the cause of world communism than they ever had as spies.” No doubt. But it is a strange martyrdom that conceals rather than declares its principles and embraces falsehood rather than truth.

This Issue

April 11, 2002