Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Meet the Man Who Lied to Send the Rosenbergs to Their Deaths

Published on Alternet (http://www.alternet.org)

The Huffington Post / By Sam Roberts [1]

Meet the Man Who Lied to Send the Rosenbergs to Their Deaths

October 16, 2014 |

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs," Sylvia Plath began The Bell Jar. My sixth birthday was sandwiched between their execution at Sing Sing on Friday night, June 19, 1953, and their funeral that Sunday morning. The somber procession passed by our block in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and while I was too young to be told details, I was old enough even then to feel the palpable betrayal and shame.

That was the closest I would come to the Rosenberg case for the next 30 years. In 1983, reviews described Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton's "The Rosenberg File" as newsworthy, and Arthur Gelb, the Times managing editor who had covered the execution in 1953, made a startling suggestion to his colleagues: "Why don't we do a news story?" I made the mistake of not looking preoccupied when Arthur headed toward me, arms flailing.

I contacted Peter Kihss, who had covered the case. He challenged me to find David Greenglass, the army machinist who had been assigned to Los Alamos, stolen secrets to the atomic bomb, and delivered them to his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, to convey to the Soviets. Greenglass' testimony had sent Julius and Ethel, David's sister, to the electric chair. I called Roy Cohn, too, one of the former prosecutors, seeking the one compelling piece of evidence that would finally solve the case. "The smoking gun," he said, "is the testimony of David Greenglass."

Since he was released from prison in 1960 after serving nearly 10 years, Greenglass had surfaced only once, in the 1970s, when Radosh and Sol Stern interviewed him and his wife, Ruth. With the help of Radosh and others, I finally found Greenglass, but he refused to talk. I would periodically write him, requesting an interview, but never received a reply—until 1996, when a lawyer who had represented Greenglass for 15 years suggested we meet. The lawyer said that just a few days before, Greenglass had told him, "I have a confession to make; I want to tell you who I really am."

"Who are you, Hitler, Stalin?" the lawyer asked, incredulously.

"You remember the Rosenberg case?" Greenglass replied. "I'm Ethel Rosenberg's brother. I'm David Greenglass." The lawyer was dumbfounded. "Do you hate me?" Greenglass said.

He agreed to speak to me, unconditionally, for my book, The Brother, because he needed money, which I grudgingly consented to pay. He was unrepentant, narcissistic and smug. After reading transcripts of my interviews, my friend David Halberstam pronounced Greenglass aschmendrick. (I consulted Leo Rosten's Joys of Yiddish to be certain of the definition: "An apprentice schlemiel.")

While I worried that he would wallow in self-justification, Greenglass did just the opposite. Over and over, he patiently revisited his Sophie's choice, how he chose to sacrifice the sister who helped raise him over the mother of his two children. "My wife is my wife," he said. "I mean, I don't sleep with my sister, you know."

First, in confessing to the FBI, he inadvertently implicated Ruth (who was at least as complicit in the espionage conspiracy as Ethel). Then, to protect his wife from prosecution, he began cooperating with investigators. He fingered Julius, whom prosecutors hoped would confess if they threatened Ethel with execution. Finally, only a week before the trial was to begin, with the government desperate for evidence against Ethel and with Greenglass still hoping for a suspended sentence, he averred that maybe Ruth was right in her own recollection a few days earlier, that his sister had typed his handwritten notes for delivery to the Soviets. He testified to that effect. Ruth corroborated his sworn account, and the prosecutor declared in his summation to the jury that Ethel had "struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."

Except that Greenglass admitted to me that he had lied, that he couldn't recall then or now who typed his notes, that he confirmed Ruth's account only because he didn't want to label her a liar. He added a stunning coda: "I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember." Without that testimony, the single most incriminating evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, she might well have been acquitted.
Just as I was completing my book, I interviewed Herbert Brownell, who served as assistant attorney general while the Rosenbergs were appealing their conviction. What happened to the government's strategy of leveraging the charges against Ethel to get Julius to confess? I was stunned by Brownell's candor and his cynicism. "She called our bluff," he said.

After my book was published, I kept tabs on Greenglass periodically. This week, when the nursing home where he was living told me that he was no longer a patient there, I guessed that he had died at the age of 92, having outlived the Rosenbergs by six decades.

Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs' sons and the Cold War's most famous orphans, extended their condolences to their uncle's family, though they hadn't seen Greenglass since 1950. But while they had acknowledged to me earlier that their father, at least, had been guilty of the legal charge against him—conspiracy to commit espionage—they still insisted that "without any involvement on our parents' part, David and Ruth were the ones who actually provided atomic information to the Soviet Union, although it was of little value." The information, even from a lowly machinist, was briefly valuable, if superseded by subsequent elaboration from rogue scientists like Klaus Fuchs. And while the Rosenbergs arguably did not receive a fair trial, the judge and prosecution managed to frame a guilty man.

Rebecca West described the unnatural relationship between David and his sister Ethel as "the hostile twin of incest." And E.L. Doctorow predicted that "the treachery of that man will haunt him for as long as he lives." How would Greenglass be remembered? He told me he was certain he would be remembered as a man who sent his sister and brother-in-law to their deaths. But he asked people to recall that the Rosenbergs had recruited him as a spy and that nobody expected the death penalty to be imposed. He claimed that most men faced with the same choice, sister or wife, would have done what he did.

What would he want his obituary to say, I asked. "I was a good father," he replied. "A good husband. A good son. A good brother. Born in a time which tore people's souls."

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/books/meet-man-who-lied-send-rosenbergs-their-deaths

[1] http://www.alternet.org/authors/sam-roberts
[2] mailto:corrections@alternet.org?Subject=Typo on Meet the Man Who Lied to Send the Rosenbergs to Their Deaths

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