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BUY – The Rosenberg File
(by Ronald Radosh, Joyce Milton (Contributor)
Definitive book, includes recent revelations from Soviets)
Put this story squarely inside the time during which it happened. America was in a feeding frenzy over the possibility of Communist spies in government. The dirty Reds could be anybody, they could live anywhere. Maybe next door. Ferreting them out was a national preoccupation.
This particular story starts with the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, who confessed to having passed information on the Manhattan Project, the Allied atomic bomb design venture. He said he met with a Soviet he knew only as Raymond.
Raymond was discovered to be a chubby middle-aged chemist, Harry Gold. This story has no one remotely as glamorous as James Bond. Gold also confessed.
Among Gold’s tales is one of a soldier he paid $500 to in exchange for information about the implosion lens for the atomic bomb back in 1945. Which takes the story to the soldier, David Greenglass and his wife Ruth.
Greenglass is another confessor. He names his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg.
In June of 1950, when FBI comes to question him about Greenglass’ accusations, Rosenberg says, “Bring him here– I’ll call him a liar to his face.” And he hires Emanuel Bloch, the attorney who will wage a full scale battle to save the Rosenbergs.
In an effort to save themselves, Greenglass and his wife Ruth give the FBI sufficient information to allow the FBI to arrest Rosenberg that July. They come to the apartment and cuff him in full view of his young sons, Michael 7 and Robert 3.
Which brings the story around to Ethel, Julius’ wife and Greenglass’ sister. The plan was one seen on every cop show ever made. Use the wife as leverage against the husband. The thinking was that to protect his wife Julius would give up the names of other spies and the string of arrests would continue.
Except old Julius didn’t blink. Even after his wife was grabbed off the street and sent straight to jail – not even allowed to stop home to see about her children.
About this time many of Rosenberg’s friends with leftist leanings were fleeing the country. Good thinking. Except one, Max Elitcher, who incriminated both Rosenberg and one Mortin Sobell, who had made his exit to Mexico.
In a truly colorful escapade, Sobell returns home to his apartment in Mexico one day to find a band of pistol-waving Mexicans, who forced him into a car, drove him 800 miles to the border, then handed him to waiting FBI agents in Laredo, Texas.
The case against Ethel Rosenberg was always weak. But with Julius refusing to budge, and Ethel in custody, the government had to release her or prosecute her as a co-conspirator. These were tough times for Commie spies, so to trial she went.
In 1951, the case of the United States v Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell was called for trial. United States Attorney Irving Saypol, famous already for his recent successful prosecution of Alger Hiss, opened for the government. Roy Cohn sat second chair.
The govenment’s case was primarily testimony of these “turned” confessed spies. By what we know of spies from movies and TV, these guys were strictly amateur night according to the testimony.
The only witnesses called by the defense were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Sobell chose not to testify. Good plan. Both Rosenbergs pleaded the Fifth Amendment in response to all questions concerning their membership in the Communist Party, most likely to head off potential questions about other acquaintances who might be members of their spy network. He denied many of the accusations the others had hurled at him or he had alternative explanations.
He pointed to the fact that he had a modest lifestyle, where one would expect a spy to be well paid. But the government’s argument was always that the crime was idealogical in nature. Rosenberg did it because he was a Communist.
Ethel’s attitude was her undoing. Had she capitalized on the ’50s view of the woman as weaker sex, she may have gotten some jury sympathy. Instead she was perceived as arrogant and contemptuous of the whole trial. All they had against her was some Ruth Greenglass testimony about her typing notes from Los Alamos. Not much for a capital case.
The jury found both Rosenbergs and Sobell guilty.
Calling their crime “worse than murder” and blaming them for 50,000 American deaths in Korea, Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death in the electric chair. Morton Sobell received a thirty-year sentence.
David Greenglass, the confessor and accuser, received a 15 year sentence.
The battle to save the Rosenbergs was passionate.The Rosenbergs’ two sons, Robert and Michael, marched carrying signs reading “Don’t Kill My Mommy and Daddy,” and protestors picketed. The Pope appealed for mercy. They convinced four U.S. Supreme Court Justices, but it took five to overturn. Ultimately, it came to President Eisenhower who declined to save the Rosenbergs.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed shortly after 8 p.m. in Sing-Sing Prison on June 19, 1953. The first fifty-seven second jolt of electricity failed to kill Ethel. She was restrapped to the chair and given two more jolts before being pronounced dead. Ethel was the first woman executed by the United States Government since Mary Surratt was hanged for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Robert and Michael Rosenberg became orphans on that day.
Since the fall of the Soviet government, much has been learned. In short, Julius was guilty. In 1997, Alexsandr Feklisov, Rosenberg’s Soviet control came forward to describe his meetings with Julius in the 1940’s. However, he expressed outrage at the injustice he felt was perpetrated against Ethel who, insofar as he knew, engaged in no espionage work at all.