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By David Levy


The Montréal Review, July 2012



"Godlike Voice of Judge Irving R. Kaufman: Will you take care of each other in happiness and in adversity, will you (music drowns the lines) spy on behalf of the Soviet Union and betray the secrets of the Atomic bomb to the enemy, bringing World War Three closer to our shores?" --Vit Horejs, The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., The Czech American Marionette Theatre, New York City, 2008.

"Ethel was murdered, you can't put it any other way." --Walter Schneir

 "We didn't want them to die, we wanted them to talk.' --Robert J. Lamphere, FBI, Espionage Section


IT is now more than a half-century since the execution of Julius Rosenberg, an electrical engineer, and his wife Ethel, the mother of two young children, at Sing Sing in upstate New York on the evening of 19 June 1953.

There were those who believed the couple to be guilty of atomic espionage on behalf of Soviet masters and to have deserved the death penalty. William Rehnquist, future Supreme Court Chief Justice, then a court law clerk, was quoted as regretting that the medieval punishment for treason, drawing and quartering, had been outlawed. All these years later you will hear people say appalling things like "Ethel loved Stalin more than she loved her own children..."

The Rosenberg lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, who had been associated with left wing causes, loyal, supportive, and dedicated to the couple's legal defense was felled by heart failure in January 1954, less than a year after the executions. Circumstances contributed to the difficulty Bloch encountered in mounting a vigorous defense. In the climate of fear and secrecy that prevailed the legal team was unable to persuade a single atomic scientist to testify to the limited significance of Julius's atomic snooping. The facsimile sketches that held the bomb secret Julius allegedly received from his brother-in-law David Greenglass and  delivered to his Soviet controller could not be made public. The jury heard the claim that this information assisted the Russians in acquiring atomic weapons, which led directly to the outbreak of the Korean War. But neither during the trial nor in the course of the appeal process was the prosecution pressed to show the actual connection between that information and the Soviet bomb.

The data the USSR in fact obtained through the penetration of the Manhattan project was invaluable. A study of the successful Soviet 1949 nuclear test concluded that it involved a copy of the plutonium bomb detonated in 1945 at Nagasaki, and that espionage accounted for at least 50% of the success. It was espionage Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had no hand in.

Among the most useful of Stalin's nuclear recruits was the precocious Theodore Hall, an American biophysicist aka the boy who gave away the bomb. Hall, who worked at Los Alamos with Klaus Fuchs provided the Soviets with information vital to the success of their bomb program. Hall justified his deed by claiming he'd been troubled by the prospect of an American atomic weapon monopoly, that at the time the Americans and the Soviets were allies in the war against Hitler, that the Soviets had saved the West from defeat. Hall believed he'd changed the course of history. Questioned but never put on trial or sent to prison, too late did he discover the dimensions of Stalinist terror and the brutal character of the Soviet state. Even then he saw no need for remorse or apology: "...in 1944 I was nineteen years old - immature, inexperienced and not too sure of myself... I recognize that I could easily have been wrong in my judgment of what was necessary, and that I was indeed mistaken about some things, in particular my view of the nature of the Soviet state. The world has moved on since then, and certainly so have I."

Joan Hall, Theodore Hall's wife, had this recollection of the evening of the Rosenberg executions: "We followed the case, but we weren't in a position to do anything at that time. Ted still had his links with the network. There was no question of our participating in any of the clemency movement or whatever was going on. So we watched from the sidelines in horror... That evening we had been invited to an evening gathering at the home of a colleague of Ted's in Westchester. We were driving up from Queens where we lived. The road took us parallel to the Hudson River past Ossining, the town where Sing Sing Prison is. It was eight o'clock, and as we drove by the sun was setting. It was red, and it was large over the river going down. I absent-mindedly switched on the radio and, believe it or not, they were broadcasting the last movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, a farewell symphony, which is some of the most sad, heartbreaking music that exists. It was a symphony that Ted and I were both very familiar with... So we rode along listening to Mahler and watching the sun go down and feeling indescribable. We didn't say anything, not a word. We got to our colleague's house and did what people have to do in gatherings like that, then went home...Of course, we were thinking, God, that could have been us..."

Ted Hall was well aware that he was far more responsible for the Russians getting the bomb than Julius and Ethel. He sought the advice of his Soviet handler. Should he turn himself in? The advice from the KGB was to keep his mouth shut.

The decades-long controversy surrounding the conduct of the Rosenberg trial, the trial evidence and the appropriateness of the death sentences, as well as the question of whether Julius Rosenberg actually did pass important atomic bomb information to the Soviets and the part Ethel might have played in that deed has not gone away.

The Schneir book makes it clear that Ethel Rosenberg was not a Soviet spy, that her husband Julius did not receive bomb lens mold sketches from David Greenglass, who'd been employed while in the army at Los Alamos, and that if anyone was guilty of stealing atom bomb secrets it was David Greenglass, Ethel's brother.

In February 1950, Klaus Fuchs was arrested in London, England. Charged with espionage he gave up his courier Harry Gold. Gold was arrested on 23 May, 1950, his FBI statement led the agency to David Greenglass who was taken into custody 16 June, 1950, Julius Rosenberg a month later, Ethel a few days less a month after that.

It now appears that David Greenglass and wife Ruth, who was recruited by Julius, did as much as they were able to provide the USSR with bomb secrets. To evade punishment they downplayed their own role and shifted responsibility to Julius and Ethel. That the conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg was based on perjured Greenglass testimony emerged initially from David Greenglass's interviews with New York Times writer Sam Roberts.

The key element in the prosecution's case was an alleged meeting in the Rosenberg apartment on an afternoon in September 1945. Ethel was supposed to have sat down at a Remington portable machine and typed out a twelve-page report on the bomb supplied by her brother. Greenglass  told CBS that Roy Cohn, acting for the prosecution, had encouraged him to make that up. Walter Schneir leaves little doubt that such a meeting did not and could not have taken place. Julius had lost his army-related job a few months earlier and his Soviet spymasters had suspended his activity on their behalf.

Harry Gold arrived at the Greenglass apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico in June 1945 with a recognition device made up of the piece of a Jello box. That he spoke the words, "I come from Julius," was a fabrication intended to link Julius directly to the meeting. This was yet another detail cooked up by the Greenglasses, Ruth Greenglass the lead author, all of it part of a Department of Justice scheme to pressure Julius into giving up the names of associates.

According to Elizabeth Bentley, an American agent who turned herself in to the FBI in 1945, Julius was a key figure in a cell of engineers involved in industrial espionage. In 1944, the New York City rezidentura warned Moscow that perhaps Julius was being overworked. But this was not work on bomb information.

The release in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s of once top-secret documents pertaining to the Soviet atomic project has determined that the Greenglass-Rosenberg information was of limited value. Igor Kurchatov, a leading Soviet nuclear scientist, said the material received from David Greenglass via the Julius Rosenberg network provided at best limited corroboration of what had already been obtained from Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall.

Nikita Khrushchev claimed in a memoir published in 1993, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glosnost Tapes, that Julius and Ethel were more than small-time couriers: "...we got some assistance... through some good people... I believe they were not Communists. They did what they could in order to help the Soviet Union to arm itself with the atomic bomb... I was present at the talks that Stalin had in a limited circle when he mentioned the Rosenbergs with warmth... I heard from both Stalin and Molotov that the Rosenbergs provided very significant help accelerating the production of our atomic bomb."

That claim has been challenged by the elder Rosenberg son, Michael Meeropol: "... the individual who did the voice print analysis which proved that the first two volumes of Khrushchev Remembers were transcripts of tapes of Khrushchev's voice was unable to verify the voice on the quoted portion of this new tape as Khrushchev's. This is strong evidence that the statement in the book is cobbled together from reels of tape... We do not know if Krushchev actually spoke the paragraphs that do explicitly refer to my parents."

The question lingers: did Julius Rosenberg deliver any atomic bomb information of value to the Russians? There might, it seems, have been some very minor data Julius had obtained from a Russell McNutt, a civil engineer code-named the Persian. McNutt was a friend used without his knowledge and it would therefore be incorrect to say he'd been recruited. In addition there was an initial batch of data acquired from David Greenglass, relating to the size of the project, individuals on staff, etc. Theodore Hall said that David Greenglass's job at Los Alamos would not have allowed him to learn anything of substance about the bomb.

I became interested in the Rosenberg affair in the context of research for Stalin's Man in Canada, my book about Fred Rose, the Member of Parliament for the Montreal constituency of Cartier where I grew up, who was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act of Canada. A fellow Cold War writer told me he was certain Freddy knew a lot about the bomb and had happily shared this knowledge with the Russians. The claim confused what Freddy thought he was doing with what he was sent to prison for.

 The Rosenbergs, like Freddy, probably knew very little about the bomb, in particular about the danger of radiation. Few did. This was something that only became evident after Hiroshima. The Rosenbergs and others imagined, as Fred Rose did, that a nuclear weapon was just a more powerful explosive.

One suspects it was well understood within FBI circles that the the couple were being threatened with punishment for a crime that had never occurred in order to pressure Julius to talk, to name names, that Julius was in fact an extremely minor figure in the ENORMOUS operation, the KGB scheme to steal American atomic bomb secrets, that Ethel was simply a woman linked to him by marriage, that Julius might have been deserving at most of a little prison time. The larger target of US government prosecutors was less the Rosenbergs than CPUSA members, part of a general effort to brand people on the left as traitors, which of course some were. Few, certainly not J Edgar Hoover, believed the couple were top drawer bomb spies in the class of Klaus Fuchs or Ted Hall or even Alan Nunn May, the British physicist identified following the 1945 defection of Igor Gouzenko.

Many years later, when the USSR was a thing of the past, a minor battle erupted in the Russian Federation between former members of the KGB, internal security, and the GRU, military intelligence, over which of them did more to get mother Russia the bomb. A book by Vladimir Lota published in 2002 with the title The GRU and the Atomic Bomb achieved best-seller status in Russia and was soon followed by a competing volume, The KGB and the Atomic Bomb In Prof. Lota's determination to ensure the GRU received maximum credit, he lumped Robert Oppenheimer with Fuchs, and the Rosenbergs. Lota, who for a brief period was granted access to GRU files, may simply have been going on the discredited testimony of Edward Teller who falsely ratted Oppenheimer out to the FBI, causing Oppenheimer to lose his security clearance. Teller imagined that Oppenheimer had dissed him at a couple of social events and carried a grudge. Oppenheimer, may have been a fellow-traveler, but was not an agent.

The Trial

In the course of the trial Julius took the fifth when asked if he was a Party member and insisted on the couple's total innocence. The Rosenberg defense strategy, based on silence and denial, might have worked if everyone had shut up, if Harry Gold and David Greenglass had kept silent too. But once those two talked, silence made little sense.

During the trial Julius offered a spirited defense of the USSR telling the court that "the Soviet government has improved the lot of the underdog has made a lot of progress in eliminating illiteracy, has done a lot of reconstruction work and built up a lot of resources." Underdogism is a strictly American notion absolutely remote from Russian thinking. It was delusionary to imagine Joseph Stalin, he of the purges and the gulag, as some kind of radical Joe Hill FDR striving to bring a New Deal to all humanity.

While the judge, Irving R.Kaufman and prosecutors Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn were Jews, not a single Jew was allowed on the jury. Julius Rosenberg, found guilty, sentenced to death. Ethel Rosenberg, found guilty, sentenced to death. Morton Sobell, found guilty,sentenced to 30 years, David Greenglass sentenced to 15 years. The U S Supreme Court refused to review the Rosenberg case. On 19 June 1953 the court reversed a last-minute stay of execution.

Ethel and Ike

In a letter dated 16 June 1953, Ethel reminded President Eisenhower that Nazis had received American mercy. Today, she wrote, while she and her husband languished on death row, "these ghastly mass butchers, these obscene racists are graciously receiving the benefits of mercy and in many instances being reinstated in public office."

There is no record of a reply.

In his denial of a petition for Executive Clemency, Eisenhower said the Rosenbergs's crime "could very well result in the deaths of many, many thousands of innocent citizens. On the day of the executions, the number expanded. The Rosenbergs, he said, "may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world."

Ike apparently believed Ethel was the ringleader. There is this in a letter to his son: "... to the Rosenberg case... in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one. She has obviously been the leader in everything they did in the spy ring... if there would be any commuting of the woman's sentence without the man's then from here on the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women."

Was Ike, as some suspect, out of the loop with little idea what was actually going on?

Years later, Kim Philby said that all Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were ever really guilty of was being small-time couriers, that they had no connection to the key KGB atomic bomb spies, that he never imagined they would be executed.

The family thing

Miriam Moskowitz, a family friend, described  Ethel as the big protective sister of brother David. Ethel had been seeing a therapist to help her deal with the very difficult relationship with mother Tessie who tended to favour brother David. She also sought advice about raising the children. Ethel's mother, Tessie, who tended to side with David, wouldn't attend her daughter's funeral. Sophie, the mother of Julius, was the only family member who did.

Whatever could have persuaded Julius to get involved in an espionage scheme with his wacky brother-in-law? Poor Julius probably never had any idea how dangerous the man would turn out to be. Described by a fellow worker at Los Alamos as "a jerk", David Greenglass was a terribly self-absorbed guy, fond of stunts and minor larcenies that flattered his estimate of himself as a clever fellow. He stole an uranium sphere he hid in his son Steven's bedroom that years later was responsible for the boy developing an illness. Greenglass missed the 16 July 1945 nuclear test having decided to sleep through it, an explosion that fused desert sand into nuggets of green glass.

The brother-in-law's betrayal didn't exactly come out of the blue. It was preceded by a falling out over a failed business relationship. Resentment had been gathering, as it only can within families. At one point Ruth Greenglass got the idea that Julius and Ethel wanted to hold the Greenglass children hostage to assure her husband's silence. For Julius and Ethel family and business and espionage were a deadly mix.


From the day of her arrest, Ethel was regarded by the Justice Department as a possible source of pressure, a lever to get Julius to talk.

Heir to an Execution (2003), Ivy Meeropol's film about her grandparents, makes the point that what ultimately sent them to their deaths was their refusal to incriminate others. A week before the execution the FBI presented their lawyer Emmanuel Bloch with a list of twenty-five names. If Julius and Ethel affixed their signatures to the list, branding the men and women on it Soviet spies, which of course they were, the couple might have been spared. Michael, Ivy's father, pointed out that Ethel was little more than a hostage to the process and died as hostages do when the demands of their captors have been rejected.

Was it the refusal of the Rosenbergs to cough up names that put them in the chair?

The claim that they might have lived if they'd talked didn't emerge until late in the game, going into high gear only after the executions, apparently to soften the position of Eisenhower and to make it appear that their deaths were the consequence of some kind of suicide pact.

Might Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have saved themselves by confessing? Walter Schneir: "What if Julius and Ethel had confessed? Could they have escaped execution if they had tried to meet the government halfway?... My own conclusion is that it would have been difficult, probably impossible, for them to save themselves. The only sure-fire way would have been for both, Ethel as well as Julius, to have agreed to everything, including all the atomic espionage deeds they had never done. And then for Julius to have testified at trials and Congressional hearings against the very friends he himself had recruited."

The thing is we'll never know. The FBI seemed to be asking Julius to implicate Ethel, which is to say to do to Ethel what her brother had done to both of them.

Talking or not talking was a theme of the times. The Elia Kazan-Bud Schulberg motion picture On the Waterfront (1954) was about the heroism of spilling the beans against a corrupt union head. Kazan and Schulberg had both appeared before HUAC and talked, Kazan in 1952, Schulberg the previous year. Waterfront was in turn a response to Arthur Miller's The Crucible first performed in January 1953, about the heroism of keeping quiet, of refusing to participate in a witch hunt. 

On the Thursday evening prior to the executions, scheduled to take place the following evening, Justice Department officials met to review statements the Rosenbergs might make. They were looking for links to other suspects, to fill in gaps in their information. Among the questions they were going to put to Julius: Was your wife cognizant of your activities? A yes answer might have increased the likelihood of Ethel's date with the chair. All the FBI wanted, Robert Lamphere claimed, were confessions. But these were the same people who put the Rosenbergs on death row by pressuring Ethel's brother David Greenglass to perjure himself. 

On the other hand, VENONA, the super-secret operation dating from 1943 that decrypted Soviet cable traffic had found near enough 350 Americans in the voluntary employ of the USSR, a certain number unidentified. It was this information that was being sought from Julius Rosenberg. From a source: 

"Prosecutors had the substance of what Venona had provided about Julius Rosenberg et al, but it came only via the FBI and the FBI did not disclose that the source was deciphered communications, only highly reliable sources that could not be disclosed.  The National Security Agency(NSA) requested FBI assistance with Venona in 1948. NSA had no field investigators to pursue identification of the unidentified cover names in Venona but FBI did, and a regular liaison was established. FBI in turn distributed the substance of Venona information regarding internal security matters to the White House and the Justice Department but with the source disguised at NSA's insistence."

Ethel's mother Tessie had visited Ethel in prison and suggested she divorce Julius and talk. "You'll  burn," Tessie warned.

There have been whispers from FBI and CIA sources that Julius was on the point of cracking, that Ethel held him back. That claim continues to circulate within the community of intelligence writers and retired intelligence officers. It remains without confirmation.

The couple and the left

For many on the left in America the Rosenberg murders had the immediate effect of reinforcing the integrity of their stoogeship to the hateful Stalinist regime. Some defenders of the couple used the injustice to defend the cause to which Julius and Ethel had been so mistakenly devoted. A study of Russia in the 20th century, Istoria Rossi, published in Moscow in 2009 confirmed Igor Gouzenko's statements that in 1945, as WW2 was winding down, Stalin was indeed looking down the road to a third world war, declaring that the USSR would soon go to war with its wartime allies, that an emerging economic crisis would compel America to withdraw from Europe thus ensuring the spread of Soviet influence beyond Eastern Europe into France and Italy. No talk of how this might be of benefit to the European or any other working class.

After the Rosenberg case had been lost in the courts, not Jean-Paul Sartre not the Pope not Albert Einstein could have saved the couple. Salvation could only have come from their American brothers and sisters in espionage. The 350 all knew who they were, they might have come forward and demanded to be fried along with Julius and Ethel.

The lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg meant little to their Russian comrades; the executions were quickly seized upon by those comrades as a propaganda opportunity. Igor Gouzenko's daughter told me her father opposed the executions which he believed, correctly, would be used by the USSR as a cover for Stalin's crimes. The American left pointed to the executions to justify their continued allegiance less perhaps to the Stalin regime than to an abstract leftism

The end

Could the whole sad episode be traced back to the U S army's serendipitous stationing of David Greenglass at Los Alamos? Was it in effect a waterboarding session gone off the rails?

Apparently J.Edgar Hoover's recommendation was death for Julius, thirty years for Ethel, the recommendation of Roy Cohn, who claimed that Ethel was worse than Julius. Cohn thought a thirty year sentence for Ethel might get her to talk.

The FBI website carries no mention of any talk-and-live deal, only that the "atomic bomb spies were executed on June 19 1953, at Sing Sing Prison Ossining, N Y."

On that Friday evening in June,1953 with the shabbat hour approaching, FBI agents with stenographers standing by were at the scene to hear last minute confessions. There was a secret room at Sing Sing with phone lines to FBI headquarters in case the Rosenbergs talked in exchange for a last minute reprieve. As Robert Lamphere explained, it was the job of those agents to determine whether the confessions furnished "substantial information on espionage." In other words, Ethel and Julius might have talked, named names, the names noted, the executions would have proceeded as scheduled.

Rabbi Irving Koslowe, the Sing Sing rabbi, attended the executions. After Julius had been pronounced dead, the rabbi approached Ethel, perhaps after a little FBI coaching: "Julius is gone. Do you have any names?" No, she replied, I have no names.

There had been was a hasty re-scheduling of the executions to beat the 8:13 p.m . shabbat deadline. The Sing Sing executioner, Joseph P. Francel, who was paid $150 a pop, had served in that capacity for 14 years. He was the one whose job it was to press the button that would send the volts of electricity into the couple's bodies, Julius and Ethel the most famous of the137 people Francel executed. Julius who went first was pronounced dead at 8:06:45. It turned out Ethel, Francel's last client, was harder to kill. Francel hit the button for Ethel at 8:11:30. But she needed a second jolt and wasn't pronounced dead until 8:16, apparently three minutes into the Sabbath.

I asked a rabbinic acquaintance whether the fact that Ethel was executed after the onset of the shabbat would have prevented her nishuma - her soul - from entering Gan Eden i.e. Paradise. Meteorologically, sundown on 19 June 1953 occurred at 8:47 p.m. which is to say the time the sun had completely dipped below the horizon. Perhaps following consultation with the Sing Sing rebbe, it was determined that the organization of the executions was to be based on the most conservative designation of sundown, which would be the moment the east coast sun touched the horizon, apparently 8:31 p.m. From that time we need to subtract the eighteen minutes allotted for candlelighting, the generally published time for the commencement of the shabbat. Thus we arrive at 8:13 p.m. In other words, Ethel Rosenberg was not executed after the start of the shabbat but in the time allotted for the lighting of the shabbat candles. What, I asked, if she'd been executed after the start of the shabbat, would that have barred her soul from Gan Eden? Irrelevant, I was told. On the other hand, if anti-Semitism had been involved and the Rosenbergs were, as has been alleged, murdered because they were Jews, that is for Kiddush Ashem - the Sanctification of the Name - their entry into Gan Eden would be immediate. All of which is to say that from a halachic standpoint, the execution did neither Ethel nor Julius any great spiritual harm.


David Levy is a contributing editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)


 "Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case" by Walter Schneir, Preface and Afterword by Miriam Schneir (Melville House, 2010)



Robert J. Lamphere with Tom Shachtman, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent's Story,  Mercer University   Press, 1995

Walter Laquer, "West Meets East: Two New Versions of the Cold War," World Affairs, November/December 2010.

Ivy Meeropol, Hier to an Execution (2004)

Michael Meeropol (ed.) The Rosenberg Letters; A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1994.

Ilene J. Philipson, Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths, Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Sam Roberts, The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case, Random House, 2003.

Miriam Schneir and Walter Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest,  Pantheon Books, 1983.


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