Rosenberg Case: Spy’s Unreliable Memoir was Fatal
The unexpected release by the US government of secret grand jury testimony from the Rosenberg atomic secrets spy case of 1951 has revealed the death of Ruth Greenglass, aged 83, who had been living under an alias. She was a crucial prosecution witness in the case. The wife of one of the accused, David Greenglass, she testified that her sister-in-law, Ethel Rosenberg, had typed up secret information on the United States’ Manhattan Project to be passed through Rosenberg’s husband, Julius, to the Soviet authorities. Ms Greenglass’s evidence ensured Rosenberg went, with her husband, to the electric chair in 1953 for conspiracy to commit atomic espionage.
The trial, held at the height of America’s post-war anti-communist hysteria, aroused protests around the world. The gradual release of official documents since has left little doubt that Rosenberg was guilty as charged, but that Ms Rosenberg may well have been a victim of perjury by the Greenglasses. In 2001 a New York Times reporter traced Greenglass (Ms Rosenberg’s brother) living under an assumed name. Interviewed on television under a heavy disguise, he acknowledged he and his wife’s court statements had been untrue.
The drama began in February 1950 with the arrest by the British of Klaus Fuchs, a scientist who had worked on the US atomic bomb project at Los Alamos and who was jailed for 14 years for passing classified information to the Soviet Union. His interrogation by Scotland Yard, allied to an American decoding breakthrough which enabled them to read reams of intercepted wartime KGB messages, led to the arrest of Rosenberg in July 1950.
Senator Joseph McCarthy had just launched his ferocious attack on the supposed nest of communists operating in most of official Washington. In the face of that onslaught, J.Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, envisaged a public relations triumph for himself and the bureau, as it rounded up what appeared to be a significant spy network. Within days Hoover had sent a memorandum to the US attorney-general Howard McGrath saying, ”There is no question that if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. Proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in these matters.”
David Greenglass, a technical sergeant involved in machining parts at the Manhattan Project, originally attracted the FBI’s attention for stealing small quantities of uranium as a souvenir. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a Soviet spy at Los Alamos and named Rosenberg as one of his contacts. But he flatly denied that his sister, Ms Rosenberg, had ever been involved. Though he told the FBI at the time that his wife had acted as a courier, he said in his 2001 television interview that he had warned the bureau, ”If you indict my wife you can forget it. I’ll never say a word about anybody.”
The difficulty with Hoover’s proposed strategy of using Rosenberg’s wife as a lever was that there was no evidence against her. Nonetheless, she was arrested and her two children were taken into care. The Rosenbergs’ bail was set at $100,000 each, which they had no hope of raising, and the pressure on them to incriminate others increased. Neither offered any further information.
Ten days before the start of the trial, the FBI re-interviewed the Greenglasses. In his original statement, Greenglass had said that he handed over atomic information to Rosenberg on a street corner in New York. In this new interview, he said that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenbergs’ New York flat. Ms Greenglass then elaborated on this by telling the FBI agents, ”Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told [Ethel] she had to type this info immediately. Ms Rosenberg then sat down at the typewriter … and proceeded to type the info which David had given to Julius.”
Ms Greenglass and her husband repeated this evidence in the witness box and it became the basis of Ms Rosenberg’s conviction as a co-conspirator. However, the court verdict failed to induce a confession from Rosenberg. There were innumerable unsuccessful appeals, and up until the night of the execution President Dwight Eisenhower was on stand-by to commute the Rosenbergs’ sentences. But the couple remained silent.
Born Ruth Printz, Ms Greenglass grew up in the same New York district as her future husband. They were married in 1942, when she was 18 and he just 20. Their interest in politics prompted them to join the Young Communist League. In 1944, Ms Greenglass left New York for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be near her husband in Los Alamos. It was during this time she allegedly asked Greenglass to pass on any information he had about the Manhattan Project to Rosenberg.
In exchange for her evidence in the 1951 trial, Ms Greenglass was given immunity from prosecution. After the verdict, she lost her job but continued to live in New York under a protective alias. Her husband was jailed for 15 years, and, on his release in 1960, the couple lived together under assumed names.
Then, 48 years after Ms Rosenberg’s execution, Greenglass recanted he and his wife’s account of the meeting in the apartment. Instead, he said, ”[Julius] asked me to write up some stuff, which I did, and then he had it typed. I don’t know who typed it, frankly. And to this day I can’t even remember that the typing took place. But somebody typed it. Now I’m not sure who it was and I don’t even think it was done while we were there.”
Greenglass, who still lives under an assumed name, survives his wife.
Harold Jackson, Guardian