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Grasping at Straws to Try to Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg

Ronald Radosh

The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951 for “conspiracy to commit espionage” has always been the subject of intense scrutiny, with many observers believing the couple should never have been sentenced to death. Among the testimony that convinced the jury to reach a verdict of guilty was that provided by Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass.

On July 15—in response to a lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive and historians and journalists—the federal court in New York City released the transcripts of David Greenglass’s appearance before the grand jury in 1950. In the transcript, Greenglass said nothing to implicate his sister in espionage, which he attributed only to Julius Rosenberg and others.

In the transcript, Greenglass is asked about a silver Omega watch that Julius Rosenberg had said was a gift from the Soviets. “My sister has never spoken to me about this subject,” Greenglass answered. Later, when queried whether Ethel, like her husband Julius, had asked him to stay in the Army after the war to spy for the Soviets, Greenglass replied: “I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all.”

The media have rushed to the conclusion that this transcript proves the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg. The Guardian proclaimed that these words “could upend the notion that Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of espionage.” Politico explained that Greenglass’s statement “minimizes her role in the spying operations of her husband, Julius Rosenberg, furthering public incredulity about her actual guilt and subsequent execution.”

NPR told listeners that at the trial, Greenglass “put Ethel at the center of the conspiracy. The documents released today show it was [his wife] Ruth who played a far more pivotal role.” An AP story says that the transcript showed “Greenglass never implicated his sister.” Sam Roberts in the New York Times writes that the transcript “provides supporting evidence to Mrs. Rosenberg’s defenders, who believe that she was unfairly convicted.”

The transcript, taken by itself and out of context, could lead to this conclusion, but only if one lacks knowledge about the case. It never occurs to these reporters that at the early stage of his arrest David Greenglass was desperately trying to protect his sister and to convince the government to leave her out of the indictment. We also know that when he first went for legal advice, he even left Julius out of his confession.

Ethel’s innocence, however, cannot be ascertained by ignoring other evidence outside of this transcript that points to her serious involvement in the espionage of the Soviet network her husband ran. Even in other parts of the same transcript, largely ignored in the press reports, Greenglass has his sister Ethel present and knowledgeable, as when he says she was present at a meeting with Julius and a courier for his group, Ann Sidorovich.

Hard evidence for Ethel’s guilt can be found in the Venona decrypts of KGB messages to its operatives in the U.S., and in the notebooks of KGB files meticulously copied in the 1990s by Alexander Vassiliev, who fled Russia in 1996 and had them smuggled into London.

A Nov. 21, 1944, Venona decrypt has Julius telling the KGB that he and his wife both recommend the recruitment of Ruth Greenglass, David’s wife. On Nov. 27, KGB agentLeonid Kvasnikov cabled that they considered Ethel “sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work” as well as that of other agents. He characterizes her “positively and as a devoted person.”

In Vassiliev’s notebooks, an entry from the KGB says about Julius that “His wife knows about her husband’s work and personally knows ‘Twain’ and ‘Callistratus.’ [code names of Soviet agents.] She could be used independently, but she should not be overworked. Poor health.” Another entry, about a meeting held on May 12, 1944 with Ruth, Ethel and Julius, reports that when told by Julius that they had to keep silent, “Ethel here interposed to stress the need for utmost care and caution in informing David of the work in which Julius was engaged and that for his own safety all other political discussion and activity on his part should be subdued.”

The Guardian ends its article quoting a leftist true believer, Ilene Philipson, who tells the paper, “There was never really any solid evidence that she had been involved in any part of espionage.” To the contrary, there is substantial evidence that Ethel Rosenberg was guilty as charged. Journalists could have found that evidence if they had taken the time to look.

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