A Fortnightly Review of
Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case
By Walter and Miriam Schneir
$23.95 208 pp Melville House.
By Allen M. Hornblum.
AS A COLLEGE STUDENT in the mid-1960s, I was assigned an array of books that for the most part were unremarkable and quickly forgotten. Of the few that really captured my interest was one that explored the trial and execution of a young, Jewish couple from New York convicted of conspiring to steal the secrets of the atom bomb. Invitation to an Inquest struck me as a powerful piece of investigative journalism and I told many friends the book was a must read. The authors, Walter and Miriam Schneir, persuasively argued that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were an innocent, progressive couple caught up in an anti-Communist, FBI-inspired witch hunt and that a “pathological liar” and “weirdly twisted creature” named Harry Gold was the government appointed finger man who fabricated a highly unlikely story that put them in the electric chair.
Young, impressionable, and unschooled in the nuances of the case, my admiration for the book would remain intact for many years. Of course, I was aware that the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs was a controversial and much-debated issue with numerous and knowledgeable advocates on both sides. As time went on, I read other accounts of the case and my confidence in the Schneir thesis began to wane. For example, The Rosenberg File, Ron Radosh and Joyce Milton’s 1983 take on the case, was equally compelling and easily matched the Schneirs’ for solid historical detective work.
More recent revelations have decidedly shifted the balance of evidence in favor of the Rosenbergs’ guilt. The opening of the Soviet archives in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the release of the Venona decrypts in 1995, and the publication of books by former KGB spies all confirmed that Julius Rosenberg was no innocent; he was actually up to his eyeballs in espionage. And just last year, Morton Sobell, the Rosenbergs’s co-defendant in 1951, admitted his role as a spy. In addition, Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB operative who fled his homeland, brought forth over a thousand pages of formerly secret archive documents underscoring Julius Rosenberg’s critical role as a dedicated Soviet secret agent.
Those important revelations in no way negate the Schneirs’ work. Invitation to an Inquest is still a great book. But it’s a great work of fiction. And from the point of view of pure propaganda it has had few rivals in the English language during the second half of the 20th century.
That was made clear to me over the last half-dozen years or so as I immersed myself in the unusual and tragic life of Harry Gold, the unassuming Philadelphia chemist who dutifully labored for the Soviets as a spy and courier from 1935 to 1950. Though no less than FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover considered Gold a “master spy” and the centerpiece of the “Crime of the Century,” he was neglected by journalists and scholars alike and repeatedly overlooked as someone worth a book-length examination.
AS I WENT ABOUT collecting documents, many of them previously unseen, and tracking down former Gold associates stretching from his youth in South Philadelphia in the 1920s to his years of imprisonment in the 1960s and beyond, it became clear that Gold was as deserving of serious historical attention now as he had been decades ago. His incredible career as a secret Soviet operative is nothing short of fascinating, and an illuminating eye-opener as to how a non-political, well-intended individual could end up in the eye of international intrigue and a key participant in high stakes espionage.
Gold’s personal account of his life as a spy written while imprisoned behind the 30-foot walls of Holmesburg Prison and my many interviews with Gold’s long time attorney, corporate lawyer Augustus S. Ballard, proved particularly instructive. Ballard had been chosen by John D.M. Hamilton, a former GOP chairman, to assist him with Gold’s defense after being selected by Federal Judge James McGranery to represent the shy, diminutive spy. It would be through Ballard and his extensive legal file on Gold that I would learn of the lawyer’s strong distaste for the Schneirs and their promise to write “a full and fair portrait of Harry Gold” and his role in the Rosenberg case.
The Schneirs had approached Ballard and his senior partner, John D.M. Hamilton, in 1961 with a request. They were writing a book about the Rosenbergs, viewed Harry Gold as central to the controversy, and desired to interview the lawyers for their “recollections and anecdotes about the case.” They also wanted access to the Holmesburg Prison audiotapes of the lawyers’ initial interviews with Gold. The lawyers were dubious; they were always skeptical of journalists proffering claims of fair play since their client had become a punching bag for left-wing writers on a mission to vindicate the martyred couple at the center of the controversy. The partisan playbook was well established: in order to exonerate the Rosenbergs, one had to destroy the credibility of their accusers – Harry Gold chief among them.
John Wexley, a playwright and screenwriter, for example, argued in his 1955 book, Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the whole case against the Rosenbergs was a government “frame-up” and portrayed Gold as an “imposter,” a “pseudologist,” and “pathological liar.” Name calling, such as describing Gold as a “lonely creature in full manhood,” was a key part of Wexley’s ad hominem assault. To him, Gold was a personification of the “insane witness” – a character who delights in outwitting judges and juries and enjoys “hoaxing the entire world” and “seeing his name in headlines.”
A DECADE LATER, THE Schneirs came along to add their own amateur psychoanalysis, heated political rhetoric, and damning accusations of a ruthless government frame-up. By shrewdly ingratiating themselves with Gold’s lawyers – who admitted to being “extremely impressed” with Hamilton’s courtroom presentation at Gold’s sentencing hearing and the “staggering amount of research” that such a legal tour de force required – they were able to disarm the attorneys and gain access to all they desired. “Hopefully,” Walter Schneir persuasively argued, “more public awareness of Gold’s case may make his release more likely and, certainly, the more biographic information we have about Gold the more sympathetically we can portray him.”
Ballard informed Gold – who had already served a decade behind bars and was desperate to attain parole – that he and Hamilton were “favorably impressed” by the Schneirs’ sincerity and suggested that cooperation might “lead to more sympathetic treatment than a refusal.” He expressed his hope that the authors would follow through on their claim that their “approach will be fair.”
For the rest of his life, Gus Ballard would deeply regret the advice he had provided his client, for the Schneirs’ product was anything but “a full and fair portrait.” Gold and his attorneys went out of their way to help the Schneirs, affording them a unique opportunity to examine Gold’s life, his career as a spy, and his legal papers. All they were asking in return was a fair and honest accounting. Instead, Gold was carved up as a “deviously complex man” and “pathological liar” who had a critical role in a government frame-up that led to the execution of two innocent people.
IN HIS LEWISBURG PRISON cell, Gold was horrified by what he read in the Schneirs’ account. He examined Invitation to an Inquest thoroughly and wrote to his lawyers saying the Schneirs had used “a very clever series of omissions from my statements and from my recordings and writings” to construct the narrative they wanted to create. Gold informed Hamilton and Ballard the Schneirs’ book presented a distorted, “slanted” portrait of him and that Invitation to an Inquest was nothing more than “a particularly nasty hatchet job.”
Though the Schneirs’ account was by far the worst, Gold would survive this latest in a long line of partisan shots at his veracity, just as he had so many others over the years. But the damage these recurring attacks did to his physical health and psyche certainly took its toll. Hamilton and Ballard were always mystified by these bizarre, periodic broadsides from seemingly intelligent, progressive people. Devastated by the government’s charge at the time of his arrest that he had worked for years to harm his own country, Gold dedicated himself to tell the truth, and divulge all he did and knew about Soviet intelligence gathering efforts in the United States. But it was just that commitment to make amends and tell the truth that so angered the many well-known people in progressive circles who had become wedded to the bedrock principle that the Rosenbergs were innocent. With a religious zeal, they routinely attacked anyone who proffered a different account of the crime. Ethel and Julius were the real victims; their lives had been extinguished by a brazen government conspiracy and Harry Gold was the “inveterate liar” and “fantasist” who played the willing executioner.
For a generation or more, the Schneirs’ thesis became an article of faith for many on the Left, and the Schneirs themselves viciously attacked anyone who had the audacity to dispute their findings. However, the stunning revelations during the 1990s and after caused some serious fault lines to appear in the comforting old canard that Ethel and Julius were well-meaning innocents caught up in a right-wing conspiracy. Open-minded Rosenberg adherents were forced to adjust their thinking about the case. Evidence of their guilt was too overwhelming to ignore. Most people on the Left finally came to realize that Julius Rosenberg was a dedicated and enthusiastic Soviet agent and Ethel was aware and supportive of her husband’s secret activities. By the end of the last century, relatively few Americans believed the Rosenbergs were, as the Schneirs described them, merely “an obscure working-class couple,” with no connection to Soviet intelligence gathering operations.
WITH THAT AS A background and The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, my account of the Philadelphia chemist’s espionage career, finally on bookstore shelves, I was surprised to see that on 9 October 2010 the Schneirs had once again managed to intrude on the life of Harry Gold. Initially pleased to have my book about Gold reviewed in the New York Times, I was dismayed to see it pushed to the side in favor of a longer discussion of the Schneirs’ latest work on the Rosenberg case, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case.
Little more than a last-gasp attempt to prop up the dispirited and dwindling Rosenberg forces, the slim volume (barely 200 pages, with only 22 footnotes) promises “a surprising new narrative of the case” and one that actually “stands on its head” what the Schneirs and “millions of others formerly believed.” This hardback pamphlet – posthumously published after Walter Schneir’s death last year, with Miriam Schneir contributing the preface and afterword – finally admits that Julius Rosenberg lied. As most reasonable people already knew, the Schneirs said Rosenberg really was a Soviet agent trafficking in industrial and military secrets. This admission is made by the publisher to great fanfare as if no one had ever contemplated it before, but to the Schneirs, it was “painful news” and contrary to their “hopes.”
No sooner have they made their belated admission in Final Verdict, they return to their familiar role of historical deniers, arguing that Julius “had little to do with atomic espionage.” Discarding what he had vigorously trumpeted for decades, Walter Schneir now says the true atomic spies were Julius’ brother-in-law, David Greenglass, and Greenglass’ wife, Ruth. According to Schneir, the Greenglasses were the real “devoted intelligence agents who did as much as they were capable of doing…to provide atomic information to the Soviet Union.”
To this bit of historical obfuscation, Sam Roberts, the Times reviewer, surprisingly concedes that this new Schneir version of events “is not completely implausible. But it will have to await the full opening of KGB archives for verification.”
And as to the lies and claims of innocence the Rosenbergs proffered? The Schneirs sympathetically refer to them as relatively minor “prevarications” that were “petty” and “entirely defensible,” considering the magnitude of the “monstrous web of lies” spread by the government at their trial. As to his own intransigence over the years on the issue of Julius Rosenberg’s involvement in espionage and strident denunciation of those with opposing points of view, Walter proudly writes, “no regrets, no apologies.”
MANY OF THE TOP Cold War historians in America have been left scratching their heads that Walter and Miriam Schneir had the audacity after so many years to trot out a completely different take on the case – one as equally biased and inaccurate as the first – and receive such prominent attention in the New York Times. Roberts’s review in the Times neither dismissed nor assailed their latest version of events, as The Wall Street Journal correctly chose to do. (WSJ reviewer Michael C. Moynihan wrote that the book “makes no serious attempt at reaching historical truth, instead offering a selective and ultimately unconvincing attempt at personal redemption.”)
Roberts’ rather neutral review also reveals the Times’ own confused relationship with the Rosenberg case. While deciding in recent years to not review new, historically important Cold War contributions like Steven Usdin’s Engineering Communism and Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, the Times gives the discredited Schneirs another formidable piece of journalistic real estate to spread their bizarre and highly speculative theories. Particularly odd when one considers the reviewer, Sam Roberts, and the Times’ book review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, are not only knowledgeable and seasoned newspaper men, but also Cold War authorities with notable books to their name. (Roberts is the author of The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case; Tanenhaus wrote a well-received biography of Whittaker Chambers.)
Theories now abound as to the reason behind the Times’ questionable decision of choosing to not review books that underscore the Rosenbergs’ pronounced role as secret Soviet operatives, but instead reviewing a thin tract by the Schneirs – longtime Rosenberg defenders – as if it had intellectual heft and supporting documentation. One theory deserving consideration is that the newspaper was just doing what most smart politicians do: playing to their base. The paper’s readers across the country, but particularly in New York, were the core constituency of the Rosenberg myth of innocence and a government frame-up. And in these difficult economic and sobering times, particularly for struggling newspapers, it may be prudent to jettison the facts on occasion and play to comfortable old standards no matter how lame and discredited they may be.
Allen M. Hornblum is the author of The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, published last month by Yale. He is a former member of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission and a lecturer (at Temple University and elsewhere) on crime and incarceration. His previous books include Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K & A Gang,and Sentenced to Science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America.