This landmark American early Cold War espionage case involving the “theft of the atomic bomb” ended in death sentences for Julius Rosenberg, a New York electrical engineer, and his wife Ethel, the mother of two young children. Branded “the crime of the century,” the case resulted in a decades-long controversy surrounding the conduct of the trial, the trial evidence and the appropriateness of the sentences, as well as the very question of whether Julius Rosenberg actually did pass information to the Soviets.
In July 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested in New York on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage; after he refused to plead guilty, his wife, Ethel, was arrested in August 1950, as a means of putting pressure on her husband to confess. In the trial that followed in March 1951, the government charged that in 1944 and 1945 the Rosenbergs had recruited Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, to pass on information from the U.S. atomic bomb installation at Los Alamos, where he worked as a mechanic in one of the laboratories. The key evidence, which sent Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair, came from Greenglass and his wife Ruth. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty, and their death sentences were carried out despite many court appeals and pleas for executive clemency. Electrocuted on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs became the first civilians in U.S. history to be executed for espionage.
The controversy around Julius Rosenberg’s providing information to the Soviets during World War II was settled with the release in the 1990s and afterwards of some wartime Soviet intelligence communiqués — cables partially decrypted in the course of the Venona operation, and records released in the early 1990s for a Russian-American collaborative book project that became The Haunted Wood (1999), by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. These records, along with oral history evidence from Alexander Feklissov, 1 Julius Rosenberg’s case officer in 1944-1945, confirmed that Rosenberg was, in fact, a recruiter and courier for a small group of engineers (his former classmates and friends), who provided the Russians with up-to-date information on American developments in electrical and radio engineering, as well as aviation and avionics. However, the same records have provided no corroboration of Ethel Rosenberg’s participation in espionage, with the exception of some indication that she “knew” about her husband’s activities.
As far as the “crime of the century” is concerned, the release in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s of the once top-secret documents pertaining to the Soviet atomic project 2 has relegated the information provided by mechanic David Greenglass to a minor contribution (mostly, it seems, corroborating the information provided by professional physicists).
These documents revealed that the first Soviet atomic device, exploded on August 23, 1949, was indeed a replica of the American plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki – and that the details of the American bomb’s production were provided to the Soviets by two physicists inside Los Alamos, “Charles” and “Mlad.” These code names were identified by Venona translators as those of Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, respectively. Fuchs was a German-born nuclear physicist who provided information to the Soviet intelligence services — first in Great Britain, then as a British participant in the American atomic bomb project, and then again in London between 1947 and 1949. In September 1949, Fuchs was identified by the FBI as “Charles” from a fragment of a cable decrypted in the course of the Venona operation. During questioning by British MI5, he confessed to passing on information to the Soviets – and, in February 1950, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison, of which he would serve nine. Theodore Hall was a 19-year-old, Harvard-educated nuclear physicist who in late 1944 volunteered information to Soviet foreign intelligence representatives in New York. He cooperated with the Soviets until the fall of 1945 and again in 1949 and early 1950. According to the official history of the Venona operation, 3 the fragments of the cables from the later part of 1944 mentioning Hall’s name and the recruitment of “Mlad” were decrypted “some time in 1949-1950” — and it did not take the FBI much time to match the real name with the code name. In early 1951, the FBI opened an investigation — and Hall was repeatedly questioned; however, he did not confess, and no charges were brought against him. Much later, Theodore Hall’s wife, Joan, would write in a letter to a friend, describing the evening of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg execution: “We were painfully aware that there, but for some inexplicable grace, went we. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg could so easily have been Ted and Joan. … And Ted would have been forced to claim innocence just as they did.” 4 These developments have dramatically reduced the significance of David Greenglass’s espionage, and, correspondingly, of Julius Rosenberg’s complicity in “the crime of the century” — the end of the American monopoly of the atomic bomb.
Furthermore, it has turned out that the conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg was based on perjured testimony. This revelation came from none other than the Greenglasses themselves — first, from David Greenglass’s interviews with New York Times writer Sam Roberts, 5 and next, from the Rosenberg case grand jury transcripts (released in October 2008), which formed the basis of the charges against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In a series of interviews with Sam Roberts in the late 1990s, David Greenglass recanted his testimony that Ethel Rosenberg had typed the notes on atomic bomb design that he had brought to New York from Los Alamos. The released grand jury transcripts revealed that Ruth Greenglass (with whom the charge, according to David Greenglass, had originated) did not tell the grand jurors that she had seen Ethel Rosenberg type her brother’s notes. In fact, Ruth said that she herself copied the information in longhand. This claim is consistent with oral evidence from Alexander Feklissov, Julius Rosenberg’s handler in 1944 and 1945, who told me on the record that David Greenglass’s notes were “in handwriting” (he “vividly remembered” this), and that “Ethel did not type anything.”
Watch for alerts on this website to read more about:
- What Alexander Feklissov said about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg that did not get into his book
- Some of my research on the Rosenberg case from early 1990s
- Alexander Feklissov first broke his story to me in 1993 – and told it in detail in three rounds of interviews he gave me between March 1995 and May 1996, with the idea of collaborating on a book about the Rosenberg case. These interviews and my follow-up research became the basis for the Discovery Channel’s 1997 documentary, “The Rosenberg File: Case Closed.” Later, my transcripts of the first round of interviews and my drafts of sample book chapters became the basis for the part of Feklissov’s book dealing with the Rosenberg case (The Man Behind the Rosenbergs, by Alexander Feklisov, Enigma Books, 2001.) ↩
- Atomnyi proekt v SSSR: Dokumenty i materialy: v 3 tomakh, Pod obsch, red. L.D. Rjabeva, Tom I, 1938-1945: v 2 chastjakh, Moskva: Nauka, Fizmatlit, 1998 (The Atomic Project in the USSR: Documents and Materials, in 3 volumes, Ed. by L. D. Ryabev, Vol. I, 1938-1945 in 2 parts, Moscow: Science Publishers, Physical and Mathematical Literature, 1998). ↩
- VENONA Historical Monograph # 3: The 1944-45 New York and Washington-Moscow KGB Messages, p. xxvi. ↩
- Cit., Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy, by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, New York: Random House, 1997, p. 240. ↩
- The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair, by Sam Roberts, New York: Random House, 2001. ↩