Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case

Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case

by Walter Schneir, Miriam Schneir

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A new narrative of the famed case that finally solves its remaining mysteries, by the author of the bestselling Invitation to an Inquest
Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 bestseller Invitation to an Inquest was among the first critical accounts of the controversial case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, famously executed in 1953 for passing atom bomb secrets to Soviet Russia. In Invitation the Schneirs presented exhaustive and damning evidence that key witnesses in the trial had changed their stories after coaching from prosecutors, and that the FBI had forged evidence.  The conclusion was unavoidable: The Rosenbergs were innocent.
But were they?
Thirty years after the publication of Inquest, Walter Schneir was back on the case after bits and pieces of new evidence started coming to light, much of it connecting Julius Rosenberg to Soviet espionage. Over more than a decade, Schneir continued his search for the truth, meeting with former intelligence officials in Moscow and Prague, and cross checking details recorded in thousands of government documents.
The result is an entirely new narrative of the Rosenberg case. The reality, Schneir demonstrates, is that Rosenbergs ended up hopelessly trapped: prosecuted for atomic espionage they didn’t commit—but unable to admit earlier espionage activities during World War II.
As it happened, Julius Rosenberg was only marginally involved in the atomic spy ring he was depicted as leading—while Ethel, critically, was not at all involved. The two lied when the contended they knew nothing about espionage. Ethel knew about it and Julius had practiced it, but the government’s contention that they had stolen the “secret” of the atom bomb was critically and fatally flawed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935554790
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 11/03/2010
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Walter Schneir was a freelance writer on law, politics, and science. He is the co-author, with his wife Miriam Schneir, of Invitation to an Inquest, long considered the definitive book on the Rosenberg case. He is also the editor of Telling It Like It Was: The Chicago Riots and editor of the collection Westmoreland v. CBS. His work appeared in many publications, including The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, Ramparts, The Progressive, and the Times op-ed page. He died in April 2009.
Miriam Schneir is editor of Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present and Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. In addition to Invitation to an Inquest, she is also the co-author of “Remember the Ladies”: Women in America, 1750–1815

Read an Excerpt

                                                   Opening the KGB Archives
To suddenly and unexpectedly unearth new information about the Rosenberg affair was an exciting event, and it set my mind racing. I tried to rethink some of the material about David and Ruth Greenglass that I had gone over so many times before. When Miriam and I first studied the Rosenberg trial record, it was immediately evident to us that the principal prosecution witnesses were the Greenglasses. On that there was general agreement. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled: “Doubtless, if [the Greenglass] testimony were disregarded, the conviction could not stand.” But it was also frustratingly evident to us then, as it was to me now, that the major accusations relating to atomic espionage that the Greenglasses had leveled against the Rosenbergs were essentially irrefutable. There was simply no evidence to prove or disprove their account. The Greenglasses told a story. The Rosenbergs denied the story. It was a classic he-said/she-said situation.
Naturally I couldn’t resist a glimmer of hope that this old and seemingly insurmountable impasse might now at long last be resolved with the help of the fresh clues I had stumbled on—especially the enigmatic date December 27, 1945, relating to David Greenglass’s report on the atomic bomb. I knew that the only major untapped source of material on the case was the Holy of Holies of the Cold War espionage universe: the KGB intelligence archives. That Allen Weinstein was then preparing a book based on those hitherto-sealed archives was a fantastic stroke of luck for me, and I impatiently awaited its publication.
I had to wait for more than a year.

                                                                 •  •  •
Allen Weinstein is a historian who taught at Smith College and elsewhere. He is also a writer. His best-known book is Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case which, when it appeared in 1978, was widely acclaimed and catapulted him to national attention. It also precipitated a still-extant dispute between himself and then Nation editor Victor Navasky, whose request that he be permitted to check some of the book’s documentation was denied by Weinstein. After about two decades in academia, Weinstein made a major career change, moving into a far different and wider arena: international relations. In 1985, he founded and became president of the Center for Democracy, a small but surprisingly influential Washington-based organization that operated throughout the world with the stated goal of promoting and strengthening the democratic process. In this capacity he had contact with many top governmental leaders, both in Washington and abroad; the Center maintained an office in Moscow, and Weinstein is said to have been an advisor to Boris Yeltsin while the latter was president of Russia.
One of the interests of the Center was the role of intelligence organizations in a democratic state, and Weinstein has made no secret of the fact that he had intimate connections with the American intelligence community. For example, he has recounted that in 1993, several high-level Russian intelligence officials “visited the United States as my guests. Their meetings included a private talk with then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey at my home … and conversations with leading CIA and FBI counterintelligence officials at the request of those officials.” In 1996, when a conference on the Venona decrypts was held at the National War College, it was jointly sponsored by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Weinstein’s Center for Democracy.5 Allen Weinstein’s new book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, co-authored with a Russian, Alexander Vassiliev, finally appeared in early 1999.6 Reviews were somewhat mixed. Thus the Sunday New York Times praised the book unreservedly, while the daily Times complained that “readers less familiar with the record will find much of the material fragmentary, convoluted, badly shaped, dryly written and, all in all, an exercise to make the eyes glaze over.” Another reviewer, in the online magazine Salon, used words like “dull” and “boring” and said the book’s organization “is haphazard and difficult to track. Names, dates, facts and figures are sprayed at the reader like a sneeze.” Even an otherwise laudatory review in the Journal of Cold War Studies criticized the book’s “minimal background” and “absence of context.”
The moment I obtained a copy, I eagerly skipped straight to the pages on the atom spies, particularly the Greenglasses and Rosenbergs. Surprise after surprise unfolded. Far from dull and soporific, I found what I was reading mind-blowing, enthralling, incredibly exhilarating, and then, ultimately, infuriating and sad.
I reread the pages over and over, amazed that none of the reviewers had comprehended their import. Then gradually I understood why. Nowhere in the book had Weinstein (who appears to have been the primary author) alerted the reader to the fact that he and Vassiliev had made important discoveries about the Rosenberg case. Moreover, the book prints material from the KGB files on the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses but doesn’t include relevant excerpts from the Rosenberg trial record, to enable the reader to compare the two versions. Such a comparison would have revealed that the authors had come up with new evidence that contradicts key prosecution testimony in the government’s atom spy trial.
I have no idea why Weinstein hid his light under a bushel. But while I was perplexed at this unique shortcoming, it would be fair to say that I was also delighted, because it meant that I would have a crack at explicating Weinstein’s and Vassiliev’s remarkable but still unexamined findings.
But first I had the responsibility of any researcher working with material from an unfamiliar source: to learn as much as I could about its provenance and authenticity. The KGB documents utilized in the book are identified by their file, volume, and page numbers in the Russian intelligence archives. Ordinarily, this would be sufficient information to enable me to determine whether a quotation or fact in the book was copied or interpreted correctly simply by checking it against the original source. But I was dealing here with data from archives that are barred to the public. For all intents and purposes, the extensive source notes in the book refer the reader to an invisible archive. Performing due diligence on an invisible archive is definitely tricky.
From explanations provided by Allen Weinstein in The Haunted Wood and in various media interviews, I pieced together a partial picture of how and under what unusual conditions the KGB files were opened. The project had its beginnings a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union, a time that Weinstein describes as a “honeymoon period in Russian-American relations.” More to the point, perhaps, it was also, for the Russians, a period of severe economic dislocation when the once-stable ruble plummeted in value, impoverishing those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners. The need for money was apparently the spur that led the Russians to divulge the contents of some of their closely guarded intelligence files. And, in fact, it was a group of retired KGB spooks, now fallen on hard times, who were in the forefront of the negotiations on the archives project.
According to Weinstein, in 1993, Alberto Vitale, then the president of Random House publishers, signed off on an agreement with this association of retired intelligence officers whereby the newly named Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (the SVR) would disclose information from old Soviet spy files of its predecessor agency, the KGB, to a number of Western scholars working on books with Russian co-authors. Many specifics of the deal have never been revealed, including who paid how much to whom; however, Weinstein assumes that the Russians received a “significant sum.” Also unknown is why, of the four books eventually produced under this agreement—on the Cuban missile crisis, the Cambridge spies, the Berlin crisis, and Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era—all but the last were issued by publishers other than Random House.7 The Russians set stringent guidelines for the project, imposing restrictions that violated customary practices for scholarly research. However, I hasten to add that most writers interested in the subject, myself included, would have accepted almost any conditions to have even secondhand access to KGB archives. Acting under those guidelines, Weinstein, sometime in 1994, visited the press and public affairs office of the SVR in downtown Moscow, where he was introduced to the co-author who had been picked for him, Alexander Vassiliev, a journalist and former KGB intelligence agent. Weinstein and Vassiliev were not permitted to work in the intelligence archives or even to visit the building where they were housed, which is located at the sprawling main Russian intelligence headquarters at Yasenevo outside Moscow. Instead, after they had prepared a plan for their book and provided the SVR with a copy, bound volumes of relevant documents were brought from the archives and delivered to Vassiliev at the press bureau. According to the agreed-upon ground rules, Weinstein was not allowed to see these raw files, which in any event were in Russian, in which he is not fluent.
Given the uniqueness of this arrangement, one might have expected that the book would include an essay that detailed the handling and provenance of its documentary sources, but instead Weinstein limited his comments on the subject to a few paragraphs:

Our contract allowed Vassiliev, who had retired from the KGB in 1990 because of his opposition to Soviet leadership, to review archived documents and to make summaries or verbatim transcriptions from the files, including their record numbers. The documentary material, organized into topical areas, was then submitted to a panel of the SVR’s leading officials for review and eventual release. Throughout this process, I worked alongside Vassiliev during more than two dozen visits to Moscow: monitoring the information found, prodding the SVR to expedite release of material submitted, and organizing Western primary and secondary research data essential to the book.
As relations between the United States and Russia grew strained, the SVR became less cooperative about providing timely release of the reviewed documentary materials. By late 1995, there were no more releases, and SVR officials had begun to express concern about the extensive and revealing data previously turned over…
By that time we had received a critical mass of the released KGB material. Using Vassiliev’s initial draft and translations while incorporating new Western documentation, I wrote the English-language manuscript, and Vassilev is now preparing The Haunted Wood’s Russian-language edition. The book was not submitted for SVR scrutiny before publication…
In Moscow, meanwhile, a great deal of additional and important unreviewed KGB material reached us informally from other, non-KGB sources during our research and has been incorporated into the book. We thank those responsible for this help and have honored their requests for anonymity [pp. xv–xvii].
While helpful, this information was clearly incomplete, raising as many questions for me as it answered.8 I wondered, for example, if the SVR officials withheld or censored any of the material Vassiliev submitted to them for release. Or if Vassiliev obtained any other archival material that he and Weinstein did not use, in whole or in part, in their book. As for the “great deal” of “important” KGB material that reached the authors “informally,” were these actual KGB documents, summaries of them, or perhaps oral accounts; what cases did they deal with; and how, if at all, is this material cited in the book’s sources?9 Also, the authors relegate to a footnote the fact that the KGB reports contain the code names of agents, not the real names. No doubt the real names often were obvious to the authors from the context, or became available later when the Venona decrypts were released. But were there instances where the authors relied largely on surmise?
I didn’t anticipate any difficulty in obtaining answers from Allen Weinstein to these and other related questions. In 1996 after the Venona Conference in Washington, D.C., Weinstein had made friendly overtures to Miriam and me. He praised the piece on Venona and the Rosenberg case that we had written for The Nation and also our comments at the conference, and he urged us to visit him at his office the next time we were in the capital. We thanked him cordially, although, as it turned out, we were never able to accept his invitation. So when I communicated with him now, I was confident of a collegial response.
Inexplicably, Weinstein stonewalled. My letters, faxes, and e-mails went unanswered. My telephone calls were refused. Even my smallest requests for clarification were ignored.
Alternatively, I tried to get in touch with the book’s co-author, Alexander Vassiliev. While working on The Haunted Wood in Moscow, Vassiliev had apparently done something that so displeased SVR officials that he decided to depart from Russia post-haste. In Weinstein’s introduction to the book, he alluded to the matter circumspectly. At the end of a paragraph describing the “concern” of SVR officials who were having second thoughts about the extent of the information that he and Vassiliev had obtained, Weinstein added, without elaboration: “In 1996, Alexander Vassiliev accepted a journalist’s assignment abroad and moved with his family to England.” Elsewhere in the book, Vassiliev listed his whereabouts simply as “Western Europe.” My attempts to locate and contact him proved futile. The promised Russian-language edition of the book he was said to be preparing has never been published. 

                                                                 •  •  •
Pursuing research that dead-ends is depressing, and I had about run out of ideas as to how I could verify the Weinstein-Vassiliev material. But then coincidence, even more capricious than usual, intervened to rescue my efforts. While working on our individual books, Miriam and I had been living for part of every year in San Miguel de Allende, a historic old city located 6,500 feet up in the mountains of central Mexico where a lively community of several thousand contented gringos (mainly Americans and Canadians) has taken root. It was to this most unlikely of places that two elderly witnesses to history, Michael Straight and Zoya Zarubina, found their way, each with personal knowledge relating to the authenticity of the KGB material in The Haunted Wood.
The first arrival was Michael Straight. An entire chapter in The Haunted Wood is devoted to him, recounting how as a 20-year-old student at Cambridge University he was recruited by the KGB.
Michael Whitney Straight was an American blue-blood, a descendant on his mother’s side of those ruthless financiers and industrialists who have come to be known as robber barons. They were men who merged their families as purposefully as they did their companies. 
Grandmother Flora was a recipient of Standard Oil riches by way of her brother, Oliver Payne, a partner of John D. Rockefeller. Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a tycoon who collected steamships and railroads. Michael’s mother, Dorothy Payne Whitney, an heiress to the Whitney fortune, was a maverick who rejected her many millionaire suitors and, to the horror of her family and social set, chose neither hereditary wealth nor European nobility, marrying instead Willard Straight, a man who was merely a banker-diplomat associated with the powerful J.P. Morgan and Company. In 1914, the two founded a liberal magazine, The New Republic, and when Willard died in the devastating influenza pandemic that followed World War I, Dorothy maintained her ownership in the publication and her iconoclastic ways. Later, her son, Michael, while majoring in economics at Cambridge University, took a more radical path. Influenced by the Great Depression and rise of fascism, he joined the student communist movement and shared a bit of his family’s fortune with the British Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker.
In spring 1937, Michael, then in his senior year, vacationed in the United States. Seeking advice about his future career, he visited two old family friends at their home in Washington, D.C. 
Their home was called the White House, and the family friends were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. After graduation, he worked for the New Deal, serving in the State Department and later helping to write speeches for members of FDR’s cabinet. Subsequently he joined the staff of The New Republic, and eventually became the magazine’s editor.
A resilient octogenarian, Michael Straight had come to San Miguel to attend a board meeting of a local charity he supported and play a little tennis. He graciously agreed to be interviewed, and we met for drinks on the patio of his hotel, the Jacaranda, where the squawks of a caged macaw registered staccato interruptions on my tape recording.
I reminded him that he was probably the only remaining person who could evaluate the KGB archival material about him published by Weinstein and Vassiliev. Straight had no doubt that the authors had obtained his actual KGB intelligence file. Citing several statements and opinions and comments about himself in the KGB documents quoted in The Haunted Wood, he observed that they were “absolutely right—this is accurate all the way through.” Similarly, he said that a detailed appraisal of his character from a KGB document reprinted in The Haunted Wood was “very accurate … perfectly true.” However, he felt that some documents describing his recruitment in England for the KGB (he had thought at the time that he was working for the Comintern) contained information about himself that, while otherwise factual, had been attributed to the wrong source—a Soviet agent he claimed never to have met. I asked Straight, did he think that mistakes might have been made by Vassiliev in copying his KGB file? “No, not at all,” he responded.10 According to Straight’s intelligence file, as reported in The Haunted Wood, after coming to the United States he met frequently with a KGB operative but never provided information of any value to the Soviets. Then, in 1939, he reacted with disappointment and sharp criticism to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and afterward his contacts with KGB agents became infrequent, ending completely in 1942. In his interview with me, Straight confirmed that this account of his meetings in the United States reflected the actual events as he recalled them. In short, Straight was convinced that Vassiliev had seen his genuine KGB file and had transcribed the documents correctly.
Like Michael Straight, Zoya Zarubina is the sort of person to whom one speaks with an awed awareness that there is only one degree of separation between her and many major figures and events of the first half of the twentieth century. She is a Russian who comes from an extended family of KGB spies. Her father, Vassily Zarubin, served as the KGB’s New York station chief during World War II. Her stepmother, Elizabeth Zarubina, an experienced KGB operative, also worked in the United States in the 1940s. Both are mentioned in The Haunted Wood, Vassily scores of times. Her stepfather (whom she called Uncle Leonid) was in his professional life the brutal KGB General Naum Eitingon, who arranged the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. And she herself was an intelligence agent and linguist from her early twenties, when she was assigned by the KGB to work at the Teheran conference, where she came into contact with Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, as well as Molotov, Beria, and other leaders. She attended the summits at Yalta and Potsdam as an aide and interpreter and also the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. In 1945–46 she translated technical material on the American atomic bomb that had been obtained by KGB foreign intelligence. Fluent in several languages, she subsequently had a career as a head interpreter for Soviet delegations at many international gatherings, including the years of meetings that led to the Helsinki Accords. She has served as Dean of the English Language Department at Moscow’s Institute of Foreign Languages, taught at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and directed the United Nations Language Training Center. She has also had a distinguished career in many peace and feminist women’s organizations. Today, in Russia, she is a respected and well-connected person.
Zarubina had been invited to San Miguel de Allende to present a series of lectures on Russian history and to promote a recently published biography about herself. When I met her, I was carrying a copy of The Haunted Wood. Immediately, she informed me that she had read the book and turned to the index to show me the many references to her “parents.” She also volunteered, with evident disapproval, that Vassiliev “ran off to England” and took some sort of research material with him, but when I pressed her about the incident, she refused to discuss it further. I then inquired if the documents quoted in the book had actually been obtained from the KGB archives; that is, were they “authentic”? Zoya Zarubina answered without hesitation: “Absolutely.” Finally, I asked her if she believed that the information in the book from the KGB archives was true. She replied, with what I thought was considerable wisdom, “As much as possible.”

                                                                 •  •  •
The words of Straight and Zarubina bolstered my confidence in the authenticity of the KGB archival material in The Haunted Wood. And when I compared that material with Venona decrypts that mention the Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses, as well as Gold and Fuchs, I found the two sources consistent with each other. None of the decoded Venona messages on atomic espionage is at odds with the KGB files reported in the Weinstein book. In one instance, a puzzling Venona decrypt about Harry Gold has been clarified: It is apparently the reply to a message from Moscow now available from the KGB files. Venona and the KGB archives tell a similar story, but the former is far more fragmentary and therefore sometimes subject to misinterpretation. In effect, the KGB archives fill in the story told haltingly by Venona.
For the task ahead of me, I had on hand the Rosenberg trial record, the voluminous files secured through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI and other federal agencies, and the Venona decrypts. But I also had an ace in the hole: the transmittal memo and abstract acquired by Albright and Kunstel from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and sent to me by Michael Meeropol.
Thus armed, I opened the door to the KGB archives and found a whole new narrative of the Rosenberg case awaiting me.

Table of Contents


Preface: A Long Journey by Miriam Schneir....................51
One: A Mysterious Date: December 27, 1945....................63
Two: Opening the KGB Archives....................79
Three: A Pink Slip from Moscow....................131
Four: A Smoking Gun?....................165
Afterword by Miriam Schneir....................181

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