Killing for Leverage
The National Security Archive and Professor David Vladeck at Georgetown University Law Center have done us a great service in securing the release, at long last, of some of the Grand Jury transcripts in the Rosenberg case.
What the transcripts demonstrate is that the United States Department of Justice orphaned two young children because it lost a reckless gamble – and it deliberately used perjured testimony to do it.
Let’s back up. Julius Rosenberg was a spy in service of the Soviet Union. Anyone who denies that fact is deluded.
Julius Rosenberg recruited several others to obtain military secrets that he passed to the Soviet Union. His network passed important information about conventional weapons to the Soviets.
Julius’s wife, Ethel, knew that Julius was a spy. Ethel may have aided Julius in recruiting members of his network – there is some evidence that suggests she did — but there is little evidence that she was a spy herself.
Julius and Ethel were both executed for a particular act of espionage: providing the Soviets with technical secrets about the manufacture of atomic weapons. Julius may have done it; we won’t know until all of the grand jury transcripts are finally released. Ethel did not. We know that, because the grand jury transcripts reveal that the one piece of evidence that tied Ethel to the crime was manufactured. It was a lie.
And the Justice Department knew it.
Ethel’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, was part of Julius’s network. Her husband David, Ethel’s brother, worked at Los Alamos. Julius sent Ruth to New Mexico to get information from David. When Ruth returned from New Mexico, she met with Julius to tell him what she had learned from David.
Before the Grand Jury, the Justice Department attorney pressed Ruth for details on exactly how she conveyed the information to Julius, that he then brought to his Soviet handler:
Prosecutor: “Didn’t you write that down on a piece of paper?”
Ruth Greenglass: “Yes. I wrote that down on a piece of paper and he took it with him.”
Prosecutor: “In longhand?”
Ruth Greenglass: “Yes.”
Greenglass’s testimony is entirely consistent with a cable sent by Julius’s Soviet handler, describing his meeting with Julius. The cable, decoded by the secret VENONA program, reported that the Soviet handler had received from Julius a “hand-written plan of the lay-out of Camp 2 and facts known to him about the work and the personnel.”
But that’s not what Ruth Greenglass said at Ethel Rosenberg’s trial. At Ethel’s trial, Greenglass said that she had given the information not just to Julius, but to both Julius and Ethel. More importantly, she claimed that Ethel had typed the information for Julius to bring to his handler. It was that testimony – that Ethel was present at the meeting and had actually typed the secrets for the Soviets – that lead to her conviction. The Justice Department – well aware of Greenglass’s previous inconsistent testimony to the Grand Jury – said in its summation that Ethel had “struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.” The trial judge expressly referred to Ethel typing the secrets for the Soviets as a justification for imposing the death penalty upon her.
Who prevailed upon Ruth Greenglass to perjure herself? We don’t know for certain, but we might hazard a guess: her husband David later admitted that he perjured himself at the Rosenberg trial at the urging of the infamous Roy Cohn.
Why did the Justice Department want to kill Ethel so badly?
It didn’t. What it wanted was leverage. It wanted Julius’s network, and the names of his Soviet handlers. But Julius was loyal to the Soviets, and was prepared to go to his grave with his secrets rather than reveal them to live. But surely he was not so loyal to the Soviets that he was prepared to see Ethel electrocuted, and his 3 and 6-year-old sons orphaned? And surely Ethel would tell anything she knew, to protect herself and her children?
And so, at long last, we know that Ethel’s execution was the result of a reckless, immoral and unlawful gamble by the Justice Department. She died for leverage. And two young children were orphaned as a result. I recently had the opportunity to meet one of those children, Robert Meeropol, during his visit to William Mitchell. His life is now dedicated to helping children in need, and it is not difficult to imagine why.
Why should we care? Perhaps it’s useful to see concretely that fear can lead us to commit the very types of grave injustices of which our enemies accuse us.