February 20, 2019

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s Son Responds

Editor’s Note:  When my review of “The Invisible Harry Gold” by Allen M. Hornblum appeared in The Jewish Journal, I received a communication from Michael Meeropol, one of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Meeropol objected to several aspects of the Hornblum book as it was described in my review, and I invited him to share his unique perspective with our readers.  I am grateful to him for doing so. — Jonathan Kirsch, Book Editor.

A CRITIQUE OF ALLEN M. HORNBLUM’S BOOK THE INVISIBLE HARRY GOLD – AS IT PERTAINS TO MY PARENTS, ETHEL AND JULIUS ROSENBERG.

This commentary has a relatively restricted purpose.  I do not propose to critique the entire book, but merely to focus on where the book interacts with the case of my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  Harry Gold may have provided significant testimony at my parents’ trial, but the story of his interactions with Klaus Fuchs, Abraham Brothman, Alfred Dean Slack and Miriam Moskowitz took up a much greater part of his life.  Also, his testimony at the Brothman-Moskowitz trial in November of 1950 was much more extensive and, in some ways, much more significant for assessing how much of what he said after confessing to the FBI was true.  I will not address those issues.

First let’s clear things up.  I may be Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s son, but I also am a historian who knows how to use evidence.  Beginning with the release of the VENONA decryptions in 1995 (translations of intercepted Soviet cables from the World War II era), the evidence began to emerge that led my brother and I to change our minds about Harry Gold.  Though he clearly committed perjury at our parents’ trial, we have to abandon our initial view of him.  Sixteen years ago we believed that he had been a Walter Mitty type – the person who confesses to the crime on the front page of the newspaper.  We believed his entire story about being a Soviet courier was a lie.  We now know better. He was Klaus Fuchs’ courier.  He did go to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1945 and he did meet David and Ruth Greenglass there.

However, just because he told the truth in some (even most) of his statements to the FBI that does not prove that he told the truth in all of his statements to the FBI and at the three trials at which he testified – Brothman-Moskowitz, Roseberg-Sobell, and Benjamin Smilg.  (In the latter trial, the jury chose not to believe his testimony and acquitted the defendant.)

It is the belief that Gold told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth after he confessed to the FBI in 1950 that runs throughout the Hornblum book.  It is this conclusion that I wish to challenge.  I also wish to challenge a number of Hornblum’s sweeping statements.

Even though this is an on-line submission, I am mindful that readers may not wish to wade through lots of detail.  Therefore, I am going to make a number of assertions and develop the detailed elaborations on these assertions in a set of endnotes

A GENERAL STATEMENT ABOUT APPROPRIATE HISTORICAL RESEARCH.

Mr. Hornbloom has a thesis.  Harry Gold was an exceptionally productive Soviet Spy during the 1930s and 1940s who later was overcome with remorse and told “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” to the FBI, Grand Juries, three trial juries and at least one Senate subcommittee after confessing his role in 1950.

Given that this conclusion has been the subject of considerable debate over the years – debate that continues to this day.(1)  it was Hornbloom’s duty as a historian/biographer to carefully consider all possible arguments and evidence that would tend to cast doubt on his conclusion.  In science this is called “refuting the null-hypothesis” which means in English responding completely to arguments against your position.

Given that we know that much of what Gold confessed to and testified about was true, the remaining question obviously is “How much of what Harry Gold said at the Rosenberg Sobell trial was true?”

It is clear by looking at the bibliography that Mr. Hornblum failed to carefully consider counter-arguments.  He is quick to label Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton’s book “The Rosenberg File” as the definitive treatment of my parents’ case.  Turning to the list of sources, we discover that the longest and most detailed critique of that book, my brother’s and my second edition of “We Are Your Sons,” is not there.  Either Mr. Hornblum was unaware of our second edition or he chose to ignore it.  That is most unfortunate.  In the second edition there is a detailed analysis of the many violations of the canons of good scholarship that occurred in Radosh and Milton’s book.  Without responding to those criticisms, the assertion that “The Rosenberg File” is a definitive treatment cannot be sustained.
The problem of not using sources well continues.  In the bibliography is a book called “The Haunted Wood” by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev – a book based on access to internal KGB files which relate to my parents’ case.  In that book there is information that makes one of his most important assertions incorrect.

On p. 145, he discusses an alleged January, 1945, meeting between Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and David and Ruth Greenglass.  Greenglass testified that he gave the names of some possible recruits and “sketches of flat type lens molds.”  Hornbloom’s version adds something that is totally at variance with science and logic:  He described the lens mold as “a key component of the bomb’s trigger mechanism.”

One might forgive a non-scientist for confusing the lens mold into which the high-explosives would be mixed to create the actual explosive lens except in one of Hornblooms’s sources in his bibliography is Morton Sobell’s book “On Doing Time.”  In that book is a detailed description of the trial testimony and a clear distinction between lens molds and the high-explosives lenses that were in fact “a key component of the bomb’s trigger mechanism.”  The lens mold is to the high-explosive lens as the Jello mold is to the jello.  If anyone said that the Jello mold were an important part of a tasty dessert that person would be laughed out of the room.  Yet Hornbloom blithely assures his readers that when David Greenglass gave Julius Rosenberg a sketch of a lens mold he was giving a component of the bomb itself.

But there’s more.  In “The Haunted Wood,” we learn that there were no sketches passed when David Greenglass met with Julius and Ethel in January of 1945.  In a report to Moscow from February (reprinted in “The Haunted Wood,” p. 202) the events at the meeting are described with no mention to sketches being delivered.  Furthermore, the famous story of Julius Rosenberg cutting a Jello box in half is revealed as a total lie.  According to that report, before leaving for New Mexico to live with her husband, Ruth Greenglass will “give us material and verbal passwords in case we need to restore contact with her.”  The Jello box could not have been cut in January if the “material and verbal passwords” had not been agreed upon by February.  Hornbloom either didn’t read “The Haunted Wood” or purposely ignored it.(2)

The reason I bring these examples up is not because they change the basic story – Julius Rosenberg did recruit David Greenglass to work on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II.  My point is that a book that has a long bibliography and purports to tell the full story about the role of Harry Gold – especially a book that accepts all of what Harry Gold said(3)  needs to be held to a very high standard.  So far, Mr. Hornbloom has flunked.

HARRY GOLD AND THE ROSENBERGS

At my parents’ trial, Harry Gold testified that he had picked up some spy material from David Greenglass in Albuquerque, N.M. in June of 1945.  His trip was documented by a photostat of a registration card at the Albuquerque Hilton Hotel.  He and the Greenglasses also testified that the code of recognition was the statement:  “I come from Julius.” (4)

Now, because of the information in “The Haunted Wood” and in the “VENONA” decryptions, we know that Gold in fact did meet with David and Ruth Greenglass in 1945.  However, that does not mean that the FBI did not play fast and loose with the evidence in order to “lock up” the believability of Gold’s testimony.  Hornbloom does not help matters.  In his description of Gold’s visit to Albuquerque (p. 139-141, 147-148) there is no mention that Gold registered at the Albuquerque Hilton.  He does not bring it up again until the very end of the book, when he notes the attempt by Gold to refute the analysis by Walter and Miriam Schneir in “Invitation to an Inquest.”  The Schneirs’ argued that the card and the alleged registration at the Hilton are suspect.  Yet Hornbloom seems completely uncurious as to why Gold never mentioned registering at the Hilton in his earlier statements to both the FBI and his lawyers.  It is not inconceivable that the FBI dreamed up the idea of him registering at the Hilton in order to document his being in Albuquerque and proceeded to forge the card.

Perhaps a more egregious omission on the part of Hornbloom is that even after Harry Gold began to talk to the FBI, he had still not gotten out of the habit of fabricating stories.  After he had begun talking to the FBI in late May of 1950, it was only in the first week of June that the FBI had to call off a search for three non-existent espionage contacts that Gold had “fingered” for them.  It appears Gold had been unable to shake the habit of “Having lived a life composed of a web of lies and falsehoods for so many years,” according to an FBI document reporting on the fact that the three investigations already opened were about people who didn’t exist. (5)

Armed with this information (which was quoted in our second edition), Hornbloom might have been encouraged to meticulously dissected whether or not Gold told the whole truth and nothing but the truth during his subsequent trial testimonies.

The most significant testimony of Harry Gold at the Rosenberg trial was his statement that the recognition signal he used when he met David and Ruth Greenglass was “I come from Julius.”  Hornbloom blithely accepts the fact that both Greenglasses and Gold “forgot” the code.  In the light of the KGB report in “The Haunted Wood” that the code was actually created by Ruth Greenglass this clearly strains credulity.  After a long discussion of how Gold’s initial recollection of “Bob sent me” had morphed into “I bring Greetings from Ben in Brooklyn,” and, finally, “I come from Julius,” Hornbloom concludes, “… the later release of FBI documents would illuminate the Bureau’s efforts to coordinate the statements of its two key witnesses.  If one was content to disregard the many facts Gold and Greenglass agreed on, these documents would conclusively demonstrate a government conspiracy.” (p. 273).

It is in this sentence that Hornbloom fails his test as a good historian while succeeding in presenting a one-sided brief for his position – that Harry Gold told the truth from the moment the FBI started to question him.  Why is it not possible to accept the facts that Gold and Greenglass agreed on (that Gold picked up some material from Greenglass in 1945) while also identifying as perjury the reference to the code, “I come from Julius?”

The same holds true for the Greenglasses.  Hiding in plain sight in “The Haunted Wood,” (now supplemented by the on-line availability of Vassiliev’s notebooks) was information that David and Ruth Greenglass committed perjury about their meeting with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in January, 1945 (when there were no sketches passed and no jello box cut).  Also available in “The Haunted Wood” was evidence that they also committed perjury about an alleged September, 1945, meeting where David Greenglass claimed to have passed a sketch of the cross-section of the Atom Bomb – the one the prosecution called the “secret” of the bomb at the trial – the sketch that arguably justified the Death Sentences for both Judge Kaufman and President Eisenhower.(6)

Hornbloom’s work fails as history on many levels.  Though I am not an expert on the Brothman-Moskowitz case, a trial where Harry Gold was subjected to a strong cross-examination and a trial where the surviving defendant has written her own book detailing Harry Gold’s numerous perjuries at that trial, I venture to assert that a detailed comparison of Hornbloom’s assertions with the record from the FBI and the KGB will expose Harry Gold as a man who continued to lie, with terrible consequences for real people, even after he began to cooperate with the FBI.

Here is one final example.  On p. 359 Hornbloom refers to Harry Gold being subjected to “a level of scrutiny that Julius and Ethel never could have withstood.”  That is such a ridiculous statement, I find it almost comical.  Julius and Ethel have been subjected to much more scrutiny than has Harry Gold.  Aside from Miriam Moskowitz, no one has compared all the information in “The Haunted Wood” and FBI documents with his testimony at the Brothman-Moskowitz trial to separate fact from falsehood – and Hornbloom certainly hasn’t.  Meanwhile, Ethel Rosenberg has completely withstood the scrutiny of everyone who has ever looked at the KGB documents and the Venona decryptions.  What emerges is a woman who, in the words of the FBI document which recommended against clemency, “Knew of” her husband’s activity and was “uncooperative.”  She was taken as a hostage, used as a “lever” against her husband to make him confess, and when he refused the government killed her, knowing she was not an espionage agent.

Julius Rosenberg emerges as a man who joined like-minded people during World War II to help an ally beat the Nazis.  He also emerges as a man who was “framed” for stealing the secret of the Atom Bomb – a frame-up that was in part facilitated by Harry Gold’s willingness to perjure himself about the recognition signal he used when he met David Greenglass in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Had the government not killed my father, he would have been alive to later answer to the lesser charges of which he was guilty as opposed to the outrageous and untrue charge which was transformed into “treason” by the sentencing judge and public opinion.

Footnotes:
1. See, for example, Miriam Moskowitz, “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice, Elizabeth T. Bentley, Harry Gold, Roy M. Cohn, Irving H. Saypol, Judget Irving R. Kaufman, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Rehearsal for the Rosenberg Trial of How I Survived McCarthyism”.  (NY:  Bunim and Brannigan, 2010)

2.  For another example, on the same page 145, Hornbloom uncritically reproduces the Greenglass trial testimony about how David Greenglass was recruited by his wife Ruth at the behest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  The apologists for the US government have gone to great pains to emphasize the role of Ethel Rosenberg in recruiting David Greenglass because the main testimony against her at the trial – the fact that she had allegedly typed up spy materials – has since been shown to be a complete perjury.  David Greenglass himself repudiated that testimony on the television show 60 Minutes in 2001.  In “The Haunted Wood,” there is information about the initial conversation between Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Ruth Greenglass about the possibility of David Greenglass working to help the Soviets.  In the version in “The Haunted Wood,” the only reference to Ethel Rosenberg is a statement that she “stress[ed] the need for utmost care and caution in informing David.” Though Ruth testified she had been reluctant and only informed David of the request because Ethel had urged her to, “The Haunted Wood” version shows that Ruth was very enthusiastic about providing help.  She was sure that David would be, too.  When David said yes, he volunteered that he had been thinking along the same lines already.

There can be only two conclusions to be drawn from this rather specific (but significant) example – significant at least for the historical guilt of Ethel Rosenberg.  One is that Hornbloom did not bother to read “The Haunted Wood” carefully and thus utilized the Greenglass testimony at the trial as an accurate reflection of what actually transpired when he was recruited out of sloppiness.  The alternative is that he chose to ignore The Haunted Wood because it did not fit with his view of reality – that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty as charged.

3.  Except when it contradicts what Harry Gold said – in which case the author chooses the result that privileges the Harry Gold that cooperated with the FBI rather than the earlier Harry Gold.

4.  As early as 1973, we knew that Gold’s initial version of the code was “Bob sent me” or “Benny sent me.”  [See “The Unquiet Death Of Ethel And Julius Rosenberg,” n.p.]  With the first release of secret FBI material in 1975, we discovered that as he prepped for the Grand Jury in 1950, Gold said the code was “I bring greetings from Ben in Brooklyn.” [See FBI Headquarters files, Harry Gold, August 3, 1950]  In 1976, we discovered that Greenglass and Gold had been interviewed together by the FBI to in December of 1950, and at that interview Greenglass had said that the name Ben would have meant nothing to him but if Gold had said “Julius” … and Gold immediately said, “Yes, maybe that’s who I brought greetings from …”  [See FBI Philadelphia Field Office File, Harry Gold, 3-599, December 28, 1950]  Needless to say, this meant that the testimony of both Gold and Greenglass at the trial about the recognition code was quite suspect.

In addition, researchers have believed that there was something phony about the photostat of the card.  (The originals had allegedly been in the custody of the FBI but had been returned to the hotel after the trial and subsequently destroyed.)  Walter and Miriam Schneir concluded in 1965 that it had been forged by the FBI.  They further concluded that Gold had not been in Albuquerque in June of 1945, that the meeting with the Greenglasses never took place.  (With the release of the VENONA materials in 1995 and the publication of “The Haunted Wood,” they changed their view on this.)

5.  For details, of the three imaginary contacts see FBI Headquarters File, Harry Gold, 403, June 6, 1950.  See also FBI Philadelphia File, Harry Gold, 614, June 23, 1950.  The quotation is from FBI Headquarters File, Harry Gold, unrecorded after 576X.

6. Walter Schneir mined “The Haunted Wood,” and other sources to come up with a new conclusion about what actually happened in 1945 as opposed to the version touted by the government at the trial and government apologists ever since.  He completed it just before his death and it was published with a Preface and Afterward by his wife Miriam Schneir as “Final Verdict” (Melville House, 2010).