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An introduction to the case of julius and ethel rosenberg in the united states

Transcript provided by Arlene Tyner. I am pleased to have been invited here and especially pleased to see so many people out there.

In other words, I'm going to start this event but I'm counting on you to finish it. I'm counting on you to pick up on themes and issues I introduce in the first part - my presentation -- and take the discussion into whatever direction you wish. My plan is to speak for 55 minutes, almost a class session.

  • I am pleased to have been invited here and especially pleased to see so many people out there;
  • Did they act within the law or did they break the law for what they believed was the "greater good?
  • The results were unanimous acquittals by both juries.

Then, I promise to leave plenty of that time for questions and comments. In my view, it goes far beyond the fact that my parents were the only American civilians ever executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. The real significance is that they were charged, convicted and executed for supposedly stealing the secret of the atom bomb and placing our an introduction to the case of julius and ethel rosenberg in the united states very survival in jeopardy.

To understand the significance of the case, you have to start there --- not with the crime they were technically accused of: In fact, the judge in sentencing them to death described their crime as treason! Another significance is that the case has always been controversial; not only because of the death penalty, but because of discoveries since the trial of perjuries on the part of the prosecution witnesses, and gross misrepresentations on the part of the government as to the nature of the "crime.

This controversy has led some commentators, from time to time, to admit that the guilt of my parents is not a settled historical truth -which often prompts an apoplectic response from the guardians of correct historical truth --- I invite you to ask me for examples!

Wasn't it automatically treason to even BE a communist, because communists owed their loyalty to the Soviet Union, not the United States and would do anything to further the ends of "world socialism"7 And once you get to that position, you reach the conclusion that anyone who is a communist, supports the ends of communists, even unwittingly has placed him or herself beyond the pale of "responsible dissent.

Did they act within the law or did they break the law for what they believed was the "greater good? Does the case prove the necessity for having large secret government police agencies to protect our nation from spies and saboteurs masquerading as domestic radicals -- or is it rather that such agencies justify each other by chasing after each other [note: Do these agencies often manufacture cases to justify their own existence?

Were there important scientific, industrial and military secrets that when stolen significantly accelerated the construction of the Soviet A-Bomb?

There are some who might argue that nuclear parity, the balance of terror, was a good thing. The Judge who sentenced my parents to death would not have agreed.

He blamed them for emboldening the communists to begin the Korean War --President Eisenhower in denying clemency blamed my parents for any nuclear war that might occur in the future. I'm in a funny position because I'm an interested party --- I believe and always have believed that my parents were framed and were innocent. In 1973, my brother and I abandoned our anonymity and began to work with people engaged in an effort to reopen the case.

In 1975 we filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force government agencies to release hitherto secret documents and succeeded in forcing the release of tens of thousands of pages over the next three years and material is still being reclassified and more will be released in the near future. There is no question my brother and I are partisans. However, because everyone expects me to believe that my parents are innocent -- out of loyalty not necessarily out of objective fealty to the truth -- I have had to subject my personal analyses of the evidence in the case to the most extraordinary scrutiny.

Thus, I must acknowledge every argument against my analysis, must acknowledge every piece of evidence thrown up by those seeking to show my parents were guilty, and must show my audiences that I can respond to them rationally, with facts and arguments rather than with anguished emotion. My parents were charged with conspiracy. They were arrested in the summer of 1950, around the time the Korean War began. They were tried in 1951 while the war raged on, and their executions occurred in 1953 less than a month before the Korean armistice was signed.

The government charged that in 1944 my parents convinced Ruth Greenglass to convince her husband David my mother's brother and sister-in-law to engage in espionage while he was at the Los Alamos facility where the first two types of Atomic Bombs were built. They further charged that in 1945 Greenglass succeeded in stealing the secret of the Atom Bomb and conveying its "important principle" in one key sketch.

Klaus Fuchs -- who in February of 1950 had confessed to being a Soviet spy. It's important to note that the Fuchs-Gold part of the alleged spy ring never had any contact with the Greenglass Rosenberg part --- and there's never been any evidence to link Fuchs to my parents or to Greenglass.

If you accept the government's case in its entirety, Gold was given a separate assignment on one of his trips -- he met Greenglass once and never met my father or mother. So what was the basis of the jury's decision? They believed the Greenglasses because they were confessing to serious crimes, one for which David, at least, could get the death penalty [as part of a deal, Ruth was never indicted though she was named an unindicted co-conspirator and could have been indicted later on]; they believed the Greenglasses because Harry Gold corroborated what David said when he Greenglass] confessed to being a spy.

Finally, they believed the Greenglasses because the government asked my parents if they were communists and when my parents took the Fifth Amendment, the jury said, in effect, Ah HAH!! Perhaps a digression is in order: Try to understand the mentality of the 1950s.

Americans had won World War II and had looked forward to enjoying prosperity that had been denied them through a decade of depression and four years of wartime shortages.

They also looked forward to military security --- they were the only military power not to have suffered massive destruction during the war and they had THE BOMB. But this tranquility was soon disturbed. By 1949, our ex-ally the Soviet Union was now a sworn enemy -- and it surprised lots of people by exploding its own atomic bomb. Also at that time, American communists and fellow travelers a pejorative term but it can be purely descriptive -- it means people who are not communists but support communist positions on just about every issue were the object of strong hatred and fear in the U.

They had been kicked out of unions, were not allowed in sensitive government work President Truman had created a Loyalty Program for government employees in 1947], and were vilified in the press and cultural media as enemies of America. Communists were routinely called before congressional committees, including the House Un-American Activities Committee. They had to describe sinister activities, recant and name names or risk going to jail for Contempt of Congress.

In 1950, the American Communist Party was indicted under the Smith Act which made it illegal to conspire to teach and advocate the overthrow of the US government by force and violence. The top leaders were convicted and sent to prison. Meanwhile, since the middle of 1950, communists had been shooting and killing American GIs in Korea.

A personal story is in order: In the Fall of 1951, I was eight years old, living with my grandmother in Manhattan while my parents were on Death Row during the appeals process. I had the an introduction to the case of julius and ethel rosenberg in the united states idea that if people in the neighborhood knew I was my parents' child, their curiosity would be peaked and they'd read the few newspapers that were attempting to create support for a new trial.

The first parent I met was very nice to me. The second parent threw me out of the house telling me she didn't want to catch me hanging around her son again. I heard her refer to me as a "communist" I think it was the first time I'd heard that word!

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (d 1953)

THAT was a quintessential episode of the 1950s in my opinion. Note what the woman did was based on FEAR -- not meanness. A good parallel is the story of the ignorant reaction when Ryan White, a hemophiliac with AIDS, was driven out of a small town because other children's parents feared his presence in the school. Ignorance creates fear which, of course can also do some very hurtful things. It was in this milieu of fear and anger that the prosecution asked my parents if they were communists and if they preferred Soviet communism to American democracy.

My parents took the Fifth Amendment with obvious consequences.

  • My parents took the Fifth Amendment with obvious consequences;
  • The government is so used to lying and getting away with it, they even lied about the contents of their own material as they were releasing them;
  • Another significance is that the case has always been controversial; not only because of the death penalty, but because of discoveries since the trial of perjuries on the part of the prosecution witnesses, and gross misrepresentations on the part of the government as to the nature of the "crime;
  • The Rosenbergs had two sons, Robert and Michael;
  • A good parallel is the story of the ignorant reaction when Ryan White, a hemophiliac with AIDS, was driven out of a small town because other children's parents feared his presence in the school.

Notice by the way, the bind they were in. They couldn't affirm that they were communists to avoid appearing sneaky. Just by admitting they were communists they would make themselves suspect. Admitting that he was a communist at the trial would involve admitting held committed perjury in 1945 and the government could use that to claim he was perjuring himself in 1951 by pleading not guilty to the charge of espionage --- held already admitting being a liar to save his job; wouldn't he definitely lie to save his life??

We look at the specific things the government's witnesses said and see if we can discover independent evidence about those things.

The code used was allegedly, "I come from Julius. In August of 1950, under oath both testified separately and said different things: Greenglass said nothing about a code while Gold said, "I bring greetings from Ben in Brooklyn.

Now if you had said Julius. Also, the card was a photostat so it could not be examined for age of paper, and the original was returned to the Hotel and destroyed before the appeals process was even over. A number of researchers concluded the card was a forgery. I don't think that meeting ever took place. Here is the one example where the Greenglasses and my parents gave diametrically opposite testimony. The Greenglasses said it was a gift from the Soviets with a hollowed out section for microfilming.

The jury had no independent means of verification so had to rely on who seemed more credible.

  • Greenglass said nothing about a code while Gold said, "I bring greetings from Ben in Brooklyn;
  • Now I don't know about you --- but why bother giving people code names if you reveal the sister-in-law without a code name and even provide the address?
  • The timing of when their case came to trial arguably played a key role in how justice was served;
  • There is no question my brother and I are partisans;
  • Admitting that he was a communist at the trial would involve admitting held committed perjury in 1945 and the government could use that to claim he was perjuring himself in 1951 by pleading not guilty to the charge of espionage --- held already admitting being a liar to save his job; wouldn't he definitely lie to save his life??
  • The United States government knew all along that Ethel Rosenberg was not an espionage agent, and that Julius was not an atomic spy, but executed them both anyway.

The prosecution helped by asking my father on cross-examination: The table was found in 1953 and my parents' testimony proved truthful: The prosecutor made much of this on summation: In February of 1951 one of the prosecutors admitted to a Congressional committee that the evidence against my mother was "weak" [without the typing episode it was virtually nonexistent but that they had to convict her and "give her a good stiff prison sentence" in order to make my father talk!

They claimed that one set was picked up by the FBI and a set of alleged passport photos of the Greenglass family was introduced as evidence. They were ordinary family snapshots the government palmed off as passport photos. David Greenglass testified that he had made a number of sketches in jail f rom memory replicating the sketches he actually turned over to Harry Gold and to my father.

One of the sketches is in your hands. That sketch revealed the "secret principle" of the atomic bomb according to the government's "authenticating witness" -- who was not a scientists by the way! It's allegedly a cross section of the implosion-type bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki Here the defense made a grand-stand play to impress the judge and jury with the patriotism of the defendants. My parents' lawyer moved that the sketch and testimony about it be impounded.

It was sealed and never made a part of the trial record.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Unfortunately, that served to accentuate the seriousness of the information allegedly passed by Greenglass with the sketch. But as you look at it you can see it's not revelatory of very much. Top scientists got to examine it and Greenglass' description as well as the other sketches in 1967. Despite strenuous government objections, the sketch was unsealed at that time. These scientists concluded that this sketch was a baby drawing -- it couldn't tell you anything. It lacked dimensions and it was inaccurate in a few places.

Fuchs' sketch described the same type of Atom Bomb as did Greenglass' with dimensions and other accurate elements included. Thus, the government knew how inaccurate and crude Greenglass' sketch was and that the Soviets already had received a much more detailed version of the same bomb from a real scientist.

Yet since Fuchs' confession was secret, they could get away with exaggerating the scientific value if it had any at all of Greenglass' sketch and totally misrepresenting the importance of Greenglass' alleged activity to the Soviet bomb program. Note how important this is: