THIRTY YEARS AGO this summer, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were led to a bright white room in Sing Sing prison and strapped to the oak-paneled electric chair. The current surged; the bodies jerked and died. And the case J. Edgar Hoover had called "the crime of the century" was burned indelibly into the American conscience.
Their crime had been conspiracy to commit espionage; their accuser Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. He testified that Julius, while a civilian employe of the Army Signal Corps and for years afterward, had operated a spy ring that passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell--like Julius, an electrical engineer--were named co-conspirators.
Arrested in 1950 and tried the next year in a climate of virulent anti-Communism (both invoked Fifth Amendment protections when asked about their party ties), the Rosenbergs died on June 19, 1953, after the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to vacate a stay. Beyond a loyal but small group of supporters, few doubted the Rosenbergs' guilt, though they maintained their innocence to the end. But the severity of Judge Irving Kaufman's capital sentence--especially for the mother of two young boys--sickened many and troubled more.
As a result, the case has continued to smolder in the national psyche for three decades. And now it has exploded again into public debate with the sudden convergence this summer of two opposing books on the trial; the release of "Daniel," the movie based on E.L. Doctorow's novel inspired by the Rosenberg case; and a vituperative, partisan feud fought in the pages of The New York Times and The New York Review of Books that will also be brought to the floor of New York's Town Hall.
At the center of the conflict are Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, authors of "The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston). They conclude that Julius Rosenberg was running a low-grade spy ring, that his wife probably knew about it, and that although the Soviets obtained their primary nuclear secrets from British scientist Klaus Fuchs, the minor information provided through Rosenberg helped confirm Fuchs' material.
"Distortions, omissions and, all too often, outright falsifications," say Walter and Miriam Schneir, authors of "Invitation to an Inquest" (Pantheon), which argues that the Rosenbergs were innocent scapegoats in a government crusade against the left.
"An intellectual fraud," says Michael Meeropol, one of the Rosenbergs' sons and coauthor with his brother Robert of the 1975 "We Are Your Sons," which argues that their parents were framed. "In some cases it's based on interviews that didn't exist or whose contents they made up. And yet it passes itself off as the dispassionate, objective treatment." Rough remarks. But then, says Robert Meeropol, when the brothers were out on the road lecturing, "we used to libel Judge Kaufman who has refused to discuss the case all the time, hoping he'd sue. Then we could subpoena him."
But the volume has the virtually unanimous imprimatur of the book review establishment. Harvard historian Alan Brinkley in The Washington Post Book World called it "sensitive, absorbing and exhaustively researched . . . a book of remarkable balance and restraint." Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in The New York Times Book Review pronounced it "definitive." Time praised its "dispassionate" approach and Newsweek its "persuasive case"; the Los Angeles Times declared it "authoritative . . . not only exhaustive but honorable."
If the book--drawing on some 200,000 pages of federal documents released only after the Meeropols filed their acrimonious 1975 lawsuit against the FBI--finds the Rosenbergs guilty, it also shows that the government's handling of the case often relied on dubious, probably false evidence and in general constituted "a grave miscarriage of justice." Among many examples:
* The FBI was never convinced of Ethel Rosenberg's guilt, but pressed the case against her chiefly, as Hoover put it, so "she might serve as a lever" to make Julius talk. Among the questions FBI agents were instructed to ask him at Sing Sing if he made a last-minute confession was: "Was your wife cognizant of your activities?"
* Even before the trial began, documents suggest, Judge Irving Kaufman had discussed the possibility of a death sentence with a Justice Department official. In sentencing the Rosenbergs, he would reveal his feelings by calling their crime "worse than murder" and accusing them directly of causing the Korean War "with casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason . . . you undoubtedly have altered the course of history . . ."
* Morris Ernst, a celebrated attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and a personal friend of Hoover's, tried to become a counsel for the Rosenberg defense--in order to spy on their tactics for the FBI, according to the files.
Radosh says, "I feel very proud of myself--not only because the book has balance, but because it's a corrective thing. America has to face it because we executed them. And the left has to take it because they've been perpetuating a myth." And he is satisfied that their interviews and analysis of the newly released documents are conclusive. Robert Meeropol disagrees, since the brothers' suit is continuing and the FBI has still refused to make public thousands of pages of files: "How can a historian make a definitive judgment without the very files which the government is most reluctant to release?"
Reader response has been prompt and vehement, particularly at The New York Times. So the Sept. 18 issue of the Book Review, which normally prints two to four short letters a week, will include a special 3,000-word, four-page section of replies to the Dershowitz review. The Sept. 29 NYRB will devote nine pages to an exchange between the Schneirs and Radosh and Milton, all of whom will debate in person Oct. 20 in New York's Town Hall. A difficult venue, says Radosh: "People will probably just boo and throw tomatoes at us."
Walter Schneir believes that "the very ready acceptance of the Radosh-Milton thesis of guilt fits a kind of political need" in 1983, with its reversion to Cold War chill. In that climate, Miriam Schneir says, the net effect of "The Rosenberg File" is to "disarm and demoralize liberals and radicals," to feed "the effort to rehabilitate the FBI in the aftermath of Watergate, and to restore more government secrecy."
A similar thesis pervades their book. First published in 1965, updated three times and last reissued in June, it asserts that no "hard evidence" of espionage has ever been adduced and claims not only that the Rosenbergs were innocent, but that the whole conspiracy was fabricated--through forged documents and perjured testimony--by the FBI and sundry federal officials in an attempt to destroy the leftist movement in the United States. Says Walter: "Our politics on this is not mysterious--we're against secret police."
"The left cannot stand or fall on the guilt of the Rosenbergs," Radosh says. "A lot of left-wingers make a fetish of McCarthyism. They thrive on the idea that it exists--it puts them on the side of fighting the fascists."
For Sidney Lumet, director of "Daniel," the rising clamor "came as an aftershock, a surprise. And not a particularly welcome one. I'd rather the film be judged on its merits" than as part of a historical debate.
Novelist/screenwriter Doctorow recently told Newsday that the question of guilt or innocence was irrelevant: "The only honest way I could write the book is from the point of view of someone who simply does not know." His fictional Isaacsons, an impoverished Communist couple, are accused by a neighboring dentist, then tried and executed for spying. Their son Daniel desperately tries--and fails--to determine their innocence, and is obliged to rebuild his own life from the ruins of his parents'. "I was interested," Doctorow said, "in showing the effect of ideology on people and using this as the centerpiece for some sort of rumination on the role of the left in this country, which is, historically, that of self-sacrifice."
Lumet says the film (which opens here Sept. 23) was not timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the execution. Doctorow wrote the screenplay in 1971; Lumet saw it in the mid-'70s and "submitted it everywhere," but it was turned down 39 straight times. "It would be easy to say it was for the political nature of it," he says; but then, too, "it is not, on the surface, the most commercial picture that was ever done." Fifteen months ago he finally found backing and "I went into production as soon as I had the money."
Radosh, while praising the film's "recreation of the political values of the Old Left," complains that it exploits the infamous couple to the audience's potential confusion. "They're not supposed to be the Rosenbergs. But they are and they aren't. Parts are borrowed, parts are not"--leading the public to believe the depiction historically true.
"If you object to that," Lumet says, "you're going to have an awful lot of trouble with Dickens, with Defoe. Since time immemorial people have been weaving in and out of facts. The only immoral thing is if you go on and claim it's factual." But "we make no pretense of the truth. When I want to make a factual movie, I'll make a factual movie, as I did in 'Dog Day Afternoon' or 'Prince of the City.'
"The only thing we researched was the execution scenes," he says. "I did no research myself, and I didn't let my actors do any." And during the filming, they "deliberately avoided" discussing political aspects. "There were specific questions from the actors. But one of the more brilliant aspects of Edgar's screenplay is that the scenes play the same whether they're guilty or innocent." Besides, he says, it's really a story of "the resurrection of the human spirit, of a boy who buried himself and is now trying to climb out of the grave." As for the Rosenbergs, "all I know is that what my government did to them is worse than what they did, if they did anything."
Radosh believes the film "wouldn't have worked if it were not about Jewish communists. Can you imagine a close-knit Italian family, one of whom is a Mafia member who is executed to get others to talk? It just isn't right." And indeed, from the outset, the issue pervaded public response to the trial.
It was widely wondered whether the death penalty would have been levied against a Gentile. But if none of the jurors was Jewish, the judge, the chief prosecutor and the Rosenbergs' defense attorney were. And the harshest cries of anti-Semitism came from Europe (France especially) and the Soviet Union, which found propaganda value in the charge. In the United States, a few voices claimed persecution. But the American Jewish Committee openly advocated the death penalty, Radosh and Milton write, preferring "to disavow the victims as in no way typical of the patriotic and anti-Communist Jewish community." Similarly, they write, many believed that the ferocity of Judge Kaufman's sentence derived from "a deep psychological animosity toward the couple whose actions had thrown into question the patriotism of 'respectable' Jews such as himself and his family."
Still, as Arthur Miller wrote recently in Vanity Fair, "We were only eight or so years past the discovery of the mounds of dead in Dachau . . . They could not merely be two spies being executed but two Jews. It was not possible to avoid this in the second half of the 20th century; not even with the best will in the world could the prejudicial stain be totally avoided--no, not even if it were undeserved. Such were the times."
"They've entered the public domain as mythological figures," says literary/culture critic Leslie Fiedler, one of the original commentators on the Rosenberg phenomenon. And public opinion on the case has fluctuated on the tides of time. In the '50s the Rosenbergs were not simply guilty--they embodied America's shame at its loss of nuclear preeminence and the Old Left's loss of political clout. "To me they represented two things at once," Fiedler says, "both the repressive atmosphere of the '50s and the cowardly retreat of radicalism before it. I was dying for a heroic figure to stand up in court and say, 'I did it, by god, and here's why!' "
By the mid-'60s, however, it had become culturally fashionable to mistrust and contemn the FBI and CIA, conspiracy theories proliferated, and--to the extent that they were remembered--the Rosenbergs became more sympathetic. The aura continued into the '70s in books like Doctorow's and Robert Coover's "The Public Burning," and was even applied retrospectively. Arthur Miller wrote in his article about "people thinking I had written 'The Crucible' about the Rosenbergs instead of two and a half years before their names were even in the papers."
This temporal relativity, Robert Meeropol believes, bears on the credibility of Radosh and Milton, who take the FBI files "at face value. How a person weighs the validity of the files tells you something about the perspective he brings to it." The '70s, he says, should have brought "a different perspective. As we have learned from Vietnam and Watergate, things get made up. You can't take all documents at face value--maybe the story was phony to begin with."
But Radosh, who teaches history at Queensborough Community College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, thinks he's had ample "perspective": He was raised in the bosom of the Old Left, went to communist youth camp as a child, doted on Paul Robeson ("communism, The Soviet Union and black freedom all at once"), was convinced of the Rosenbergs' innocence and eventually joined the Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case. But in the mid-'70s a socialist friend told him a story suggesting that Julius Rosenberg had been a spy. "I felt a deep sense of personal betrayal," he says. "To say the Rosenbergs were guilty was to betray your family" of the Old Left. But his professional curiosity was piqued, and when the Meeropols' suit against the government in 1975 resulted in disclosure of some 200,000 documents, Radosh began to doubt that the full truth would emerge from their interpretations.
He and Sol Stern, his associate before Milton, used the files for a while, but "I kicked them out," says Marshall Perlin, the Meeropols' attorney. "Before even looking at the files, they had already come to a conclusion." For selling books, Perlin says, "there's nothing like apostasy."
As his work progressed, Radosh says, "I was excommunicated from the left." Former friends warned him against the project, others ostracized him. And without access to the Meeropols' cross-indexed documents, he had to go to Washington for photo-copies of the FBI files. "The expense was phenomenal."
"Ronnie's a very, very strong anticommunist now," says Michael Meeropol, "part of that god-that-failed crowd." He claims that Radosh is possessed of a convert's zeal to be "more Catholic than the pope," and motivated by a desire to write a best-seller. "If they had written a book saying my parents were innocent, they would have had trouble getting it published." Whereas the time is right for guilt: "With the Reagan administration, there's a right-wing tide rising and the Russians have just given us evidence to believe the worst about them. It couldn't have been better timing." In that national mood, he feels, the movie "Daniel" may "move people toward the Radosh-Milton conclusions."
Radosh, currently a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, says, "They want to make me out to be a McCarthyite right-winger. It's true I'm an anticommunist. It's a sensible thing to be--I don't apologize for that. But I'm involved with the democratic left community."
Conversely, Walter Schneir says, in 1953 "we were not activists on behalf of the Rosenbergs," and "felt they must have done something," although doubting that they would be executed. But the case interested them--both as veteran book and magazine writers and as opponents of McCarthyism--and they began research on Harry Gold, Fuchs' courier who identified Greenglass to the FBI and was one of the most effective witnesses against the Rosenbergs. Soon they were convinced that Gold was "a man who practiced lying very extensively his whole adult life."
A new inquiry "seemed a very daring thing to do" in the early '60s, says Walter Schneir, and as they were using the FBI documents to look into the Gold matter, the feds were looking at them: "When we went through the files, we found our letters we had written to people." They produced and periodically reissued their book, becoming aware of Radosh along the way (but not, they say, giving him interviews, although they are listed in Radosh's roster of helpful sources)--and suddenly very aware when NYRB assigned him and Milton to review the Schneirs' latest edition in the July 21 issue.
Reviews are not customarily assigned to authors who have or will soon have competing volumes, and "it's as if the rules were broken," Walter Schneir says. Robert Silvers, editor of TNYRB, will only say that "we asked the writers whom we thought were competent reviewers of the book." In brief, the review said the Schneirs' charges of government forgery were based on mere "self-established criteria of how the investigators ought to have behaved," and that the book offers "not a shred of new, direct evidence--forensic, documentary, or testamentary--to support their charges" of a frame-up.
The Schneirs sought, and got, space to reply in the Sept. 29 issue. So did Radosh and Milton. The result is a nine-page welter of detail in which each side impugns the other's evidence and the tone turns frequently ad hominem.
The Schneirs' response generally encapsulates the criticisms leveled at "The Rosenberg File" by Michael Meeropol and Perlin. There are charges that Radosh and Milton manipulated documents and testimony to their own advantage, disagreements about the interpretation of evidence, claims of inaccuracy. ("Even if we made a few errors," Radosh says, "that's not something that goes to the general thrust of the argument.") But the most grievous accusation is that Radosh and Milton "invented" quotations from interview subjects (Perlin claims to have found 13 people cited in the book who say they were not interviewed; Radosh calls this "absolutely scandalous--they're lying. I'm a trained historian; I have notes and tapes"). The Schneirs say that in checking sources, they found three former Communist Party members who deny they said the things attributed to them.
One is Max Gordon, formerly a senior editor at the Daily Worker, who is quoted as telling Radosh about the relationship between Soviet spies and the Communist Party. Gordon recalls the conversation, but says, "I couldn't have told him that because my position has always been that I don't know anything at all about spying for the Soviet Union." Radosh says simply, "I've got the notes," adding that party members sometimes have a tendency to repudiate in public what they might have said in private.
For their part, Radosh and Milton say the Schneirs "seek to ignore the decisive pieces of evidence and, by chicanery and guile, hope to rescue a now discredited and ludicrous conspiracy theory . . . The cause they are trying to sustain is disintegrating," hastened by the authors' "desperate efforts."
Charges and countercharges promise to continue through the Oct. 20 debate and beyond. Well beyond. As Doctorow said recently, discussing the enduring fascination of the case: "Finally, something reaches a level in the national consciousness where there will never be any way to know whether there's guilt or innocence, and you go around and around. And its value, historically, is it becomes a means to debate with ourselves, to argue with ourselves who we are, what we mean, what we hope to be."