Historical Memory and the Rosenbergs

tags: David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg, Julius Rosenberg

Jonathan S. Tobin is Senior Online Editor of Commentary magazine with responsibility for managing the editorial content of the website as well as serving as chief politics blogger. From January 2009 to April 2011, he was executive editor of the magazine. Prior to coming to Commentary, Tobin was editor in chief of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia and the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

Related Link "How David Greenglass Helped Break Up a Soviet Spy Ring That Was Plotting New Perfidy” by Ron Radosh

The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

Greenglass apparently died in July at 92 while living under an assumed name in a nursing home. But, as the Times points out, his willingness to cut a deal with prosecutors that enabled his wife to avoid incarceration in exchange for evidence about his sister and her husband, has become a symbol of family betrayal. But as historian Ron Radosh writes in his column in the New York Sun, the effort to treat Greenglass as beyond the pale stems from the lingering desire to diminish the guilt of the Rosenbergs if no longer to exonerate them.

The Times obituary did not recycle the old canards about the Rosenbergs’ innocence that were always transparent fictions but which were conclusively debunked by the publication of Soviet records after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the evil empire the spies served. But its main conceit was to harp on Greenglass’ post-trial statement that he was unsure whether it was his sister or his wife Ruth, another dedicated Communist, who typed the document sent to the Soviets containing the data he had stolen from the U.S. nuclear research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was treated in the piece as somehow evidence that Ethel, if not Julius, was actually innocent of espionage. Citing the ground breaking work of historian Ron Radosh, co-author along with Joyce Milton of the seminal The Rosenberg File, the Times attempts to bolster this bogus point as well as the claim that the material Greenglass and other members of the ring passed to Moscow was worthless.

But as Radosh writes today, these assumptions are completely false. Ethel Rosenberg was an integral member of the Soviet espionage operation who helped recruit her brother and sister-in-law to join her husband’s spy ring. Nor are there any grounds for assuming that the information they passed to Stalin’s henchmen was worthless. Greenglass’s description of the U.S. uranium bomb was highly useful to the Russians. So was the data about the lens mold of the bomb described at the Rosenberg trial and other material such as a detonator and a proximity fuse. The opprobrium directed at the Rosenbergs during their trial may have been in part a product of Cold War hysteria but there is no question of the depth of their betrayal and the damage they did to their country...

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