60 years too late to save the Rosenbergs

This story is a re-post from the website of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Feb. 25th will mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Appeals Court’s affirmation of my parents’ conviction for Conspiracy to Commit Espionage. As I have explained before, my parents were convicted of conspiracy- not spying, espionage or treason as the mainstream media usually reports. Prosecutors like conspiracy charges because the law in this country holds everyone involved in the conspiracy responsible for all the acts of any of the conspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy.

And all the prosecutors need to show to prove that a conspiracy exists is that two or more people got together, made an illegal plan, and took one overt act to move that scheme forward. It could be as simple as agreeing to make a phone call or arranging a meeting.

In order to prove a conspiracy, the prosecution must demonstrate that the defendants joined together in a common plan. This is sometimes referred to as the chain of conspiracy. In appealing their conviction, my parents’ attorneys attempted to sever the government’s chain of conspiracy at its weakest link.

This is how they did it. Although my parents’ denied that they conspired with chief prosecution witnesses David and Ruth Greenglass (my mother’s younger brother and his wife) to steal atomic secrets, they could not deny that they knew and met with the Greenglasses on many occasions. After all, they were family. Moreover, my parents’ attorneys did not contest the testimony of a third government witness, Harry Gold. Gold stated he was an espionage courier who transmitted a great deal of material to the Soviet Union about the construction of the atomic bomb from Klaus Fuchs, one of the top atomic scientists working on the Manhattan project.

Gold also testified that on one occasion he obtained secret information at David and Ruth Greenglass’s apartment in Albuquerque, not far from Los Alamos where David, an Army sergeant, worked as a machinist fabricating pieces of the atomic bomb.

In their appeal, my parents’ attorneys acknowledged that while the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses were connected, and Gold, Fuchs and the Greenglasses were connected, no one testified at the trial that Gold or Fuchs knew my parents or vice versa. In other words, the defense claimed that the government had not established the chain of conspiracy that connected the Rosenbergs to Gold and Fuchs.

The Appeals Court disagreed. The Justices pointed out that the Greenglasses testified that my father had given Ruth a half a Jello box-top as a recognition signal and kept the other half. David testified that when Gold came to his doorstep in Albuquerque he presented the half of the Jello box top that matched the one Ruth had kept.

David stated further that my father said the person who came to collect the secrets would use a code phrase with Julius’ name in it. Gold and David both testified that Gold used the name Julius at the meeting to prove his bona fides. Thus, the Appeals Court concluded the jury could infer the connection between the Rosenbergs and Gold through the Jello box top and code phrase.

Of course, we now know a lot more than the Appeals Court did 60 years ago. Over 20 years after their decision, my brother’s and my legal action forced into the public eye secret government files detailing Gold and Greenglass’s initial confessions. Gold first said he used the name Ben in the code phrase, while David testified Gold used the name Dave. Another government file reported that after several months in custody Gold and Greenglass were brought together to iron out this discrepancy, and it was at that meeting that Greenglass “proposed” that “possibly” Gold used the name Julius. Gold responded that he was “not at all clear on this point,” but none of this came out at the trial three months later and both testified that they were certain the name Julius was in the code phrase.

It was not until the 2010 publication of Walter Schneir’s book Final Verdict that we learned that Ruth Greenglass, not my father, was tasked with the job of creating the “recognition signal.” Thus, the two pieces of “evidence” upon which the Appeals Court based its decision to uphold my parents’ conviction, have lost their probative value.

Harry Gold and David Greenglass inserted the name Julius into the code phrase just a few months before the trial, and Ruth Greenglass, not Julius Rosenberg, created the Jello box-top recognition signal. But, of course, once the executions took place on June 19th, 1953, these fatal errors could not be undone.

Photo: “From an untitled lithograph of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, by Pablo Picasso, 1952.” Graphicwitness.org


Robert Meeropol
Robert Meeropol

Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He is the founder and past executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. For over 40 years he has been a progressive activist, author and public speaker.