from the nytimes cityroom podcast of Sam Roberts I added images to the audio
Following is the script of the weekly “Only in New York” audio podcast. Listen at left or download the mp3 to a portable player. Browse a list of other Times podcasts here.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,” Sylvia Plath began her autobiography, “The Bell Jar.” I was 6 that summer. My father took my sister and me to the corner of our block in Brooklyn to watch the funeral procession.
Unlike lots of people touched by the atom spy hysteria, I was never consumed by the case. But I still care.
Enough, to have written a book about the brother — David Greenglass — whose testimony sent his older sister and her husband to the electric chair at Sing Sing.
Enough, to have sued the federal government to release the minutes of the grand jury that indicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The suit, filed by David Vladeck and the National Security Archive, argued that ordinary secrecy and privacy are subsumed by history’s compelling claim.
This week, 55 years after the execution, the government delivered a surprising response to our lawsuit. Because of the case’s enduring significance, the Justice Department would not object to the release of much of the testimony.
My sixth birthday was sandwiched between the Rosenbergs’ execution Friday night and the funeral on Sunday. All I knew about it was, my mother’s name was Ethel; a younger brother had done something horrible to his sister (I had an older sister, too); the Rosenbergs’ orphaned sons were about my age.
Among the grown-ups, two compelling questions were unspoken. Less than a decade after the Holocaust, how could Jews have done this to America? And how could America have done this to Jews?
There was a broader troubling question, about how a brother could turn against his own sister. The answer was more complicated than most people were willing to admit.
David Greenglass was a machinist. He worked on the Manhattan Project, stole atomic bomb secrets for the Russians, and claims credit for having prevented nuclear war through mutual deterrence. He was released from prison in 1960 with one wish. “All I want,” he said, “is to be forgotten.”
He still lives in the New York area, pseudononomously. But for the dwindling few who remember him, he remains reviled. His name became a punch line.
“Few modern events,” Rebecca West wrote, “have been as ugly as this involvement of brother and sister in an unnatural relationship which is the hostile twin of incest.”
In “The Book of Daniel,” E. L. Doctorow transformed David Greenglass into a retired dentist of whom it was said: “The treachery of that man will haunt him for as long as he lives.”
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Woody Allen’s character protests to Mia Farrow’s that, despite all appearances, he still loves his oleaginous brother-in-law.
“I love him like a brother,” Allen said dryly. “David Greenglass.”
When I began writing my book, I knew it was a story about atomic espionage, about a trial for what J. Edgar Hoover called “the crime of the century.” I came to learn it was also about love and betrayal, about family dysfunction.
And when I began writing, before 9/11, I never imagined that the story would resonate so profoundly in renewed challenges of reconciling national security and civil liberties, in discomfort about blind loyalty to any cause. For the first time in 50 years, Americans would again feel vulnerable to enemy attack — threatened this time by suicide bombers, rather than suicide spies.
Who knows what smoking gun, if any, is concealed in the Rosenberg grand jury testimony? Since the trial, the weight of evidence suggests more and more that Julius was guilty — not of triggering the Korean War, as the government claimed, but of the actual legal charge: conspiracy to commit espionage. And more and more, the evidence suggests that Ethel Rosenberg was much more valuable to the Soviets as a martyr than as a spy.
Shortly before he died, I interviewed William Rogers. He was the deputy attorney general when the Rosenbergs were executed. I guess, I said to him, the government got what it wanted: the Rosenbergs were indicted, convicted and executed.
No, he replied, the goal wasn’t to kill the couple. The strategy was to leverage the death sentence imposed on Ethel to wring a full confession from Julius — in hopes that Ethel’s motherly instincts would trump unconditional loyalty to a noble but discredited cause.
What went wrong?
Rogers’s explanation still haunts me.
“She called our bluff,” he said.