The obits of David Greenglass, the brother in law from hell, omit the undercurrents of antisemitism and legal malfeasance in the federal trial for atomic spying of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s.
The dramatic cast includes: Julius and Ethel, New York Jewish communists and parents of two small boys. David Greenglass is Ethel’s brother and a loudmouth Communist. He and his wife Ruth have children. Judge Irving Kaufman, prosecutor Irving Saypol, and Roy Cohn U.S. attorney on the case: all Jewish.
J. Edgar Hoover lurks in the background supplying the prosecutors with raw files on the Rosenbergs.
The mood in the Foley Square courtroom and in the country at large is a near-panic that the Russian bear will soon attack first by deceit, all those dupes, moles and sleepers, to soften us up for Stalin’s H-bomb armageddon. American nerves are raw not least because we’re fighting a physical war with the invading Communists of North Korea and their Red Chinese “volunteers”.
Some very influential Americans, like the half mad emperor of defeated Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, whose troops face defeat on the Korean peninsula, think it a fine idea to risk a World War Three by dropping up to 50 atomic bombs on the Chinese. (Pres Truman and the Joint Chiefs don’t think so and Mac is fired.)
In this twitchy atmosphere Julius and Ethel, ineffectively represented by a Communist lawyer, face the treasonous charge that they’ve “given the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviets” and thus doom us all in the coming nuclear apocalypse.
The main witness against them is Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, a low level machinist who had stolen classified material from the Los Alamos, New Mexico A-bomb lab and given it to Julius a Soviet spy. Decades later, Greenglass recants part of his testimony that sent his sister and Julius to the electric chair, and said he’d lied or misremembered to save his own wife Ruth.
All sorts of legal crimes are committed on the way to killing the Rosenbergs.
Shrewdly, the government has chosen Jews to punish Jews in order to dodge accusations of anti-Semitism which lies just beneath the surface of the 1950s fishing expeditions. The all-Jewish cast of presiding Judge Kaufman, prosecutor Saypol and Roy Cohn in some measure may feel compelled to show that the Hebraic “enemy within” can be all-out patriotic in dangerous times. We’ll show those goyim!
Regardles of the actual facts – Julius guilty, Ethel hardly – the Foley Square trial squares neatly with the FBI and House UnAmerican committee’s Cold War death hunt for radicals many of whom were Jews.
The trial is an absurdity. The hysterical summing up by Kaufman, who got his judgeship as a favor from Roy Cohn, knocks the defense flat. By giving the “secret” to the Soviets, Kaufman thunders, the Rosenbergs have caused the deaths of “50,000” GIs in Korea, and so on. The fix is in.
Illegally, Judge Kaufman and Roy Cohn collude to kill off the Rosenbergs in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Cohn privately and stealthily leans on Kaufman, an old family friend, for a death penalty even the FBI opposes. (Kaufman secretly negotiates with Cohn outside the courtroom on a public telephone.)
(Parenthetically, theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs, a far more important spy, is caught by the English, confesses and serves only nine years.)
J. Edgar Hoover, tickled by Cohn’s dark skills, talent spots him to Sen. Joe MCarthy where Cohn guides McCarthy’s campaign against the US army (for harboring a leftwing dentist) and names secy of state Gen. George Marshall as a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”.
The Rosenberg drama unfolds in a frightened America. Tally ho! The chase is on for reds, pinkos, suspect immigrants and liberals but also homosexuals and just about anyone else for the hell of it. Judge Kaufman, who claims that while in synagogue God (not Roy) told him to execute the Rosenbergs, later passes on to heaven wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. Irving Saypol, who built a career prosecuting Communists, is later indicted for bribery and perjury, charges dismissed. Roy Cohn, who crusades against gays with such venom, is – of course! – a closeted gay who died of AIDS.
Post Script: In southern California, where I live, a tiny group of us form an impromptu Rosenberg Committee independent of the Communists because we believe the Party prefers martyrs to a stout legal defense. Amazingly, at the last moment, one of our little band, a lawyer agitator named Irwin Edelman, argues for a stay of execution because the government had convicted under the wrong federal statute, a point never raised by the Rosenberg lawyers. Impressed, supreme court Justice Douglas grants a temporary stay but is outvoted by the other judges.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.