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Thinner Than Water

THE BROTHER: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair, By Sam Roberts, Random House: 548 pp., $35

November 11, 2001|ALLEN WEINSTEIN | Allen Weinstein is the author of "Perjury: The Hiss - Chambers Case" and "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era" with Alexander Vassiliev

They were all guilty, Arthur Koestler wrote in "Darkness at Noon" about the old Bolshevik leaders trapped in the infamous Moscow trials of 1936-1939, but not of the crimes for which they were charged. The statement might also be applied to convicted "atom spy" Ethel Rosenberg, whose 1953 execution with her husband Julius occasioned the hyperbolic subtitle of "The Brother," Sam Roberts' book on their chief accuser and Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass.

Roberts, a veteran New York Times reporter and editor, spent 13 years tracking down Greenglass and persuading him in 50 hours of conversation to discuss the story of how he became a Soviet agent. After Greenglass' release from prison, he and his family sought anonymity under a different name. Other than a single 1979 interview with historian Ronald Radosh and his colleague Sol Stern, Greenglass had not surfaced for a researcher's scrutiny. He claimed to have turned down proposals to tell his story--until Roberts appeared. Why? "I don't want to take any money off other people's deaths.... I never have, despite offers," he said. Then why now?

"Now," the aging Greenglass told Roberts, "I need the money." He agreed to cooperate on this book, the author writes, "in return for a share of the proceeds. No vetting of the manuscript." One final surprise: "David could not veto anything I wrote. He is reading it for the first time in this book. So are his wife [Ruth] and children, whom he never told about our collaboration." Ruth presumably never knew until now that he had decided to tell his story--alone.

"The Brother" provides a fascinating narrative of growing up in East Side immigrant radical communities from which both the Greenglasses and Rosenbergs emerged. The author handles skillfully--while acknowledging Richard Rhodes' two masterful volumes on the subject--the scientific context of what Greenglass may or may not have conveyed to Soviet operatives through the Rosenbergs. Despite his eloquently compassionate treatment of the Rosenbergs facing execution and of their sons in the years after, most of "The Brother" treads on familiar historical ground.

What is new and thus debatable, however, is Roberts' argument that the testimony David and Ruth Greenglass gave at the 1951 trial may have been concocted to assure the government of Ethel Rosenberg's conviction along with her husband's. In this season of national anguish following terrorist attacks, "The Brother" could not have appeared at a timelier moment, if only to remind Americans that, in an excess of zeal, government agents and prosecutors can create a judicial process in which punishment exceeds the crime.

The arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in July 1950, readers may recall, occurred amid growing American fears about internal subversion, the Korean War, the conviction earlier that year of Alger Hiss on perjury charges for denying involvement in Soviet espionage and the Soviet Union's detonation of an atomic device the previous year. There existed the belief that the Russians could have become an atomic power so quickly only by stealing American secrets. A chain of earlier arrests had led in June 1950 to the identification of Greenglass, a machinist in the Los Alamos installation, who quickly confessed his involvement in atomic espionage. Greenglass named the Rosenbergs as the individuals who persuaded his wife to transmit to him in 1944 the proposal that he spy for the Russians.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg denied any involvement but were arrested and identified by the government as principals in what became known as the "Rosenberg spy ring." At their March 1951 trial, the Rosenbergs, Greenglass and a fourth defendant, Morton Sobell, were all found guilty. Ruth Greenglass escaped indictment essentially in exchange for her husband's testimony. David Greenglass and Sobell received prison terms. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were sentenced to death, but their execution was delayed by a variety of legal appeals--many from world leaders and from a number of people who did not challenge the verdict but only the extreme sentence. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who led the bureau's investigation of the couple, recommended clemency for Ethel Rosenberg (though not her husband). On June 19, 1953, however, after their final appeals failed, the Rosenbergs were executed at New York's Sing Sing Prison.

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