The Rosenberg File, 60 Minutes style (2)

This past Sunday 60 Minutes presented the Rosenberg spy case for dummies — i.e., for viewers with no knowledge of the ancient history it purported to relate. As John Schindler explains, the 60 Minutes story is deficient in critical respects.

In February 2015 C-SPAN recorded an outstanding panel at the National Archives including John Earl Haynes, Ronald Radosh, Steven Usdin, Allen Hornblum and Mark Kramer discussing the case. Collectively, these participants in the discussion know just about everything there is to know about the case. The YouTube video of the panel discussion (below) provides a necessary supplement to the 60 Minutes story.

Ron Radosh summarized new evidence since the first edition of his book on the case was published in 1983 at 00:19:30. At 01:18:40 an audience member asked about Ethel Rosenberg in particular. At about 01:30:40, Allen Hornblum specifically addressed the Meeropols, “who continue to trot out this canard.” He adds: “They’ve been running a confidence game.” In the panelists’ final statements Ron Radosh wrapped up with comments about the the persistence and animus of the left. Harvey Klehr concluded with observations on the Rosenbergs’ abiding Communist mania maintained at the expense of their children.

I reached out to several of the panelists for comments on the 60 Minutes story. I am most grateful for the responses I received to my request. The responses follow.

John Earl Haynes:

60 minutes interviewed me for the program. I went over in detail the evidence in Venona and Vassiliev’s notebooks that Ethel was a knowing and active participant in Julius’a work and recognized as such by the KGB (predecessor to be exact). They seemed to want me to say the evidence was ambiguous but it wasn’t. I sent to them the complete texts of the passages in Venona and Vassiliev. They believed Julius recruited only one atomic spy, but I pointed out that Greenglass was Julius’s second atomic recruit. The first, Russell McNutt was even directed by Julius to try get a job with the contractor building uranium separation facilities at Oak Ridge. McNutt, a civil engineer, got the job, worked as part of the design team for Oat Ridge, and provided the Soviets with key design details for the facility.

The also interviewed Ron Radosh, Steve Usdin, and Harvey Klehr, who told them much the same.

It appears to me that 60 Minutes had a melodramatic story line and weren’t going to be swayed by evidence that interfered with the pathos of their “innocent wife and mother executed for husband’s crimes” story line. Carefully, 60 Minutes doesn’t say Ethel was innocent, they let the Meeropol brothers say that repeatedly and emphatically, don’t present the documentary evidence of Venona and Vassiliev, and then try to cover themselves with a tiny snippet from Radosh’s interview. The program provides partial, distorted, and inaccurate history.

Harvey Klehr:

60 Minutes ignored evidence that Julius Rosenberg recruited not one but two of the KGB’s atomic spies. Both Russell McNutt and David Greenglass provided important information about the Manhattan project. The KGB itself evaluated Greenglass’s information as valuable, despite the claim on the show that it was worthless. And they did not mention that the Vassiliev Notebooks show Julius himself writing a report that Ethel had persuaded her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, to approach David and ask him to spy.

Steven Usdin:

Ethel Rosenberg should not have been executed, and it is likely that her trial was tainted by perjury, but the evidence demonstrates conclusively that she was not innocent. She met with at least three of the Soviet KGB officers who Julius reported to, served as a “cut out” for communications with a KGB officer on at least one occasion, and she recruited her brother to become an atomic spy. KGB documents indicate that Ethel knew of her husband’s activities, knew he had recruited several of his comrades to spy for Stalin, and that the Soviet intelligence agency trusted Ethel. It envisioned using her as a courier after World War II, until defections forced the KGB to suspend certain operations in the United States.

The 60 Minutes program omitted important information about the Rosenberg spy ring. It failed to describe the magnitude of its operations, which included stealing blueprints and in some cases working copies of some of America’s most value weapons systems: radar, the proximity fuse, analogue computer technology, and aviation technology including blueprints for the first American jet fighter.

Critically, 60 Minutes did not mention that Julius Rosenberg and his recruits continued to spy for the Soviet Union long after the end of World War II — they were planning espionage activities in 1950 until it became clear that the FBI was closing in. This was a time when Julius and his comrades were certain that armed conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Much of the technology the Rosenberg ring stole after 1945, including antiaircraft radar, and the designs and specifications for American military aircraft, could have helped the Red Army in the Korean and Vietnam wars. As I describe in Engineering Communism (Yale University Press, 2005), two members of the Rosenberg ring escaped behind the Iron Curtain and played major roles in the development of Soviet military technology for decades.

Mark Kramer:

The 60 Minutes program was apparently intended as a puff piece for the Meeropols, who have set out over the past year to whitewash the recently disclosed Soviet evidence indicating that their mother was an enthusiastic accomplice of espionage. The 60 Minutes program devoted almost all of its time to interviews with the Meeropols but added nothing new to what they have said over and over in recent years. When Ron Radosh was finally brought in, he explained well why the Meeropols are dead wrong, but unfortunately the 60 Minutes producers gave him much less time, and they omitted some of his crucial arguments. Two of these omissions were especially telling about the slant of the program.

First, even though Radosh spoke to them at length about the importance of Russell McNutt, they made no mention of him. The reason this omission is so important is that the Rosenbergs’ recruitment of McNutt shows conclusively that they were intent on setting up a wide spy network in the U.S. nuclear weapons program — not just at Los Alamos but also at Oak Ridge.

Second, the 60 Minutes program omitted Radosh’s explanation about the value of the sketch provided by David Greenglass. It is simply untrue to say, as the 60 Minutes producers did, that the sketch was of no value. Nine large volumes of declassified Soviet nuclear documents were published from 1999 to 2009 under the the title Atomnyi proekt SSSR (Atomic Project of the USSR), and these volumes make clear that the special committe headed by Lavrentii Beria (which oversaw the Soviet nuclear weapons program from 1945 until 1953) always sought multiple sources to confirm the information they were receiving from espionage. So, even though it is true that what Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall provided was far more detailed and sensitive than the information provided by Greenglass, it is factually wrong to say that the Greenglass sketch was of no value. The sketch provided confirmation of information from Fuchs and Hall.

Ron Radosh

Ron Radosh spoke with Peter Roff of USNews. Ron’s comments are incorporated in Roff’s column “Ethel Rosenberg: Guilty as charged.” The column includes comments by Ron that 60 Minutes left on the cutting room floor.

In 2013 I caught up with Ron at the West Coast Retreat of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. After my meandering attempt to frame a question, Ron briefly addressed the new evidence that has emerged since his book on the case was first published in 1983 and added a few words anticipating 60 Minutes and the Meeropols.

Ron has written updates presenting new evidence bearing on the Rosenberg case with Steve Usdin in “Rosenbergs redux” (2010), “The Sobell confession” (2011) and “Ethel Rosenberg should not be pardoned” (2015).