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Decisions: The Rosenberg Myth

4 minute read

Overwhelming evidence sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair as Soviet atomic spies in 1953. But a stubborn mythpersists that they were framed. That myth sustains Morton Sobell, 49, who got a 30-year sentence as the Rosenbergs’ coconspirator. Last week Manhattan’s U.S. District Judge Edward Weinfeld rejected Sobell’s seventh appeal, a free-swinging charge that the Government convicted the Rosenbergs — and him, too — with “false, perjurious”evidence.

In a 79-page opinion, Judge Weinfeld coolly reviewed the case that Authors Walter and Miriam Schneir hotted up in their recent pro-Rosenberg polemic. Invitation to an Inquest (Double-day). Part of that book was inspired by the fact that Sobell had not been specifically accused of helping the Rosenbergs tell the Russians how the 1945 Nagasaki A-bomb worked. Sobell’s lesser crime was that he helped Julius Rosenberg badger a Navy Department engineer for classified antiaircraft and fire-control information. Even so, he was indicted with the Rosenbergs and duly convicted of engaging in the “single conspiracy” to spy for the Russians.

Visitor from Julius. In his first appeal, Sobell argued that he was not part of the atomic plot and was unfairly handicapped by being forced to stand trial with the Rosenbergs. When he lost, the only tactic he had left was to attack the whole case against the Rosenbergs. If they were innocent, so was he. Thus, he tried to shake the testimony of the two conspirators who became star prosecution witnesses, even though they never had any visible connection with Sobell himself.

> David Greenglass (Ethel Rosenberg’s brother) was a U.S. Army machinist stationed in Los Alamos as part of what turned out to be the Manhattan Project. In January 1945, he said, Julius Rosenberg asked him to watch out for a new bomb, parts of which he soon found himself machining. On June 3, Green-glass handed lens-mold sketches to a courier who gave the password “I come from Julius.” In September, Greenglass went to New York and gave Rosenberg a cross-section sketch of a Nagasaki-type bomb. Greenglass pleaded guilty before testifying, got a 15-year sentence after the trial, and is now free. > Harry Gold, the courier, is also now free. He testified that in June of 1945, his Soviet-consul spymaster, Anatoli Yakovlev, sent him to pick up information from Turncoat Physicist Klaus Fuchs in Santa Fe and from Greenglass in Albuquerque, where he signed a registration card in his own name at the Hotel Hilton. At the time of the Rosenberg trial, Gold had already pleaded guilty and was serving a 30-year sentence for conspiring with Fuchs.

Strong Corroboration. To shake the Greenglass story, Sobell’s lawyers attacked the Nagasaki-bomb sketch (TIME, Aug. 12) with affidavits from two ex-Manhattan Project scientists. Both scorned the sketch as amateurish, inaccurate, a naive “caricature” of the bomb, which could not possibly have aided the Russians.

With gentler scorn, Judge Weinfeld pointed out that the Government was not required to prove that the espionage agents had “achieved perfection” by stealing all specifications for mass-scale bomb production. Such standards were “irrelevant” to the case, Weinfeld said. Greenglass was merely out “to get what he could”; his success was proved by the scientists’ own affidavits, which described his version of the bomb as “correct in its most vague and general aspects.” In 1945 that was plenty.

As for Gold’s story, Sobell’s lawyers claimed that he never met Greenglass when he said he did. They said Gold’s hotel registration card was forged (supposedly by the FBI). Wholly unproved, ruled Judge Weinfeld, quietly noting that Sobell’s petition contained no affidavit from the one person who knows the facts—the still available room clerk who presumably handled the card.

Finally, the Sobell petition claimed that the Government suppressed recordings of 1950 interviews between Gold and his lawyer, which might have revealed perjury in his story of the Greenglass meeting. Such suppression, said Weinfeld, was impossible. Because the recordings were protected by the “lawyer-client privilege,” they were not even given to the FBI until 21 years after the trial. Moreover, said the judge, “a careful reading of the transcripts of the recordings and all other material, rather than supporting petitioner’s charges, strongly corroborates Gold’s trial testimony.” In short, ruled Weinfeld, Sobell has nothing to complain about. “No act or conduct on the part of the Government deprived him of a fundamentally fair trial.”

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