How David Greenglass Helped <br>Break Up a Soviet Spy Ring <br>That Was Plotting New Perfidy
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death July 1 of David Greenglass, one of the last survivors among those who played a role in the Rosenberg case, was only made public yesterday. Greenglass’s testimony was the most important part of the prosecution’s case, and led to the Rosenberg’s conviction for giving the Soviets atomic secrets. His passing has produced lengthy obituaries in major newspapers — all either incomplete, misleading, or sometimes just wrong.
In a ghastly development, moreover, Greenglass’s death is providing an occasion for the Rosenberg’s two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, to renew their proclamations of their parents’ innocence. In the past years, both have acknowledged that their father (but not their mother) was working for the Soviets. Now, they have evidently gone back to their claim that the Rosenbergs were not guilty at all.
David and Ruth Greenglass, the Meeropols are quoted in the obituary in the Guardian as saying, were “the only ones who passed atomic secrets on to the Soviets, then ‘pinned what they did on our parents — a calculated ploy to save themselves by fingering our parents as the scapegoats the government demanded.’”
The brothers know well that most people respond to them with sympathy, and are not aware of the overwhelming amount of material proving the Rosenbergs’ guilt that appeared in the Venona decrypts as well as in KGB files provided in Britain by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent who defected and had smuggled in to Britain all the files he had meticulously copied over the years. It is no wonder that they regularly ignore real hard evidence and neglect to inform their audiences about its existence.
As for Greenglass himself, he not only provided the famous sketch of the bomb’s lens mold, but as KGB reports indicate, he gave them a “report on a scientific experimentation center for preparing a uranium bomb, with a general floor plan and sketches of individual buildings attached.” KGB agent Leonid Kvasnikov described a 33 page letter he received from Greenglass on “the preparation of a uranium bomb,” the structural solutions for building one, and methods for obtaining Uranium-235, which Kvasnikov called “highly valuable.” Finally, not only did he give them the sketch that was displayed at the trial, but he provided the KGB, as their reports indicate, with “a physical sample of material used in the detonator.” The claim in Robert McFadden’s obituary in The New York Times “that the Greenglass-Rosenberg atomic bomb details were of little value to the Soviets” is inaccurate. Mr. McFadden is also wrong in writing that Ethel Rosenberg “played no active role in the conspiracy.”
Greenglass was recruited for espionage at Los Alamos by Julius and his wife Ethel, who was not only guilty as charged. Steve Usdin, who wrote wrote Engineering Communism, a book about two members of Rosenberg’s spy ring, has said in an e-mail to me, that Ethel Rosenberg “was fully aware of and was an accessory to her husband’s espionage activities. She helped recruit her brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, to spy for the Soviet Union. Ethel knew that at least two of her husband’s friends were members of his espionage ring, and she met at least two of Julius’s Soviet case officers. She served as a lookout for a critical meeting Julius had with one of these case officers. In 1949 Soviet intelligence operatives discussed plans to have Ethel serve as a courier, and as the FBI was closing in on David Greenglass, Soviet intelligence sent instructions for Ethel to retrieve money from his apartment.”
Rosenberg not only recruited Greenglass and another atomic spy, Russell McNutt, but he gave the Soviets a diagram of and an actual proximity fuse, which if war had broken out between the Soviet Union and the United States, would have had an enormous impact and given the Soviets a deadly weapon. Rosenberg also stole major industrial secrets, radar for use in warfare, the first American designed jet engine, and the P-80 Shooting Star, the first American jet manufactured in quantity and used in the Korean War. At the time of his arrest, moreover, Greenglass was planning to give the Soviets new anti-tank technology, which they then would have used against American troops in Korea.
By cooperating with the government prosecutors, David Greenglass thereby saved his own life, and his wife was free to remain at home and raise her children. The Rosenbergs, on the other hand, were willing to orphan their children to protect the spies they had recruited and to serve as a propaganda tool for the Soviet Union, which needed them portrayed as innocent to deflect the world’s attention from the purge trials in Czechoslovakia, in which truly innocent, largely Jewish Communists were arrested as Western spies.
If one is looking for villains in this story, they are Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and all the spies they recruited for the Soviet Union. Yet, in popular culture, the Rosenbergs have been always portrayed as innocent martyrs to McCarthyism, while David Greenglass has been portrayed as a vile betrayer of his own sister. He may not have been any kind of hero, but as soon as he realized that the government had proof of espionage, he owned up and told the truth. He testified against his sister to both save his own life and to allow his children to lead a normal one. The deal he got — a 15 year sentence and no arrest for his equally guilty wife Ruth — is the type of plea bargain always used to entice guilty parties to cooperate with the prosecution. Greenglass did not kill his sister. He, like the Rosenbergs, never expected anyone found guilty to receive the death penalty. When Judge Irving Kaufman issued it, Greenglass wrote a letter to the court pleading for her life.
There were many injustices that took place during the Cold War years, and often dissenters were viewed as Soviet agents. Real Soviet agents, knowing the fear of McCarthyism on the part of decent well-meaning liberals, hid their actual espionage for the Soviets by proclaiming themselves “victims of a McCarthyite witch-hunt.” The arrest of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and the conviction of them by a New York City jury, was not an injustice. David Greenglass helped to break up an existing Soviet spy ring that was intact and planning to spy for the Soviets during the Cold War’s early days. For that we should be thankful.