The Rest Of The Story

A reporter's long pursuit of Ethel Rosenberg's brother, whose lie led to her execution.

January 02, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

"I love him like a brother - David Greenglass."- From Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

New York Times journalist Sam Roberts pursued David Greenglass for 13 years seeking to interview the atomic spy whose testimony in 1951 doomed his own sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. Then, at their very first sitdown, Greenglass made the most startling, most explosive admission: He had lied on the witness stand, sending Ethel to her death on the basis of a falsehood.

It was a bombshell. One of the most controversial cases in American legal history had turned on perjured testimony. What a coup for a lifelong newsman after all these years. What a scoop.

Except for one thing: Roberts hadn't gotten Greenglass' admission on tape.

Roberts had been so afraid of spooking Greenglass, he hadn't brought a tape recorder. He had never expected Greenglass to be so forthcoming, let alone that he would make such a remarkable confession. What if Roberts wrote about Greenglass' admission only to have Greenglass deny he had said any such thing?

Somehow Roberts had to get Greenglass on tape. But how to do it without scaring him off? Roberts and his reporter friends debated the best approach. Finally, he decided to tell Greenglass the truth - or at least something that was true: allowing Roberts to tape him was the best way to ensure that he was quoted accurately.

Would Greenglass buy it? Or would a tape recorder and its promise of permanency frighten him away, leaving Roberts with a shattering piece of information and nothing to do with it?

Greenglass listened to Roberts' request. Then, without hesitation or apparent consideration, he gave his answer. Sure thing, he said, jokingly adding that Roberts could videotape him for all he cared.

And, with audiotape rolling, Greenglass repeated his account.

For Roberts, who would eventually record 50 hours of interviews with Greenglass, it was an early insight into an essential characteristic of his subject: Greenglass was a man who barely considered the consequences of his actions, no matter how critical, either for himself or others.

"His answers were shockingly matter-of-fact about ... life and death decisions," Roberts said in a recent interview.

A half-century ago, the consequences of Greenglass' decisions could not have been greater for Greenglass himself, for Ethel, for the entire world. Those decisions resulted in his disgrace and imprisonment, her death in the electric chair, and, if not the end of the American monopoly on the atomic bomb, a foreshortened exclusivity on it.

The central role Roberts accords to Greenglass in the most divisive espionage case in American history is clear from the title of his new book: The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair.

The Greenglass interviews are the crux of new material, but they are not Roberts' only source in this riveting narrative. He made use of FBI files as well as the recently released papers from Venona, the American spy operation that decoded Soviet intelligence communiques during World War II and make clear Julius Rosenberg's guilt while casting great doubt on the culpability of Ethel. And, Roberts interviewed virtually everyone still alive connected with the case, including the Sing Sing rabbi who attended to the Rosenbergs before their executions in 1953.

But all of that came much, much later in Roberts' own personal brush with the Rosenberg case, which captivated the nation at the dawn of the Cold War - and, to some extent, ever since. On a Sunday morning the day after Roberts turned 6, his father dragged him and his sister to a street corner on their block in Brooklyn to watch the passing of the Rosenberg funeral procession. He wanted his children to see history, particularly this history. From the beginning, American Jews perceived the Rosenberg case as threatening. Because the Rosenbergs were Jewish, they feared the case would inflame anti-Semitism. And they couldn't resist wondering if the Rosenbergs would have been the first American civilians put to death for espionage if they hadn't been Jews.

Roberts was not obsessed with the case, though, and might not have had anything more to do with it except for the assignment he received as a New York Times reporter 30 years after the executions. In 1983, a new book was published about the Rosenberg case, The Rosenberg File by Joyce Milton and Ronald Radosh, which claimed to contain new information about the case. If that were so, a Times editor decided, someone should write a news story about the book. Roberts was that someone.

On the trail

Now 54 and a Times editor, Roberts turned to the retired reporter who had covered the case for the paper. Peter Kihss' advice for the younger reporter: Find David Greenglass, Ethel's youngest brother who, as a machinist at Los Alamos at the end of World War II, had delivered atomic secrets to Julius, who in turn had passed them on to the Soviets.

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