- Fernand Léger
silk scarf, dedicated to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
World Festival of Youth
- Source Drouot Catalog, Paris.
REVIEW : Des Espions Ordinaires
Back in 1953, France was the country where both the politicians and the people stood virtually united in urging President Eisenhower to grant clemency for my parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Though they had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, they were accused of being Atom Spies. Today, people all over the world remain interested in the case because of that charge : that they had stolen the secret of the Atomic Bomb. That is the central element in the case. That is what the prosecution told the jury they would prove. That is what the Judge charged when he sentenced them to death. And that is why President Eisenhower ultimately denied clemency 
Skepticism about that charge as well as recognition that if espionage occurred, it was committed on behalf of an ally during the war against Nazi Germany was what undoubtedly motivated that majority of French opinion to support clemency. When C. Douglas Dillon, US Ambassador to France reported on why opinion in that country was so united, he focused on the severity of the sentence and admonished the government back home not to believe their own propaganda that this was the result of communist manipulation 
It is fitting, therefore, that one of France’s most distinguished experts on United States history would undertake a detailed re-examination of the issues in "l’affaire Rosenberg." In Des Espions Ordinaires, Dr. André Kaspi has attempted to summarize what he calls the indisputable conclusions of history. He is certain that :
• Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were not innocent — they lied when they denied they were Communists and lied when they denied they were spies.
• Even the recent admission that the testimony of David and Ruth Greenglass, the chief prosecution witnesses, regarding Ethel Rosenberg’s alleged typing of spy secrets was false does not make her "l’épouse complètement innocente que l’on a dépeinte." 
• The Judge’s accusation that Soviet atomic espionage caused the Korean War is a wild exaggeration. [147-8]
• The Rosenbergs may not have stolen the secret of the Atom Bomb , given the espionage activities of scientists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, but Kaspi seems conflicted on this issue when he states : "L’Union soviétique a systématiquement infiltré l’operation Manhattan qui avait pour but de mettre au point la bombe atomique. …. Les Rosenberg ont tenu un rôle important dans ces activités d’espionnage." 
• The death sentence was a disproportionate response, but the world wide campaign to save the Rosenbergs from the electric chair in 1952 and 1953 was a cynical effort on the part of international communism to blame the prosecution and sentence on anti-semitism and divert attention from the real anti-semitism that existed in the Soviet Union and their satellite "peoples democracies." [112-120]
Dr. Kaspi’s assertion that these are the indisputable conclusions, unfortunately is based on an incomplete reading of recent research.
Des Espions Ordinaires uses primary and secondary sources. They include documents from the FBI cited by what appears to be Kaspi’s main source, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton’s Dossier Rosenberg , the deciphered Soviet communications identifying a number of Soviet espionage agents and their activities in the US during World War II (l’operation Venona), and KGB documents described in Allen Weinstein’s and Alexander Vassiliev’s The Haunted Wood. He also references the memoir of Julius Rosenberg’s KGB contact, Alexandre Feklisov, as well as the story told from the point of view of David Greenglass, in The Brother by NY Times reporter Sam Roberts.
Two sources not mentioned in Dr. Kaspi’s book probably became available too late to be considered. In September of 2008, the Grand Jury testimony of Ruth Greenglass was released. At the same time, Morton Sobell, my parents’ co-defendant acknowledged in a New York Times interview and subsequent letter to the editor that he and my father had in fact given classified (but non-atomic) information to the Soviet Union during World War II .
Sobell’s statement makes it indisputable that my father delivered classified information to the Soviet Union during World War II. However, the alleged culpability of my mother remains very much in dispute as does the whole secret of the Atom Bomb issue. Nevertheless, I believe a more accurate and complete understanding of l’affaire Rosenberg is available today than was possible, for example, when I visited France in 1975 to participate in the television show Les Dossiers de L’Ecran and later to promote my brother’s and my book, Nous Sommes Vos Fils.
Unfortunately, Dr. Kaspi’s book, which he claims presents this accurate, more complete analysis, is unworthy of such a distinguished historian.
First of all the interpretation of historical facts can never be "indisputable" despite Kaspi’s assertion. The study of history in many ways is an argument without end. Conclusions that are indisputable one day are suddenly called into question either when new evidence appears or a new interpretation of old evidence comes to the fore.
All a historian can do is to faithfully convey to the readers what has been discovered by decades of research. To do this, one must first critically examine all the secondary sources so that competing interpretations by previous investigators can be judged. Then, one must examine primary sources (FBI documents, material from Soviet archives, trial testimony) to see how they support or contradict various interpretations in the secondary literature.
Dr. Kaspi has not considered a number of important sources. He did not consult the complete book of my parents’ prison correspondence which was published in 1994. This is unfortunate because the letters published in 1953 (including those translated into French which were used extensively by Kaspi) were heavily edited whereas the 1994 book is a complete and faithful edition of all existing letters . This omission bears on one of Dr. Kaspi’s main conclusions, namely, that the campaign to save my parents turned on the false complaint that the case was based on anti-semitism. Had he read the complete letters book, he would have been surprised to note that on November 10, 1952, my father wrote to his lawyer arguing that the campaign to save them should not focus on anti-semitism.
"…Anti-Semitic overtones in this case … are subtle and secondary issues, hard to put the finger on and by being put into the position of concentrating and stressing this as a major issue the committee has been sidetracked by the opposition which tends to weaken the main fight because the facts bearing on this issue in the trial record are not as sharply defined and clear as the others and allows for unnecessary confusion." 
In this context, it is interesting to note that the Dillon telegram mentioned above makes no reference to the charge of anti-semitism in dissecting French opposition to the impending executions.
The bibliography includes the first edition of my brother’s and my book (Nous Sommes Vos Fils) but not the second edition (only available in English) which contains a detailed rebuttal to the argumentation in Radosh and Milton’s The Rosenberg File. Since that work appears to be a major source for much of Kaspi’s analysis, it would have been useful for French readers had Kaspi seriously considered the challenges to Radosh and Milton presented in that second edition. Instead of dealing with any of the specific arguments that were raised against the Radosh-Milton analysis, Kaspi summarizes the different conclusions reached by French observers when that book was published in translation.[136-7] 
When it comes to primary sources, Dr. Kaspi puts great store in the Venona decryptions (the deciphered texts of Soviet cables sent between New York and Moscow during World War II) but he fails to note one inescapable conclusion from them – namely that my mother was not a Soviet espionage agent.
In a document dated November 27, 1944, my mother is described as the wife of the spy code-named Liberal (who we now know was my father). Here is what New York told Moscow about her in the memo :
"Sufficiently well developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR and NIL. [Two espionage contacts]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person."
Amazingly Kaspi quotes from the same Venona document but with a crucial omission. "Suffisamment bien eduquée politiquement. Connaît les activités de son mari. […] Est caracterisée positvement et en tant que personne devouée." [p. 174] 
When the Venona decryptions were made public, Meredith Gardner, the chief Russian-language decrypter noted that the statement "does not work" is espionage talk for her not being an agent. Because Kaspi chose to omit the words "does not work" from his translation, he did not have to confront the implications of those words. He also neglects to tell the reader that she was never given a code name .
In making his case against my mother, Kaspi notes three separate places in the book, that she signed nominating papers for a Communist Party candidate for the New York City Council.
This argument is unworthy. When he first mentioned this fact, he noted that signing of the nominating papers meant nothing – that 50,000 other New Yorkers signed the same petition. . So why does he feel it is so significant that he mentions it two other times when judging my mother’s culpability ? 
There is another problem with Kaspi’s reliance on the Venona releases. They actually damage the original government charges against both my parents. In addition to arguably exonerating my mother completely, the documents reveal that the spy code-named Liberal professed ignorance of the Atomic Bomb project and suggested that David Greenglass (the chief prosecution witness and my mother’s brother) be questioned by an expert . In other words, within the Venona decryptions themselves is evidence to support the most important part of our claims and the claims of many of my parents’ supporters back in 1953, namely, that the idea that they had stolen the secret of the Atom Bomb was a fantastic concoction, and that therefore the punishment most certainly did not fit the crime.
In 2003, my brother Robert published his memoir, An Execution in the Family. Towards the end of the book, he speculated on what it would mean to us if the decrypted Soviet cables contained in the Venona releases were substantially accurate. (We now know the broad outlines are, indeed, accurate.) Being involved in military-industrial espionage does not make one an Atom Spy, and it is the alleged theft of the Atom Bomb secret that explains why the world remains interested in l’affaire Rosenberg to this day .
French readers were unfortunately denied the benefits of Dr. Kaspi’s thoughts on this argument because, inexplicably, he did not include my brother’s book in his bibliography and did not comment on it in his discussion of Venona. How can the conclusions of history be (in Kaspi’s words) "indisputable" if the very writings that dispute his conclusions are ignored ?
Dr. Kaspi, with this book, has missed a golden opportunity to initiate a useful debat for all French citizens about the implications of l’affaire Rosenberg. Hopefully, this review will stimulate further discussion and maybe even further research.
POSCRIPT, October 2011
Since this review was written, there has been a significant new development in understanding what really happened in my parents’ case. Just before he died, Walter Schneir, co-author of INVITATION TO AN INQUEST a full scale investigation of the case based on information available up to 1983, published FINAL VERDICT, WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN THE ROSENBERG CASE. (NY, MELVILLE HOUSE, 2010) In that book, which includes a Preface and Afterward by Miriam Schneir, he concludes the following :
My father, Julius Rosenberg, was indeed the spy code-named LIBERAL in the VENONA decryptions.
He was a recruiter who brought a number of friends with scientific and engineering backgrounds in to help the Soviet Union during World War II (and afterwards as well). However, and this is most important, he was only marginally involved in the atomic spy ring he was depicted as leading.
The only activity he engaged in was to get Ruth Greenglass to recruit her husband David and at one subsequent meeting to get a layout of the location where the first ATomic Bomb was developed and the names of participating scientists.
After that, everything the Greenglasses did (and this is documented on one of Kaspi’s sources THE HAUNTED WOOD) they did on their own and with direct contact with KGB operatives in New York.
Two key pieces of evidence were uncovered by Schneir to support this allegation. First, in early 1945 the KGB ordered my father to cease his espionage activities because they were afraid the FBI was on to him. Second, the sketch introduced at the trial representing the "secret of the Atom Bomb" (a drawing David Greenglass made in 1945) did not arrive in Moscow until December 1945 even though both Greenglasses asserted it was passed to my father in September, 1945.
It is clear from Schneir’s research that the crucial September 1945 meeting — which, remember, formed the basis of the charge of stealing the secret of the A-bomb — never took place.
Thus, at the trial my father was confronted with being framed for a crime he did not commit — yet unable *(obviously) to admit what he had done.
Considering my mother, Schneir reiterates what I mentioned above in the original article. My mother was never given a code name — she was never an espionage agent. She was, instead, a hostage taken by the government to make my father talk.