Cold (War) Case


There’s a spectacular documentary from 1982 called The Atomic Cafe, which, to this day, stands as one of the most powerful, illuminating chronicles of the absurdity and hysteria of the early Cold War ever created. In what could be the film’s single most unsettling moment, a reporter — seeming to choke back a throat full of shell-shock — recalls in macabre detail the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executions he himself witnessed, just moments before being interviewed.

Among the most difficult aspects of the Rosenbergs’ date with the electric chair for the reporter to relay: The fact that Ethel Rosenberg did not die quickly. On the contrary, because she was a petite woman and not the average-sized man that the electric chair at Sing Sing was designed for, the contacts didn’t fit properly and it took two jolts of electricity, beyond the initial shock, to finally kill her.

As it turned out, the controversy surrounding the death of Ethel Rosenberg and her traitorous husband would be even harder to put to rest.

Now, historians, journalists and those fascinated by the story of the only people ever executed for Cold War espionage are hoping that declassified testimony will help shed bright new light on the Rosenbergs and the case against them.

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of Manhattan issued a partial order signaling that he’d soon release much of the secret grand jury testimony in the Rosenberg case. Federal authorities have indicated that they won’t stand in the way of the release, due mostly to the resulting trial’s historical significance and the lingering questions about the guilt and punishment of the Rosenbergs, particularly Ethel.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of gathering and transcribing secrets about the U.S. atomic bomb and filtering them to the KGB. While information uncovered and made public since their execution seems to confirm that Julius was in fact guilty of espionage, questions have been raised as to Ethel’s involvement in the conspiracy.

Unfortunately, whatever information may soon be declassified, it probably won’t answer those questions. That’s because the testimony most responsible for sending Ethel Rosenberg to the same fate as her husband — the testimony from her own brother, David Greenglass — isn’t likely to be made public. Greenglass cut a deal with prosecutors back in 1950 and turned on his sister in an effort to save his wife, Ruth Greenglass, who was also under investigation for allegedly engaging in espionage. While Judge Hellerstein may be inclined to release the files of those witnesses who’ve died or have agreed to allow their testimony to be made public, he will not order the release of classified documents related to three living people who want their testimony kept secret. Among those three: David Greenglass.

This makes a tricky situation even trickier for those who are hoping new information can help clear, at least marginally, the name of Ethel Rosenberg. Since the trial in 1951, David Greenglass has supposedly recanted his testimony against his sister and stated that he didn’t, in fact, clearly remember who transcribed notes for Soviet operatives. In his ruling yesterday, Judge Hellerstein said that Greenglass’s privacy trumps the public’s right to satisfaction in the matter.

So, was Ethel Rosenberg as guilty as the government claimed? Did she deserve her punishment? Or was the court’s and public’s judgment against her simply the natural byproduct of the paranoid hysteria of the era?

We may not know anytime soon.

But it makes you glad you live in more sober, enlightened times, doesn’t it?