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The Rosenberg Affair : Rebuttal to André Kaspi the French Historian 

The unpublished response from Michael Meeropol, older son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

dimanche 30 octobre 2011, par Michael Meeropol Rosenberg (Author - auteur), Wendy Kay Johnson

 [ traduction en français ]

In July of 1950, Julius Rosenberg was accused of belonging to a spy ring, and he was arrested. The allegation was that this spy ring intended to give the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. One month later, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was arrested and accused of belonging to the same conspiracy. This was the beginning of a case with tremendous repercussions that shook public opinion in the United States and the world. It gave rise to a wide campaign of protest against the execution of the Rosenbergs. Almost 60 years later, in May 2009, André Kaspi’s book is published. He was a professor of history at the Sorbonne until 2006 and is presently mayor of the UMP (Sarkozy’s political party) town of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés. His book, « Ordinary Spies », goes back over the question of whether the Rosenbergs were guilty. According to Kaspi, they were. What follows is Michael Meeropol Rosenberg’s (oldest son of Julius and Ethel) response to Kaspi’s book. In America in rebellion today with the masses taking to the streets everywhere to protest the current politics and the economic situation, just a few weeks after Troy Davis has been executed despite protests from all over the world, and in the light of a new form of political repression, it is important to reflect on the key event of the McCarthy years.

Wendy Kay Johnson
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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 [1]
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 [2]

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." [3]

• 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 [168], 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." [137]
• 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 [4], 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 [5].

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 [6]. 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." [7]

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] [8]

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] [9]

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 [10].

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. [26]. So why does he feel it is so significant that he mentions it two other times when judging my mother’s culpability ? [11]
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 [12]. 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 [13].

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.

© 2010 Michael Meeropol Rosenberg

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.

M. M. R.


Logo and overview Source : Children Robert and Michael Meeropol Rosenberg, ; Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

JPEG - 25.7 ko
What really happened in the Rosenberg case
( October 10, 2010 )
Walter Schneir
Preface and Afterword by Miriam Schneir
Source Melville House Publisher
JPEG - 14.8 ko
Des espions ordinaires
( April 8, 2009 )
André Kaspi
JPEG - 32.8 ko
An Execution in the Family
One Son’s Journey
( 2003 first print
2004 reprint, 2010 Kindle Edition )
Robert Meeropol
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The Rosenberg Letters
A Complete Edition
of the Prison Correspondence
of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

( 1994 first print, 1995 reprint )
Michael Meeropol (Editor)
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We Are Your Sons
( 1975 first print
1986 reprint—with foreword
by Eric Foner )
Michael and Robert Meeropol

Walter Schneir : Obituary by Douglas Martin in The New York Times of April 24, 2009.


[1] The entire trial transcript is available on line at :

In his opening statement to the jury, the prosecutor said, "We will prove that the Rosenbergs devised and put into operation with the aid of Soviet Nationals and Soviet Agents in this country, an elaborate scheme which enabled them to steal through David Greenglass this one weapon that might hold the key to the survival of this nation, … the atomic bomb." (230) The Judge’s sentencing speech reads in part : "I consider your crime worse than murder … your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb … has already caused in my opinion the Communist aggression in Korea …" Eisenhower’s statement includes the following : "…. by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people al over the world." qtd. in We Are Your Sons 34, 233.

[2] See telegram, Paris to Secretary of State, (Action Copy), No. 5972, May 16, 1953. The relevant passage is : "We should not (repeat not) deceive ourselves by thinking that this sentiment [in favor of clemency] is due principally to Communist propaganda or that people who take this position are unconscious dupes of Communists. Fact is that the great majority of French people of all political leanings feel that the death sentence is completely unjustified from a moral standpoint and is due only to political climate peculiar to United States now …" The document is identified in the right margin with the following reference : 761.5211 Julius Rosenberg/5-1653.

[3] The full concluding quotation reads as follows : "Contrairement a ce que l’on a longtemps pensé, Ethel n’est pas l’épouse complètement innocente que l’on a dépeinte. D’ailleurs, elle n’hésite pas a recourir au cinquième amendement, lorsque les questions deviennent gênantes. Les opinions qu’elle exprime dans les lettres à son mari comportent les mêmes jugements politiques que ceux de Julius. Les deux époux partagent les mêmes convictions, les mêmes secrets." [174]. The perjury of David Greenglass is described on pages 171-2. One page later, however, Kaspi appears to contradict the certainty of this conclusion with the following statement : "Encore que la culpabilité d’Ethel ne soit pas cliarement établie." [175].

[4] (Hachette, 1985, 1991). Unfortunately, there are no footnotes or endnotes in the French edition. Anyone wishing to check on Radosh and Milton’s research will need to read the American edition. The most recent one is from Yale University Press, published in 1991.

[5] See :

The article is entitled "Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits to Soviet Spying" The New York Times, September 12, 2008. The letter from Morton Sobell reads as follows :

Re ’’57 Years Later, Figure in Rosenberg Case Says He Spied for Soviets’’ (front page, Sept. 12) :

I want to make it clear that my only direct knowledge of Julius Rosenberg’s activities on behalf of the Soviets during World War II — the activities I spoke with your reporter about — was what he and I did together.
He never told me about anything else that he was engaged in. Some readers of your articles might assume that I was corroborating the government’s charge about the alleged espionage of David Greenglass — that I was implying that Julius had told me of his other activities. He never did.
To this day I do not know how much of what David Greenglass said at the trial (aside from his perjury about Ethel Rosenberg’s alleged typing) is true or false.

As for me, I helped an ally (admittedly illegally) during World War II. I chose not to cooperate with the government in 1950. The issues are now with the historians. Morton Sobell

It was published in the New York Times on September 19, 2008 and is available at :

[6] Michael Meeropol, ed. The Rosenberg Letters : A Complete Prison Correspondence of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (NY : Garland Publishing Co. 1994). Kaspi includes letters taken from the French translation of some heavily edited letters in 1953 : Julius et Ethel Rosenberg Lettres de la Maison de la Mort (Gallimard, 1953). In addition, a number of letters are published in Nous Sommes Vos Fils (Éditions Sociales, Editeurs Francais Réunis, 1975).

[7] See Ibid : 466. On December 3, 1952, my father returned to this issue, "… it is crystal clear that we never said nor intimated that we were selected out and convicted because we were Jews." (Ibid. 490). There follows a long detailed discussion of the origin of the issue of anti-semitism in the case which focuses on the following point : "… the Rosenberg committee … as well as Jewish leaders realized that the case has potentialities not only for a dreadful anti-Semitic wave, but also for grave danger to the elementary liberties of the American people as a whole." (Ibid. 491). Though this letter was not excerpted in Lettres de la Maison de la Mort, much of it was published in Nous Sommes Vos Fils (WAYS, 163-164) yet Kaspi chooses not to refer to it.

[8] Kaspi notes that le Nouvel Observateur interviewed Radosh but does not share with readers any of the elements of controversy between him and his critics. By not referencing the second edition of my brother’s and my book, he leaves the readers with no way to know if we have criticisms of Radosh’s book and what those criticisms might be. To understand our criticisms, see We Are Your Sons 2nd ed. (Urbana, Ill. University of Illinois Press, 1986) : ch. 15. For a shocking example of how Radosh and Milton violate all the rules of honest scholarly debate, see Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol, "New Chapter in the Rosenberg Controversy" Socialist Review, Vol. 15, Nos
4 and 5 (Oct-July 1985) : 1, 202-3.

[9] All released Venona materials are available online. This particular document is at :

[10] Gardner’s statement is from a television program which aired on Public Television in the United States as part of the NOVA series. The show was called "Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies." It aired in February of 2002 and the transcript is available at :

[11] Now it is true that Kaspi relies also on the memoirs of Feklisov to tell one minor story that my mother acted as a "lookout" in December 1945 when Feklisov went to meet our father. Also her presence at a meeting between Julius Rosenberg and Ruth Greenglass in November of 1944 makes her technically guilty of conspiracy. However, the weight of evidence, especially the fact that she never was given a code name lead to a conclusion quite different from the one Kaspi presents to his readers. To make his case, it was essential that he confront all the evidence.

[12] The online access to this document, 16 December, 1944, is at :

[13] My brother described it this way. "I thought of an analogy. What if rather than executing my parents for stealing the secret of the atom bomb, the government had executed them instead for being serial murderers ? What if a national debate raged over their guilt for decades after their execution ? And finally, what if, more than forty years after the executions, the government released previously secret material that showed that my father had committed a series of armed robberies in which no one was killed …. I would have a hard time denying my father committed the robberies … but government institutions and agents, not my parents, would be murderers." Robert Meeropol An Execution in the Family (NY, MacMillan and Co. 2003) : 220. At the trial, the transfer of a sketch drawn by David Greenglass (which the prosecution called the secret of the atomic bomb) allegedly occurred in September of 1945 in the Rosenberg apartment (Kaspi mistakenly refers to it as occurring in January of 1945, see pp. 68-9, 74-5, and mistakenly calls it a croquis du moule a lentilles when in fact it represented a cross-section of the implosion bomb). Ruth Greenglass’ Grand Jury testimony released in September of 2008 makes no reference to that meeting at all.

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