On September 11, 2008, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) opened formerly secret Grand Jury testimony transcripts from the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg more than fifty years after they were indicted on espionage charges, convicted, and executed. The release of the transcripts resulted from a successful lawsuit filed by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and New York Times reporter Sam Roberts almost eight months ago.
NARA released 940 pages of transcripts from 41 of 45 witnesses’ appearances before the Rosenberg grand jury between August 1950 and March 1951. Testimony of three witnesses: David Greenglass, Max Elichter, and William Danziger, has been withheld due to objections by the witnesses.
In July, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York said that the government must release most of the sealed grand jury records from the Rosenberg trials. The federal government conceded in a June filing that the Rosenberg case is of “significant historical importance” and said it would not contest the release of testimony of witnesses who have passed away or consented to the disclosure.
The documents include the grand jury testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, in which she describes writing in her own longhand the information her husband obtained at the Los Alamos nuclear installation, for passing on to Julius Rosenberg and the Soviet Union. Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that ten days before the trial against the Rosenbergs commenced, Ruth and David Greenglass for the first time mentioned that Ethel Rosenberg had typed those notes. At trial, Ruth and David Greenglass testified that Ethel Rosenberg had typed up the information from the Los Alamos nuclear installation. Ruth Greenglass was never herself prosecuted for her role. The lead prosecutor used the Greenglass testimony as the culmination of his closing speech to the jury, saying that Ethel Rosenberg sat at that typewriter and “struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”
Ronald Radosh, co-author of The Rosenberg File and one of the experts who filed affidavits in the case, commented, “The grand jury documents cast significant doubt on the key prosecution charge used to convict Ethel Rosenberg at the trial and sentence her to death.” Radosh found confirmation for the grand jury version, in contradiction to the trial version, in the VENONA intercepts of Soviet intelligence communications, which describe key information on Los Alamos coming from David Greenglass through Julius Rosenberg in hand-written form in January 1945.
David Vladeck, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, remarked that today’s release was only the fourth time in history that historical grand jury testimony has been released to the public. Vladeck called the release the “first act in a two-act play,” referring to the still-withheld grand jury testimony from the Brothman-Moskowitz trial, which served as a “tune-up” for the Rosenberg trial.
“It is quite clear that if the trial were held today the government would have had a very difficult time establishing that Ethel Rosenberg was an active participant in this conspiracy and indeed it looks like the key testimony against her was perjured,” commented Vladeck. “It is clear that at some point the government strategy took a dramatic turn. Grand jury testimony reveals that there was a great deal of espionage on conventional munitions but none of that came out at trial. Why not? It may be that the government did not want to reveal the extent to which Rosenberg and other Soviet spy rings had managed to penetrate the U.S. defense establishment. “
Steven Usdin, author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley, commented that there is no question about the guilt of Julius Rosenberg and those associated with him in spying for the Soviet Union, “but the new records suggest that the government committed its own misconduct in the way it prosecuted the Rosenbergs.” In Usdin’s view, the grand jury testimony was also important for what was not there, that is, evidence on the industrial espionage carried out by the group around Julius Rosenberg, which the government apparently did not pursue.
Bruce Craig, professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada and author of Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case, remarked that the new evidence raised significant questions about whether the trial was fair, whether the prosecution strategy was improper, and whether the prosecutors manipulated the grand jury.
Martin Sherwin, University Professor of History at George Mason University and co-author of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, cautioned that the real analogy between the Rosenberg trial and today was not so much any similarity between Communists and Islamists, but the “charged atmosphere” to the point of hysteria in which the government reacted in both the early Cold War and post 9/11.
The transcripts are available on both the National Security Archive and NARA’s web sites. The National Archives Regional Archives Research Room in New York City, located at 201 Varick Street 12th Floor, has reference copies of the documents.
This story is based on information provided by the National Security Archive which is a member organization of the National Coalition for History.