What 60 Minutes Got Wrong About Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Feature: What I told 60 Minutes and Anderson Cooper, and what they ignored

Meeropol brothers
Michael and Robert Meeropol appear in a 60 Minutes segment
October 20, 2016

Last Sunday, CBS's 60 Minutes featured a two-segment piece called "The Brothers Rosenberg, on which the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robert Meeropol, told the story of how it felt when at the ages of seven and three, their parents were arrested and their everyday normal lives seemed to come to an end. The first segment was indeed a moving portrayal of how being the children of Communist spies affected their young lives. "Being the Rosenberg's children in 1950," Robert Meeropol put it to Anderson Cooper, "was almost like being Osama bin Laden's kids here after 9/11."

The real purpose of the Meeropols, however, was to use the program as part of their campaign to have President Barack Obama officially exonerate their mother and posthumously declare her innocent, just as the New York City Council did on Sept. 28, 2015, the date of Ethel's 100th birthday. Knowing from the producers what Part I of the report was about, I always feared that after having seen the first segment, anyone who continued watching would view the issue of whether Ethel was guilty not by consideration of all the evidence. Instead, I feared viewers would want to make amends to the sons, and want their mother to be innocent to make the Meeropols feel better and to gain justice.

Ron Radosh in the 60 Minutes segment
Ron Radosh in the 60 Minutes segment

As co-author of The Rosenberg File with the late Joyce Milton, the producers of the program, Andy Court and his assistant producer Evie Salomon, asked me to participate as the historian most acquainted with the case, and to in effect be the counterpoint for the Meeropols' claim that their mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was completely innocent.

The program's producers and their staff worked extremely hard. Indeed, my segment was taped last winter, and they worked for months putting their report together. I and my associates, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, Steven Usdin, and Mark Kramer gave them a mountain of copies of KGB material from the Vassiliev files, specific KGB messages from the Venona decrypts, and answered many questions that they had. We left no stone unturned in giving them material that proved beyond any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was indeed guilty of "conspiracy to commit espionage." None of us believed she should have been executed, and no one on the program, including myself, argued otherwise.

I suggest readers go to various links already on the internet that challenge the 60 Minutes narrative. First, the intelligence expert John Schindler wrote his regular column in The Observer on proof of Ethel's guilt. He writes: "Regrettably for the Meeropols, they don't have much in the way of evidence to back up their assertion that their mother was not a Soviet spy." Schindler then provides the actual documents that point to her guilt. He concludes aptly with these words:

It would be best if the Meeropols accepted that fact and moved on with their lives. It would also be nice if CBS presented this important case in a more historically balanced and truthful fashion.

Next, Scott Johnson at offers statements he solicited from Klehr, Haynes, Usdin, and Kramer. Each of them in turn offer concrete evidence from documents they mention or cite that would have definitively left the average viewer with real evidence which the Meeropols would have been hard-pressed to challenge or tear apart. But these documents were never brought to light, and at times, the narrative even offered contrary statements as the truth, without any evidence to back up the claims.

Usdin sums up the case for Ethel's guilt:

She met with at least three of the Soviet KGB officers who Julius reported to, served as a "cut out" for communications with a KGB officer on at least one occasion, and she recruited her brother to become an atomic spy. KGB documents indicate that Ethel knew of her husband's activities, knew he had recruited several of his comrades to spy for Stalin, and that the Soviet intelligence agency trusted Ethel.

Of all the commentators, Mark Kramer had the harshest judgment. He sees the program as a "puff piece" meant to give voice for the Meeropols' desire to "whitewash" new Soviet evidence about their mother's guilt. He notes that the sons said nothing they haven't already said the past few years. He then writes the following about the role I played

When Ron Radosh was finally brought in, he explained well why the Meeropols are dead wrong, but unfortunately the 60 Minutes producers gave him much less time, and they omitted some of his crucial arguments.

Let me pause to inform readers about the many times Andy Court told me, in person or over the phone, that it was their intention to be nuanced and to let both sides be heard so that viewers could judge for themselves who was correct. He emphasized many times how much they appreciated all the material I and my colleagues had sent them; how invaluable it was, and how indebted they were to us. It all sounded fine. But is that what the segments they finally aired accomplished?

Let me take up one point: the issue of the sketch David Greenglass made of the cross section of the Nagasaki bomb and the lens mold used, which were released at the trial. The defense—and the Rosenbergs' supporters today—argued that the sketch was useless, that it revealed nothing, that David Greenglass was a machinist and not any kind of scientist, and hence it would have been on no value whatsoever to the Soviets.

Mark Kramer, taking up this point, writes the following:

It is simply untrue to say, as the 60 Minutes producers did, that the sketch was of no value. Nine large volumes of declassified Soviet nuclear documents were published from 1999 to 2009 under the title Atomnyi proekt SSSR (Atomic Project of the USSR), and these volumes make clear that the special committee headed by Lavrentii Beria (which oversaw the Soviet nuclear weapons program from 1945 until 1953) always sought multiple sources to confirm the information they were receiving from espionage. So, even though it is true that what Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall provided was far more detailed and sensitive than the information provided by Greenglass, it is factually wrong to say that the Greenglass sketch was of no value. The sketch provided confirmation of information from Fuchs and Hall.

Indeed, The Rosenberg File, which was published in 1983, included an entire chapter titled "The Scientific Evidence." We showed that contrary to popular commentary on Greenglass' sketch, major scientists the Rosenberg defense sought to enlist on their behalf replied to the couple's counsel, Emanuel Bloch, that in effect any scientist worth their salt, especially a nuclear physicist, would immediately be able to understand that it meant the United States was working on the process of implosion to produce a working a-bomb. These scientists who Bloch had written were all sympathetic to the Rosenbergs, and were they able to help them by showing the sketch was useless, they would have done so. The chapter, clearly, was completely ignored by the producers.

Rather, Anderson Cooper says, incorrectly, that while the spy network did gather "important technology for jet fighters, radar, and detonators," it did not do a "a very good job of stealing…atomic secrets." He adds: "When a copy of the sketch Greenglass said he drew for the Soviets was made public in 1966, nuclear scientists were not impressed." That conclusion itself is false and flies in the fact of the facts.

To be fair to the producers, the narrative read by Anderson Cooper does say "secret messages, intercepted cable [Venona] long-forgotten files from the archives of the FBI, the CIA and the KGB" have "changed the way this chapter of American history is being viewed." But Cooper then says that this material is why the Meeropols are "asking to exonerate their mother." That statement makes little sense because the material proves Ethel's involvement with the network and her guilt.

Secondly, as Kramer writes, Julius recruited another atom spy, Russell McNutt, who worked at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, plant of the Manhattan Project on projects relating to the A-bomb. This is why McNutt's absence from their segment is important.

Kramer explains:

First, even though Radosh spoke to them at length about the importance of Russell McNutt, they made no mention of him. The reason this omission is so important is that the Rosenbergs' recruitment of McNutt shows conclusively that they were intent on setting up a wide spy network in the U.S. nuclear weapons program — not just at Los Alamos but also at Oak Ridge.

 Mentioning McNutt would have completely undermined the false assertion that Julius' network did not succeed in gaining any material of importance relating to the atomic bomb. I said as much in an email to Andy Court dated Oct.13, at which time they were still finalizing the script:

I think your voice-over should note that Julius recruited another atom spy, Russell McNutt. It is important because it confirms that Julius was seeking atomic information, and undermines the Meeropol argument that his father just was putting together a network to gather relatively unimportant industrial secrets that the Russians deserved having anyway.

Your viewers will come away thinking that only David got material, and since some contest the worthiness or accuracy of that judgment, Julius too is absolved. McNutt proves that one cannot say that Julius was not seeking atomic secrets.

Court answered the same day that "because some of your historian colleagues have objected to any implication that David Greenglass was the 'only' atomic informant Julius recruited, I have rewritten that line with their concerns in mind." I have read through the entire script online and cannot find what line was supposedly re-written.

Another "proof" mentioned by the Meeropols and not answered by anyone is that David Greenglass lied and falsely testified that when presenting atomic material to Julius in New York, his sister Ethel typed up the notes that were given to the Russians.

Ethel did not type up any notes. We know this both from a Venona entry as well as corroboration in the Vassiliev KGB files, which indicate the receipt of Greenglass' handwritten material. The Meeropols argue that this was perjured testimony that Greenglass gave because he needed to give his sister up in order for his wife to remain free. That deal was offered to him by the prosecution, and it is likely that, as Greenglass later told CBS, he was pushed to implicate Ethel in this overt act by the late Roy Cohn, who was an assistant prosecutor in the case. We have no way of knowing whether or not this assertion is true.

But even with this perjured testimony, the rest of the evidence substantiates Ethel's guilt. One must remember that the Justice Department knew from Venona of the Rosenbergs' actual guilt, but was not free to use anything in it as evidence in Court, since the United States did not want the Soviets to know they had broken their code. That is why I said in my interview that if the Rosenbergs were framed, as many argue, "they framed guilty people."

Finally, one other aspect was left out of my interview. Anderson Cooper asked me why I thought Robert and Michael Meeropol were carrying on this cause, knowing that their father was a Soviet agent. I answered that what they have said recently is their father only gathered minor industrial material that the Soviets should have had anyway, and they deny that he gave the Soviet Union anything of significance. I also argued that in their mother's famous last letter to them, she told them to never forget that the family was innocent and they should live to fight to clear their parents' names.

Given an admonition like this, from a woman who knew well they were Soviet agents, indicates that the Rosenbergs were both fanatic Communists who indeed, as Judge Kaufman said in court, were willing to orphan their own children because being loyal to the cause was more important to them than the truth. How could the Meeropols go on and admit to themselves, I said, that their parents—including their mother—were guilty?

The Meeropol brothers on 60 Minutes
The Meeropol brothers on 60 Minutes

The Meeropols are given the last word. They say they were undoubtedly "damaged" by what their parents did, but are certain that Ethel Rosenberg was "killed for something she did not do." True, she did not type any notes. But the Rosenbergs were charged and found guilty of "conspiracy to commit espionage," not treason as many people think was the case. In a conspiracy indictment, any party who was part of a conspiracy is as guilty as the main perpetrator. That means legally, Ethel—who in fact did many things for the network—was no less guilty than her husband.

My conclusion is that the producers tried to be fair, but could not obviously help themselves from being dragged into the narrative offered by the Meeropols. It was their dramatic story—told in part I—that made the entire report interesting. Had the producers gone with the complete truth and said the evidence proved Ethel's guilt, they could not have had a story that showed the Meeropols suffering over the years. Hence the report ended up filled with false information as well as many references to Ethel's innocence. In a portion of my interview that made the cutting floor, Anderson Cooper asked me whether I was certain she was guilty, and he repeated the question a few times. I answered that she absolutely was guilty, and I said so without any reservations.

Intentionally or not, 60 Minutes allowed itself to be used as part of the Meeropols' campaign to vindicate their mother. Perhaps it is too much to ask that the media, and as influential a program as 60 Minutes, would dare to use its program to tear apart a cherished myth of the American left.