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The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case [Paperback]

Sam Roberts
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 13 2003
Fifty years after their execution in June 1953 for conspiring to steal atomic secrets, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the subjects of great emotional debate and acrimony. The man whose testimony almost single-handedly convicted them was Ethel Rosenberg’s own brother, David Greenglass. Though the Rosenbergs were executed, Greenglass served a mere ten years in prison, after which, with a new name, he disappeared. But journalist Sam Roberts found Greenglass, and then managed to convince him to talk about everything that had happened.
So here at last is the mesmerizing inside story of the Rosenberg case: What were their lives like growing up on the Lower East Side? How was David Greenglass enlisted in a plot to hand over to the Soviets our greatest national secret? And how, finally, did the whole thing unravel? Even beyond that, The Brother reveals how David Greenglass perjured himself in testifying about his sister and her husband—testimony that virtually strapped them into the electric chair.
The Brother is a great narrative, far more mesmerizing than anything else written on the subject. It is a story of espionage. It is the story of a trial. And, most tragically, it is the story of a family.

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Review

“A fresh and fast-paced study of one of the most important crimes of the twentieth century.”—The Washington Post

“[Sam Roberts] is a deft writer able to weave science, history, and criminal investigation into an absorbing narrative that at times reads like a spy thriller—even if you do know how the story ends.”—The Boston Globe

“An absorbing account of the Rosenberg atomic spy drama seen through the eyes of [David] Greenglass . . . whose testimony helped send his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, to the electric chair in 1953.”
The New York Times Book Review

From the Back Cover

“A fresh and fast-paced study of one of the most important crimes of the twentieth century.”—The Washington Post

“[Sam Roberts] is a deft writer able to weave science, history, and criminal investigation into an absorbing narrative that at times reads like a spy thriller—even if you do know how the story ends.”—The Boston Globe

“An absorbing account of the Rosenberg atomic spy drama seen through the eyes of [David] Greenglass . . . whose testimony helped send his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, to the electric chair in 1953.”
The New York Times Book Review

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Paperback
I got more out of this book than I thought I would. Mr. Roberts does a very good job of telling the story of David Greenglass, his wife Ruth, and his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed the year before I was born and it is a sad story I have heard various versions of throughout my life. Depending on your political leanings it became a kind of vision test. What you saw in it revealed a lot about how you saw the world and what you believed about the Cold War.
Mr. Roberts gives a lot of background material to provide context and to help modern-day readers capture more of the atmosphere of the time. One example that affected me was the link many made between the onset of the Korean War with Stalin having atomic weapons sooner than he would have without Fuchs, Greenglass, and the Rosenbergs. (Ted Hall played a significant role as well, but no one outside the Intelligence community knew about him until the 1990s.)
The author provides unequivocal evidence of Julius acting as an agent and spy for the Soviet Union. He also has no doubt that Ethel was aware of and approved of her husband aiding the USSR. They were naively supporting an ideal politics that did not exist. Julius also seemed to enjoy the importance he felt he attained by doing this work. He also seems to have provided other technologies to the Soviet Union including a proximity fuse.
But Roberts expresses grave concern over even charging Ethel and provides evidence that she was being used as a lever on her husband. Mr. Roberts seems to doubt that there was enough real evidence to even indict Ethel let alone convict and execute her (actual guilt being a different issue).
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5.0 out of 5 stars Greenglass Breaks His Silence May 27 2003
Format:Paperback
Sam Roberts found David Greenglass and persuaded him to talk for this very readable 500 page book. It tells of their family histories. How did David Greenglass get assigned to Los Alamos (p.70)? Perhaps due to his talents? He was cleared by Army and FBI investigators (p.71). Soviet atom bomb development began in 1939, they deduced American research in 1940 (p.80). Julius Rosenberg became involved with Soviet espionage, and a recruiter of people who could provide "technical information". The crime is committed when the message is relayed (p.92). Life in Oak Ridge or Los Alamos is likened to a socialist paradise where the government provides for everyone; but not all enjoy Army life (pp.100-1). None suspected that DG's insatiable curiosity was to gather information for a foreign government (p.104). Winston Churchill's scientists asked for dynamite lenses (p.107). How to steal a proximity fuse? Get a defective reject then replace the broken parts with working parts (p.109).
With the war over, DG was no longer interested in helping the Soviets (p.147). The Soviet atomic research resumed in 1943 (p.182), their first atomic test occurred in 1949. This affected the political outlook in Washington (p.183). When they deciphered a message on gaseous diffusion in refining uranium, this led to its author and prime suspect - Klaus Fuchs (p.188). Another deciphered message said a spy at Los Alamos went on vacation in Jan 1945 (p.197); 100 suspects were turned up. The two prime suspects were Luis Alvarez and Edward Teller - the best friend of Klaus Fuchs.
DG's confession is on page 242. He hired O. John Rogge and cooperated with the FBI; he could not testify against his wife (p.261). Greenglass and Gold were interviewed together to harmonize their stories (p.278).
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Many new insights and great background on this sad case Jan. 9 2004
By Craig Matteson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I got more out of this book than I thought I would. Mr. Roberts does a very good job of telling the story of David Greenglass, his wife Ruth, and his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed the year before I was born and it is a sad story I have heard various versions of throughout my life. Depending on your political leanings it became a kind of vision test. What you saw in it revealed a lot about how you saw the world and what you believed about the Cold War.
Mr. Roberts gives a lot of background material to provide context and to help modern-day readers capture more of the atmosphere of the time. One example that affected me was the link many made between the onset of the Korean War with Stalin having atomic weapons sooner than he would have without Fuchs, Greenglass, and the Rosenbergs. (Ted Hall played a significant role as well, but no one outside the Intelligence community knew about him until the 1990s.)
The author provides unequivocal evidence of Julius acting as an agent and spy for the Soviet Union. He also has no doubt that Ethel was aware of and approved of her husband aiding the USSR. They were naively supporting an ideal politics that did not exist. Julius also seemed to enjoy the importance he felt he attained by doing this work. He also seems to have provided other technologies to the Soviet Union including a proximity fuse.
But Roberts expresses grave concern over even charging Ethel and provides evidence that she was being used as a lever on her husband. Mr. Roberts seems to doubt that there was enough real evidence to even indict Ethel let alone convict and execute her (actual guilt being a different issue). There is no doubt that everyone involved wished that Julius would cooperate so their sentences could be commuted. But Julius and Ethel were committed to their ideology more than their own lives.
The bombshell in this book is provided in the summary of a series of interviews that Roberts had with David Greenglass (now living under a different name) wherein Greenglass says that he did say things on the stand that weren't exactly correct. He did not see the photographic table he testified to (although he knew that Julius did do photographic spy work), and, more explosively, that he had no personal recollection of the famous scene of Ethel typing the pages of atomic bomb notes. He testified to it to corroborate his wife, Ruth's. testimony. Greenglass, however, confirms and says that he has no doubt of Julius and Ethel's guilt. He also says he was shocked when they received the death penalty.
This is a story that seems to have no resolution. Those who remember it tend to be very committed to one version or another. For the rest, it is an old event that is evaporating from memory with only vague notions of what was at stake and without historical context. Mr. Roberts has done us all a great service by getting the real story with wonderful detail and good analysis. If you are interested in this story, this book is a must read. I believe that no matter what you think you know about this case, this book will give you many new insights and a greater understanding of this sad historical event.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We may not care for what he did........ Sept. 8 2007
By Robert C. Hufford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
.....but that doesn't change the truth of what he said. A virtual infinity of books have been written about the Rosenberg case, most by people having an agenda, one way or the other; this is one of the best, and most important...further, Sam Roberts does not have an agenda. I was only 6 when the Rosenbergs went to the chair, but I remember it well. I have never doubted their guilt; I have little doubt that my Dad would have pulled the switch. Numerous authors have proclaimed the Rosenbergs innocent victims of a government frame-up; these are often Communists, or at least leftists, who base their assertions on the belief that the principle prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass, were lowlifes.

This fine book is the story of David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg, atomic spy, soldier turned traitor, a man who turned government witness and "sent his sister to the chair". Many know the basic story...Ethel and David grew up in a poor family, and embraced Communism while young. Ethel married fellow Communist Julius Rosenberg, who strongly desired to aid the Soviet Union. During WWII, David was drafted into the Army, and worked in the machine shop at Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was being developed...Julius found out about David's assignment, and recruited him to steal secrets for Russia...David passed the information to spy courier Harry Gold...after the war, the house of cards eventually fell...scientist Klaus Fuchs was caught...that led to Harry Gold...........

When arrested in 1950, David and his wife Ruth gave up Julius and Ethel; there was certainly no desire to "send them to the chair". They figured that the Rosenbergs would confess, as others had done, and the chain would go on. But, the Rosenbergs never confessed; apart from Morton Sobell, the rest of their spy ring remained free. They were tried, convicted, and, after a two year legal fight, executed. Sobell [who was not involved in atomic espionage] got 30 years, served 18 of them, and has never repented. Greenglass got 15 years, served 9, and disappeared behind an assumed name into a city somewhere in the northeast. He is now 85, and has expressed no regrets about being a government witness, still angry that the Rosenbergs got them into the mess. Ruth was never indicted......

There have been many charges of frame-up, and misconduct, on the part of the government. Certainly, there were improprieties; prosecutor Alexander Saypol wanted to be a Judge, and he was. Judge Irving Kaufman would have given his front seat in the Synagogue for the Supreme Court; despite a long, honored, career as an appeals judge, he never got it. But, none of this changes the Rosenbergs' guilt...in fact, the government had evidence it didn't dare use...the Venona intercepts implicated the Rosenbergs, and others, but use of them in open court would have let the Soviets know we had broken the code. The FBI even had an informant in Emmanuel Bloch's office while he was preparing the Rosenbergs' appeals...he gained even more evidence of guilt, but, of course, it couldn't be used.

We can debate capital punishment in general, and in this specific case, particularly for Ethel...like Mary Surratt, she was guilty, but peripherally. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover was strongly opposed to executing her. The Rosenbergs died by choice, giving their ultimate loyalty to a lie; on execution night, FBI agents were present to receive their confession, and President Eisenhower was at his desk with a commutation order.

The Rosenberg case has legal, political, psychological, military, philosophical, and religious, elements that will be debated forever. This book will give you a whole different view. Read it; also, read "The Rosenberg File" by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton. Radosh is a former Communist sympathizer who set out to prove the Rosenbergs' innocence, and got a big surprise. Also, "The Implosion Conspiracy" by Louis Nizer, another rare author with no agenda, is well worth your time.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Greenglass Breaks His Silence May 27 2003
By Acute Observer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Sam Roberts found David Greenglass and persuaded him to talk for this very readable 500 page book. It tells of their family histories. How did David Greenglass get assigned to Los Alamos (p.70)? Perhaps due to his talents? He was cleared by Army and FBI investigators (p.71). Soviet atom bomb development began in 1939, they deduced American research in 1940 (p.80). Julius Rosenberg became involved with Soviet espionage, and a recruiter of people who could provide "technical information". The crime is committed when the message is relayed (p.92). Life in Oak Ridge or Los Alamos is likened to a socialist paradise where the government provides for everyone; but not all enjoy Army life (pp.100-1). None suspected that DG's insatiable curiosity was to gather information for a foreign government (p.104). Winston Churchill's scientists asked for dynamite lenses (p.107). How to steal a proximity fuse? Get a defective reject then replace the broken parts with working parts (p.109).
With the war over, DG was no longer interested in helping the Soviets (p.147). The Soviet atomic research resumed in 1943 (p.182), their first atomic test occurred in 1949. This affected the political outlook in Washington (p.183). When they deciphered a message on gaseous diffusion in refining uranium, this led to its author and prime suspect - Klaus Fuchs (p.188). Another deciphered message said a spy at Los Alamos went on vacation in Jan 1945 (p.197); 100 suspects were turned up. The two prime suspects were Luis Alvarez and Edward Teller - the best friend of Klaus Fuchs.
DG's confession is on page 242. He hired O. John Rogge and cooperated with the FBI; he could not testify against his wife (p.261). Greenglass and Gold were interviewed together to harmonize their stories (p.278). The Government wanted Julius Rosenberg to confess and identify other members of the spy ring (p.282); the death penalty was the threat (p.287). David was trained as a draftsman and had surprising neat handwriting (p.297). Page 317 says his handwriting needed to be typed, and this implicated Ethel in the crime. The trial found them all guilty. The Rosenbergs got death, but they insisted on their innocence and never cracked. They were convicted on the word of the Greenglasses alone, there was no independent corroborative evidence given at their trial. I think the failure to show spending or money from their spying was a failure in the Government's case. The rule is that spies get paid for their information ("The Double-Cross System").
Some questioned the scientific value of Greenglass' atom bomb sketch. It was "valuable information" to corroborate the information given by Klaus Fuchs (p.408). The 1946 Smyth Report gave much more information on atomic energy research than given by Klaus Fuchs (p.410)! Page 425 lists the information that Julius could give to delay their execution; nothing was asked of Ethel. President Eisenhower denied clemency because they "increased the chance of atomic war and may have condemned tens of millions of innocent people to death" (p.430).
Chapter 36 has Greenglass' "final confession". He thought the worse thing he did was working on the atomic bomb because it killed a hundred thousand people (p.469). He didn't regret his spying if it prevented another war (p.479). David and Ruth now said they didn't remember Ethel typing the notes, but "that's the way it would have been done" (p.483). Without this, Ethel might not have been convicted. Why didn't Julius and Ethel save themselves? Because it would mean putting other people in their hot seat (p.493). DG's verdict: they were guilty, but they didn't deserve to die (p.496). This disproportionate punishment may explain Pope Pius XII's call for clemency. The Prosecution team never again won distinction in their careers.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Tragedy of the Rosenbergs Feb. 5 2006
By Kevin Judah White - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although over 50 years have lapsed since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at New York's notorious Sing Sing prison just before Shabbat on 19 June 1953, their grim fate still inflames emotions today.

This racy account of family betrayal intertwined with political espionage by Sam Roberts of the New York Times, gives a fresh slant to the tragic story. As one of the 10,000 `spectators' at the funeral of the Rosenbergs, Roberts' interest in their case was rekindled in the 1980s when he decided to track down David Greenglass, Ethel's younger brother, whose crucial, though flawed, testimony in the Rosenberg trial helped send his sister and brother-in-law to the electric chair. In 1960, Greenglass had vanished from public view and adopted a pseudonym after serving ten years of a fifteen-year prison sentence for espionage. He was doggedly pursued by Roberts and ultimately agreed to discuss his version of events, not so much to set the record straight, but because, as he admitted, `I need the money'.

'The Brother' crackles along at a brisk pace describing the early family life of David Greenglass in Manhattan's politically radical Lower East Side, then his stint as an army technician at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This section of the book is overly detailed, and could have done with some tighter editing, but Roberts eventually shows how Greenglass came to be recruited as a spy by Julius Rosenberg, via David's wife, Ruth. It was here where David Greenglass supplied Julius with rough sketches of the implosion device used to trigger the atomic bomb.

It was not long before the FBI began investigating stolen uranium from the premises where Greenglass worked. It soon unearthed a web of espionage in which David Greenglass was heavily implicated. He panicked and quickly admitted to the FBI his role in spying for the Soviet Union. Greenglass' full confession was conditional, however, on Ruth not being indicted, even though Roberts shows she was more culpable than her sister-in-law, Ethel.

Coincidentally, the trial judge, Irving Kaufman, the prosecutor and chief defence lawyer were all Jewish (but none of the jury). This did not stop the government secretly enlisting the heads of major Jewish organisations to deflect potential allegations of anti-Semitism. Kaufman spared Greenglass because he showed deep remorse for his treachery, and agreed to confess, and name associates - most tellingly his sister and brother-in-law. But the pious judge showed no such mercy to Julius and Ethel, and seemed to share the hyperbolical sentiments of FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, that the Rosenberg's actions were `the crime of the century'. (Roberts barely conceals his disdain for Kaufman who desperately wanted to put the Rosenberg saga behind him. Unfortunately for Kaufman, when he died, the Times Square electronic zipper proclaimed, `Rosenberg Judge Dies', and at his funeral service, a lone heckler at the back of the synagogue screamed, `He murdered the Rosenbergs. Let him rot in hell'.)

As if to underscore the gravity of Greenglass' explosive revelations, Roberts describes, in gut-churning detail, the build up to the Rosenbergs' execution, for example how their young sons, Robby and Michael, were wailing on the eve of the execution `one day to live, one day to live' and how Michael, incandescent with rage, vowed revenge against his uncle David. When a reunion was recently broached by Roberts between Greenglass and his nephews, Greenglass was game, but the Meeropol boys (their adopted name) pointedly refused, labelling Greenglass a `sleazy, despicable person'. The book contains some fascinating archival photos of all the key participants, including David and Ethel together in happier times, as well as a morbid, heart-rending picture of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, side-by-side in their coffins, with Julius wearing a kippah and draped in a tallith.

During the more than fifty hours of uncensored conversation (unknown to his wife) and in an earlier interview with America's Sixty Minutes II, David Greenglass dropped a bombshell - that he had committed perjury when he initially claimed that he witnessed Ethel typing his incriminating notes for Julius to pass to the Soviets - evidence that led to Ethel's arrest. Greenglass has since claimed he does not recall this event, arguing he was coached at the time by his wife, Ruth, to corroborate her story. (Apprehending Ethel is now generally regarded as a ploy to get Julius to crack, rather than because of her complicity.)

When confronted over his role in the disproportionately harsh punishment inflicted on his sister (and Julius), Greenglass was unrepentant. He maintained he never expected the death sentence to be handed down, let alone carried out, but also contended the Rosenbergs sealed their own fate through their `stupidity' - their naïve and dogmatic belief in communism, and stubborn refusal to cooperate with the government.

The Brother points to other ways the sad denouement could have been avoided - with a more impartial judge, by the US government tempering its zeal to prosecute with a little compassion, and yes, a contrite and less intractable stance from the Rosenbergs themselves, even if it meant the unravelling of what was undoubtedly an espionage-ring in New York (though the Kremlin never publicly conceded that Julius was a spy).

On the other hand, maybe the Rosenbergs were doomed from the outset, notwithstanding the damning testimony of David Greenglass. Afterall, the events so vividly portrayed in this book took place against a backdrop of the Korean War, hysterical anti-communism, McCarthy witch-hunts, and an intensifying Cold War. One can only hope in vain that governments today can rise to the occasion and deliver justice to all its citizens, irrespective of the political and social climate that is prevailing at the time.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reserve A Space for This Book in Your Library April 22 2007
By Bill Emblom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although I was only [...] when the Rosenberg's were executed on June 19, 1953, I do have vague recollections of their execution. The book is over 500 pages long but worth its length. Without going into lengthy details, as I understand the story, in 1945 Julius Rosenberg asked his sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, to suggest to her husband David, who was working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to provide details about the makings of the atomic bomb to be passed on to the Soviets. This David agreed to do since Russia had been an American ally during World War II. There appears to be some doubt as to what Ethel Rosenberg's role in this scheme was. Ethel apparently knew what her husband Julius was up to and was even agreeable to it. When her brother David was arrested, he agreed to cooperate with the government providing his wife would not be implicated. Instead David claimed that Ethel did the typing of his (David's) notes from Los Alamos. When author Sam Roberts interviewed David for the book David wavers as to who actually did the typing of his notes. He now states that it most likely was his wife Ruth. This apparently is where he is said to have sent his sister to the electric chair to save his wife Ruth. Would David have done this had he known a death sentence was facing his sister? From his interview with author Roberts I would have to say yes he would have although even though they were guilty they didn't deserve to die. One of the Rosenberg's two sons, Michael, is quoted as saying, "My mother went to the death house and Aunt Ruth goes home to make dinner." If you enjoy American history this is a book that you will want to make sure you have in your library. This is riveting American history.
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