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A Humbling Experience

I grew up thinking I knew the answers. My adoptive parents and their friends told me that my birth parents were innocent. So did my older brother. I held this emotion-based belief until age eighteen, when I read the trial transcript and Walter and Miriam’s Schneir’s book, INVITATION TO AN INQUEST. Then I became intellectually certain that my parents had done nothing illegal, except lie about their Communist Party membership. Moreover, I was sure that David and Ruth Greenglass hadn’t stolen any secrets either, but were coerced by the government into inventing their crimes.

The Schneir’s thesis that no espionage took place contradicted the trial strategy of Manny Bloch, my parents’ attorney. Manny conceded that crimes had taken place; he argued that the Greenglasses were guilty and pinned them on my parents to shift the blame.

When I was in my twenties, I thought that Manny’s acceptance of a key aspect of the government’s case was just one of many critical errors he made at the trial. I also remember thinking how naive he was to lay the blame for my parents’ trouble at the feet of two unscrupulous individuals, rather than making a more systemic analysis that attributed the frame-up to the political manipulation of the federal law enforcement bureaucracy.

It is a humbling experience to have studied a historical event for decades, to be among a handful of experts on the Rosenberg Case, and yet realize that a significant portion of my analysis has been wrong. It is even more disconcerting because this has happened at least four times.

1. My beliefs started unraveling when I went to law school. That’s when I understood that even though we had shown that the government witnesses lied and invented evidence, this did not prove my parents’ innocence. That shook me up. How could I know for sure if Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had engaged in a secret conspiracy to aid the Soviet Union?

Admitting I could be wrong about things I once knew were true, replacing certainty with doubt, was not an easy transition. When I wrote AN EXECUTION IN THE FAMILY, I had to grapple with my feelings about the possibility that my parents had engaged in high-risk political actions even though they had small children. Given my childhood experiences I would have probably made other decisions. But still, I prefer that my parents were activists who remained true to their beliefs, and not just innocent victims.

2. Morton Sobell’s 2008 admission that he and Julius provided secret military-industrial information to the Soviet Union during and after World War II convinced me that my father had committed non-atomic espionage in the 1940’s. This time I found the change easier to accept because I had admitted errors previously and speculated that some of my answers might still be wrong. I wasn’t an academic or investigator who had staked his professional career to a particular Rosenberg Case thesis. As my parents’ son, I was not blinded by visions of career advancement, but instead wanted to know the truth. Although it is difficult to come to terms with family guilt, I found closure in accepting it.

3. I was also wrong about my uncle and aunt, David and Ruth Greenglass (see my 5/12/15 blog: Big Rosenberg Case News on the Horizon.) Ruth’s Grand Jury testimony, which I expect will be matched by David’s when it is released, shows that they weren’t merely weaklings who caved in to government demands. Instead they were amoral, conniving criminals who pinned their actions on my parents.

4. Finally, I was wrong about Manny Bloch. His analysis in 1951 was more accurate than the one I had developed. I wonder now if my parents confided in Manny, giving him knowledge and a context in which to place the Greenglass’ perfidy.

No one is always right, yet often we cling to beliefs in what amounts to political fundamentalism, causing us to reject facts that don’t fit our world view. When we must admit that a cherished opinion is mistaken, we may react with cynicism or disengagement. I don’t know why it is so hard to admit mistakes and still continue to engage the world, often with a more nuanced perspective. I understand that letting go of long-held convictions can be difficult. However, refusing to reconsider despite newly revealed information is a much bigger problem.  Read More 
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