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A Brother's Betrayal
New Book Reveals Startling Admission by Key Witness in Spy Trial

hear the story Listen to Robert Siegel's report.

Ethel Rosenberg and brother David Greenglass

Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and her brother David Greenglass, in a photo taken either during or immediately after the end of World War II.
Photo: Random House

Oct. 9, 2001 -- It remains perhaps the most notorious espionage case in U.S. history: More than 48 years ago, convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. Now, new information about the case is coming to light, thanks to startling revelations from a key witness against the couple: Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass.

On All Things Considered, host Robert Siegel interviews New York Times reporter Sam Roberts, author of a new book based on more than 50 hours of interviews with Greenglass.

Roberts has a personal stake in the case. He still has vivid memories of the Rosenbergs’ June 1953 execution and, two days later, the funeral procession: As a 6-year-old boy in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he watched as the procession passed through his neighborhood.

Years later, when another book about the Rosenberg case re-opened old wounds, reporter Roberts was assigned to write a story. That’s when Roberts began his quest to talk to Greenglass personally about the case – a quest that would last almost 14 years.

“He had no sense of morality, no sense of cause and effect.”

Sam Roberts, about David Greenglass

Roberts told Siegel that he “made it my mission” to get Greenglass to agree to a full and candid interview – with no strings attached. In 1996, Greenglass agreed. Roberts’ book based on those interviews, The Brother, paints a disturbing picture of a man Roberts characterizes as “having very little morality.”

Greenglass, who was an Army machinist and Communist Party member working at the government’s nuclear weapons facility in Los Alamos, N.M., spent 10 years in prison for his part in plot. In exchange for a light sentence, he agreed to be the government’s star witness against his sister and brother-in-law.

Greenglass’ most damning admission to Roberts is that he lied about certain details of the plot in order to protect his wife, Ruth. Even the Soviets have suggested that Ethel Rosenberg may have been an innocent pawn in the scheme. But at the trial, Greenglass testified that his sister had intimate knowledge of the plot and even typed Greenglass’ notes to his Soviet contacts.

David Greenglass leaves after testifying against his sister and brother-in-law

Greenglass leaves federal prison in 1960, pursued by the press. "All I want is to be forgotten," he said. He now lives under an assumed name.
Photo: Associated Press/Random House

Greenglass “did lie,” Roberts told NPR’s Siegel. “Frankly, he said to me, ‘My wife (Ruth Greenglass) did the typing…. Look, I had a wife and two children. I didn’t care so much what happened to me, but I cared what happened to them.’”

In his book, Roberts paints Greenglass as a man who, when thrust upon the world stage, acted to save himself and his family at the expense of family, friends and the truth.

“He had no sense of morality, no sense of cause and effect,” Roberts says. And his words sent his own sister to the electric chair.

Other Resources

Cover of book The Brother

• Synopsis of The Brother at Random House.

Chronology of the Rosenberg trial by University of Missouri - Kansas City law professor Doug Linder, part of his famous trials Web site.

FBI documents relating to the Rosenberg trial released under the Freedom of Information Act.