Introductory Notes by Miriam Schneir
For fifty years my late husband and colleague, Walter Schneir, remained a dedicated student of the Rosenberg case. He and I began the research that resulted in our jointly authored book, Invitation to an Inquest, in 1959—only six years after Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, the parents of two young sons, were executed at Sing Sing prison in New York.
The Rosenbergs were convicted of stealing “the secret of the atomic bomb” and passing it to the Soviet Union. Their trial took place in 1951, when the Korean War was raging, anti-communism was at fever pitch, and many Americans were digging backyard bomb shelters for fear of a Russian A-bomb attack. Few people were able to think about the facts of the riveting spy drama dispassionately. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the Rosenbergs’ alleged crime, plus the severity of the sentence, sparked worldwide debate and mass clemency rallies in many European cities.
In the decades after Invitation to an Inquest was published, a great deal of previously unavailable information about the case was made public. By the late 1990’s, as Walter subsequently wrote, “the only major untapped source of material was the Holy of Holies of the Cold War espionage universe: the KGB intelligence archives.” When Walter learned that historian Allen Weinstein had been granted access to those hitherto-sealed archives and was writing a book that would include some of them, he awaited its publication eagerly.
Walter died in 2009, not long after he had completed the chapters published by Melville House in 2010 with the title Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case. In that posthumously published work, which made use of the newly released KGB files, he finally solved remaining mysteries of the Rosenberg case—and did so in a spectacular, and quite unexpected, way.
In the following excerpt from Final Verdict, Walter tells how he was serendipitously able to test the authenticity of the Russian documents while spending a winter writing and vacationing in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The excerpt from Final Verdict, by Walter Schneir
Allen Weinstein’s new book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, co-authored with a Russian, Alexander Vassiliev, finally appeared in early 1999. The moment I obtained a copy, I eagerly skipped straight to the pages on the atom spies. Surprise after surprise unfolded. I found what I was reading mind-blowing, enthralling, incredibly exhilarating and then, ultimately, infuriating and sad.
But my first responsibility, like that of any researcher working with material from an unfamiliar source, was to learn as much as I could about its provenance and authenticity. The KGB documents utilized in the book are identified by their file, volume, and page numbers in the Russian intelligence archives. Ordinarily, this would be sufficient information to enable me to determine whether a quotation or fact was copied or interpreted correctly simply by checking it against the original source. But I was dealing here with data from archives that are barred to the public. For all intents and purposes, the extensive source notes in the book refer the reader to an invisible archive. Performing due diligence on an invisible archive is definitely tricky.
After several attempts to verify the Weinstein-Vassiliev material dead-ended, I had about run out of ideas. But then coincidence, even more capricious than usual, intervened to rescue my efforts. While working on our individual books, [my wife] Miriam and I had been living for part of every year in San Miguel de Allende, an historic old city located 6500-feet up in the mountains of central Mexico where a lively community of several thousand contented gringos (mainly Americans and Canadians) has taken root. It was to this most unlikely of places that two elderly witnesses to history, Michael Straight and Zoya Zarubina, found their way, each with personal knowledge relating to the authenticity of the KGB material in The Haunted Wood.
The first arrival was Michael Straight. An entire chapter in The Haunted Wood is devoted to him, recounting how as a 20-year-old student at Cambridge University he was recruited by the KGB.
Michael Whitney Straight was an American blue blood, a descendant on his mother’s side of those ruthless financiers and industrialists who have come to be known as robber barons. They were men who merged their families as purposefully as they did their companies. Grandmother Flora was a recipient of Standard Oil riches by way of her brother, Oliver Payne, a partner of John D. Rockefeller. Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was the great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a tycoon who collected steamships and railroads. Michael’s mother, Dorothy Payne Whitney, an heiress to the Whitney fortune, was a maverick who rejected her many millionaire suitors and, to the horror of her family and social set, chose neither hereditary wealth nor European nobility, marrying instead Willard Straight, a man who was merely a banker-diplomat associated with the powerful J.P. Morgan and Company. In 1914 the two founded a liberal magazine, The New Republic, and when Willard died in the devastating influenza pandemic that followed World War I, she maintained her ownership in the publication and her iconoclastic ways. Later, her son, Michael, while majoring in economics at Cambridge University, took a more radical path. Influenced by the Great Depression and rise of fascism, he joined the student communist movement and shared a bit of his family’s fortune with the British Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker.
In spring 1937 Michael, then in his senior year, vacationed in the United States. Seeking advice about his future career, he visited two old family friends at their home in Washington, D.C. Their home was called the White House and the family friends were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. After graduation, he worked for the New Deal, serving in the State Department and later helping to write speeches for members of FDR’s cabinet. Subsequently he joined the staff of The New Republic, and eventually became the magazine’s editor.
A resilient octogenarian, Michael Straight had come to San Miguel to attend a board meeting of a local charity he supported and play a little tennis. He graciously agreed to be interviewed and we met for drinks on the patio of his hotel, the Jacaranda, where the squawks of a caged macaw registered staccato interruptions on my tape recording.
I reminded him that he was probably the only remaining person who could evaluate the KGB archival material about him published by Weinstein and Vassiliev. Straight had no doubt that the authors had obtained his actual KGB intelligence file. Citing several statements and opinions and comments about himself in the KGB documents quoted in The Haunted Wood, he observed that they were “absolutely right—this is accurate all the way through.” Similarly, he said that a detailed appraisal of his character from a KGB document reprinted in The Haunted Wood was “very accurate. . . . perfectly true.”
According to Straight’s intelligence file, as reported in The Haunted Wood, after coming to the United States he met frequently with a KGB operative, but never provided information of any value to the Soviets. Then, in 1939, he reacted with disappointment and sharp criticism to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and afterwards his contacts with KGB agents became infrequent, ending completely in 1942. In his interview with me, Straight confirmed that this account of his meetings in the United States reflected the actual events as he recalled them. In short, Straight was convinced that Vassiliev had seen his genuine KGB file and that the latter had transcribed the documents correctly.
Like Michael Straight, Zoya Zarubina is the sort of person to whom one speaks with an awed awareness that there is only one degree of separation between her and many major figures and events of the first half of the twentieth century. She is a Russian woman who comes from an extended family of KGB spies. Her father, Vassily Zarubin, served as the KGB’s New York station chief during World War II. Her stepmother, Elizabeth Zarubina, an experienced KGB operative, also worked in the United States in the 1940s. Both are mentioned in The Haunted Wood, Vassily scores of times. Her stepfather (whom she called Uncle Leonid) was in his professional life the brutal KGB General Naum Eitingon, who arranged the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. And she herself was an intelligence agent and linguist from her early 20’s, when she was assigned by the KGB to work at the Teheran conference where she came into contact with Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, as well as Molotov, Beria, and other leaders. She attended the summits at Yalta and Potsdam as an aide and interpreter and also the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. In 1945-46 she translated technical material on the American atomic bomb that had been obtained by KGB foreign intelligence. Fluent in several languages, she subsequently had a career as a head interpreter for Soviet delegations at many international gatherings, including the years of meetings that led to the Helsinki Accords. She has served as Dean of the English Language Department at Moscow’s Institute of Foreign Languages, taught at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and directed the United Nations Language Training Center. She has also had a distinguished career in many peace and feminist women’s organizations. Today, in Russia, she is a respected and well-connected person.
Zarubina had been invited to San Miguel de Allende to present a series of lectures on Russian history and to promote a recently published biography about herself. When I met her, I was carrying a copy of The Haunted Wood. Immediately, she informed me that she had read the book and turned to the index to show me the many references to her “parents.” I then inquired if the documents quoted in the book had actually been obtained from the KGB archives, that is, were they “authentic?” Zoya Zarubina answered without hesitation: “Absolutely.” Finally I asked her if she believed that the information in the book from the KGB archives was true. She replied, with what I thought was considerable wisdom, “As much as possible.”
The words of Straight and Zarubina bolstered my confidence in the authenticity of the KGB archival material in The Haunted Wood. I could now proceed to reexamine the charges against the Rosenbergs in the light of the new data from Russia. For the task ahead of me I had on hand the trial record, the voluminous files secured through the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI and other U.S. federal agencies, and the KGB cable traffic from the 1940’s known as the Venona decrypts. But I also had an ace in the hole: a transmittal memo and abstract from the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy that bore a mysterious date that appeared to contradict a key incident described by prosecution witnesses.
Thus armed, I opened the door to the KGB archives and found a whole new narrative of the Rosenberg case awaiting me.
This excerpt from Final Verdict by Walter Schneir is reprinted courtesy of Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, NY.