Family of Spies
Hear what Robert Meeropol (left) finds wrong with a current debate over
the validity of the Venona documents,
and hear what his brother Michael would like to ask of the American government.
View the Robert Meeropol video clip in:
View the Michael Meeropol video clip in:
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Robert and Michael Meeropol
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See a photograph of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
NOVA: Robert, so many people have said, "Look at the writing on the wall.
Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy." What do you say?
Robert Meeropol: What I say is that that may be the case, but that's not the
question. The United States government executed two people for the reason, as
the prosecutor said, that they stole the greatest secret known to mankind. The
judge said that they committed a crime worse than murder, they caused the
Korean war. President Eisenhower in saying "I am denying clemency" said
essentially the same thing. All of this was because they stole the secret of
the atomic bomb. That's why they were executed, and the writing on the wall if
you believe Venona is that neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg did the crime
they were killed for. That seems to be the most important question to me.
One of the things that amazes me is that there has been extremely little media
discussion. It seems to me that the media seems to be more interested in
pinning down the fact that Julius Rosenberg worked in some capacity for the KGB
than in exploring the fact that the United States government killed two people
for a crime they didn't commit. That's if Venona's true.
Michael Meeropol: It's even more dramatic than that, because you get people who
say that this thing is true, Venona is true, and then in the same breath say
that both my parents were spies. Well, you cannot hold those two thoughts in
your mind at the same time, because as you know Venona makes it clear that the
wife of Liberal—and let us concede as the lawyers say that Liberal is Julius
Rosenberg—that the wife of Liberal, who was definitely our mother Ethel, is
not a spy. There's a line in one of the documents that is very explicit.
[See four Venona intercepts, including two that detail activities of Liberal.]
Then there are other things, like for instance that she was never given a code
name. The people who were allegedly recruited were given code names, including
David and Ruth Greenglass [Ethel Rosenberg's brother and sister-in-law]. Both
were given code names, not just David but Ruth also. The ones who were not
espionage agents, [American communist] Max Elitcher and the wife of Liberal,
were never given code names. So that is extremely crucial.
If we're going to accept Venona, then let's be honest what it says. My brother
and I fault the media terribly on this because the headline in USA Today
was "Soviet Documents Prove Rosenbergs' Guilt"—plural.
we're going to accept Venona, then let's be honest what it says."
Robert Meeropol: But then to come back to your original question about the
handwriting being on the wall. I guess the way we might put it in the legal
business is we would say that the agencies in charge of gathering and
ultimately disseminating this material had the motive, means, and opportunity
to fiddle with this material in order to demonstrate that two people were
killed for a crime that they committed.
Michael Meeropol: The other thing is that the question of the writing on the
wall evokes the sense that somehow since 1974 Rob and I have had one goal and
one goal only, which is complete and 100 percent vindication of our parents as
totally innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever at any time. We never said that.
In 1975 when we issued our Freedom of Information Act request we gave a press
conference. Rob read it out loud, and he said that we want everything to come
out. The truth is more important than a particular position. We still believe
that. I mean, whatever the historical judgement. Well, then, that is what we
ought to be learning from. I mean, history is one of my fields. I think we have
a duty to understand our past.
The thing that is most disconcerting about this is that I don't think that the
agencies involved and some of the individuals involved and certainly the U.S
media have approached it in the same spirit. Because if they were willing to
approach it in the same spirit, they would consider issues like what does it
say about our mother? What does it say about our father's real involvement (if
our father is Antenna/Liberal) with atomic espionage?
Even more interesting is the history of science issue. In the end, did any
atomic espionage play any role in the speed with which the Soviet Union got the
bomb, the whole history of the arms race, the origins of the Korean War? Those
are the kind of historical issues that we should be thinking about.
If Julius Rosenberg was not a Soviet spy, we know that there are others who
were Soviet spies, we know about [Los Alamos physicist and spy Klaus] Fuchs, we
know about Theodore Alvin Hall. So it's not like there were no Soviet spies. So
the issue is really what is the significance of this for both how the American
law-enforcement apparatus went after people and what political use was made
with these trials? Then what is the judgment that we now with many, many years
of hindsight can make about the individual as well as the government
NOVA: When did you first meet Ted Hall?
Michael Meeropol: When I lived in Cambridge, England in 1964 as a student with
my wife, we lived around the corner from Ted and Joan Hall and their families.
Neither of us knew the other was there, and we wouldn't have known the
significance of it in 1964 anyway.
But when we went back to Cambridge on one of our many visits, we tromped to our
old neighborhood. We took a left instead of a right, and we were at their house
instead of our old one. We met them and chatted with them at great length about
a number of issues. One of the things I asked them about was why did the FBI
not go after Ted the way they went after David Greenglass and my parents? I
shared with them Rob's idea about why, and they were very impressed with what
Rob had to say.
"We knew an awful lot about what
NOVA: What was your take on it, Rob?
Robert Meeropol: Well, what I had been saying prior to Venona was that we knew
an awful lot about what didn't happen. All of our research and work had really
been focused on disproving the government's case against my parents and in
particular their trial. I think we've done a pretty good job of that.
But what we hadn't done is we didn't have that much information about what
actually had happened. What I think Venona may have opened the door to,
particularly with information about Fuchs and Hall, was you started getting the
glimpse that there were at least two scientists at Los Alamos who were, well,
you can call it spying, you can call it international cooperation, whatever you
want to call it. They were sharing information with their Soviet
[See Venona cables concerning Klaus Fuchs
and Ted Hall.]
The question that raised for me was why did the FBI not pursue this? Why did
they go after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and not go after Theodore Alvin Hall?
It seemed that by focusing on my parents, they could create the case they
wanted, because they had [convicted Soviet agent Harry] Gold and Greenglass,
who they could manipulate into saying what they wanted. And they had as
defendants people who really didn't know what was going on at Los Alamos. So
they went after them and they also had people who had no money, who had no
constituency, who were unknown so virtually defenseless people, and at the same
time people who were members of the American Communist Party. So they were the
right political stripe.
But if they went after the atomic scientists they went after people who could
present scientific arguments about why there never really was a secret of the
atomic bomb and why this information is going to spread worldwide and why all
these other countries are going to get the bomb.
They would be going after people with money, with a constituency, people who
could attack the entire position of the American government. The arms race,
defense buildup, national security buildup, budgetary concerns. It would be a
very dangerous undertaking to haul the real culprits into court. I think
government bureaucracy realized this and decided that they would pursue the
Rosenberg case and in the process they would scare the atomic scientists into
silence. And that's exactly what happened. The security establishment became
the heroes: They caught the spies, the scientists shut up, didn't say anything,
and they got everything they wanted. After all it was never a situation where
they could prevent something from happening.
"It would be a
very dangerous undertaking to haul the real culprits into court."
We have to recall that all of this was five, six, seven years after the fact.
So given that, what they orchestrated gave them the best of all possible
worlds. Now, I can't prove that, but I think Venona shed some very interesting
light on that.
NOVA: Tell me about your meeting with Ted and Joan. When did you visit
Michael Meeropol: In the summer of 1997 when Ann and I were visiting Cambridge,
we met and visited with Joan and Ted Hall. I am very glad we had the chance to
do that. Ted was ill and has since passed away. The thing I would say about
meeting with them is that they came across exactly the way they came across in
the book Bombshell. They came across as not ideological, not rigid at
all. They came across as really rather ordinary, very, very, open-minded people
with a tremendous amount of integrity. I mean, I liked them. They're people I
would have liked to be friends with, and I will be happy to continue
interacting with Joan.
One of the things I was very interested in exploring with them turned out to be
something that they'd thought about a lot, which was why the government in
effect stopped bothering them. Ted said "No" a few times [to the FBI], and that
was it. I shared Rob's ideas with them, and they thought that that was the best
explanation that they had been able to come up with in their own discussion of
it over the years. I found that particularly useful because I thought Rob's
idea was a good idea but to have someone who was sort of in the middle of it
respond in the same positive way gave me the thought that it wasn't just us
grabbing at straws, that it was potentially a real explanation.
That, of course, raises the question, How do we answer that question? How do we
find out? I don't know if the FBI agent involved has any inkling about why he
was pulled off the case, and I don't know if there are any materials within the
FBI, in the high levels, about the decision making behind why he was pulled off
the case and why Hall was considered not a worthwhile target to pursue. But if
there were any sort of FBI control files and all sorts of other types of
things, that might be helpful. On the other hand, it might not. It might be one
of those things we'll never know for sure.
might be one of those things we'll never know for sure."
NOVA: Did you ask the Halls if they knew your folks and, if so, what did they
Michael Meeropol: Well, I didn't ask them if they knew because I knew they
didn't. I never asked them if they knew my parents because I knew from the
documentation that if Liberal/Antenna was my father, they were completely
separate things. They had completely separate contacts and completely separate
NOVA: Joan Hall told me a very moving story about where she was driving the
night of your folks' execution. Do you remember that?
Michael Meeropol: No, I didn't have that conversation with her.
NOVA: They were driving by [the prison].
Michael Meeropol: No, I don't think I knew that. That's unbelievable.
NOVA: Joan Hall told me, as it says in Bombshell, that at one point Ted
said "Oh my God, the Rosenbergs are being executed." [Read Joan Hall's
account of this incident.]
Michael Meeropol: I don't want to talk about that.
I know from Bombshell that Joan and Ted had contacted their Soviet
handlers and said maybe Ted should come forward and say "Look you've got the
wrong people. The Rosenberg didn't do this. I actually did some of this." The
Soviets dissuaded them.
We've had some discussions about that, and we all agreed that it wouldn't have
saved my parents' lives. There is no question that the government wanted my
father to name a whole bunch of names, and that was the only ticket to his life
and potential ultimate freedom, the idea of somebody else coming forward and
saying "Hey, you've got the wrong guy. I did it."
[The authorities] would have just said "Oh, here's another one. We've just
captured another one." They would have continued the trial against my father.
There's no question in my mind because as we've said many times, the government
was very anxious to link atomic espionage to American communism. Ted Hall did
not join the American Communist party until 1952, after the FBI started leaving
him alone, so he would not have been a useful person to emphasize. My father
was perfect for their political purposes.
"My father was
perfect for their political purposes."
NOVA: Some people say Liberal/Antenna did espionage work that was industrial,
but if he'd had a shot at getting atomic secrets, he would have stolen anything
he could have gotten his hands on.
Robert Meeropol: I actually love that because some people who propound that
theory have extrasensory perception. They can get inside the minds of their
subjects and find out not only what they actually did but what they wanted to
do but never got around to doing. There's no way to know for sure what
Julius Rosenberg wanted to do or what the spy Liberal/Antenna wanted to do.
That's the realm of speculation. Anyone can speculate as much as possible.
However, if you look at the Venona transcription, there's actually a
transcription in which Liberal is talking about the Los Alamos project, which
is referred to as Enormoz. Now this could be a straightforward declaration, but
I'm not involved with that. It's not my department. Or it could be the effort
of someone—let's assume for argument's sake only that Julius Rosenberg is
Antenna—who is married, has two kids, and who doesn't want to get involved
in the highest-risk activity, wants to stay away from that dangerous ground.
You can interpret this any way you want to. We just don't know. What I find
interesting is the willingness of people to speculate and then carry their
speculation into a definitive statement. That seems to me to be
NOVA: Venona revealed that Ted Hall did give atomic secrets to the Russians.
What do you make of his action? What is your feeling about his judgment or his
Michael Meeropol: Well, that is an interesting question because one could make
the case that there's evidence that there were leaders in the U.S. who were
willing to drop the bomb even after the Soviet Union got it. One of the most
chilling documents I've ever seen is the one from the Cuban Missile Crisis in
which General Curtis LeMay is basically calling Kennedy a coward for not
starting World War III. I mean, there were people with their fingers on the
button who were very itchy to push it even when the Soviet Union had the
So we ask the question: What would the post-1950 world have looked like if the
U.S. had the monopoly? It would be a very safe prediction to suggest that we
would have used it on China in Korea, that we would have used it to help the
French in Indochina in 1954. There is no certainty, of course, but given the
proclivity of individuals to want to use it even after the Soviet Union got the
bomb, one could make the case that Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall may have prevented
World War III. That's possible.
"Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall may have prevented World War
By the way, I'll tell you one story that Ted told me. After this came out in
1995, he told some of his neighbors, just ordinary British citizens, who he was
and said, "I don't know if you want to hang out with me anymore." And one of
them turned to him and said, "Maybe you're the reason I'm alive today." Just an
ordinary British guy, lived next door to Ted.
NOVA: What would it take to convince you one way or another that your folks
were spies or were not spies?
Robert Meeropol: Well, if we could get into the KGB files; if we could make
sure that there was unlimited access; if we had a way of proving the age of the
material we looked at; if we put all this together and cross-referenced it with
all the U.S. government files and everything we know from the known record; if
we could form a consistent picture from all of that material that pointed to
the fact that Julius Rosenberg was Antenna or was not Antenna, I think we could
bring the picture into sharper focus. I think we could do the same thing with
my mother. If this material basically added more to what we already know about
her non-involvement, it would bring that picture sharper into focus.
It could also go the other way. There could be some snippet of information that
would raise questions. That is probably the best we can do. But all of that
said, there always, I believe, will be a lot of unanswered questions in this
area. I don't think we'll ever have a clearly focused picture of
NOVA: What have you been able to learn about earlier versions of the Venona
decryptions, and what are your concerns about them?
Robert Meeropol: Well, I think the most interesting thing we've learned is that
there is this reference to the person they say is Ethel Rosenberg, in which it
says "In view of delicate health does not work." In one of the earlier
decryptions, [Venona codebreaker] Meredith Gardner did an analysis of what that
phrase "does not work" means, and he concluded that it means, "was not fit to
do conspiracy or espionage work." The United States government knew that Venona
said that Ethel Rosenberg was not an espionage agent. Their own chief decoder
drew that conclusion, or that probability at least is very, very
NOVA: Have you been able to get the earlier versions? You've wanted all of them
from the beginning to the end.
Robert Meeropol: One of the first things we asked for were all the prior
versions of this material, which was reworked for decades. And the answer was,
"No, you can't have that." We weren't really given an explanation of
NOVA: Why not?
Robert Meeropol: I don't know. It's anything from bureaucratic prerogative to
the fact that earlier versions say different things, and if they start
releasing this material that they say is definitive and earlier versions say
different things, well, that's going to undercut their entire
You know, as a lawyer, if I was representing a client, and they had documents,
and they had different versions of those documents, the last thing on Earth I
would want is for a series of different versions of documents to come out,
because it would be grounds for knocking down any version. If you have
different versions, then you can't trust any of them.
"'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.'"
NOVA: Anything you two would like to say in closing?
Michael Meeropol: If Venona is accurate, 100 percent, and if they have
accurately linked Antenna/Liberal to my father, then what I would like is to
ask the American political and intellectual establishment to finally come clean
and acknowledge that they arrested a small-fry spy, created the story of him
being a kingpin having stolen the secret of the atom bomb allegedly, took his
wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, "Talk or we'll not only
kill you, we'll kill her." And when he wouldn't talk, they murdered her in cold
blood. When the United States admits that, then I'll be more than willing to
admit that maybe Venona has identified something of my father's involvement in
some kind of activity with the KGB. But first I want the United States
government to come clean.
Robert Meeropol: The problem as I see it with the Venona debate as it's
occurring today seems to me there are people who are saying, "This is all
accurate." Or there are people who are saying, "None of this is accurate. This
is all disinformation. We can't trust any of it." There appear to me to be
relatively few people who are dealing with the rather obvious possibility that
there is some accurate information here and there's some inaccurate information
To follow that up, while there are people using this material in general, I'm
unaware of any studies in which particular documents are being looked at and
determined as to whether they contain accurate or inaccurate information. I'm
very concerned about a document supposedly decrypted in 1948 that describes
someone named Ruth Greenglass, living on Stanton Street, as Liberal's
brother-in-law's wife. [See this Venona cable.]
I look at that and say, "Wait a second. Why did they need to put all that
information in there?" It seems more like a blueprint for the FBI than it seems
like something that the KGB needs to know. And when I look at that, I say, "Is
it possible that some of that material got injected into this?" Well, nobody is
doing an analysis on that level that I'm aware of, and I think it's about time
that it was done.
Joan Hall |
Ruth Hall |
Boria Sax |
Robert and Michael Meeropol |
William Weisband, Jr.
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