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Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies  

Robert and Michael Meeropol 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.

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Family of Spies
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."

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.

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 institutions?

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.

"We knew an awful lot about what didn't happen."

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.

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 counterparts. [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.

"It would be a very dangerous undertaking to haul the real culprits into court."

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.

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 them?

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.

"It might be one of those things we'll never know for sure."

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.

NOVA: Did you ask the Halls if they knew your folks and, if so, what did they say?

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 lines.

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."

"My father was perfect for their political purposes."

[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.

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 unjustified.

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 action?

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 bomb.

"Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall may have prevented World War III."

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.

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 everything.

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 powerful.

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 why.

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 argument.

"'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.'"

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.

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.

NOVA: Robert?

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 here.

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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