Irwin Edelman

The Suppressed Facts in The Rosenberg Case

First Published: Turning Point Vol. IX, No. 8, November 1956
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Three books published within the past two years and acclaimed by the avowed friends of the Rosenbergs – The Atom Spy Hoax by William A. Reuben, The Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by John Wexley, and Professor Malcolm Sharp’s Was Justice Done? – have concluded that the Rosenberg execution was a miscarriage of justice. The conclusion is amply supported in the 1400 pages filled with incontrovertible facts about the ugly role played by judges, prosecutors, the FBI and the nation’s news channels. But in none of the three books will one find an inkling of the equally incontrovertible fact that the betrayal of the Rosenbergs by their avowed defenders mightily contributed to the miscarriage. That betrayal is the central theme in an almost finished book which I hope to publish soon.

Seven months before the execution I issued a pamphlet criticizing the conduct of the Rosenberg defense, particularly, the patriotic shudder with which defense attorney Emanuel H. Bloch faced a shabby-looking “atom bomb secret” the prosecution had introduced at the trial in the form of a diagram composed in jail by David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg. The diagram carried the impressive-looking inscription, “cross-section of A-bomb, not to scale,” and Greenglass testified that it was a true copy of an original he had composed in September 1945 for the Rosenbergs to transmit to the Russians. But since Greenglass was neither a scientist nor an engineer, and since the prosecution proceeded on the theory that the original had been delivered to the Russians, the defense had no valid reason for not taking a close look at it, in order to determine, in the first place, whether it was of any importance, and in the second place, who, apart from Greenglass, might have had a hand in its composition. The impulse for my involvement in the case came from the shock I got when in the published transcript of the trial I came upon Bloch’s request of Judge Kaufman, “to impound this exhibit so that it remains secret to the Court, the jury and counsel.” The request was warmly entertained by the prosecutor and the judge, and was followed by an outrageous performance in which Bloch and his Honor played the most contemptible part.

When I showed this, in a draft for a pamphlet, to the leaders of the Los Angeles Rosenberg committee, they squirmed and were unhappy. When I published it, the chairman mailed me a notice of my expulsion. And on a national level, the Defenders visibly frowned. The National Guardian, the most ostentatious friend of the Rosenbergs, refused a paid ad for the pamphlet. And the People’s World, the west coast voice of the Communist Party, published an unsigned letter warning people not to touch it.

The pamphlet had hard sledding but copies got around. A few weeks after publication, one of them shocked Nashville attorney Fyke Farmer into a study of the legal aspects of the case.

Three months later he made a trip to New York and pointed out to Bloch that some extremely serious errors he had made were valid grounds for demanding the release of the Rosenbergs. Bloch politely listened to him and the result can be gathered from an urgent message Farmer sent him ten weeks before the execution:

“On March 10, 1953,” it read, “you were kind enough to write me expressing regret that you did not have sufficient time to go more deeply into my argument. You assured me that you desired to be enlightened further, by having in your possession a memorandum so that you could ’explore the subject more fully.’

“On March 15 I sent you an incomplete memorandum and you acknowledged its receipt by letter dated March 16, in which you said that you had been unable to digest and analyze properly the material I sent you. I have sent you supplementary memoranda on March 17, March 18, March 28 and April 5. I have had no word from you since letter of March 16.

“Today I send you air mail special delivery a draft for a petition for habeas corpus incorporating the points raised in my conversation with you on March 6 and in the various memoranda.

“I fully appreciate that you have been very busy preparing the petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court which I believe was filed on March 30th. Nevertheless, I cannot understand why, during the more than a month that has elapsed since I began to inform you as to these legal points, you have been unable to make any comments whatsoever... Practically all others to whom I have sent the memorandum – though they do not have the professional responsibility that you have – have shown interest and made comments showing that the points have been weighed and understood.

“It is my opinion that there should not be a day’s delay in filing the proposed petition...I see no need to await a decision from the Supreme Court on the petition now pending. I do not wish to embarrass you in any way. My purpose is to assist your clients in regaining their liberty and to help maintain the American tradition for liberty and justice under law. Could you tell me any reason why this new application for a writ of habeas corpus should not be proceeded with immediately?” (The emphasis is Farmer’s.)

On March 28 Farmer sent me a copy of the memorandum. The attached note said, “I send you this because 1 know you have resolved to save the Rosenbergs. So have I.” And it concluded with, ”Perhaps you have a friend who is a good lawyer who would read this letter and brief and tell you whether or not he thinks it is well grounded from a legal standpoint.” Twelve days later Daniel G. Marshall – sponsor, speaker and legal consultant for the defense committee – wrote Farmer:

“... your brief raises new and most important points. It is my belief that you are fully justified in the optimism you have if a way can be found to make the attack you have is mind promptly. I am aware that a way must be found which will allow your entrance into the case. A representative of the New York Rosenberg committee is now in Los Angeles but I was unable to meet with him this morning so that I could raise the questions necessary to press your views...

“I have told Mr. Edelman that I will do all I can to urge that your contentions be recognized and vigorously pressed.”

In the ten weeks which followed, the three of us, with no organization and virtually no funds, confronted the resistance of the avowed foes of the Rosenbergs and the sabotage of their avowed friends and we nevertheless came within an inch of victory. To cancel it, an ordinarily calm and time-consuming Tribunal had to rush back from its vacation with the spirit and tempo of a lynch mob, and a Government posing as leader of a world Crusade for Freedom had to show itself before the world as ruthless killer. But they could not have done it without the aid of the Defenders.

The Los Angeles branch of the Committee was in the hands of David Brown, now exposed as an FBI agent. But he was a minor link in that chain of sabotage which embraced the top officers of the organization – David and Emily Alman and Joseph Brainin. The crown of infamy, however, is due to the man whose memory is enshrined in the hearts of the Defenders, the man to whom the National Guardian immediately after the execution paid “solemn and loving respect” – Emanuel H. Bloch. In November 1952 I was not yet prepared to award that crown. My pamphlet at the time charged Bloch with folly.

“Since the defense is not the villain in the Rosenberg case,” I wrote, “it would be good, if it were possible, to overlook the defense folly and center attention on the thing which really matters – the crime, with legalized murder as its objective. Unfortunately, this is impossible because folly and crime in this episode came marching hand in hand. Any attempt to gloss over the defense role is bound to obscure the view of how, like card-sharpers fleecing a novice, two gentlemen, personifying Law and Justice, rubbed their hands with glee and proceeded to take full and mean advantage of an error ‒ not in a poker game but in a game involving human lives.” (Freedom’s Electrocution, p. 9)

By the spring of 1953 I took public note of a transition from folly to crime. Farmer was not yet prepared to go that far. In a letter he sent me the 22nd of April, he said:

“...I do not ascribe improper motives to Mr. Bloch. I assume that he sincerely wants to win the case for his clients. Please, therefore, do not say or do anything which implies that I am assailing Mr. Bloch for not making use of the briefs I have sent him...”

Ten weeks sufficed for a radical change in this estimate. He voiced it unmincingly in a letter to Louise Harding Horr, a sponsor of the Rosenberg committee who, after the execution, called for the removal of her name from committee letterheads. Mrs. Horr had sent Farmer a copy of a letter she mailed to Bloch, pointedly inquiring whether he had really, by way of a telegram to Kaufman and in the hearing before the Supreme Court three days later, refused to endorse the document which almost saved his clients’ lives.

“...Enclosed,” wrote Farmer in reply, “is a copy of Justice Jackson’s opinion stating that Bloch in open court at the last hearing opposed the consideration of the other ten grounds of the petition for habeas corpus filed by Irwin Edelman. He did not oppose them because they were not good grounds, either. (Farmer’s emphasis) His clients were facing imminent death that night. He still opposed the effort of Mr. Edelman, Mr. Marshall, myself and many people like yourself to save them. He has charged the Rosenbergs were murdered. Ask him to name the murderer or murderers...”

After the execution, the Committee heads and the Guardian editors tried to console angry correspondents with the assurance that the case had a “built-in verdict,” and that nothing which might have been done would have been of any use because “They were determined to kill them.”

The “built-in verdict” theory is a transparent deception, designed for the gullible. Those who are still peddling it can hardly be unaware that the architects of the Reichstag Fire trial, of the Scottsboro case and of the case of Tom Mooney started off with a “built-in verdict” and were “determined to kill” but had to forego the pleasure.


1. The first reason is that, as now closed, it constitutes a threat to millions.

The threat comes from the confusion among vast multitudes in the United States about a world-shaking secret betrayed by radicals, Jewish ones at that. In the present atmosphere of peace and boom, the threat is in the background, dormant. But like a coiled snake, it is poised to strike. In conditions of national or international turmoil, in an atmosphere conducive to search for a scapegoat – in the event, say, of an economic crisis or of a serious political or military setback – the Rosenberg case could serve for an American Hitler as ideal substitute for the by-now-obsolete “Protocols of Zion.”

That is the threat and it has one effective answer – a call for light on a diagram.

That call – bound to be furiously resisted – will inevitably have to come to grips with one of the dangerous myths of our time: the myth that a secret on how to make an atom bomb can be hidden by a government and stolen by a spy. In my manuscript, in the section dealing with the background of the Rosenberg case, I show how that myth became a central pillar for the Cold War. Bloch’s request to impound – carrying an implied recognition of the myth and thus bolstering the pillar – was a crime not only against the Rosenbergs. It was a crime against the people of the world.

A principled defense could with the facts at hand have faced the diagram in a manner which could have dealt a crushing blow not to the Rosenbergs but to the Cold War. The case actually offered a golden opportunity for the destruction of that pillar. When the diagram arrived, it could have been confronted with a wealth of authoritative data; with, for instance, the by that time published Franck Report, in which seven top scientists, even before the first bomb was tested, warned the generals and the politicians of the danger of trying to bluster with a non-existent secret.

The call for light – a demand to unseal – affords to progressive Americans today the kind of leverage which the truth about the Dreyfus case had for progressive Frenchmen at the turn of the century. In that case, too, there prominently figured a document sealed by the court on the fraudulent claim that it was a top military secret – the bordereau. Its unsealing brought with it not only the exoneration of the victim but the downfall of a corrupt regime – the highest government dignitaries and top members of the General Staff were found to have been implicated in the plot. Innocent as it may look while it quietly reposes in some file, the modern “bordereau” is a potential hell-bomb, earning a deadly threat to the people’s freedom; but exactly like that other it has the capacity for exploding in the faces of those who had contrived it.

2. The second reason the Rosenberg case must be opened is – Morton Sobell – the co-defendant in the Rosenberg trial, who was convicted solely on the testimony of a self-confessed perjurer and sentenced by Judge Kaufman to imprisonment for 30 years. For no conceivable reason other than that of trying to extort a “confession,” he has for four years now been confined in Alcatraz, America’s most brutally conducted penal institution. And if he is not pried loose from his Defenders, he is likely to rot there.

Morton Sobell is the most important political prisoner in the United States and of utmost concern to progressives the world over – for only one reason – that his liberation is bound up with the unmasking of the real crime in the Rosenberg case. If he has not been of utmost concern, it is because his Defenders have made sure to sunder the bond.

Since the joint trial of Sobell with the Rosenbergs was based upon the contention that the three were linked in one conspiracy, an effective attack upon the foundation of the case against the Rosenbergs is bound at the same time to undermine the foundation of the case against Sobell. The most promising road to freedom for Sobell lies thru an attack on that in the Rosenberg case which is most vulnerable because it is most rotten – the sealing of the “secret.” That road the Defenders have above all shunned. Why?

The answer is obvious. In charge of the “Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell” are – David Alman and Company. The most promising effort to open the cell in Alcatraz is least likely to attract them because it is most likely to highlight the criminal part they played in the Rosenberg drama.

3. The third reason why the Rosenberg case needs opening is for the light this will shed on the role the leadership of the American Communist Party had played in the concealment of the crimes of the Defenders. A suggestive fact in this connection is the total silence of the Daily Worker, the Freiheit and the People’s World on the Rosenberg trial. Not one word appeared during the entire 23-day period that it lasted.