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The Not-So-Invisible Man

October 7, 2010 By:
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One of the first major pieces I wrote for the Jewish Exponent more than 25 years ago concerned a highly publicized debate held at New York's Town Hall over the guilt or innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple who'd been found guilty of treason and executed in the 1950s for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The controversy over their crimes -- and deaths -- had been stirred up anew in the early 1980s by the appearance of The Rosenberg File by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton.

The authors had begun their research to prove conclusively that the pair had been framed by the FBI, as so many left-wingers had argued over the years. But what the writing team discovered was just the opposite: Julius Rosenberg had been head of an extensive spy ring.

Radosh and Milton also discovered that Ethel Rosenberg had little direct contact with her husband's "secret life," though she obviously knew what was going on and believed in what he was doing.

These disclosures did not stop the authors from criticizing the FBI's behavior during the investigation and trial. Radosh and Milton were adamant in their condemnation of the death sentence, calling it as a gross miscarriage of justice.

But this was not enough for some on the left. For these people, the Rosenbergs had to be sainted individuals, untainted.

Working from this set of premises, the debate was scheduled. Walter and Miriam Schneir -- authors of an earlier work on the spy case, titled Invitation to an Inquest -- sought to question Radosh and Milton on what the Schneirs called the second frame-up of Julius Rosenberg. They were backed by The Nation, which had recently denounced The Rosenberg File in its pages, while Radosh and Milton were backed by The New Republic, which had run a long essay praising the new book and beseeching the left to own up to some of the less honorable events in its past.

One of the most fascinating moments in the evening was a denunciation of Harry Gold, the courier who had received the the atom bomb material from Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, a soldier at the time, stationed at Los Alamos, N.M. The Schneirs had always contended that Gold, a Philadelphia chemist, was the weak link in the FBI's case. How could this little schlepper be a great Soviet spy?

Gold was long dead by the time the debate rolled around, and so could not defend himself. Radosh and Milton, of course, had found his story credible.

Now the individual who's often been described as the forgotten piece of the Rosenberg puzzle has finally gotten his due, so to speak, in the astonishing new biography, The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, recently published by Yale University Press. Allen M. Hornblum, the author, is himself a Philadelphian, an independent journalist with another astonishing work to his credit, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison. Untouched by the ideological wars that have raged since the '50s, Hornblum not only presents a rounded portrait of Gold, but makes it clear just how active a spy his subject had been. (The author even revisits the denunciations the Schneirs penned in their book. Gold, incarcerated at the time of the work's publication in 1965, was deeply hurt by the authors' characterization of him as a supreme fabricator.)

For those who know the Rosenberg case well, reading Hornblum's book is a curious affair -- though I don't mean this in any negative sense. In other chronicles, Gold is a footnote; in Hornblum's retelling, the Rosenbergs are bit players. The reading experience is somewhat akin to watching a performance of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where two incidental characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet are brought to the forefront, while the eponymous hero is often seen in the background, emoting "To be or not to be," then wandering offstage. One of the distinct differences between the two works -- and of course, there are many -- is that Stoppard's driving spirit, his overriding tone, was one of ironic comedy, while there's nothing particularly funny about anything Hornblum portrays in this sad and at times tragic portrait of a troubling era.

Standard Issue?

In his early years, Gold's life was a fairly standard Jewish Philadelphia story: His parents came from Europe, settling first in South Philly; in time, they were able to move to better quarters in the Northeast. It was standard issue, that is, until he was asked by a friend, who'd procured him a much-needed job during the Depression, to spy for the Soviets. Gold started small, passing information about processing industrial solvents from his employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. But when he proved to be a willing and seemingly indefatigable worker, he caught the eye of other Soviet handlers, who thought he could execute more important work.

Eventually, Gold was put in touch with Klaus Fuchs, a German-born, British-based scientist working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. The amount of material Gold procured from Fuchs is staggering -- and to this point, none of it had to do with the Rosenbergs. In fact, it was when he was stopping by to see Fuchs that he was asked to make a side trip and meet with a man named David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, and pick up another packet of information.

This was the only contact the two had, but it had devastating consequences. Where Fuchs received a 14-year sentence and Gold was in jail for 15 years, the Rosenbergs were put to death. The reasons are more complex than just the U.S. government's wish to set a precedent. The Rosenbergs were also out to prove a point -- no matter how often they insisted they were not motivated by politics. They left two young sons behind to be raised by others in order to prove that point.

Hornblum tries at various points in the book to analyze Gold's motivation. Where Fuchs was a committed Communist, Gold apparently never wished to join the party, and often found party members to be tiresome windbags. But he did feel throughout the 1930s that the Soviet Union was the only country battling the rising tide of fascism and anti-Semitism sweeping through Europe. And since the Soviets were allies of the United States, Gold decided, according to the author, that he should lend his services to the USSR.

An odd man, with a conflicted spirit, Gold was driven by muddled and naive reasoning. But, Hornblum makes clear, he was also an efficient spy, with nearly superhuman stamina.

The Invisible Harry Gold now joins other groundbreaking works published in the last 40 years that have described how far certain Americans -- a number of them Jews -- would go to betray their country. The story still has the power to shock. The sad thing is that there are so many on the left who cannot face the truth, who prefer to believe that American Communists were innocent protesters who were just a bit more zealous than others of their ilk. The charge of spying, they insist, is a lie meant to suppress honest dissent in this country.

Hornblum's book makes us see the full dimensions of this heinous crime -- the depths of the tragedy for Americans and some American Jews, among them Harry Gold, whose misguided idealism led him down an unfortunate path.

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