The Rosenberg case is more than a strange and tragic episode in mid-20th century history. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair on charges of espionage in 1953, but their saga has turned into something enduring and even transcendent, a kind of nightmare from which we can never awaken.
For many years, I continued to receive mailings from the Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case, and I was privileged to attend a talk in the 1980s by Michael Meeropol, who gave a heart-breaking elegy for his martyred parents long after their guilt had been conceded by most of their supporters. I have a small library of books about the case, some arguing for their culpability and some for their innocence (or at least the injustice of their trial and execution). E. L. Doctorow elevated the story into high literature in “The Book of Daniel” in 1971, and even more recently, Tony Kushner gave us the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg reciting Kaddish for the dying Roy Cohn in “Angels in America” — a stunning and yet sublime moment.
A crucial but often overlooked character in the real-life account of the Rosenbergs was a man named Harry Gold, the courier who carried a crude drawing of the atomic bomb from the secret laboratory at Los Alamos to his Soviet handlers in New York and later testified about it at the Rosenberg trial. His life story is told by independent journalist and historian Allen M. Hornblum in “The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atomic Bomb” (Yale University Press: $32.50), a fascinating look at “a shy nebbish pulling off cloak-and-dagger capers.”
As the title suggests, Harry Gold — “this timid, sad-eyed Philadelphia bachelor” — has been neglected in the literature of the Rosenberg case, but Hornblum argues that “[d]espite his singularly unimpressive exterior, Harry Gold had been a gifted and devoted secret agent who spent years providing the Soviet Union with industrial and military secrets, including the greatest prize of all: the secrets to the atomic bomb.” And yet, when he was finally arrested by the FBI, Gold confessed his crimes and turned against his former comrades, “Harry Gold was the human tripwire that brought down a host of Americans who had spied for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s.”
Hornblum points out that Gold has been obscured by more than a half-century of spin by those who sought to exonerate the Rosenbergs. “[E]ither he was a traitor who had sold his country down the river or he was a delusional psychotic,” the author explains of Gold’s depiction. “He seemed to be made to order for bullies, whether they were neighborhood ruffians who beat him up with their fists or polysyllabic political activists who used a pen and a typewriter.” After retrieving and reviewing the hard evidence, Hornblum concludes that “it was Gold who told the truth about his career as a spy, and Julius Rosenberg who lied….”
Born Heinrich Golodnitsky in 1910, he was renamed Harry Gold when the family reached America from the Ukraine (via Bern) in 1914. The account of his childhood and adolescence in Philadelphia is colorful and deeply nostalgic but also revealing of the inner workings of an enigmatic personality — his first job was selling candy at the Broad Street Theatre, but he was fired after the first performance when he sold only a single box, all because he was “too frightened to call out his wares between acts.”
Gold was a reluctant recruit to the Communist cause in the 1930s. Although he resisted the urgings of a friend to join the party, he agreed to conduct espionage against his employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, whose industrial solvents were of interest to the USSR. Young Gold was impressed by the fact that “the Soviet Union had become the first nation to make ‘anti-Semitism a crime against the state,’” but he later admitted that he suffered from an “almost suicidal impulse” to do things that he knew were wrong or even illegal. At it turned out, his lifelong shyness turned out to be a desirable quality in a spy: “To avoid surveillance, he would walk on the dark side of the street and eat in restaurants with booths rather than at a table in the open,” writes Hornblum. “No one would ever suspect that the dumpy fellow with the odd gait and glum expression was a Soviet spy trading in industrial and military secrets.”
At the high point of his career as a Soviet spy, he was deployed to crack the secrets of the Manhattan Project — “a mission of the ‘utmost magnitude and importance,’” according to his handler. Thus did Gold first come into contact with British scientist Klaus Fuchs and, a bit later, a young machinist David Greenglass, the brother-in-law of Julius Rosenberg, both of whom were at work in Los Alamos in the top-secret enterprise to build the world’s first atomic bomb. The recognition signal that Gold was to use with Greenglass would figure prominently in the Rosenberg trial: One-half of a torn Jell-O box and the fatal words: “I come from Julius.”
By 1950, British and American law enforcement managed to crack the Soviet spy apparatus that had operated so successfully during the Second World War. The arrest and confession of Klaus Fuchs prompted Harry Gold to conclude that he had only two options — “flee the country or commit suicide.” As it turned out, a third option presented himself to Gold, who “was ready to say the fatal words” — “I am the man.” Gold succeeded in saving his own life, but his testimony helped send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair and others to prison.
For his willingness to confess and testify against his former comrades, Gold was rewarded with a prison term even longer than the one demanded by the federal prosecutor. He served just over half of the 30-year sentence, was paroled in 1966 and died in obscurity in 1972. His very obscurity was a goad to Hornblum: “How must Harry Gold have felt over the years as the punching bag of choice for many Rosenberg defenders,” the author muses, “who subjected him to a level of scrutiny that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg never could have withstood?”
“The Invisible Harry Gold” restores Gold to history and, in rich and intriguing ways, it enriches the tragic saga of the Rosenberg case. Even those who insist on seeing the Rosenbergs as victims will find something new, important and compelling in Hornblum’s book.