Will the Truth Finally Emerge?
The FBI Opens Its Files On Hiss and the Rosenbergs
"The key to the whole thing is the Freedom of Information Act. If we can just get our hands on the FBI files, I'm convinced we can prove the innocence of our parents." The speaker was Michael Meeropol, the eldest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's two sons--Meeropol, and his brother, Robert, who were adopted a few years after their parents were electrocuted in 1953, vehemently oppose "liberal explanations" of the Rosenberg case. "I know there's a tendency to adopt a middle-of-the-road analysis now and argue that the Rosenbergs were probably small-time espionage agents who certainly didn't deserve the death penalty, but also weren't completely innocent," Meeropol said in an interview earlier this year. "But I just don't buy it--I believe the whole case was a frame-up and I think we'll be able to prove it."
The Meeropols, who this summer received an initial installment of 725 pages of the FBI's files on their parents' case after filing suit under the Freedom of Information Act, are still awaiting the bulk of the 48,000-page government documents. This Saturday, the FBI is due to release a substantial portion of the remainder, after heavy and continuous pressure from the federal courts for the bureau to comply with the 1972 Act.
Much of the legal pressure came not just from the Meeropols' suit, but from a parallel action filed over three years ago by Allen Weinstein, a professor of History at Smith College and visiting fellow at the Law School. Weinstein is using the Freedom of Information Act to sue for the release of the FBI's 53,000 pages of files on the Alger Hiss case as well since he is preparing a book for publication next year to be entitled Alger and Whitaker. He expects to follow that study with a book on the Rosenberg case and anticipates that the receipt of most of the FBI materials on both cases will substantially aid his endeavors. But the Meeropols' goals and Weinstein's are vastly different.
The Rosenbergs' sons avowed purpose is to clear their parents' name, and they, and Alger Hiss, who filed a separate suit, will be combing FBI files in a quest for a single document or set of documents proving government maleficence--some have labelled their efforts, and those of Hiss, a search for a "smoking gun." And, indeed, that does seem to exactly their intention as they review the files.
Weinstein on the other hand firmly believes there is no "smoking gun." "It would be a mistake to assume that there exists a single document that will solve either case. The files will clarify, but they will not provide magic answers." That is not to say that Weinstein does not expect to be able to draw conclusions and offer judgments in each of his projected books. In addition to studying the FBI files, he has travelled both in the United States and in Eastern Europe conducting interviews with current and former Soviet agents. He promises to document thoroughly his research in order to pave the way for other scholars, and says there will be no anonymous sources in his books. Weinstein also draws a fundamental distinction between his efforts and those of the Meeropols and Hiss. "I can live with anything that appears in these files, and that is a comfortable situation to be in."
The files that have been released already have apparently revealed interesting, if not overwhelming new facts. The Rosenberg files included a summary of an FBI interview with David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, whose testimony against the Rosenbergs was instrumental to the government's case. The summary shows that Greenglass originally did not want to testify against his sister and brother-in-law but was convinced to do so by the FBI. When Greenglass testified against them he said he supplied the Rosenbergs with information on the atomic bomb, which he claimed to have obtained while working as a technician at the atomic research plant in Los Alamos, New Mexico. In return for his testimony, he received a reduced sentence of 15 years in prison, later commuted to nine.
Whether the Rosenbergs were technically guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage as the government charged, or whether Alger Hiss actually turned over confidential State Department documents to Whitaker Chambers during the late 1930's, may seem to be somewhat particularistic and historically insignificant questions. But if these specific cases can shed light on the entire McCarthy period, if the Freedom of Information Act can help explain the FBI's method of investigation in two cases which contributed so much to the creation of a national anti-communist hysteria, then clearly Weinstein's research and that of Hiss and the Meeropols will not simply serve to satisfy a historical curiosity. The means by which the investigative arm of the Justice Department obtained information during this period, certainly one of the darkest in American history, the pressures--personal or political--applied which turned a large number of ordinary people into informers, are essential to an understanding of this second and devastating "red scare."
The obvious question in these cases, where the courts are compelling an agency to release information which may be damaging to that agency, is whether the FBI could have tampered with the files. Weinstein thinks not. "Obviously we'll never know with absolute certainty but there is a good cross checking system." By this Weinstein means that many copies of these files have already been made and are kept in various governmental agencies. Thus, should the FBI tamper with the files in violation of court orders, it might well create more difficulties for itself than if it released information, some of which is already 40 years old.
The Freedom of Information suits filed by Weinstein, by Hiss and by Michael and Robert Meeropol, serve a contemporary political purpose, in addition to fulfilling the demands of history. As Weinstein says, the real issue in the suits became a question of whether the Justice Department could control the FBI. Long after Elliot Richardson '41, as a Watergate-shuffle Attorney General, had promised that these specific files would be made completely public, the FBI was still holding out. The bureau presented irrelevant national security arguments, released completely blue-pencilled 17-page reports, claimed a lack of manpower for copying the documents, and tossed around suggestions that perhaps there was KGB, the Soviet secret police, involvement in pressing the suits.
Weinstein describes an experience he had in February of this year at FBI headquarters in Washington when he complained about the FBI's exorbitant price-scale for copying documents. An FBI agent named Farington became offended at Weinstein's suggestion that the Justice Department had a more reasonable payment procedure and exploded at him: "Don't tell me about the Justice Department. I don't care how they handle things. They do things their way and we do things our way. They don't tell us how to handle our affairs, and we don't tell them. And another thing, when you have any questions about our work, don't call the Justice Department, call us. We handle our own policy, not them. They don't tell us what to do."
Strange words from an FBI agent who, technically, is a Justice Department employee. Strange, but apparently valid, judging from Weinstein's experience. For it was a series of court orders, the final one in October, demanding FBI compliance, which finally forced the bureau to comply with the law, not the continuous pressure from the Justice Department. The Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court in Washington formally rebuked the FBI in his October ruling for its behavior, and it is a safe bet that by the end of next week, the FBI's stubborn fight to keep its records to itself will finally end in defeat.
Actually, the FBI never really kept its files entirely secret. For years the bureau granted selective access, showing files that it chose to, withholding documents at whim. In fact, FBI files, even the tightly guarded ones on Alger Hiss, have been floating around in private hands since as long ago as 1945. Apparently they were leaked to favorable parties for potentially helpful political purposes by the bureau itself.
So all that's really happening in these Freedom of Information suits is an effort to convince the FBI, or force it, if need be, to broaden its generosity. And Weinstein says his specific intent is to create a precedent whereby all files of clearly historical relevance would be open to anyone interested. The natural corollary would be for individuals, both in government and in private life, to be able to see files kept on them by the FBI.
In terms of the specific cases, Weinstein is not prepared to say what judgments he will make in each of his books. But the nature of his scholarship and the availability of new materials is likely to make his work on each case the definitive study.
However, gauging from past articles and statements to the press on the Rosenberg question, Allen Weinstein is apparently going to be one of the "liberals" Michael Meeropol criticized. Weinstein has said in the past of the Rosenbergs, "I tend to think they were Soviet agents, but of a more minor sort than the government claimed." As for Hiss, Weinstein has given no concrete indication of the stance he will take. But in an Esquire Magazine article this month, he did accuse former President Nixon of deliberately lying about and distorting his own personal role in the Hiss case. Weinstein demonstrates that Nixon had been shown an FBI file naming Hiss as a Soviet agent well before Whitaker Chambers made his charges at a 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Therefore, Weinstein says, Nixon knew more than his fellow Congressmen about the brewing case, despite his claim that he first heard the name Alger Hiss from Chambers' mouth. Weinstein also shows through interviews with the principals in the investigation that Nixon was prepared many times to drop the case, and had to be urged to press on by others. So much for the self-satisfied account by Nixon in his Six Crises.
The type of scholarship Weinstein is engaged in, the Meeropols' investigation of their parents' case, Alger Hiss's efforts to prove his innocence, all lead to broad philosophical questions concerning the nature of historical truths. It may well be that both the Rosenbergs and the FBI, both Hiss and Chambers, were lying. It is possible that no party to the cases will be able to maintain that the complete truth rests on its side. It is then that the area of judgmental truth will be entered. Did the Rosenbergs and the FBI have different reasons for lying? What are the distinctions between a young couple distorting the truth in a cold war climate to save their skins, and a government agency trying to whip up national hysteria and conjure up a scapegoat for Soviet military advances and for American intervention in Korea? Truths about guilt or innocence, in the most specific and legalistic sense of the words, may be hard to come by. Truths about the entire period, about the manipulation of the national consciousness by branches of the government, using all available media, frightening some people, arousing and misdirecting ire in others, will probably become clear. And it is the revelation of these greater truths that the Freedom of Information Act and the attendant pressure on the FBI will serve.