by Sam Roberts
In a previously unpublished interview, Richard M. Nixon said that Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted spy, might have been spared the death penalty by President Dwight D. Eisenhower had he been aware that evidence against her was tainted.
“If I had known — if we had known that at the time — if President Eisenhower had known it, he might have taken a different view with regard to her,” Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice president, is quoted as saying. “In other words, tainted evidence, even though a person is totally guilty, is a reason to get him off.”
Mrs. Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1953 for conspiring to deliver military secrets to the Soviet Union.
“Now if you look at it coolly, in retrospect, at this point,” Nixon said in a 1983 interview, “certainly we would have preferred that it not be done. But at the time I understand why it was done. And let us understand — Mrs. Rosenberg was guilty. This wasn’t a case of somebody not guilty going to the chair.”
The interview by Frank Gannon, who served in the Nixon White House and helped the former president compile his memoirs, was posted on a Web site, thenewnixon.org, operated by the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation.
The posting followed the confession last week of Morton Sobell, one of the principals in the case, to spying. In an interview, Mr. Sobell also implicated Julius Rosenberg in non-atomic military espionage. Also last week, the government released transcripts confirming that trial testimony of several witnesses appeared to conflict with what they had told the grand jury.
Critics of the prosecution say that some witnesses who were implicated in the case and still under the threat of harsh sentences were pressured into embellishing their testimony.
Earlier concerns about those inconsistencies were raised in a book, “The Rosenberg File,” by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in 1983. Mr. Gannon quotes Nixon as saying shortly after the book was published that “the case they made for cooking the evidence is pretty weak.”
But he then recalls the prosecution of Dr. Daniel J. Ellsberg, a former national security aide who gave a copy of the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to The New York Times.
“Daniel Ellsberg was guilty of illegally taking top-secret papers from the Pentagon and turning them over to be published in a newspaper,” Nixon is quoted as saying. “And yet, because the evidence was tainted, he’s scot-free, making a lot of money on the lecture circuit, particularly at the elite Ivy League colleges. So as far as Mrs. Rosenberg was concerned, she was entitled to get off on that basis, too.”
Nixon said he was in the room when Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and his deputy, William P. Rogers, made the final case against clemency to Eisenhower.
Prosecutors later said they hoped that convicting Ethel Rosenberg and imposing the death sentence would persuade her husband to confess and implicate others.
That strategy failed; Mrs. Rosenberg did not talk. Mr. Rogers said years later, “She called our bluff.”
In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Mr. Sobell implicated Julius Rosenberg in military and industrial espionage.
The Rosenbergs were formally accused of espionage conspiracy, but the prosecutor and judge argued they were guilty of giving the Soviets atomic bomb secrets. Mrs. Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, was an army machinist at Los Alamos where the bomb was made.
Nixon sought to put the case in historical context. Look at the times then, and at the fact that the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb before we thought they could, he is quoted as saying. “You can see why overzealous prosecutors, and those that are assisting prosecutors, like J. Edgar Hoover, would certainly tilt their prosecution and their investigation in a way toward guilt, rather than toward innocence,” he said.