Walter Schneir, 81, expert on the Rosenberg spy case

Walter and Miriam Schneir defended the couple at a 1983 debate in New York. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. Walter and Miriam Schneir defended the couple at a 1983 debate in New York. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953. (Keith Meyers/ New York Times)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / April 30, 2009
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NEW YORK - Walter Schneir, the author of a hotly debated 1965 book arguing that the couple had been framed but who later came to believe that Julius, if not Ethel, Rosenberg was indeed a Soviet spy, died April 11 at his home in Pleasantville, N.Y. He was 81 and had thyroid cancer, said his wife, Miriam, who was the coauthor of the book.

The arrest, trial, and execution of the Rosenbergs mesmerized an America coming to grips with the early Cold War and the anxiety aroused by the Soviet Union's testing of an atomic bomb. When the couple were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage on March 29, 1951, few seemed to disagree with Judge Irving R. Kaufman that their crime was "worse than murder."

But by the time the Rosenbergs were executed, at sundown on June 19, 1953, the number of people around the world who questioned the government's handling of the case had grown. They ranged from death penalty opponents to those who saw a Soviet-style show trial, from Communists to skeptics of the prosecution's evidence. Picasso and the pope pleaded for mercy. With time, Americans' views on the case demarcated a range of political identity, from left to right.

Emotions had cooled by 1965, when Doubleday published "Invitation to an Inquest" by Walter and Miriam Schneir. Their sensational accusations, most of them documented, reignited the Rosenberg debate. They presented evidence that witnesses had changed their stories after coaching from prosecutors, and they asserted that critical evidence had been forged by the FBI. They argued not only that the Rosenbergs were innocent, but also that no crime had occurred.

The Houston Chronicle said the Schneirs created enough "reasonable doubt" for a "dispassionate court" to render a not-guilty verdict. Newsweek said of the book, "Not a line of it can be readily dismissed as mere apologetics."

On the basis of the book's conclusions, Morton Sobell, who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in the same trial as the Rosenbergs, appealed his 30-year sentence in 1966. Well-known figures, mostly on the left, demanded Sobell's release; they included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bertrand Russell. Sobell's appeal was denied.

The picture began to change with the publication in 1983 of "The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth" by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton. The new book used 200,000 pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to argue that Julius Rosenberg was guilty, and that his wife may have helped him. But like the Schneirs, Radosh and Milton saw the trial as a mockery of justice.

Also in 1983, the Schneirs used the wealth of new material to revise and expand their book without changing its conclusions. The debate roared for months in book reviews and political journals, and led in October 1983 to a duel of authors at Town Hall in Manhattan.

More than a decade later, however, the Schneirs were compelled to change their minds. In 1995 the federal government began to release 3,000 Soviet intelligence documents that it had decoded, decrypted, and translated. Some of the first related to the Rosenberg case.

Mr. Schneir, saying he "knew it was accurate," put the new information together with his vast knowledge of the case and, with his wife, writing in the magazine The Nation, concluded that "no reasonable person" could doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a spy.

This meant that the top echelons of the federal government, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, knew from the intercepted documents that Julius Rosenberg was a spy at the time of the trial. By the Schneirs' reading, however, the tapes did not implicate Ethel Rosenberg and probably exonerated her. They did not believe that Julius had passed on any atomic secrets, if only because he appeared to have lacked the knowledge and opportunity.

Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, lauded Mr. Schneir, saying he had not let his leftist views interfere with his scholarship. "He went public when he felt that the weight of the evidence forced him to," he said.

Navasky said he continued to agree with the questions Mr. Schneir had raised about the trial's fairness, even though he, too, had accepted that Julius Rosenberg had done some spying. "It's possible to frame a guilty man," he said.

Walter Daniel Schneir was born in Brooklyn. He graduated from Syracuse University with a journalism degree and worked for many years as news editor of MD magazine. He wrote for magazines and published an anthology of writings relating to the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

In addition to his wife of 51 years, the former Miriam Blumberg, Mr. Schneir leaves two sons, Jason and Nicholas; a daughter, Frances Schneir Baron; a sister, Elaine Fein; and four grandchildren.

Miriam Schneir said her husband had started the book not to exonerate the Rosenbergs but to do "something important." He asked her if she wanted to help.

Over the years, Mr. Schneir followed twists and turns in the Rosenberg case with fascination. Some bittersweet satisfaction came in 2001, when David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother and one of the most important prosecution witnesses, confessed in the book "The Brother," by Sam Roberts, a reporter for The New York Times, that he had given false testimony in the 1951 trial.

Greenglass's testimony - that his sister had typed notes explaining an atomic bomb sketch - was crucial to her conviction. The Schneirs' book had sharply attacked that testimony.

Mr. Schneir was writing his autobiography at the time of his death. Miriam Schneir, without providing specifics, said the book would marshal fresh evidence to propose "a new narrative of the case."

Navasky, who has read the chapters, said: "If he's right, one has to rethink again."