A century before the Mayflower, a single man settled the destiny of the Americas far more momentously than the Puritans ever could. Hernán Cortés’s blitzkrieg-like conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519-21 laid the foundation of a Spanish empire that would eventually stretch from California to the pampas of Argentina. Along the way, he sealed the doom of the native cultures of the Americas, both North and South, and set the pattern of global history right down to the present — as a series of fateful encounters between, on the one hand, Western ideas, technologies and institutions and, on the other, non-Western cultures, peoples and terrains.

In “Conquistador,” Buddy Levy offers a fascinating account of the first and most decisive of those encounters: the one between the impetuous Spanish adventurer Cortés and Montezuma, the ill-starred emperor of the Aztecs — clearly the wrong emperor at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mr. Levy has an eye for vivid detail and manages to build a compelling narrative out of this almost unbelievable story of missionary zeal, greed, cruelty and courage. By avoiding the kind of ideological posturing that usually distorts re-tellings of the conquest of the New World, Mr. Levy rightly focuses his reader’s attention on the story’s antagonists.

Cortés’s early life in Castile, before he headed off to the New World, was spent unpromisingly as a rogue and a wastrel. And in an era when most men were past their prime at age 40, he was already 34 when he left his farm on the island of Cuba to try to make direct contact with the native tribes on the Yucatan mainland. His hope was to trade for the one commodity that the Spanish in the New World could never get enough of: gold.

Others had tried what Cortés wanted to do, and failed. They died in shipwrecks or were captured and sold into slavery by the Indians. Cortés, though, had the advantage of iron resolve, a good mind and an instinct for seizing the initiative in a crisis. With his handful of men, three cannon and 15 horses, he overawed the first tribes he encountered. Realizing that the gold trinkets they offered him were only a hint of the wealth lying further west, he began his drive into the interior of Mexico, fighting and marching through scorching deserts and over ice-bound mountain passes.
He did not stop until he reached the capital of the most feared people of the central Mexican valley, the Aztecs.

Cortés was a man of deep contradictions. A devout Catholic, he was horrified by the sights and sounds of Aztec worship: its human sacrifices and cannibalism, its skull racks, its idols draped with human body parts, its priests with their blood-clotted hair. But he was not above massacring his enemies or burning them at the stake. He was genuinely dazzled by his first sight of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, with its tidy fields and gleaming stone causeways, a city of nearly a quarter-million people that was, he wrote in a letter to the Spanish king, more beautiful than any in Europe. Even so, he was ready to destroy it all to feed his desire for gold and to bend the Aztecs to his will.

If Cortés was a man of contradictions, Montezuma was not. Studious and conscientious, he had been trained for Aztec priesthood before becoming emperor in 1503 — the same year that Cortes set out from Spain for America. Montezuma believed in the rightness of his own convictions but also, it appears, in the importance of an open mind. As Mr. Levy shows, he always looked for ways to dispel a crisis by placating the feelings of all concerned. He would have made a fine college president.
From his first meeting with Cortés in November 1519, though, he was desperately overmatched.

Montezuma hoped that, by giving Cortés magnificent gifts of gold and silver, he could make him go away. He made him want to stay instead. The Aztec ruler never quite shook off the suspicion that Cortés might be the Aztec god Quetzelcoatl returning home according to ancient prophesy — a suspicion that led Montezuma to want to treat the intrusive Spaniards as guests rather than a threat.

Cortés exploited Montezuma’s weakness without scruple, squeezing one concession after another out of him until, though outnumbered by more than 1,000-to-1, Cortés made him a hostage. When Montezuma had lost all credibility with his people and was no longer useful, Cortés cast him aside.
Montezuma died a broken man — although probably not, Mr. Levy argues, at Cortes’s order. It is more likely that Montezuma died from wounds inflicted by his own subjects. When they saw him appear in chains and appeal for calm, they had bombarded him with stones and arrows. His weakness, they understood, had betrayed them to the Spanish.

Cortés wound up besieging Tenochtitlán, in alliance with Indian tribes who had cursed their lot under Aztec rule. By Aug. 31, 1521, the city was a smoldering ruin. Nearly 100,000 people died in the siege; another 100,000 died of smallpox — the disease that eventually tipped the demographic balance in favor of the Spaniards in the New World.

The Spanish would spend the next three centuries rebuilding and exploiting the lands they had devastated. Cortés got the wealth he wanted. By the time he died in 1547 he was a rich man, and America’s gold and silver had made Spain the world’s first superpower. Such riches would soon tempt others to devote men and resources to competing in the Western Hemisphere: Portugal, France, Holland, England. The history of Europe, and the world, would never be the same.

“It was Cortés, the consummate gambler,” Mr. Levy writes, “who staked high wagers and won.” Montezuma was the more lovable man. But his world has vanished into dust. The world Cortés made is still around us.

Ruth Greenglass, whose damning testimony in the Rosenberg atomic-bomb spy case of the early 1950s helped lead to the execution of her sister-in-law Ethel Rosenberg, died on April 7. She was 84.

Mrs. Greenglass’s testimony was later called into question.

Along with her husband, David Greenglass — Ethel’s brother and a central figure in the case — Mrs. Greenglass had lived in the New York metropolitan area under an assumed name for more than four decades. Her death was revealed in court papers on June 23.

That day, in an unexpected response to a suit by historians, the federal government agreed to release secret grand jury testimony, 57 years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. The government, however, consented to release the testimony of only 35 of the 45 witnesses; those who are dead or have consented to the release. Mrs. Greenglass was listed as one of the deceased; her death was confirmed by the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and through Social Security records. Mr. Greenglass survives her.

The Rosenberg investigation can be traced to 1945, when a Soviet cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected to the West and stunned intelligence officials by revealing that the Russians were engaged in extensive spying against their wartime allies. At the time, David Greenglass was an Army sergeant assigned as a machinist to the Manhattan Project, the program to develop the atomic bomb, at Los Alamos, N.M.

When Mr. Rosenberg, an avowed Communist, found out about his brother-in-law’s assignment, he recruited Mr. Greenglass to gather information about the Manhattan Project, including documents, handwritten notes, sketches of the bomb and the names of scientists.

One afternoon in September 1945, in the Rosenberg apartment in Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Greenglass dictated his notes to someone sitting before a Remington typewriter. Who was sitting at that typewriter, Ethel Rosenberg or Ruth Greenglass? Fifty-seven years after the Rosenberg trial the question remains.

In 1950, after confessing to his role as a spy, Mr. Greenglass agreed to testify against the Rosenbergs. At the time, he had not yet been sentenced.

A main element in the prosecution was the threat of indictment, conviction and possible execution of Ethel Rosenberg as leverage to persuade Julius Rosenberg to confess and to implicate other collaborators.

Those collaborators had already been identified, largely from what became known as the Venona transcripts, a trove of intercepted Soviet cables.

But with little more than a week before the trial was to start, on March 6, 1951, the government’s case against Mrs. Rosenberg remained flimsy, lacking evidence of an overt act to justify her conviction, much less her execution.

Prosecutors had been interrogating Mrs. Greenglass since June 1950. In February 1951, she was interviewed again. After reminding her that she was still subject to indictment and that her husband had yet to be sentenced, the prosecutors extracted a recollection from her: that in the fall of 1945, Ethel Rosenberg had typed her brother’s handwritten notes.

Soon after, confronted with his wife’s account, Mr. Greenglass told prosecutors that Mrs. Greenglass had a very good memory and that if that was what she recalled of events six years earlier, she was probably right.

The transcripts of those two crucial interviews have never been released or even located in government files. But at the trial, Mr. Greenglass testified that his sister had done the typing. Called to the stand, Mrs. Greenglass corroborated her husband’s testimony.

In his summation, the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, declared: “This description of the atom bomb, destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she, on countless other occasions, sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing.

It may never be determined who actually took that dictation. But in the late 1990s, Sam Roberts, a reporter for The New York Times, interviewed Mr. Greenglass for more than 50 hours while doing research for a book, “The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case” (Random House, 2003).

In the book, Mr. Roberts recounts how Mr. Greenglass acknowledged for the first time that he had lied on the stand and that he had no recollection that his sister had typed his notes.

“I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember,” Mr. Greenglass told Mr. Roberts.

“You know, I seldom use the word ‘sister’ anymore; I’ve just wiped it out of my mind,” Mr. Greenglass continued, adding: “My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife.”

Ruth Leah Printz was born on either April 30 or May 1, 1924 (official records differ), the eldest of four children of Max and Tillie Leiter Printz. Growing up on the Lower East Side, she and David Greenglass were neighbors and childhood sweethearts. After graduating with honors from Seward Park High School at 16, she was ready to go to college. But her mother insisted that she learn how to type.

At the time of the Rosenberg trial, Mrs. Greenglass was working as a legal stenographer for Louis J. Lefkowitz, a Republican assemblyman from the Lower East Side, who later became the New York State attorney general.
She was fired.

After serving 10 years of a 15-year sentence, Mr. Greenglass was released from federal prison in 1960. In return for her and her husband’s cooperation in the Rosenberg case, Mrs. Greenglass was not indicted.

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