Another American Horror Story

The Tragic Life and Death of Ethel Rosenberg

Ethel Rosenberg

Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
By Anne Sebba, 2021 St. Martin's Press, 320 pgs.

For many years as a UCLA teacher, I have regularly brought up the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  Not surprisingly, those names are unfamiliar to most students except for a few who come from progressive family backgrounds.  I then explain the tragic fate that befell the Jewish Communist couple who were executed in the electric chair on June 19, 1953, following their convictions for conspiracy to commit espionage.

I also detail the anti-communist hysteria of the immediate post-war period in America and the grotesque arrest, trial, and execution of the Rosenbergs.  Most of this is new to my students, but it is hugely important as we emerge from the proto-fascism of the Trump regime.  A country with minimal historical consciousness is susceptible to Trumpism and its many variants.  

I  have vivid early childhood recollections of the day of the execution; my left-wing non-Party parents were deeply upset, reactions that left a strong impact upon me.  Anne Sebba has brought back those memories in a remarkable biography of Ethel Rosenberg.  Meticulously researched and skillfully written, it is a painful read.  It chronicles the short life of a woman whose premature death in the electric chair should never have happened.  Her execution––really a judicial murder––was a serious stain on our past and it should be an indelible part of the historical curriculum for all students, despite the current efforts of many conservative legislators throughout America to whitewash history and replace it with a fantasy of patriotic nonsense instead of facing tough and critical historical realities. 

The Rosenberg historical tragedy, of course, is only one of many American tragedies.  This year the nation commemorated the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.  Hundreds of African Americans were slaughtered and a vibrant community was destroyed.  In the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, Chicago, police shot and killed ten unarmed labor protestors.  And so many more, which most undergraduates also don’t know or learn.  James Loewen, in his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, details this sorry reality magisterially.

Turning to legal injustices, there are also far too many: the firing squad execution of IWW organizer Joe Hill in Utah in 1915 for his unjust murder conviction; the electrocution of Italian-American immigrant anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 that ended years of vigorous but fruitless protests against another egregious judicial murder; the infamous Scottsboro case of 1931 that saw the horrific jailing of nine young Black men (some actually boys) for a rape they didn’t commit; and the grotesque acquittal of the two white murderers of Emmett Till by an all-white jury in Mississippi in 1955. The Rosenberg case stands in the grotesquely long “tradition” of political and legal persecution of American radicals and racial minorities and the unjust exoneration of their persecutors, including police.  It’s scarcely unique, albeit especially horrifying.  

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Ethel Rosenberg’s story is compelling and must be told, as the author does so superbly in this book.  It was emblematic of a particularly dark period of our history, where two young parents went to their deaths, the most gruesome victims of the entire era of McCarthyism––and even worse because all available evidence suggests that Ethel Rosenberg, for all her knowledge of what her husband Julius did in his own espionage activities for the Soviets, was not herself centrally involved.  She was a committed wife and a doctrinaire Communist—perhaps too much so, especially with her devotion to the Communist Party.  As the book persuasively shows, she emerged from a dysfunctional family with a mother who never loved her and a duplicitous brother who fatally betrayed her.

Anne Sebba tells her story in compelling detail.  She recounts Ethel’s early life as an intelligent young Jewish girl living in poverty with an indifferent, even hostile mother who clearly favored her younger brother David.  Talented as a singer, she sought a professional career in opera.  But the mores of the times dictated otherwise.  The patriarchy of the mid 20th century moved her inevitably toward a life as a subservient wife and mother.  Sebba chronicles her inner struggles even as she continued to employ historical er vocal talents around New York City at various workers’ and left-wing rallies.  

In 1936, she met a young engineering student at New York’s City College, Julius Rosenberg, who transformed her life.  Their mutual attraction was immediate.  Julius too emerged from an impoverished  Jewish family.  City College in New York City was a hotbed of political activity and Julius became active in leftist causes associated with the Communist Party.   After the couple married, Julius began his career as an engineer, avoiding conscription when the war broke out because of his essential occupation critical to the war effort. 

Their first son Michael was born in 1943.  He was all accounts a fussy and difficult infant, commanding much of Ethel’s attention and emotional energy.  Meanwhile, Julius was becoming involved in passing secrets to the Soviet Union, still a U.S. ally during the war with the Axis powers.  A committed communist, Julius likely began his espionage activities as early as 1942, when he was introduced to Soviet intelligence officer Semyon Semyonov.  Later, his Soviet contact was Alexander Feklisov, with whom he developed a close relationship.  

A key source for Julius was Ethel’s brother David, who was then working at Los Alamos.  David too was a fervent communist.  Julius had no particular knowledge of the atomic bomb, but he believed that the wartime ally should have information he could obtain from David, a mere machinist with no scientific expertise.  Other major American figures in Soviet espionage included Harry Gold and Morton Sobell.  

After the war, the Rosenbergs struggled financially.  Julius refused most compensation from the Russians and his small business faltered.  Despite their financial travails, the couple had a second child, Robbie, in 1947. 

Meanwhile, the post-war anti-communist fervor was growing, intensified by the hostilities in Korea.  The net closed in when Ethel’s brother David was arrested in June 1950, followed by Julius’s own arrest on July 17, 1950.  That was the beginning of the end of the Rosenberg family unit.

Ethel was herself arrested on August 11, 1950.  The author chronicles her perilous life behind bars and the subsequent attempts of the authorities to get her to flip on her husband.  She was resolute to the end.  It was a harrowing time for everyone, including the young children, who shuffled from place to place, especially to the hostile grandmother Tessie.  Ethel could do little for her sons while incarcerated, and she had to prepare for the upcoming trial while facing the horrendous prospect of a brother about to betray her.  

One of the most fascinating features of Ethel Rosenberg is the story of the trial itself.  Richly detailed, it chronicles the entire spectacle, played out before a gullible nation.  Although most of the facts of that trial remain hidden even to the present, the author does a magnificent job highlighting the well-known and lesser-known aspects of this mid-20th-century judicial debacle.

A crucial feature that she shows is the composition of the major players: the judge and the prosecutors.  Judge Irving Kaufman was a Jew; Chief Prosecutor Irving Saypol was a Jew;  Saypol’s assistant was Roy Cohn, also a Jew.  All were unsavory characters.  But as Sebba writes, “it is easy to see Cohn, the precociously clever son of a judge, as the incarnation of pure evil.”  Indeed, Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome persons in modern history, who later provided his services to Donald Trump before being disbarred shortly before dying of AIDS, denying his homosexuality until the end.  This Jewish façade was surely intended to deflect charges of anti-Semitism, an inseparable dimension of cold war anti-communism that doubtless informed the entire government case against the Rosenbergs.

A chief feature of the trial was the testimony of Ethel’s brother David Greenglass for the prosecution.  On direct examination by Roy Cohn, Greenglass implicated his sister in atomic spying.  Among other things, he testified that Ethel had typed his notes to give to the Russians.  Decades later, well after he had served his own prison sentence for espionage, he confessed that he had lied on the stand to protect his wife Ruth.  David Greenglass proved to be a rival of Roy Cohn as a vile human being.  

The guilty verdict was far from unexpected.  The Rosenbergs had earnest but, in the end, largely ineffective counsel from Manny and Alexander Bloch.  In the atmosphere of the times, perhaps no attorney could have saved them and Ethel was utterly unwilling to turn on her husband, even though her role was marginal at most.  The government always used her as a pawn––unsuccessfully––in its attempt to implicate Julius and to gather additional information about the espionage ring.  

Judge Kaufman’s sentence of death in the electric chair was outrageous even for those fraught times.  As the author tellingly notes, “[t]o declare that the Rosenbergs put the A-bomb in the hands of the Russians was a grotesque exaggeration. . . . “  Roy Cohn had lobbied Kaufman privately for the death sentence, another indication of his despicable character.  The rest of the saga compounded the tragedy.  The appeals were equally fruitless.  Both Ethel and Julius were confined in separate facilities.  Brother David received a fifteen-year sentence for his spying, a reward for perjuriously incriminating his sister under oath.

Ethel was moved to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, where her exchange of letters with her husband became legendary.  Meanwhile, her children continued their sad odyssey while managing to visit occasionally.  Mother Tessie remained hostile to Ethel, while Save The Rosenberg Committees formed throughout the world, including in the United States.  Many notables like Albert Einstein, Pope Pius XII, Harold Urey, and many others asked President Dwight Eisenhower to commute the sentences.   Curiously, as the author reports, even the notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had no personal problem with the executions, thought that killing Ethel would have negative publicity for the U.S. government.

The government tried to get Ethel to turn until the very end.  She never did and never would.  President Eisenhower was unmoved by the thought of a woman with two small children dying in the electric chair.  For all his supposed distaste about putting a woman to death, he believed the lie that Roy Cohn among others promoted that Ethel was the strong partner in the spy ring and the master manipulator.  In short, “Ike” was no more than another cruel and heartless political operative, identical to the majority of the conservative members of the Supreme Court who refused clemency.  All survive historically in the infamous shadow of the worst figures of that period like Senator Joe McCarthy and his faithful sidekick Roy Cohn.

Anne Sebba adds another service in her outstanding book by offering her personal assessment of ethel Rosenberg: “Ethel Rosenberg was not, I believe, a spy.  Nor was she a saint.”  This judgment, I think, makes perfect sense.  Ethel was indeed a highly intelligent woman who, as a committed communist and fiercely loyal wife, totally refused to betray anyone, including her country.  But she was herself betrayed by her country and her own brother and mother.  Many on the Left may feel a tinge of dismay or worse when they read this view because they desire saints and icons; alas, the world doesn’t often work that way.  Ethel Rosenberg doesn’t qualify.  I think Seeba’s view is accurate. 

Julius was a spy, but he like his wife should never have gone to the electric chair.  Perhaps he should have served a modest prison sentence and then both parents should have been able to rejoin their sons.  As it happened, after the executions, Michael and Robbie were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol, who provided a loving home for them and they grew up to live productive socially progressive lives. 

There is more than historical value in this book.  We could have another wave of hysteria in America, with victims like Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  We narrowly avoided it with Trump and with the insurrection of January 6, 2021.  The comparison is not identical, to be sure.  But in Trump’s final days in office, five federal executions occurred, including that of one woman.  That was barbaric.  It was likewise not identical, yet Trump’s cruelty in denying clemency was all too reminiscent of Eisenhower’s cruelty in 1953.  How little we have changed––and how far we must journey.  Let us not forget Ethel Rosenberg.

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