Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
By Anne Sebba
St Martin’s Press
New York, 2021
This review of Ann Sebba’s new book, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy must, of necessity, begin with a personal note:
When I was 13 years old, my mother took, from the deep recesses of her chest of drawers, a copy of The Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1) We sat down together on our sofa, and we went through the letters. She told me how the Rosenbergs had been executed, by electric chair, in 1953, being accused of giving secret information to Russia. (2) She told me about McCarthyism, and especially about Roy Cohn, then a young assistant prosecutor who hounded the Rosenbergs with ruthless, malicious, and unsubstantiated accusations. She told me about the betrayal of Ethel Rosenberg by her own brother, David Greenglass. (3) We looked at the photos of the two young boys, Michael who was three years older than me, and Robby who was one year younger. She told me that she and my father had even considered adopting the boys, but decided against doing so after the FBI visited them in 1953. This FBI visit had no consequences other than to strike terror in their hearts, but for a year or so after that, I harbored a fear that my own parents would be executed.
Many years later, when I was an undergraduate and had learned about the horrors of Stalinism, I couldn’t understand how my parents could have been in the Communist Party. My mother explained that she and my father came out of the Depression with a fierce desire to make society better. They were radicalized at a time when the CPUSA supported fighting all oppression, unemployment, and discrimination. They saw the Soviet Union as a “great experiment.” (my mother’s words), a view they held onto for many years. My parent’s experience allowed me to look at the experience of many ranks and file American communists in a more empathic way and made the Rosenberg story a very personal one. For this reason, I read Ann Sebba’s book with great interest.
Much of what has previously been written about the Rosenbergs has centered primarily on the question of their guilt or innocence regarding their conspiracy to commit espionage. Both sides in a nearly 70-year debate have relied on simplistic caricatures of the Rosenbergs to support their respective viewpoints. Either the Rosenbergs were innocent and unjustly accused, or they were evil Stalinist agents deserving of their punishment. Ethel, in particular, has often been lost in these debates, portrayed as simply one half of this couple, invisible, not seen as a person in her own right.
Years ago, Staughton Lynd made the point that, in this day and age, conclusions about the Rosenberg’s should be more complex than simply assigning guilt or innocence. (4) Ann Sebba’s book does just that, and in so doing, elevates the discussion of Ethel Rosenberg beyond the reductionist thinking of guilt or innocence. Sebba’s book is well written and thoroughly researched, and she opens the story of Ethel Rosenberg to a different kind of scrutiny, one that confronts the condescension of history that reduces Ethel to a mere appendage of Julius. Sebba restores agency and independent identity to Ethel Rosenberg, not as a martyr, but as a complex woman who made her own choices. She does this by looking at Ethel from four perspectives: as an artist, as a woman, as a Jewish woman, and as a communist woman.
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Ethel as an Artist
Ethel was only 11 years old when she entered Seward Park High School, and even at that young age she was placed in “rapid advancement” classes., clearly a very bright child. Away from her dismal home life in the Lower East Side of New York, she was introduced to the performing arts and classical music. She excelled in singing, and with a high soprano voice, she was later accepted into the Schola Cantorum, then New York’s preeminent chorus, performing at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, and brushing shoulders with the likes of Arturo Toscanini. Later she sang for political campaigns, at rallies and at fundraising events in support of union strikes. Ethel never lost her love of singing, and continued her singing even while imprisoned during her trial and awaiting her execution.
Political Wife and Mother
In the post-war 1950’s, the American woman was expected to comply with the role that conventional society determined—that she be a homemaker, care for her children and dress in feminine clothing. The domesticity of women became a show of patriotism in contrast to the evils of communism. Ethel Rosenberg did not fit the mold. She worked as a typist in a shipping company and was exposed to radical ideas, union activity and to the Communist Party, all before she met Julius. She supported her union, and when a strike was called in 1935, Ethel was on the strike committee.
Ethel’s deviation from the stereotypic role of women was viewed with suspicion during the trial, when her plain clothing and seeming lack of attention to her appearance allowed the prosecution to portray her as untrustworthy and as an unfit mother. Further, her refusal to name names and testify against her husband, even faced with the death penalty, allowed the prosecution to suggest that if she could betray her children, by leaving them as orphans, she could also betray her country.
In reality, Ethel Rosenberg was almost obsessively intent on being an exemplary mother. She did not have an easy time of it. Throughout her pregnancy with her first child, Michael, born in 1943, she had no support from her husband, who was away most of the time, working for the U.S. Signal Corps. Michael was a difficult and cranky infant and child—Ethel struggled with his erratic sleeping, his many childhood illnesses, and frequent crying. She took courses in child psychology, she read books on mothering, and subscribed to Parent magazine, a subscription she maintained throughout her imprisonment.
Her second son, Robert, was born four years later, in 1947. In the four years between the birth of her two sons, Julius had been recruited to the Communist Party, and began engaging in espionage, David Greenglass, working for Los Alamos, gave notes with information for the Soviets via Harry Gold, and the U.S. dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although Sebba does not specifically say this, I find it hard to imagine that this harried and anxious mother, coping with two young boys, had much time or the wherewithal for political and espionage activities, beyond supporting her husband.
During her trial and imprisonment prior to her execution, Ethel Rosenberg remained preoccupied with the well being of her children. She gave instructions to her lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, regarding the “various needs of both children.” She worried about mundane issues like their bathing practices, their playtimes, and their sore throats. She also worried, most pressingly, about how her boys would handle their parent’s execution. She expresses concern and love for her children in almost every letter to Julius. And although her prosecutors characterized her as an uncaring woman who placed her politics above her children, she was tormented by her fears for them. “Make no mistake about it, this mother’s heart is being methodically and mercilessly broken and the pain is simply not bearable.” (5)
The prosecution’s attacks on Ethel Rosenberg included misogynistic tactics. First, they belittled her, intending to use her as a passive “lever” to induce Julius to confess and name others. Sebba quotes a memorandum from J. Edgar Hoover: “Proceeding against the wife might serve as a lever in the matter.” When that tactic didn’t work, they then attacked Ethel as “the mastermind” behind the conspiracy to commit espionage. This tactic came primarily from the vicious assistant prosecutor, mentored by Joseph McCarthy himself, Roy Cohn. Here Sebba quotes from Sidney Zion’s Autobiography of Roy Cohn:
“The way I see it, “Cohn told Judge Kaufman, “she’s the older one, she’s the one with the brains, she recruited her younger brother into the Young Communist League, and into the spy ring…she engineered this whole thing. She was the mastermind of this conspiracy. So unless you’re willing to say that a woman is immune from the death penalty, I don’t see how you can justify sparing her.”
Ethel and the Jewish Mainstream.
Sebba devotes considerable discussion to the fissure in the Jewish community around the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs were not practicing Jews, although they were married in a Jewish ceremony. They, like many of their peers, came from a generation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the United States, and especially to New York’s Lower east Side, seeking freedom from anti-Semitism and political repression. Many, like my parents, were thus predisposed to left-wing radicalism, which they saw as consistent with their secular Jewish values, and as a way to fight poverty, racism and to create a just society. While in prison, awaiting execution, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she wrote to Julius that “I was unutterably moved to hear the shofar…sounding through our stark surroundings…Truly am I proud of the inheritance of an ancient people who made an eternal contribution to the civilization of mankind and with whom I shall ever be privileged to be identified.” (6)
The Jewish mainstream, however, had no interest in Ethel Rosenberg’s identification with Judaism. By the 1940’s, in a post-Holocaust world, and in the midst of the Cold War, American Jews became increasingly fearful of the association of Jewishness with radical politics. They feared that the Rosenberg case would exacerbate anti-Semitism in the United States, and saw communism as a betrayal of the Jewish community. As a result, the Jewish mainstream wanted nothing to do with the Rosenbergs. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League expelled communists from their membership, and both organizations supported the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, as did Jewish journals like Commentary and the Forward. Interestingly, these same two journals published two very hostile reviews of Sebba’s book. (7) After the Rosenberg’s were executed several Jewish cemeteries refused their burial.
The Rosenberg trial itself was symbolic of the divide between radical-liberal Jews and mainstream Jews. The defense team (Emmanuel and Alexander Bloch) and the prosecution team (Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn), as well as the judge, (Irving Kaufman) were all Jews. Sebba refers to Cohn’s biographer, Nicolas Von Hoffman, in suggesting that Saypol, Cohn and Kaufman, regarding themselves as “good” Jews, were out to prove their super patriotism and their distance from the unsavory communist breeding Lower East Side. So it is not surprising that the prosecution was especially intent in pursuing the most severe punishment for the Rosenbergs. This intensity led to many of the miscarriages of justice characterizing the prosecution and revealed over the years.
Ethel the Communist, Ethel the Stalinist
The conventional wisdom about the Rosenbergs, and about those who joined the CPUSA is that they were dupes of Stalinist Russia. Ronald Radosh, in his review of Sebba’s book states:
“Ethel lived by a moral code according to which one’s evident betrayal of one’s own country is to be discounted and in which it is the braver choice to orphan your own sons than to betray your husband and the extremist totalitarian movement you both cherished. “ (8)
While Ann Sebba’s book goes a long way in restoring humanity to Ethel Rosenberg, she, too, still sees Ethel (and Julius) as unthinking CPUSA followers. Regarding the 1939 Hitler/Stalin pact, she writes,”…they appear simply to have accepted the CPUSA’s absurd line that the treaty was an act of self-preservation by Stalin.” Further, she quotes Miriam Moscowitz, a woman who was in the Women’s House of Detention at the same time as Ethel. Ethel was, according to Moscowitz, “doctrinaire,” “a good soldier who always followed the party line unquestionably.”
This conventional view, whether vitriolic or sympathetic, is ultimately ahistorical and diminishes our understanding of the contradictions and complexities which may underlay particular political choices. However, if we try to place Ethel Rosenberg in historical context, with what was going on in the world, in this country and in the CPUSA, we may understand her actions with more clarity. (9)
Ethel initially joined the Communist Party in the “Third Period” of the Comintern, seen as a period of economic collapse (the Depression) and working class radicalization. However, with the rise of fascism in Europe, the comintern changed tactics to ally with all groups opposing fascism. Ethel and Julius readily identified with the “Popular Front” politics of the CPUSA, promoted by leader Earl Browder. The sense of purpose and high ideals carried them through their years of courtship. They married in June 1939. Just two months later, in August, Hitler and Stalin joined in a non-aggression treaty. We cannot know what the Rosenbergs thought about this, but we do know that many Jewish and non-Jewish Communists left the party at that time, as did my parents. The newly wed Rosenbergs stayed. Browder’s leadership of the CPUSA presented the treaty as a practical defense of Russia, as a way to defend “the great experiment” that my parents saw. For the Rosenbergs, the ideals first honed in the early 1930’s remained intact.
Then, in 1941 Germany invaded Russia, the U.S. entered WWII, and the Communist party line reverted back to the coalitions formed in the Popular Front years. During these years, when Julius was recruited to the CP, and Russia was an ally of the United States, Earl Browder’s approach was “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” Between 1943 and 1947, when their children were born, Julius was working for the U.S. Signal Corps, and Ethel was at home, struggling with motherhood. Again, their belief in the values of justice for all was maintained, and the CPUSA was still seen as the most effective organization to achieve these goals. For them, as Sebba points out, espionage was seen as a way to share information with our ally, to protect the world from fascism, and as a way to ensure world peace. This was not unlike the motivation for actions taken by Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden. And the Rosenbergs were not alone in their views. Sebba reminds us that after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “father of the Atomic Bomb”, Robert Oppenheimer, was devastated by the bomb’s destructive power. He wanted, as did many of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos, to create an international agency to control the use of the nuclear weapons. In late 1953, and after the execution of the Rosenbergs, Oppenheimer delivered a series of lectures for the BBC, in which he supported the sharing of nuclear information with the Russians. The London Observer wrote of Oppenheimer’s lectures, “In public and private he has constantly opposed the U.S. policy of extreme secrecy in atomic matters.” (10)
What followed after the war was the emergence of the Cold War and the “Red Scare” of McCarthyism. By this time, the Rosenbergs were already caught in the anti-Communist dragnet. William Z. Foster, who superseded Earl Browder as head of the CPUSA, saw his primary role as steering the CPUSA through the atmosphere of hysteria about “the Communist Threat.” He did this by dissociating the CPUSA from anything that hinted of espionage. Thus, the CPUSA, under Foster, offered no help to the Rosenbergs, and The Daily Worker refused to publish anything sympathetic to their case.
There is no question that the CPUSA leadership accepted and perpetrated Soviet lies and whitewashing of the Stalinist terrors that were occurring in Russia…they did not mention the show trials, the executions, and the transformation of “the great experiment” into murderous totalitarianism. Rank and file party members, like the Rosenbergs, very likely had little or no idea of what was occurring in Soviet Russia. We know this because the same process occurred in the United Kingdom with the CPGB. In 1956, after the Khrushchev revelations about Stalinism at the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the ranks of the British CP realized the betrayal of their ideals by the CP leadership. The Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson certainly not naive or unsophisticated in his politics, did not leave the CPGB until 1956. After the Khrushchev revelations he was dismayed by the deception about Stalinism. Thompson wrote a letter to the CP executive committee outraged at the “uncritical and often hopelessly inaccurate…propaganda.” The leaders, he wrote, were guilty of “acting as high priests, interpreting and justifying the holy writ, as emanating from Stalin.” (11)
The point here is that simply casting the charge of Stalinism over all rank and file members of the CPUSA, including Ethel, including my parents, obscures and denies both individual responses to CP membership, misunderstands the role of the CP’s leadership in deceiving its rank and file, and distorts our understanding of important historical processes. We don’t know how people like the Rosenbergs actually weathered the convoluted policy shifts of the CPUSA, or what internal psychological and emotional struggles they may have endured. But we can know, not from Sebba’s book, but from Ethel Rosenberg’s own words in her prison letters to Julius that in spite of everything, her core values remained unchanged: “Our upbringing” she wrote on April 19, 1951, “the full meaning of our lives, based on a true amalgamation of our American and Jewish heritage, has made us what we are.” (12)
There is no doubt that the Rosenbergs were serious communists. Ethel may have been naïve about what Stalinism really entailed, and she and other CP members may have made some terrible mistakes, but the mistakes were of their own making, not merely determined by Stalinism. Their ideals, like those of my parents, were valid in their own experience, and it is to our benefit to understand the historical, social and cultural contexts in which these mistakes occurred, so we can learn from them. Ethel Rosenberg chose not to save herself by naming names and betraying her husband, and she maintained her dignity and her values to the end.
Ann Sebba ends her book on a cautionary note about what can happen when fear turns to hysteria and justice is ignored. That power of fear runs like a dark thread through American history, from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, to McCarthyism, and to the ultra nationalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, the demonization of the left, and authoritarianism that has been unleashed by Donald Trump, significantly mentored by Roy Cohn.
On all fronts, Ann Sebba’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Rosenberg story. It will have meaning not only to the offspring of the Old Left, like me, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to a new generation of radical activists who will have to confront the complexities of their own political choices.
- Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, (DHL) Jero Publishing Co, New York, 1953. When specifically quoted, these are from the DHL themselves, not from Sebba’s book.
- In 1995 the Venona documents were declassified, although the documents were available at the time of the Rosenberg trial. The Venona project was a U.S. counterintelligence program initiated during WWII, to decrypt messages between the Soviet Union and their agents in the U.S. The documents showed that while Julius provided information to the Soviets, the content of his espionage was not as vital to the Soviet Union as the prosecution alleged. Ethel, however, was merely an accessory
- In 2001, David Greenglass admitted that his testimony about Ethel’s involvement had been perjured. He was encouraged by Roy Cohn to implicate Ethel in trade for a lighter sentence for himself, and no arrest of his wife, Ruth Greenglass.
- “Is there Anything More to Say About the Rosenberg Case?”, Staughton Lynd, Monthly Review, Feb 1, 2011
- DHL, Sept. 9, 1951
- DHL Oct. 1, 1951
- “Defining Espionage Down,” Ronald Radosh, Commentary, July/August 2021, and “Was Ethel Rosenberg Really a Tragic Figure?”, Benjamin Ivry, Forward, June 17, 2021
- Radosh, above
- “Important CPUSA Timeline: 100 years of American Communism, “ Michael Goldfield, Jacobin, Dec 10, 2019
- Sebba, p. 233
- “Historian E.P. Thompson denounced Communist Party chiefs, files show,” Ian Cobain, The Guardian, Sept 27, 2016.
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