A much-loved new biography argues that the convicted Soviet spy “betrayed no one.” How has the myth of her innocence become so untethered from the evidence of her guilt?
Ethel Rosenberg escorted by U.S. marshals as she arrives at Sing Sing Prison in the early 1950s. Ossie Leviness/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.
On June 19, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York, having been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage by transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were, as the British writer Anne Sebba notes in her new biography, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, the only American civilians executed for espionage during peacetime and Ethel remains the only American woman executed for a crime other than murder.
At the time, and ever since, the trial and its outcome have been surrounded by controversy. They have been held up as examples of McCarthyite excess, of the paranoid style of American politics, and even of anti-Semitism. Yet while there is still room for reasonable disagreement about some of the legal, moral, and historical details, new information has come to light in the past 30 years that ought to have quieted much of the controversy. Sebba’s new book is an attempt to reopen it—or, perhaps we should say, to take advantage of the fact that for many the case is still not closed.
I. No Paranoid Fantasy
With the end of the cold war and the partial opening of American and Soviet archives long inaccessible to researchers, a much fuller picture of the USSR’s atomic espionage has emerged. In 1995, the National Security Agency released the Venona messages—communications between KGB headquarters in Moscow and its American stations that U.S. intelligence had decrypted over a 37-year period. A KGB archivist named Vasiliy Mitrokhin over the years had copied thousands of secret documents, which he turned over to Great Britain after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, was given access to the agency’s files for a book project; his 1,100 pages of detailed notes confirmed the accuracy of the Venona and Mitrokhin material and added copious new information about additional Soviet spies. Together these documents exposed the activities of several Britons and Americans who were giving Soviet intelligence information about the Manhattan project, which the KGB dubbed “Enormoz.”
In other words, it is no longer possible to claim that Soviet espionage was some sort of paranoid fantasy. Julius Rosenberg, we now know, recruited two atomic spies. One was his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, who worked as a machinist at Los Alamos. The second was a long-time friend and fellow engineer Russell McNutt, who, with Julius’s encouragement, obtained a position at the company that built the enormous gaseous-diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee that produced the uranium used for the first nuclear weapons. While the information they provided was quite valuable, it paled in comparison to what the Soviets obtained from Theodore Hall and Klaus Fuchs, two physicists who worked at Los Alamos. Fuchs, a German-born British subject, was tried and convicted of espionage in the UK in 1950, but Hall’s involvement remained unknown to the general public until the release of the Venona records in 1995. Neither Fuchs nor any other atomic spy, however, has generated so much attention as the Rosenbergs.
It’s no longer possible to claim that Soviet espionage was some sort of paranoid fantasy. Julius Rosenberg, we now know, recruited two atomic spies.
The Rosenberg case offers enough different lenses to satisfy almost any interpretive scheme and enough angles to shine light on a variety of issues in American history and politics. Its main characters include enough potential heroes and villains to staff several television series. For anyone inclined to traffic in conspiracy theories and attribute bad faith to government claims about the defendants’ guilt, the case had numerous possible flaws and anomalies. The investigation was led by the FBI, then headed by J. Edgar Hoover—lauded by many Americans as the nation’s greatest crime-fighter, but also reviled by much of the American left as the head of an incipient American secret police that pried into the private lives of dissidents, blackmailed opponents, and abused civil liberties.
The prosecutors included Roy Cohn, at the time a young assistant U.S. attorney, praised as a brilliant and tenacious litigator and denounced as a vicious and unprincipled attack dog, who used the case as a springboard to become the chief aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Late in his life, he was disbarred for unethical acts, including attempting to alter the will of a millionaire client. Critics complained that he solicited perjury to buttress the prosecution of the Rosenbergs. And although Cohn died of AIDS in 1986, he continues to remain a figure in the public imagination: he was a character in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; he at one point worked closely with the Republican political consultant and convicted felon Roger Stone; and he has been described as a political mentor to Donald Trump, whom he represented in some high-profile cases.
The chief witnesses in the case were David Greenglass and his wife Ruth. Not only was David Ethel’s brother, making the Rosenberg case a family drama, but, by implicating his sister and brother-in-law, he cut a deal with the prosecutors to enable Ruth, an unindicted co-conspirator, to avoid arrest and a trial, even though she had confessed to participating in espionage.
As if a brother condemning his own sister was not enough family drama, the dysfunctional Greenglass family fractured over the case, with Ethel’s own mother, Tessie, abandoning her. Always critical of her only daughter and dismissive of her achievements, Tessie and the rest of the Greenglass clan blamed Julius for Ethel’s troubles. Visiting her daughter on death row, she asked why Ethel had not backed up David’s account on the witness stand; when Ethel remonstrated that doing so would be perjury, Tessie replied, “You wouldn’t be here.” Five days after her execution, Tessie called the FBI and denounced her dead daughter as a “soldier of Stalin.” Here Judaism enters the picture. Not only were the defendants in the trial Jewish, but the main prosecutors and the judge were too. And yet, in the most Jewish city in the world, not one juror was Jewish. Charges of anti-Semitism pervaded the case. To some anti-Communists, the Rosenbergs were prime examples of the Jewish predilection for Communism. Rosenberg defenders argued that the Jewish establishment had abandoned them to prove its own patriotic bona fides. Mainstream Jewish organizations denied the Rosenbergs had been singled out as Jews, while Communists and their allies claimed that two ordinary Jews had been scapegoated in a modern-day Dreyfus affair. Anti-Communists noted that the charge was made in bad faith, since those advancing it ignored anti-Semitic show trials in Czechoslovakia at the same time.
Almost immediately after the Rosenbergs were convicted, left-wing writers began a campaign that has continued to the present day to discredit the evidence used in the trial and to disparage the American justice system. For more than two decades the dominant theme was that the Rosenbergs had been framed by the American government with the assistance of disgruntled family members. The most influential argument was made by Walter and Miriam Schneir in Invitation to an Inquest (1965). They claimed that Harry Gold, the supposed KGB courier who had picked up information from David Greenglass in New Mexico in 1945, had never done so; the government had forged his registration slip at an Albuquerque hotel. David Greenglass, meanwhile, was said to have falsely confessed to espionage because he had stolen a slug of uranium from Los Alamos and had been coerced by the FBI. Having fallen out with Julius over a business dispute, he was willing to sacrifice his sister and brother-in-law. A PBS documentary aired in 1975 gave their claims more widespread attention. That same year, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, sued to force the FBI to release its files on the case, convinced that they would demonstrate government malfeasance. They were stunned by the results. The first historian to use them, Ronald Radosh, a one-time Communist who had long believed the Rosenbergs had been framed, was startled by what he found. His conclusion was encapsulated by the headline of the article he and Sol Stern published in the New Republic in 1979: “The Hidden Rosenberg Case: How the FBI Framed Ethel to Break Julius.” Critical of the conduct of both prosecution and judge, Radosh and Stern argued that Ethel was, at best, a minor figure who was indicted, tried, and given a death sentence as part of an effort to pressure her husband to confess and expose the other members of his extensive spy ring. That claim was largely ignored by Rosenberg defenders, who denounced Radosh and Stern for admitting Julius’s guilt in the first place—and thereby providing ammunition for anti-Communists.
In 1983 Radosh and Joyce Milton published The Rosenberg File, a thorough and detailed account of the case. While their book was hailed in the mainstream media, writers and critics on the left rushed to defend both Rosenbergs as martyrs. At a crowded public debate with the Schneirs, Radosh and Milton were accused of being in the pay of the FBI and denounced for violating the norms of historical scholarship. The release of the Venona decryptions in 1995 upended the debate about the Rosenbergs. Numerous messages made unequivocally clear that Julius had directed an extensive spy ring, only a small part of which involved atomic espionage. Harry Gold and David Greenglass had done what they confessed to. Their prior arguments entirely shredded, the Schneirs produced a slim new book, The Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, repudiating their earlier claims, but insisted they had “No apologies, no regrets.” Their new mantra was that Julius was not primarily an atomic spy, that Ethel was still entirely innocent, and that their refusal to confess was justifiable because it prevented the demonizing of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) as an accomplice of Soviet espionage.
Nor were the Venona messages the only blows suffered by the Rosenberg defenders. Alexander Feklisov, who had been Julius’s KGB handler, meeting him some 50 times, published a memoir in 2001, lauding his idealism and total commitment to the Soviet Union, while insisting on Ethel’s innocence, despite her knowledge of what her husband was doing. Morton Sobell, although not involved in atomic espionage, had been tried and convicted along with the Rosenbergs and had served a lengthy prison sentence. For decades he maintained they were all innocent and spearheaded the campaign to clear their names. In 2008 he admitted he and Julius had been spies, but denied Ethel was. In the face of all these revelations, the Rosenberg children admitted their father had been “a minor spy,” but insisted their mother had been killed by the American government in a doomed effort to use her as a lever to force Julius to confess and name the other members of his spy ring. They continued their effort to have President Obama provide a posthumous pardon. The claims about Ethel’s innocence were challenged by the details provided in Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks, which were placed online in 2009 simultaneous with the publication of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Haynes, Vassiliev, and myself. As we argued, the new evidence made clear that she was a liar and perjurer and guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, the charge on which she was convicted.
II. A False Tragedy
Yet Anne Sebba, in her wildly well-received new biography, refuses to acknowledge any of this. The book is in fact devoid of any new information; virtually everything in it comes from secondary sources, and she either never examined new archival information that has emerged in the past two decades or chose to ignore what it revealed about the case. There are jaw-dropping asides: at one point she muses, “It was possible, for instance, to argue that in ‘stealing secrets’ from Los Alamos, Julius’s ‘spy ring’ was only doing illegally” what Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of the Manhattan Project, was advocating in the 1950s—sharing information with the Soviet Union. The idea that the activities of Julius’s spies were just a smidge different than openly arguing for a policy of greater cooperation with the Soviet Union is risible.
Such insouciance towards espionage is connected with her effort to suggest that the Rosenberg case would not have resonated quite so loudly if it weren’t for some collective mania into which the U.S. had sunk due to the onset of the cold war. “Throughout the spring and summer of 1950,” she writes, “anti-Communist paranoia was rising to a fever pitch as unscrupulous politicians such as Senator McCarthy as well as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover regularly made speeches taking advantage of the increasingly grim world situation.” Just weeks after David’s arrest and confession the Korean war began “as U.S. paranoia about the Soviet threat reached unprecedented levels.” Ethel’s arrest has “to be seen against the paranoid cold war backdrop of the previous years, which had now come to a head.” The Rosenberg case illustrated America’s “rapid descent after World War II from military euphoria to cold-war paranoia.” While she briefly admits the fear was genuine, the USSR was expansionist, and the CPUSA loyal to Moscow, Sebba seems never to understand the depth of the threat. After all, even paranoids have real enemies. She inaccurately claims that “no one in authority seriously believed” that the invasion of South Korea had been prompted by Soviet possession of an atomic bomb—yet declassified documents indicate it had been. She never mentions that American cryptanalysts were uncovering dozens and dozens of American spies as they slowly broke into the Venona messages, giving intelligence agencies real reason to be on the lookout for espionage. Ultimately more than 350 code-names were identified, but most of them could not be linked to real people. The vast majority were, like the Rosenbergs, members or sympathizers of the Communist party. Soviet espionage was a significant national-security threat; just because Senator McCarthy demagogued the issue did not mean it was not real.
Sebba recounts Ethel’s fraught upbringing and early life, suggesting that it contributed to her radicalization. She grew up in poverty; her father had a small repair shop on the ground floor of a cold-water tenement, across the street from a stable. The family lived upstairs in a damp, dark, and cold apartment that sweltered and stank in the summer. Her mother discouraged her academic and artistic goals and favored her younger brother, David. An excellent student and talented singer, she took a secretarial class after graduating from high school and in 1932 got hired as a shipping clerk. Her singing was good enough to win her a place in a prestigious amateur chorus. By 1935 she was one of the leaders of a strike conducted by her union and soon was moving in Communist circles. She met Julius while performing at a Communist-affiliated group’s New Year’s Eve party in 1936 and the two quickly became inseparable. Three years younger than Ethel, he came from a family slightly more economically secure. He enrolled in City College in 1934 to study engineering, becoming a stalwart of the Communist students who congregated in one of the famous alcoves in the cafeteria. They were married in June 1939. Both were fervent believers in Communism, and Sebba notes that her “dogged persistence” easily morphed into what her brother called “fanaticism” and even her Communist friends characterized as uncritical, unquestioning, and aggressive support for the party line. Sebba oddly insists that there is no evidence either of the Rosenbergs ever formally joined the CPUSA (the FBI had a copy of Julius’s party card), just before admitting Ethel was passionate about its ideals. There was no sign they were bothered by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but they quickly embraced the CPUSA’s about-face once the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in 1941.
Sebba correctly notes that embracing Communism wasn’t rare among Jews on the Lower East Side. But she ignores the powerful hostility to Communism from the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community.
Sebba correctly notes that embracing Communism was hardly an anomaly among Jews on the Lower East Side. But she ignores the powerful hostility to Communism from the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community, including its working-class base in the garment unions, socialists, members of the Jewish Bund, and Zionists—spurred not only by the party’s anti-democratic beliefs, but also its willingness to alter its policies to align with Soviet foreign policy. The Rosenbergs moved to Washington in 1940 where Ethel had obtained work as a government clerk. When Julius was hired by the Army Signal Corps in August 1940, she resigned. Only a few months after starting work, Julius faced a loyalty hearing because Ethel had signed a CPUSA nominating petition. He survived the investigation by lying about his party membership. But as an inspector visiting companies supplying equipment and devices to the Army, Julius was determined to assist the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1941, he recruited several of his fellow engineers from City College and turned their information over to Jacob Golos, a high-ranking CPUSA official, who served as the party’s liaison with Soviet intelligence. In September 1942, he was transferred to the direct supervision of the KGB. By December 1944 he was supervising eight espionage sources.
David Greenglass, meanwhile, was drifting. He had admired Julius from the day his sister met him and eagerly responded to his enthusiasm for Communism. After graduating from high school in 1940, he attended Brooklyn Polytechnic for one semester before flunking out. He married Ruth in November 1942, and was drafted in March 1943. In 1944 he was sent to Oak Ridge as part of a detachment of machinists and in August 1944 was transferred to Los Alamos. A passionate Communist, he was often embroiled in arguments with fellow soldiers; in correspondence with Ruth, the two of them professed their admiration for Julius and the cause.
When he learned that his brother-in-law was employed at Los Alamos, Julius quickly informed the KGB—he already had some inkling of the Manhattan Project from Russell McNutt, whom he had recruited earlier. A deciphered Venona message of September 1944 recommended recruiting Ruth to set up a safe house in New Mexico: “Liberal [Julius’s code name] and wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.” The only other Venona telegram that mentioned Ethel described her as a Communist since 1938, who “knows about her husband’s work” and the spying activities of several of his sources, and who because of her “delicate health does not work.” Sebba’s treatment of this information leaves much to be desired. She correctly notes that the latter message is ambiguous about whether “work” referred to employment or to work in the spy network. But, she claims, even the former cable might not implicate Ethel in recruiting Ruth. After all, she notes, a Canadian academic, Bernice Schrank, once suggested that the cable’s reference to Ethel may just have been a casual aside. Schrank, however, is a crank, whose expertise is literature, and who insisted in the same article that the Venona messages were benign and proved nothing about whether Julius was a spy—even castigating the Schneirs for “premature capitulation” to right-wing anti-Communists by admitting that Venona demonstrated anything.
Moreover, at the trial Ruth testified that at a meeting at the Rosenbergs’ apartment in November 1944, just before she left to visit David in New Mexico, Julius and Ethel pressed her to get him to agree to supply information about the development of the atomic bomb. David testified that Ruth repeated the conversation to him. Sebba never mentions a KGB message in the Vassiliev notebooks, sent to Moscow on December 5, 1944, and available to scholars since 2009, in which Julius described their conversation. Ruth assured him “it would be a privilege” to help the Soviet Union. When “Ethel mentioned David, she [Ruth] assured us that it was her [Ruth’s] judgment such was also David’s understanding,” i.e., Ruth believed that David shared her admiration for the USSR and would assist. After Julius gave her a list of questions to ask David and warned her never to write anything down, “Ethel here interposed to stress the need for the utmost care and caution in informing David of the work in which Julius was engaged.” Then, “at this point we asked Ruth to repeat our instructions which she did satisfactorily.” This cable was not available to the prosecution in 1951, but it clearly and unequivocally confirms Ruth’s testimony that Ethel pressed her to recruit David. It makes mincemeat of Sebba’s efforts to exculpate her. Ethel may not have been a spy—that is, she might not have actually passed on classified information—but she was an active participant in her husband’s spy network, not just someone who happened to agree with her husband about politics. In her desperate defense of Ethel, Sebba throws out various contradictory claims. “It is inconceivable,” she writes at one point, “that she did not know and encourage his espionage for the Russians, which in the legal terms of 1951 [and of today] made her complicit to a conspiracy. But was that a crime—let alone a crime punishable by death?” But later she asserts that even if she knew what Julius was up to, “it was not a crime under U.S. law to approve spousal wrongdoing.”
Nor is this damning cable the only new evidence in the Vassiliev notebooks that Sebba ignores of Ethel’s participation in a conspiracy. In June 1949 the New York KGB office concocted a plan to have David enroll at the University of Chicago and befriend other Los Alamos veterans working there with an eye to recruiting them. Every two months he would write a report and convey it to Ethel, working as a courier. The plan went nowhere, but it illustrates that the KGB saw her as a willing participant in espionage.
Sebba is also less than curious about several of Ethel’s close friends. Take, for instance, Ann Sidorovich and her husband Michael, who lived in the same apartment building in lower Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Village. Ann and Ethel were particularly close until the couple moved to Cleveland in late 1943. Sebba never mentions the reason they left New York: Julius had arranged for them to set up a safe house to collect information from another one of his spies, William Perl, who was working at a flight-propulsion laboratory in Cleveland. At a meeting at the Rosenbergs’ apartment in January 1945, David and Ruth met Ann and learned she was likely to be the courier who would visit them in Albuquerque. After she left, the discussion turned to what to do if she was unable to make the trip. Ethel, Ruth, and Julius went into the kitchen and returned with a half of a Jell-O box top, cut irregularly, to serve as identification. The other half was used by Harry Gold when he collected Greenglass’s information in early June. Sebba merely notes that Ann Sidorovich denied to the grand jury that she was present at such a meeting, never considering that her own role as courier in the spy ring made her testimony worthless.
Those who believe that Ethel was a largely innocent bystander place great weight on the fact that she was arrested and tried largely as a lever to force Julius to confess and to name the other members of his ring. She appeared twice before a grand jury after he had been arrested and refused to answer most questions by pleading the Fifth Amendment. In his appearance, David Greenglass had refused to implicate his sister, and Ruth had said nothing about Ethel typing David’s notes that she had brought from New Mexico. Yet, after her second appearance, she was arrested on the way home.
Sebba claims that “actual evidence of Ethel’s ‘espionage’ was nonexistent, while without a confession by Julius the evidence against him too might not be enough to convince and jury he was guilty.” But, once again she is playing fast and loose with the facts. Neither of the Rosenbergs was charged with espionage, but with conspiracy to commit espionage. The evidence against Julius was overwhelming. At the trial, Max Elitcher, another Communist friend from City College, testified that Julius had solicited him to spy. David and Ruth testified to being recruited by both Rosenbergs. David discussed his visit to New York in January 1945 and Julius’s taking him to meet a Russian agent, Anatoly Yatskov, to whom he provided information. Harry Gold confirmed David’s story of turning over information in New Mexico after he presented the Jell-O-box identifier. And that’s not all: another KGB courier, Elizabeth Bentley, testified that her espionage superior, Jacob Golos, had told her about a group of Communist engineers who provided information to him, and that she had received several calls from one of them named Julius. The government found a photographer who had taken passport photos of the Rosenberg family just before the arrests, contradicting Julius’s denial that he had ever thought about fleeing the country.
If the evidence was so overwhelming, why did Ruth and David add a startling new claim when they testified? Ruth insisted that in September 1945 at the Rosenberg’s apartment, Ethel had typed up notes David had written about Los Alamos. David concurred. In an interview decades after the trial, David admitted that he had lied to back up his wife’s story; he had no recollection of Ethel’s typing anything. Sebba insists that Roy Cohn had pressured David, reminding him that Ruth had been a partner to the conspiracy and they knew he had been protecting his sister during his grand-jury testimony. Cohn’s tactics were reprehensible, but even if Ethel’s typing had never been introduced into the trial, there is little doubt the verdict would have been the same.
Even Sebba admits that Julius came across as slippery and evasive in his testimony, while Ethel’s reliance on the Fifth Amendment and refusal to show any emotion hurt her. By lying, and refusing to admit their Communist ties, the Rosenbergs cast doubt on their denials of espionage.
III. Whom the Rosenbergs Betrayed
Not only does Sebba fail to make a credible argument for Ethel’s innocence, but her portrait of Ethel as a human being—which is very much at the heart of the book—is unconvincing, to say the least. No one can deny the horrible situation in which Ethel found herself. The case that she did not deserve the death is clear-cut: her activities, while they legally made her part and parcel of a conspiracy to commit espionage, were far less significant than those of her husband, her brother, and her sister-in-law. Ripped away from her husband and two young children, incarcerated in grim conditions, and sentenced to death, with little family support, she managed to retain her sanity and courage. Yet, the situation was one she had created. There is no indication that she ever remonstrated with Julius about what he was doing. She had helped set the whole play into motion by urging the recruitment of her brother. Neither one of them apparently ever considered the consequences for their children.
In her enthusiasm to portray Ethel as hero and victim, Sebba seeks to blame everyone else. At one point she praises Robert Coover’s novel about the Rosenbergs as having succeeded “in showing how everyone in cold-war America was implicated directly or indirectly in the ruthless public burning of the Rosenbergs,” especially Richard Nixon, who by pursuing Alger Hiss from 1948 to 1950 supposedly started the whole hunt for spies. According to this logic, Nixon was guilty for investigating Hiss, a State Department official who cooperated with Soviet intelligence, but the Rosenbergs—who merely helped provide classified information about sophisticated and powerful weapons to a murderous and hostile regime—were just unfortunate victims of cold-war mania. Again, Sebba seems unable to admit that American concern over Soviet espionage was the result of the fact that the USSR was an enemy state running a vast network of spies in the United States, most of whom were Communists or sympathizers. Or that, because of this espionage, the Soviet Union developed an atomic bomb at least three years before it would have otherwise been able to—a bomb that was an exact copy of the one America had used at Nagasaki. Sebba might believe that passing secrets to the KGB was not morally wrong, just as she might believe that the U.S. and the Soviet Union shared equal responsibility for the cold war. Those are questions of opinion, albeit perverse ones. But the Rosenbergs’ involvement in espionage is at this point a fact, and it is impossible to imagine any country that wouldn’t see their activities as requiring a harsh response.
Even after they were sentenced to death, the Rosenbergs could have escaped execution. The government offered them a final chance to confess just before the day of their execution. Both refused.
Even after they were sentenced to death, the Rosenbergs could have escaped execution. James Bennett, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, acting on behalf of the attorney general, offered them a final chance to confess and cooperate with the government just before the day of their execution. Both refused. Ethel responded that “by asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt.” But neither she nor Julius were innocent. They would not be bearing false witness but telling the truth to save themselves. But informing, Sebba insists, meant betraying Julius and their friends. Inevitably, Sebba uses E.M. Forster’s famous quote about loyalty as an epigraph. “Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement of causes instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
Forster’s homily can be used to rationalize all kinds of bad behavior, but as has been pointed out, people who betray their country also betray many friends who believed and trusted in them. But even if we accept Forster’s dictum, it’s hard to think of a worse violator than Ethel. Having devoted most of her life to a cause, namely Communism, she in the end chose her loyalty to that cause over her sons, then ages eight and ten. When her children believed in their parents’ innocence, they could rationalize their parents’ decision not to name names as a refusal to lie and hurt others. Once Venona had established their father’s guilt, they could cling to the same belief about their mother. Facing the painful fact that Ethel was so loyal to the Communist beliefs she had held for much of her adult life that she would make her children orphans rather than tell the truth about what she had done is something almost unimaginable—even to those who don’t subscribe to Forster’s critique of patriotic loyalty.
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Yet Sebba concludes that Ethel Rosenberg was a “profoundly moral woman.” Unlike everyone else in this tragedy—David, who betrayed his sister; Julius, who pursued his dream of aiding the Soviet Union, regardless of its impact on his family; Ruth, who lied about her sister-in-law; Tessie Greenglass, who abandoned her daughter; the prosecutors Saypol and Cohn, who perverted justice; Judge Kaufman, who imposed a draconian sentence; Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, who rebuffed pleas for clemency—“only Ethel betrayed no one.” But of course she did. She betrayed her kid brother, helping to recruit him for espionage. She betrayed her children. And she betrayed her country.
Communism, along with Nazism, was one of the great evils of the 20th century. Regrettably, an inordinate number of Americans gave their allegiance to that cause, often with noble motives. Several hundred did more: actively aiding and abetting the USSR by providing crucial military, diplomatic, and industrial secrets to a dictatorial, repressive, and murderous regime. Rather than confront that unpalatable fact, some on the left instead blame America for responding. This was the reaction of many on the non-Communist left in the 1950s, and it is a view that a segment of the left still clings to today, in spite of overwhelming evidence.
Here is the Guardian’s Melissa Benn, writing about Sebba’s book:
The [Rosenberg] case continues to polarize opinion to this day, and reading this book it is only too easy to see why. There are striking similarities between the poisonous atmosphere of the cold war and that of contemporary politics, and particularly Trump’s America: the official lies, the raw misogyny, the hounding of the radical left and racial and ethnic minority people, the disregard for, and twisting of, the legal process, the cowardice of so many moderate, mainstream politicians.
Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of the charge of which she was convicted. Her trial may have been flawed and she may not have deserved the penalty she received, but she still had ample opportunity to alter her fate. She chose not to take that opportunity because she and her husband remained hostile to American democracy and devoted to Communist ideals, and they refused to implicate others who shared their mission. Her loyalty to Communism blinded her to the cruelty and repressiveness of the country for which she sacrificed her life, not to mention its pervasive anti-Semitism, which destroyed thousands of Soviet Jewish writers, actors, doctors, and ordinary citizens, for being “rootless cosmopolitans.”
Anne Sebba should have put the blame for Ethel Rosenberg’s fate where it belongs: on the woman herself, and the perverted ideals in whose service she died.
About the author
Harvey Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history, emeritus, at Emory University. He has written many books on espionage in the United States and the history of the American Communist party.
Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy – St.Martin’s Publishing Group, 2022.