Ethel Rosenberg's Story
Anne Sebba's new biography liberates this radical woman from a concocted Cold War narrative that concealed her courage
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Attorneys warned Ethel Rosenberg not to show emotion publically, but that strategy backfired: images like this made the government’s portrayal of her as ruthless and domineering believable. Photo credit: Roger Higgins, New York World-Telegram and the Sun. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the young married couple executed for treason as Soviet atom spies 68 years ago this week, are seldom discussed as separate people. I had never noticed this before reading Anne Sebba’s new biography, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy (St. Martin’s Press, 2021), but it isn’t an accidental phenomenon. Federal prosecutors deliberately crafted that narrative, consistently and falsely portraying them as a dangerous team that needed to be harshly punished together. That story was so convincing that Ethel was executed absent any real evidence that she had committed a crime at all, much less treason.
The trial was a travesty of justice. Absent anything more than an allegation from Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, that she had typed a memo and knew that her husband was meeting with a Soviet handler, Ethel was convicted through baseless propaganda. She was the strong one, the mastermind, and the one who pushed the younger, “weaker” Julius to betray his country, an unnatural woman who left her fingerprints on nothing and controlled everything.
Ethel’s death served a second propaganda agenda: it portrayed the Soviet Union as so ruthless that it would put a mother in harm’s way to gain military advantage over the United States. If she were not executed, the Communist superpower would flood the United States with female agents, knowing that the United States would not respond forcefully to them.
But there was another, more important, reason to convict and execute Ethel: to pressure her into flipping on her beloved husband or pressure Julius to confess. It was a terrible game of chicken that offered his life for hers. Prosecutor Irving Saypol and Judge Irving Kaufman, who had already teamed up to send former State Department official Alger Hiss to prison for perjury, hoped that the threat of orphaning the Rosenberg children would force Ethel or Julius to admit to the conspiracy, naming other names in exchange for her life. And they had reason to believe it would work: after all, David Greenglass had already betrayed his sister in exchange for a 15-year sentence.
Both Rosenbergs refused the deal and, despite an international outcry and a string of appeals that went all the way up to the White House, they became the first Americans to be executed for treason in peacetime. Ethel was only the second woman to be executed for treason by the federal government—and the last to be executed in New York State. And interestingly, although Sebba credits FBI director J. Edgar Hoover with promoting the “lever” strategy—“Proceeding against the wife might serve as a lever in this matter,” as Hoover wrote to Attorney General Howard McGrath the day that Julius was arrested—it was Hoover who blinked, writing furious memos at the last minute to warn that Ethel’s death, leaving two orphaned children behind would be a public relations disaster for the government’s anti-Communist crusade.
On one level, it was a disaster—there were protests in the United States and around the world for weeks before the execution took place. On another, it was an act of official brutality that may indeed have moved Communism, as a social movement, to the fringes of the immigrant and working-class communities in the United States where it had flourished. Sebba describes Julius’s Soviet handler, who had left the country as the net was tightening (Incredibly, he urged Julius to leave as well, and he did not), stunned and grief-stricken as his former agent approached execution day.
While Julius had the chance to save Ethel and declined to do so, Sebba is persuasive that two factors led Ethel herself to choose death over dishonor. The first was that, had she done as the government asked, it would have revealed Julius as a liar, sealing his fate, even as their attorneys and allies were exhausting all routes to save both of their lives. Second, Sebba goes to great length to show what a caring mother Ethel was: sending their father to his death was an act that would have poisoned Ethel’s relationship with their two sons irreparably, effectively leaving them with no parents anyway.
But this book is also a love story: what may have led Ethel to refuse the government’s offer was her deep emotional commitment to Julius and his to her. He may have been the only person who made her feel truly loved and safe. In chapter after chapter, Sebba describes a woman repeatedly betrayed and undermined by her family of origin. Intelligent, a beautiful singer, and an aspiring actress, Ethel’s interests and needs were constantly disregarded in favor of her brothers. Yet she wasn’t broken by her parents’ neglect, constantly acting on her “desire to break free from the restraints of her birth,” Sebba writes. “She put enormous faith in the discoverability of all things through books and the written word.”
Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that, except for a few months in a wartime civil service job, she never left. A hotbed of Eastern European radical politics, Lower Manhattan was alive with left-wing organizations that, by the 1930s, “provided the impetus for many to join the Communist Party.” Many of these radicals, Sebba points out, were women who grew up, worked, and kept house in unheated, sometimes windowless tenements with scant plumbing, a graphic daily example of capitalism’s evils.
Had Ethel been a talented man, her parents would have sent her on to one of the city colleges that were free in the 1930s; because she wasn’t, she was sent to work. In 1936, when Ethel met Julius Rosenberg, already an active Communist and an engineering student at City College, he encouraged her to self-actualize and helped her cultivate her talents. Paradoxically, by the time the couple married in 1939, that too meant putting aside many of her own dreams to build a shared life with Communism and children at its center. And yet, Ethel persisted: when motherhood proved overwhelming, her solution was to seek intellectual growth. She signed up for classes in child psychology at The New School in Greenwich Village and went into therapy to become a better parent.
Conversations with these therapists provide a new window on Ethel’s thoughts, spirit, and personality that seem to add a fresh perspective to the numerous books that make up the Rosenberg canon. Bolstered by revelations in the Venona Papers that definitively establish Julius’s role in Soviet intelligence gathering, Sebba doesn’t wrestle with problems of guilt and innocence that obsess other books. Instead, she assumes that Julius was a spy. And while she makes it fairly clear that the evidence was shaky, she also takes the position Ethel was a Communist, if not a party member, who could not have been unaware that her husband was running a spy ring that included her feckless younger brother, David Greenglass.
Including Greenglass, who worked at the Los Alamos laboratory developing the atomic bomb, in his network was Julius’s big mistake. Sebba leaves it as an open question whether, or when, Ethel knew that he had recruited her brother, but again, it is hard to believe that—given their intimacy—she was unaware of it. A coddled, reckless, and lazy youngest child, Greenglass supposedly smuggled the crude drawings out of Los Alamos that led to the widespread belief that the Rosenberg ring had delivered an atomic weapon to the Soviet Union. Yet, the government could not produce these sketches at trial, substituting a new rendition of them as evidence.
And it was Greenglass who, in an attempt to save his own skin, provided the testimony that sent his sister and her husband to the electric chair, an act that Ethel’s family openly supported. The drama of this book, to the extent that it reveals anything new about a case that has been written about repeatedly, shows that Ethel’s choices were narrowed, not just by the prosecution’s immoral behavior but by her family’s as well. Even as she was fighting for her own life because of her brother’s betrayal, their mother Tessie Greenglass urged Ethel that her main priority should not be to save herself but to exonerate David—who actually was guilty of spying.
With a mother like that, it’s not surprising that, however fateful that choice was, Ethel remained loyal to Julius instead. In addition, she loved him passionately, and he reciprocated: the portrait of their final, handcuffed embrace, when they shared the last kiss they would be permitted, is a graphic illustration of how physical their love was. It’s a heartbreaking image, and yes, as the subtitle of this book suggests a deeply tragic one.
Yet, I am not sure that Ethel Rosenberg’s life was, in the end, a tragedy. Framing it that way is understandable: no matter how the deck was stacked against her, once she freed herself from her parents, Ethel devoted her talents to the task of becoming the best wife, mother, and person she could be. That, in the end, that she couldn't save herself, her husband, or keep her children from being shuttled around between impersonal caregivers before they found a loving home with Abel and Anne Meeropol, is tragic.
But Sebba’s narrative also permits another interpretation. Despite the terror of an impending execution, Ethel Rosenberg didn’t sell herself or the people she loved down the river: so many people did that during the McCarthy era, often when the stakes were far lower. She didn’t choose to remain Robert and Michael’s mother, much as she cherished them, at the cost of betraying the father they also loved and needed. She didn’t support David Greenglass’s lies, and she didn’t expose other people whose crimes had been as trivial as hers to harsh penalties.
Most importantly, she wasn’t willing to let the husband she loved and whose ideals she shared die alone or accept that the punishment being meted out to Julius was anything but the act of government terror that it was.
She would not have put it this way, but I will: Ethel Rosenberg was an American hero. And we should remember her that way.
An earlier version of this essay erroneously claimed that Ethel Rosenberg was the first woman executed by the federal government; in fact, the first woman to be executed was Mary Surratt, who was hanged for her role in the Abraham Lincoln assassination plot. H/T to Adam Arenson for the correction.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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