June 26, 2021 Ethel Rosenberg. By Anne Sebba. the Saint-Martin press; 320 pages; $ 28.99. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £ 20 ON 19 JUNE 1953, just minutes after the execution of her husband, Julius, for espionage,
Ethel Rosenberg. By Anne Sebba. the Saint-Martin press; 320 pages; $ 28.99. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £ 20
ON 19 JUNE 1953, just minutes after the execution of her husband, Julius, for espionage, Ethel Rosenberg, 37, is tied to the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in New York. The first three electricity charges failed to kill her, but after two more she died, with smoke rising from her head, the only woman executed in America in the 20th century for a crime other than murder. Thousands of people filled the streets around the Brooklyn Chapel where the couple’s funeral took place. There have been demonstrations all over Europe, especially in France.
For many on the left, the execution of the Rosenbergs accused of spying for the Soviet Union – and transmitting atomic secrets – was analogous to the Dreyfus affair in France half a century earlier. Under the grip of McCarthyist anti-Communist hysteria, this interpretation ran, America had sent an idealistic Jewish couple with two young children to their deaths over forged evidence. The condemned couple protested their innocence until the end.
In Julius’ case, it was never a compelling story. He had recruited his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, who was employed on the top-secret Manhattan project in Los Alamos, for the Soviet cause; Greenglass was in turn linked to Harry Gold, the courier of Klaus Fuchs (a much more important source of intelligence for the Kremlin). The latter three have all confessed to spying.
But the evidence against Ethel was much weaker and, at trial, was based primarily on the perjury testimony of Greenglass, who had secured a plea deal, and his wife, Ruth. Greenglass later admitted that his crucial testimony – that Ethel had typed up notes on American nuclear weapon technology in the Rosenbergs’ apartment in September 1945 – had been false. Ruth, who even escaped jail time, was probably the typist.
There have been many books on the Rosenberg affair. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBIdirector of, called theirs the trial of the century. But the biography of Ethel by Anne Sebba is the first for 30 years. She places great importance on the 2015 publication, after Greenglass’ death, of the grand jury’s testimony, including her original statement that Ethel had no involvement in the plot. With access to an extensive archive of Ethel’s letters, many of which were poignantly written from prison and gathering interviews with surviving witnesses, including the Rosenbergs’ two sons, Michael and Robert, Ms Sebba tells a story fascinating love, betrayal, misplaced idealism and brutal legal and political maneuvering.
The image of Ethel that emerges is that of a tough and intelligent autodidact and a potential opera singer who grows up in distinguished poverty with an indifferent mother. She became a union activist, a committed communist, then a passionate wife and an overly anxious parent. A victim of serial betrayals herself, she places above all the principle of loyalty to her husband and the communist cause, even if cooperating with her accusers would have saved her life and prevented her children from becoming orphans. It’s impossible not to sympathize with her terrible plight, but she is by no means an entirely attractive figure. There is something fanatic about her.
Was she innocent, at least morally, as the author argues? The answer is probably no. In 1995, the US government released a cache of documents deciphered by Project Venona, a World War II counterintelligence operation that intercepted messages from Soviet intelligence sources, which continued into the Cold War. . The material provides powerful evidence that Julius was indeed the linchpin of a prolific spy network that gave Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union a precious treasure trove of military secrets. It seems inconceivable that Ethel was not fully aware of his activities; she probably helped him, especially by recruiting his brother and Ruth.
But that does not legitimize his trial and execution. Crucial evidence was denied to the defense. One of the prosecutors was young Roy Cohn, who went on to work for Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump; his role in obtaining perjured testimony and in secretly pushing the judge to impose the death penalty was shameful. The Venona evidence was never submitted and was ambiguous as to Ethel’s involvement anyway. Government lawyers knew their case was fragile but believed that if they threatened Ethel with execution, she would pressure Julius to reveal his network. They didn’t want to kill a young mother. As William Rogers, the Assistant Attorney General admitted, “She called our bluff.”
Ms. Sebba rightly sees this as a serious miscarriage of justice. But in exonerating Ethel almost entirely, she goes too far. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “Sinned against and sinning”