I found the book to be painfully sad due to the injustice and the cruelty of the execution.
COLD SPRING, N.Y. — On June 19, 1953, the government of the United States of America, utilizing its much-heralded but deeply-flawed system of justice, ended the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were put to death that day in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on the banks of the Hudson River.
This atrocious action was, in my view, the most egregious moment in the long, dark period of mid-20th America combining the Cold War and the related anti-communist crusade often called the McCarthy era.
The Rosenberg case has been the topic of many books, and I highly recommend the newest one, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, written by Anne Sebba, an award-winning biographer, lecturer, and former Reuters foreign correspondent. She is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London, where she resides. I found the book to be interesting and well-written, though painfully sad at times due to the injustice and the cruelty of the execution. Focusing primarily but not exclusively on Ethel makes this book unique.
Various segments in the 309-page volume provide historic context quite well, and I find this to be valuable, given the passage of so many decades. She wrote that “the oral indictment read out in court deliberately described this crime as having been committed during the early years of the Cold War, even though this [arrest and trial] was technically peacetime. Yet, amid the bloody stalemate in Korea and the frenzied building of nuclear fallout shelters around New York City, Ethel and Julius were cast as traitors who had helped Stalin steal the secure future that most Americans believed they had won in 1945.”
I have been familiar with the Rosenberg case
ever since my childhood.
More about the book later, but for the sake of “full disclosure,” I want to point out that I have been familiar with the Rosenberg case ever since my childhood as a “red diaper baby.” I was 12 when they were executed and I remember clearly my parents’ deeply felt concern and grief. And no wonder! The Rosenbergs and the Youngs were not that different – all four being the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and also immersed in the American and international Communist movement.
Even more significant is the fact that I met the two Rosenberg sons, Michael and Robert, only five years after their parents’ execution. This was due to a coincidence, as friends of my family happened to be residing in an uptown Manhattan apartment building across the hall from Anne and Abel Meeropol, the adopted parents of the boys. Anne and Abel thought that a Columbia College freshman with leftist parents (namely me) would be a good friend for Michael, a high school junior. Michael and I have remained good friends ever since that time and I recently visited him at his current home in Cold Spring, N.Y., which is why that’s the dateline for this book review.
In another odd coincidence, while driving from Cold Spring to Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., to visit a cousin, I passed through Ossining, the town where the Sing Sing prison is located — and still open for business. In another coincidence, Croton-on-Hudson has had a reputation for almost a century as a New York City suburb of choice for leftists, including left-wing journalist John Reed whose Croton home is featured in the award-winning movie Reds.
The book goes into a lot of detail about Ethel
as a wife and mother.
Regardless of an individual’s familiarity with the Rosenberg case, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy is worth reading. It does a fine job telling the story of the complex espionage case against the young couple while also going into a lot of detail about Ethel as a wife and mother. For example, she loved to sing and had some knowledge of opera, and her talent and interest in the arts could have taken her on a very different pathway were it not also for the leftist politics that were embraced by many New York Jews from the 1920s and into the following decades.
This book review is not the place for me to elaborate on the complexity of the real espionage that occurred in the 1940s and the long cast of characters that included not only Julius Rosenberg but also Ethel’s brother David Greenglass. The testimony of Greenglass was key for the prosecution’s case, and Sebba explains the legalities and illegalities well, including the use of intimidation and perjured testimony.
The Jewish identity of the Rosenbergs is another aspect that Sebba covers with sensitivity and insight. (I assume the author is Jewish. I don’t know this for a fact, but Wikipedia says that her maiden name is Rubenstein. I, too, am Jewish – my mother’s maiden name is Goldfarb.) Roy Cohn, then a young recent law school graduate (and a staunchly anti-communist Jew), played a role in helping Jewish prosecutor Irving Saypol bring the case before a Jewish judge, Irving Kaufman. This made it less likely that the Jewish community would rally around the Rosenbergs, though many Jews could not help but link the very idea of electrocution to the recent reality of the Nazi ovens.
Ethel’s identity as a woman is woven throughout Sebba’s narrative, sometimes to excess with reference to her wardrobe and makeup and the impact these might have had on jurors. The prosecution knew that there could be a problem in executing a young mother and orphaning two children, and it is very clear from the facts as we know them now that Ethel was in fact innocent of the charges against her. The prosecution staff thought they could coerce her to name names, or compel her husband to do so, but she had steely resolve and would not surrender.
President Dwight Eisenhower declined to grant clemency shortly before the exeution.
There were even absurd theories put forward by some individuals that Ethel was a mastermind. President Dwight Eisenhower, who declined to grant clemency shortly before the execution took place, is one of those who took up this idea, describing Ethel as “the more strong-minded and apparent leader of the two.” The author’s use of relevant quotations, such as this one, enriches the book throughout.
She interviewed many people, including the Rosenberg sons, and for me, given my personal friendship with Michael (as well as Robby), this led to some deep sadness as I was reading. These boys — who both have fared very well as adults with their family and professional lives — went through hell when they were so young. The photo of the boys, accompanied by defense attorney Manny Bloch bringing them to visit their parents in Sing Sing, is enough to bring tears to my eyes (and probably to others as well).
Attorney Bloch, aided by his father, worked very hard to provide a vigorous defense. As one might expect, there are people who think a more experienced or better known lawyer should have taken the case. The Rosenbergs were sympathizers of the Communist Party, and perhaps one or both were members, but the Party leadership apparently concluded it was best for it to remain in the background, lest it do harm to the defendants.
Clearly, however, the international Communist movement, especially in Western Europe, brought many people to the streets to protest the execution of an innocent couple.
Julius’s communication with Soviet operatives took place during World War Two.
Maintaining the innocence of both Rosenbergs as well as their co-defendant Morton Sobell, was the focus of political activism before and after their execution. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, documents located in the Soviet Union showed that Julius was indeed an agent working for the Russians. Sobell, late in life after serving a long prison sentence, acknowledged some guilt. A crucial point is that Julius’s communication with Soviet operatives took place during World War Two, when the Soviets were vital allies in the battle against Nazism and fascism, and could best be described as “industrial espionage.”
The prosecution maintained that the “secret of the atomic bomb” was given to the Russians by the Rosenbergs. This was a very big lie, as Russian scientists had all the information they needed from other sources to make a bomb. Those Russian documents make it clear, in various ways, that Ethel was totally innocent.
In the early 1970s, Michael and Robby, who had not been open about their identity, came out as the Rosenbergs as a lawsuit was filed against Louis Nizer for his book quoting their parents’ copyrighted letters without permission. Around that time, I was teaching a course on the 1950s at Tufts University’s extension program, and Michael’s very first public appearance as Rosenberg was before my class.
‘The children say their father did not deserve the death penalty and their mother was wrongly convicted.’
The article on the Rosenberg case in the Internet Wikipedia states this:
Their sons’ current position is that Julius was legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, though not of atomic spying, while Ethel was only generally aware of his activities. The children say that their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted. They continue to campaign for Ethel to be posthumously legally exonerated.
Sebba helps the reader with the historic context, writing:
Both Ethel and Julius were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 with conspiracy to commit espionage from 1944 until 1950 by communicating to a foreign government, in wartime, secret atomic and other military information. The time period was significant. Their last alleged overt act relating to atomic secrets was in mid-September 1945, but World War Two officially ended on September 2, 1945. However, other aspects of the conspiracy continued into 1950.
There was a concerted effort in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency to have Ethel fully exonerated by him, but he did not take that action, a great disappointment to the brothers and their supporters.
Sebba does a fine job of including in her book moving and insightful information about the adoptive parents, Anne and Abel Meeropol, and of Michael and Robby (and their families). My review of an outstanding movie about Roy Cohn, directed by Michael’s daughter Ivy Meeropol, was published in The Rag Blog after I saw its debut screening at the New York Film Festival. If you haven’t seen that film, you should find it on HBO or perhaps elsewhere. It includes references to the Rosenberg case, of course.
‘Treason in our times has somehow escaped
satisfactory legal definition.’
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy includes many photographs, some from the private collection of the Meeropol brothers. It also includes numerous quotations from the media, and I want to offer just one of these. After the trail and the imposition of the death sentence, Sebba writes, “the crusading columnist Dorothy Thompson had been almost alone among reporters in writing that the death sentence was too harsh.” And she offers this from Thompson:
Treason in our times has somehow escaped satisfactory legal definition. Treason has hitherto been equated to betrayal to an enemy with whom the country is in armed conflict. Only because the Rosenbergs gave secret information to a foreign power in 1944, in wartime, could Judge Kaufman impose the formidable sentence. But in 1944 we were not at war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets were not an enemy but an ally. In 1944 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were in their twenties, for three years the Soviet Union had been glorified by the most responsible citizens. The prevailing myths, hopes and policies all contributed to create the climate in which their crime might seem to them hardly more than misdemeanor… Indeed, it is unlikely that had they been tried in 1944 they would have received any such sentence.
Whether you read this book or not, I urge Rag Blog readers to learn more about the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), and if you are so inclined, make a donation. Back in the 1950s and beyond, people throughout the world who felt that the execution of the Rosenbergs was a terrible injustice contributed money to help secure a safe future for the Rosenberg boys. These orphans were so lucky to end up with the Meeropols as their adopted parents, though there were some rough months before the final legal action took place for this adoption.
Robby Meeropool was aware of this aspect of his own past and also not entirely satisfied with his previous career as a lawyer, so he founded and led this charity to raise money to provide help for the children of modern-day activists. As people had helped him have a good life, the RFC helps the children of parents working on behalf of the environment, racial justice, peace, lesbian and gay rights, and more. This charity, now led by Robby’s daughter, Jennifer Meeropol, provides funding for such things as music lessons, summer camp, and counseling, Here is the website, where you can learn more and perhaps make a donation.
I want to end this book review by stating that the injustice in the Rosenberg case is just one reason that the death penalty should be abolished under federal law and in those states that still allow it. I shudder at the thought of this intentional taking of a human life in my name, as a citizen of this republic. It still goes on, despite evidence that innocent people have been killed.
Massachusetts, where I live, no longer has the death penalty and yet there is an organization in my state that opposes the death penalty. Why? Because it’s a fact that many people endorse it and could advocate for its return. Check out this website for Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty: .
If you like movies, especially old movies, look for I Want to Live, starring Susan Haywood. Released in 1958, this is a very moving drama based on a true story about a woman sentenced to death. I have a vivid memory of the day I saw that movie. I was a college student, age 17, alone in a theater in New York City not far from my Columbia University dormitory. I had a strong emotional response to the movie, and I know deep in my heart that this was related to the Rosenberg case, so fresh in my mind as this was the year I met Michael Meeropol. I was so upset that I decided to board a subway train and take the longest possible subway ride — out to Far Rockaway and back — close to two hours I spent deep in mournful thought and outrage about the very idea of the state killing people.
Reading this informative book brought back that same emotion.
[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including numerous items published in The Rag Blog. Retired since 1999, he was a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol (Mass.) Daily News, and director of community relations for the Athol Memorial Hospital. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in The Rag Blog archives.]