Ethel Rosenberg: She Could Not Save Herself and Neither Could Anyone else

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 1942.

“We do not want to die…We desire someday to be restored to society, where we can contribute our energies toward building a world where we shall have peace, bread and roses.”

– Ethel Rosenberg in first petition for executive clemency

A Communist and A Jew

Ethel Rosenberg was a complex American. She was the loving mother of two boys, the devoted wife of a man who spied for the Soviet Union, and a resolute Communist in a nation resolutely anti-communist. “We are the victims of the grossest type of political frame-up ever known in American history,” she wrote. She added, “we ask the people of America to…come to our aid.” You can’t get more communist than that in the aftermath of the Popular Front and the era of Earl Browder who said, “Communism is the Americanism of the twentieth-century.”

Anne Sebba explores the life and times of Ethel Rosenberg—who died in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility on June 19, 1953 when she was 35-years-old— in a new biography with the subtitle “An American Tragedy” (St. Martin’s Press). Unfortunately, Sebba seems to buy into some Cold War thinking when she writes about the “free world,” and when she adopts a liberal perspective and argues that for “one brief moment in time, hysteria overtook common sense.” Excuse me, but the hysteria lasted decades.

I read Sebba’s book closely and carefully. I wanted to like it. I found it compelling in places, and a real tear-jerker, and at the same time I found it infuriating and greatly disappointing. Sebba did a ton of research. It’s useful to know that Ethel worked for Carl Marzini, that she apparently signed a Communist Party petition for Peter Cacchinone, a New York City councilman, and that Julius sold copies of The Daily Worker. Sebba’s book is thoroughly footnoted, with a comprehensive bibliography and a useful index.

Her opening salvo is powerful: “Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the only Americans ever put to death in peacetime for conspiracy to commit espionage, the only two American civilians executed for espionage-related crimes committed during the Cold War…and Ethel is the only woman killed for a crime other than murder.”

In her Introduction, Sebba wonders about “the extent” of Ethel’s “complicity” with her husband’s spying. She never provides a satisfactory account of Ethel’s involvement or lack of same with Julius’ activities on behalf of the Russians, which she describes “as a tale of betrayal” of his own country. The early chapters, in which the author aims to psychoanalyze Ethel and to depict her relationships with her family members, feel weak and amateurish, though she references Ethel’s time in psychotherapy. I have tracked and traced the families of origin of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman in the three biographies I have written about them. I know the perils of the territory. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Memories of the 1950s

I suppose my disappointment with Sebba’s book was to be expected. I have known about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for all of my adult life. I have a memory from when I was about ten, in 1952. My father and I, and one of his friends, Merle Miller got out of a car my dad was driving. Miller whispered to my father, “I’d like to get some money to the Rosenbergs.” My dad said, “Sure. I can do that.” My dad was a CP member from about 1938 to 1948, then a “fellow traveler” all through the 1950s and again openly radical in the 1960s. He was a lawyer and helped relatives, including my Aunt Lenore, who were investigated as Communists.

I learned lessons early in life about secrets and secrecy, about where and when to talk and about paranoia and conspiracy. In college, I met Helen Sobel, whose husband, Morton, had been found guilty as a spy and sentenced to a long prison term. Helen gave me a transcript of the Rosenberg trial which I used to write a paper for a history class about the couple and their battles in and out of the courtroom. I also read their correspondence which was published in 1953 under the title Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

I was eleven when they were executed. I told myself that if they were sent to the electric chair, my own parents, who were Jewish and Communists and pro-Soviet, could also be executed. The execution had a similar impact on many of my contemporaries who were also the sons and daughters of Jews and Communists and pro-Soviet when it seemed like it was a crime to be Jewish and a Communist and pro-Soviet.

Reporter and syndicated columnist Inez Robb (1901-1979) made that point in The Minneapolis Star on March 12, 1951. Robb wrote, “There are 50,000 ‘Ethel Rosenbergs’ on the subway any workday morning.”

Graves of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Westwood Cemetery, East Farmingdale, New York.

Why the Rosenbergs?

Ethel and Julius were the usual suspects who had to be rounded up and imprisoned to save face. The Russians dropped their A-Bomb in 1949 the same year China went Communist. The Korean War began in 1950. Alger Hiss went to jail for perjury. Also, Senator McCarthy claimed that the U.S. Government had been infiltrated by Communists (not an entire falsehood), and J. Edgar Hoover warned the nation about the tens of thousands of Americans who were CP members. The Red Scare went viral.

Ethel and Julius became the all-too human faces of the CP. Unlike Alger Hiss, they weren’t upper-class intellectuals and they weren’t spies with foreign sounding names like Klaus Fuchs, the German-born British physicist. They were middle class and white (they employed a Black woman named Evelyn Cox who worked in their New York apartment). The husband was the breadwinner and the wife the stay-at-home mother. New Yorkers and native–born, they were married in a synagogue.

Someone had to pay for the whole fiasco (as the Republicans saw it) of the The New Deal and the war against Fascism which led to Yalta and the abdication to Stalin and Stalinists. Ethel and Julius were the fall guys who were turned into martyrs by socialists, communists and famous artists around the world and in the U.S., including Sartre and de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso and the American novelist Nelson Algren.

The incarceration and execution of the Rosenbergs damaged the image of the U.S. in Europe, where it had steadily declined after 1945 when America and Americans were viewed as the great liberators. The execution exasperated the divisions that already existed in the American Jewsh community, helped to launch Roy Cohn’s career and fueled the imagination of writers like Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), E. L. Doctorow (The Book of Daniel) and Tony Kushner who chose wisely from the cast of real life characters and put Ethel Rosenberg and Roy Cohn in Angels in America. They provided the sizzle during the trial and they energize his play.

Sebba tries to focus on the life of Ethel Rosenberg, and for some of the time Ethel, along with the other women in her family, are at the center of the story. “This story is, in fact,” the author writes near the end of her biography, “all about women.” Sebba seems to forget that men figure in major roles in the 250-pages that precede that observation.

In fact, it’s impossible to tell Ethel’s story without including the narratives about her husband, Julius, her brother, David Greenglass, a rat, her two sons, Michael and Robert, and the men who were responsible for sending her to the electric chair.

They include the presiding Judge Irving Kaufman, prosecuting attorneys Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn, who apparently said of Ethel, “She’s worse than Julius…She engineered this whole thing.” Also, President Eisenhower who declined to grant clemency and spare the lives of the Rosenbergs.

Given the all-male, testosterone-infused cast that prosecuted and persecuted Ethel it’s not surprising that Sebba goes after patriarchy and misogyny. The author also describes the post-World War II era as “a time when women were subjugated to a life of domesticity.” To a certain extent that was true. Women who had worked during the war, left their jobs, married soldiers returning home, gave birth to children, nurtured them and raised them. But that wasn’t the only story.

The Resilience of the Reds

My own mother, who belonged to the Communist Party, made art, raised three sons, looked after her husband, kept house, cooked, created a cooperative nursery, and was active in the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and an advocate for birth control. Mildred Raskin, who belonged to the same generation as Ethel, wasn’t alone.

Like Ethel, all American women were not subjugated to a life of domesticity. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were outstanding women artists, writers and political activists, who strayed beyond the home, such as Helen Frankenthaler, Katherine Anne Porter, Rosa Parks—an NAACP member who attended CP meetings—and even Robin Morgan who became a leading feminist in the Sixties, and who was a child actor on TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s on the show Mama starring Peggy Wood.

McCarthyism and “Nixonism”— as reporter, editor and the founder of the National Guardian, James Aronson astutely called it—took a toll on creative people (as well as on union organizers, teachers and free thinkers). Resilience was also a big part of the story of the Old Left and the writers of the Thirties who sometimes found themselves adrift in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sebba doesn’t give resilience nearly enough credit. She didn’t have to look far to find it. Ethel Rosenberg was as resilient as any other woman in that era, and perhaps way more so. She didn’t want to die, but she couldn’t save herself from death, and neither could Roy Cohn, who built his career on her body, nor her husband, her brother, her mother, her sister-in-law or her sons who were too young to save anyone except themselves.

Sebba wants her cake and to eat it, too. She downplays Ethel’s politics—her radicalism—and at times even tries to erase it. “By 1950,” she writes, “Communism was merely one aspect of Ethel’s ambiguous, many-sided life and it was not her principal focus.” At the same time, Sebba allows Communism to creep into her book through the back door. She offers a quotation from Miriam Moskowitz, an imprisoned friend and comrade of Ethel’s and the author of Phantom Spies, who said that Ethel “followed the [Communist] Party line,” and that she was “doctrinaire.”

One might also say that Ethel embraced a weltanschauung that was informed by the working class movements that called for “bread and roses,” by New York secular Judaism and the American brand of communism which became a kind of religion for her. Like a good communist, she noted that “theory without practice can be a pretty empty, meaningless gesture,” and, like the reddest of the reds she wrote to Julius on May 5, 1951 about  a “little ditty” which she titled “Who’s afraid of the Big Electric Chair/They can shove it up their ‘spine’ for all I care.” She had the presence of mind to rhyme chair with care.

Sebba offers a quotation from Ethel who wrote, “we must not use prayer to an Omnipotent Being as a pretext for evading our responsibility to our fellow beings in the daily struggle for the establishment of social justice. Jew and Gentile, black and white all must stand together in their might to win the right!”

You can’t get more party line than the phrases “daily struggle,” “Jew and gentile, black and white…stand together to win the right.” Sebba doesn’t see the vast nexus of politics behind that statement. She writes, “These words provide little guidance about her true belief.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sebba also tries to rob Ethel of her Judaism. “Jewishness had no influence on her behavior” when she was at Sing Sing, she writes. But Sebba goes on to say that she attended religious services when she was behind bars and that she wanted her sons to remember the Ten Commandments which Moses supposedly brought down from Mt. Sinai.

A Love Story

One can’t help but feel that Ethel Rosenberg proved to be too big and complex a person for Sebba to grapple with and comprehend. A dozen pages or so from the end of her book she asks, “Who exactly was Ethel Rosenberg?” That’s the kind of question an author asks at the start of a biography, not at the end.

Sebba also says, at the very end of the book, that it’s about “betrayal,” and that “Only Ethel betrayed no one, thus sealing her fate.” Excuse me, but I think that one can’t separate her story from Julius’ story and that theirs is a love story. The picture on the back cover that shows Ethel and Julius kissing and with his handcuffs visible, tells that romantic tale. So do their passionate love letters from the Death House.

Nice try Sebba. Better luck next time and try to refrain from using unnecessary adjectives, as when you write that Ethel wore a “hideous” hat. Sometimes a hat is just a hat.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.