Ethel Rosenberg, an all-American Cold War tragedy

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg leaving the U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury
Photo by Roger Higgins

In August 1950, when Ethel Rosenberg was arrested in New York and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, she was an obscure, slightly frumpy Lower East Side housewife with little money; a mother of two small boys who was more interested in studying Parents magazine than being a political rabble-rouser.

Yet, by March 1951, less than a year later, having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, Ethel was notorious the world over as a commie spy, a treacherous “older woman” who had apparently helped her husband sell atomic secrets to the Soviets which posed an existential threat to the United States and which in turn led to the Korean War. She was, according to the judge who sentenced her to death, guilty of a crime worse than murder.

How did her reputation change so dramatically and fatally in eight short months? And why has it continued to cause such ripples and bitter resonance in the subsequent almost 70 years?

Ethel (née Greenglass) and her husband Julius met in the turbulent year of 1936 when many idealists went off to fight in Spain to support the Republicans in their battle against Franco and the Nationalists. They were married in 1939, had very little money and nowhere to live as Julius, an engineer with poor eyesight, found it hard to get a job. But they believed in Communism as offering answers to problems faced by many like themselves and throughout the world.

This put them in an awkward situation when the Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop) nonaggression pact was signed, a time when many abandoned communism. But their beliefs were acceptable once again in 1941 when Russia became an ally in the fight against Hitler and especially in the summer of that year once America joined in the war. It was probably in 1942 that Julius started working for the Soviets, recruiting his college friends to pass on information to Russia.

Their world fell apart in 1950 when Klaus Fuchs, a former East German scientist who had worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, was arrested in England, quickly confessed and was sentenced to fourteen years, of which he served nine. He named a courier, Harry Gold, and Harry Gold identified David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law. David, an army machinist, had also been working at Los Alamos, passing on information. David named Julius but not Ethel.

However, since everyone else had given further names, it was assumed that Julius, once arrested, would do the same. When he did not his wife Ethel was arrested as a lever to put pressure on him. But for three years neither of them talked. He wrongly assumed there was no evidence against him.

Julius and Ethel were both found guilty after a three-week trial riddled with miscarriages of justice and sentenced to death by a judge who, in his oral indictment, accused the pair of treason having probably been made aware that there was some highly secret evidence against Julius, which could not be made public. Ethel was additionally rebuked for being “a mature woman almost three years older than her husband… She was a full-fledged partner in this crime.”

After the judge’s crude attempt, by emphasising Ethel’s age, to cast her as a domineering woman rather than the typical American housewife portrayed by the defence, he drove his point home by criticising Ethel as a mother.

He said: “The defendants placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children… Love for their cause dominated their lives – it was even greater than their love for their children.”

His words echoed down the century as did those of the prosecuting attorney Irving Saypol who accused Ethel of typing up information  for Russia: “Just so had she on countless other occasions sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

Her reputation sank to its nadir at this point as most 1950s Americans believed that any mother would have confessed (although to what?) simply to remain alive for her sons. The American Jewish community, deeply divided, did not rush to Rosenberg’s defence as establishment Jews, broadly speaking, also believed in the notion that Ethel was the master and Julius her slave.

Although a clemency campaign slowly got under way, started by Lower East Side Jews but gaining international support, especially in France, Ethel was half-hearted about endorsing it since she did not want to be saved simply for being a wife. Yet proving her innocence was impossible without an admission of guilt from Julius and she did not believe she could live with herself or her sons if her freedom was gained at the expense of her husband’s death.

The pair were killed on 19 June, 1953. But the case did not die with her electrocution and her reputation has undergone regular re-evaluation as new information has been released, most notably in 1995 when the decrypted Venona cables between Moscow and New York were made public revealing that Julius was indeed actively and passionately involved as a spy ring recruiter.

Venona showed how the KGB gave all its spies code names including Julius, David and Ruth. But Ethel had no code name, a clear indication that the KGB did not consider her their spy. Also, Venona cables stated that Ethel “does not work” which most commentators believe shows she was not involved in spying but must have known that Julius was. After his release from prison in 1960, David Greenglass admitted in interviews that he had lied about his sister doing the typing. If anyone had done any typing it may have been his own wife, who was never indicted and remained free.

Yet the arguments as to whether Ethel should be rehabilitated or pardoned continue.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Ethel’s story is the way her reputation has inspired so much art and literature (The Bell Jar and Angels in America just two among many masterpieces)

David’s Grand Jury statements, released after his death in 2014, make clear that he was persuaded to lie to save his own family and that his perjury was the only evidence of an overt act which convicted and killed Ethel. But even that is not enough for some who believe she cannot be separated from the husband she supported who had a long and productive career working for Soviet intelligence. The end, the double killing, is therefore justified.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Ethel’s story is the way her reputation has inspired so much art and literature (The Bell Jar and Angels in America just two among many masterpieces). Many people are confused by her because she defies labelling. She was a committed communist, but this was not the main focus of her life. She was Jewish but derived no spiritual succour from religion. She undoubtedly knew and approved of what her husband was doing but even Meredith Gardner and Bob Lamphere, the two men responsible for deciphering the Venona cables, believed her punishment excessive.

I felt that 70 years since the arrests and execution was a good time for a calm reappraisal of a story which divided a nation. On a research visit to the Spy Museum in Washington the curator encouraged me in this, reassuring me that, as they too were putting a different slant on their traditional Rosenberg exhibit this was the moment to separate Ethel from Julius and look again at who she was and why she had to be killed to assuage the fear and hysteria of the day. But the controversy seems as virulent as ever.

To an extent Ethel’s reputation seems to rest on preconceived attitudes to the greatest political, social and cultural issues of the age: the development and subsequent use of atomic power, fear of communism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and the definition of what it meant and still means to be an American.

Anne Sebba is a biographer, writer and lecturer. Her most recent book is “Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00)

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