On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electrocution for their part in a conspiracy to provide to the Soviet Union top secret information on the development of nuclear weapons. Their co-conspirators received long prison sentences, but the Rosenbergs became the first American civilians to be sentenced to death in peacetime.
At their trial, Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, testified that his brother-in-law Julius had recruited him into a spy ring, and that Greenglass, working in 1944 on the atomic bomb project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, had supplied drawings of a lens mold as part of the espionage that led to the first Soviet nuclear test on Aug. 29, 1949, years ahead of American scientists’ expectations.
The shock of the Soviet blast came at a time of increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, now no longer a World War II ally but regarded as a menace to world peace because of its aggressive takeover of Eastern Europe and its employment of espionage networks in the United States and among its allies. At sentencing, Judge Irving Kaufman denounced the Rosenbergs for their perfidy which had put millions of American lives in jeopardy. His view, as Anne Sebba recounts, was seconded by President Dwight Eisenhower, who refused all pleas to grant clemency to the couple who steadfastly proclaimed their innocence. They became a cause around the world with protests at the inhumanity of executing the parents of two young children when other guilty parties, notably scientist Klaus Fuchs (tried in England), had been spared the death penalty. Many Americans supported the Rosenberg verdict, and others attacked what they considered a hysterical persecution of two Jews suspected of espousing radical views but not treason.
Sebba concedes the now overwhelming evidence that Julius Rosenberg was in fact a Soviet spy who recruited others, but like other recent commentators on the case, she regards the evidence against Ethel as nearly nonexistent, trumped up by one of the prosecutors, Roy Cohn, who persuaded David Greenglass to concoct a story about how Ethel typed up her husband’s espionage reports.
Sebba provides a compassionate account of Ethel’s character as a wife and mother, dutifully standing by her husband no matter what, and at the same time doing everything in her power to nurture her two boys, who emerged remarkably unscathed by their parents’ ordeal and who honor their parents’ memory in Sebba’s account of their lives.
In this engrossing narrative, Ethel emerges as a doctrinaire Communist, and yet the opposite of the contemporary attacks on her as an unfit mother. Ironically, Ethel conformed to the period’s American ideal of the wife and mother with fealty to her family while she was attacked for being the spy ring leader who manipulated her husband and was thus unfaithful to her role in society and her ties to her kindred.
Review source: Datebook (8 June 2021)