Ethel Rosenberg – Review of Two Books


Sebba expertly reviews and relives Ethel Rosenberg’s life and death in her newest biography, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy for Rosenberg’s death was a tragedy. While there are questions as to her guilt, whatever the level, it did not merit the death penalty or even in my view, a prison sentence. The same cannot be said for Julius given revelations in the Verona papers that he was a spy and that he was in all likelihood in at a more deeper level than was then known or brought out by the government.

Sebba shows how Ethel defied the times by being more than a wife and mother but also an intelligent equal in the marriage, a professional singer and an activist. This defiance in combination with the Red Scare made her a victim. Although there are some who say she could have cooperated with investigators or if the unlikely happened by the Soviets speaking out about Julius’ role (and the absence of Ethel’s), it is not likely that the FBI and the press would have let her and her children lead a normal life. The same would likely be true if she had not been arrested. It would be no life but essentially house arrest until at least after Julius’ death, if not Ethel’s. Moreover, Ethel’s need for acceptance and total love which she found reciprocated by Julius in lieu of the love she missed out as a child by her parents and all but one of her siblings foreclosed the possibility of her living without Julius even if confession by either her or Julius would have saved her life and kept her children with her. All of this is explored by Sebba in some manner even if parts of the above are only implied.

Sebba also shows how Ethel became the stronger of the two after the duo’s arrests and why.

Sebba brings out in compelling narrative the trial and the aftermath all the way to the chair. Some of her statements about the law presume the existence of absolutes in the law or are not shown to be based on relevant statutes applicable at the time, whether at the time of the crimes or at the time of trial. Crimes are charged and sentenced based on the statute that is applicable as of the date of the crime and not based on the date of the indictment or the date of sentencing. In terms of absolutes they are extremely rare in the law as most laws contain exceptions and depends on the factual and procedural circumstances of a case as well as existing case and statutory authorities. However, Sebba is not a legal scholar and a fuller analysis of the legal landscape would be outside the scope of the work.

Regardless, Sebba shows how the trial, for Ethel, was a miscarriage of justice because of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct as well as suborned perjury by Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass. He admitted his perjury in 2001 but also there is likely evidence in the trial of the case. Edward Snowden in his autobiographical account, Permanent Record reveals why he fled the U.S. He fled instead of awaiting to be arrested and stand trial. As in the Rosenbergs’ case, the unauthorized release of classified documents was in issue. Snowden seeks to raise the public interest defense which broadly speaking weighs the harm of the disclosures versus the value of the disclosures to legitimate public debate under the First Amendment. That likely involves the use of classified information which under current law those without clearance cannot review–that would be Snoweden, his attorney, the jury, among others. It makes planning and presenting a defense nearly impossible. There is no fair trial. It would be a shadow of a trial because to reveal the classified documents to those without security clearance would be itself a crime.

The classification of information in the name of national security obviously stretches back to before the Rosenbergs. It was why they were prosecuted. So how in during the Rosenbergs’ trial was it not a crime for the prosecution to reveal the alleged classified sketches or the substance of the notes that David Greenglass falsely testified that his sister Ethel typed up? A possible answer is that the sketch like the typing of the notes was fake, originating from David Greenglass’ or the prosecution’s imagination and did not derive from classified sources. Support for this can also be gleaned from the surprise of leading scientists at learning that the prosecution had intended to call them as witnesses during the Rosenbergs’ trial. The scientists, if called to testify, would have been under pressure from the prosecution to reveal classified information, which would have gone against their oath not to reveal classified information and if revealed could have resulted in their being charged. Not surprisingly, the prosecution rested their case without calling the scientists to testify. Perhaps too the scientists may have been in the position to refute the authenticity of the sketch.

As Sebba’s book highlights, there are so many questions that do not have answers, many unanswerable now.

In addition to Sebba’s book, I viewed Heir to an Execution, the documentary done by Ivy Meeropol, Michael (Rosenberg) Meeropol’s daughter. A lot of is mentioned in Sebba’s book. It is recommended as it contains archival footage and interviews with Robert and Michael (Rosenberg) Meeropol and others. There is also evidence that Julius Rosenberg was far from innocent though his crimes may have been those other than those he was convicted of. The documentary does support that Ethel was in all likelihood innocent.

Lastly, I read Jillian Cantor’s, The Hours Count, which is a novel based on the Rosenbergs though it primarily deals with their home life in Knickerbocker Village after Julius and Ethel married when Michael was a toddler. The story is told through the fictional character of neighbor Millie Stein and her Russian husband and his being a double agent, both for the U.S. and the USSR. Millie befriends Ethel and remains Ethel’s friend throughout and after Ethel’s execution.