Anne Sebba has just published the third biography of Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed in 1953 along with her husband Julius for conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. Virginia Gardner, a Communist activist, wrote the first during the frenzied public campaign to save the lives of Ethel and Julius. The second came in 1998, from Ilene Philipson. The question one must ask is whether a new biography is even necessary and what new information the author brings to the table.
Sebba’s narrative revolves around one question central to any author who takes up the Rosenberg case: Was Ethel guilty as charged, or innocent as she claimed to be? Sebba, a Briton and author of a previous biography of Wallis Simpson, the Dutchess of Windsor, tells us from the start that although Ethel was a member of the Communist Party, she “was not, I believe, a spy.” She acknowledges that Ethel was hardly a saint, was committed to the cause, and was “fiercely loyal to her beloved husband, who undoubtedly was a Communist spy, passing military secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II.” But if she had been guilty and had participated with Julius in spying for Stalin’s Soviet Union, why would she refuse to cooperate with the government once caught? Why did she continue to claim innocence when she knew that her passing and that of her husband would not only orphan their two children, Michael and Robert, but mire them in a lifetime of pain?
Sebba fully acknowledges Communism’s horrors and quotes many observers who point out how Communists abandoned use of their own minds, giving up their autonomy to follow the Party’s dictates and policies blindly. But she says Ethel’s guilt or innocence is beside the point. For her, the real story is not Ethel’s betrayal of her country, but her brother’s and mother’s unwillingness to go along with her cover-up. Her brother, David Greenglass, became the main witness against his sister, and their mother stood with David and pleaded with Ethel to adopt the path he had chosen.
ETHEL ROSENBERG’S life experience was not dissimilar to that of many first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early years of the 20th century. As a group, these Jews started out at or near the bottom. Ethel, Sebba writes, lived in a “cold-water tenement house” that faced a stable housing “horses that pulled delivery carts around the cobbled streets of the neighborhood.” The area “reeked of filth and excrement.”
Undoubtedly, these harsh conditions made Ethel and her future husband susceptible to the overtures from the radical left. What made Ethel a bit different was a taste for the arts. She attended Seward Park High School, whose graduates included Zero Mostel, Tony Curtis, and Walter Matthau. She loved classical music and drama, and her greatest desire, a friend of hers told Sebba, was “never having to live like her mother, forever going about the streets with a big shopping bag searching for bargains.” She sang in a trio with friends and was good enough to join the Schola Cantorum, New York City’s preeminent chorus. It performed often in Carnegie Hall and at the Metropolitan Opera House, and its guest conductors included Arturo Toscanini and Otto Klemperer.
Ethel was forced to abandon this burgeoning career when Julius’s various attempts at starting a business and finding permanent work proved to be failures. The section head of the CP for the neighborhood was Carl Marzani, who was (we learned decades later) on the Soviet payroll. He ran a front created by the American Communist Party called The Defense Council and hired Ethel—whom he described as a “cheerful, housewife type”—as his secretary.
Her small salary kept the two afloat. It was not until April 1942, when Julius became an inspector engineer and got a higher salary, that they were able to move to a high-rise apartment in Knickerbocker Village, a federal housing project whose apartments had heat and a bathroom.
Sebba writes about Ethel’s strong work ethic, her commitment to activities demanded by party activists, and, after she had children, her constant attempts to keep up with child-rearing theories once it became clear that her first-born Michael was a demanding and difficult child. She was a loving and loyal wife to Julius, and their bond held firm even after they were arrested and indicted in late July 1950.
Sebba writes that Ethel ended her life an “international icon.” She survived three years in prison, two in solitary confinement, and yet showed “unassailable dignity and belief that the cause for which she prepared to give her life was indeed a worthy one.” But many readers will wonder why Ethel preferred to stay loyal to her guilty husband and shout loud and clear that she and Julius were both totally innocent when she had two small children whose lives would be forever cast in the shadow of their parents’ death by electrocution.
The answer comes near the end of Sebba’s book, when she recounts an interview with Ethel’s friend Miriam Moskowitz, who got to know Ethel in prison when she herself was found guilty of obstruction of justice in an associated case. Moskowitz explains to Sebba that Ethel was “doctrinaire” and a “good soldier” in the Communist movement who “always followed the party line uncritically, unquestionably and aggressively.” She not only followed the party line, Moskowitz recalls, but “argued for it and justified it with a lot of voluminous verbosity,” a woman who was “totally uncritical.”
In other words, Ethel was precisely the kind of Communist who, like her husband, would have gladly gone along if they were given the honor by the party of being asked to engage in “special work”—the euphemism employed by the comrades for helping the Soviet Union by becoming a spy.
Sebba downplays what Ethel did, while acknowledging that she was too close to Julius not to have fully known the extent of his espionage work. She understands that in a conspiracy indictment, Ethel was technically guilty just by knowing what was going on and remaining silent, but argues Ethel was not involved. Though legally, then, she was “complicit to a conspiracy,” Sebba asks: “Was that…alone a crime punishable by death?”
Ethel knew of her husband’s work as a spy, as Sebba says. She helped the KGB recruit members in the United States and identified potential people to recruit. She participated in critical meetings in which her husband was present and a conversation was held about how to get her brother, David, to be recruited as a spy at Los Alamos, where he worked as a mechanical engineer on the detonator that would be used on the first atomic bomb. Indeed, Ethel was the one who urged David’s wife, Ruth, to act quickly to recruit him, and she earlier had suggested that Ruth be made part of the network.
We know all this from the Venona decrypts, a voluminous collection of the KGB’s Moscow Center correspondence with its agents in the United States. The Venona documents were released in 1995. And when it comes to the revelations from Venona, Sebba engages in particularly disingenuous rationales to minimize Ethel’s activity by arguing that the Venona papers are hardly conclusive. In fact, they reveal the Moscow Center’s deep interest in Ethel as well as Julius.
For example, one such KGB message reveals that “in view of delicate health [Ethel] does not work.” Sebba claims that “it could have referred to espionage work or…trying to earn a living in a paid job.” Another reads: “LIBERAL [Julius’s code name] and his wife recommend her [David’s wife, Ruth Greenglass] as an intelligent and clever girl.” Sebba thinks that this passage is “open to different interpretations, depending on the reader’s preexisting attitude to the Cold War.”
What on earth could these differing interpretations be? Sebba first turns to the work of two writers and experts on Soviet espionage, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, and notes they believe that the passage means “Ethel was fully aware of her husband’s espionage work” and “assisted in recruiting her brother and sister-in-law.”
Then she moves on to the claims of a Canadian named Bernice Schrank, who argues in a 2002 history journal that the cable may simply have meant “Julius met with the Russians and told them that he…agreed that his sister-in-law was ‘an intelligent and clever girl.’” Otherwise, Schrank says, the cable “does not prove that Ethel recruited Ruth” and is only “vague and suggestive.”
HOW TO CHOOSE between these two interpretations? It’s not difficult, actually. Klehr, professor emeritus at Emory University, and Haynes, who worked for decades at the Library of Congress, are celebrated scholars whose primary fields of study are American Communism and Soviet espionage. They have published many books on the subject (as well as articles in Commentary). Sebba’s preferred voice, Bernice Schrank, is a retired professor of literature who has written a “research and production sourcebook” on the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and edited another book on Irish authors and one on folklore and literature in Ireland and Newfoundland. According to Schrank, the Venona decrypts show that “Julius Rosenberg was “not necessarily [involved] in espionage” but rather in “unauthorized technological transfer” of information to the Soviets. That is ludicrous and comical. Even the Meeropols, the children of Julius and Ethel, acknowledge that their father was an active Soviet spy.
Sebba writes that Ethel remains “irresistible as a tragic figure,” one who “continues to defy labeling as mother, wife, sister, daughter, Communist, or would-be opera singer” and who has “penetrated the American consciousness deeply.” Sebba hails Ethel’s determination “to make something valuable of her life according to her own moral standards” with an “extraordinary single-mindedness.” In doing so, Sebba echoes a compatriot of Ethel, who told her that “she died for the cause, but the cause was that they were not going to give other names.” That meant to Ethel “not ratting on others and supporting her husband.”
The other names were not those of political dissenters but of Communists who had agreed to join Julius’s network and spy for Joseph Stalin. Yet Sebba writes: “It is in this light it is possible to understand Ethel’s final words” to her sons. “Always remember we were innocent,” she said. This stance, Sebba believes, made Ethel “a profoundly moral woman” because she “betrayed no one.”
Sebba’s conclusion reflects a dreadful naiveté about how Communist ideology can distort the very meaning of moral standards. Ethel lived by a moral code according to which one’s evident betrayal of one’s own country is to be discounted, and in which it is a braver choice to orphan your own sons than to betray your husband and the extremist totalitarian movement you both cherished—and that did the world unimaginable harm. Ethel Rosenberg was not a martyr. She was, at best, knowingly complicit in a world-historical evil.
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