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Ethel Rosenberg: Tragedy or Traitor?

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg leave a U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury in 1951. (Roger Higgins/World Telegram/Library of Congress)
A new book argues for the former. But evidence still points to the latter.

Anne Sebba’s new book, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy, is an impassioned ode to one of America’s most well known convicted criminals intertwining a romanticizing account of Ethel Rosenberg’s life with a reexamination of her conviction in the infamous 1951 Rosenberg spy trial. While the book is well researched and written with care, the overwhelming sympathy Sebba has for her subject, as detected in the biographical segments, seems to have impeded the objectivity of her evaluation of Ethel’s conviction. While Sebba’s book is entertaining, it would have been far superior had she not set herself the hardly attainable goal of exonerating Ethel Rosenberg and instead attempted merely to paint a humanizing but, at least ostensibly, objective portrait of her subject.

Having ably written seven biographies on remarkable women such as the Duchess of Windsor and Mother Teresa, Anne Sebba is an accomplished historian known for her examination of the lives of prominent, influential women and the female experience throughout history. Sebba’s selection of Ethel Rosenberg as the subject of her book is peculiar. Ethel Rosenberg, of course, is also a remarkable woman in a certain sense. Her name seems, however, incongruous amidst those of the great women who have had their stories told by Sebba.

It is not particularly timely in that it neither coincides with any important anniversaries related to the Rosenberg case nor was written in response to any new information or evidence resurfaced.

Despite Sebba’s curious choice of subject, she has successfully sketched a humanizing and moving, if somewhat excessively glowing, portrait of Ethel Rosenberg as an individual. Ethel Rosenberg’s academic success in high school and her talent and aspirations in professional singing are examined and lauded at length; so is her dedication to being a good mother to her children and a good wife to Julius Rosenberg.

The humanization of controversial historical figures is altogether agreeable and often appropriate. However, what this book accomplishes advances beyond merely humanization and approaches what may be more appropriately dubbed romanticization. According to Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg is a great woman of integrity and righteousness who is “determined to make something valuable of her life according to her own moral standards.”

Bizarrely, Sebba seems to be almost unable to admit that Ethel Rosenberg ever did anything wrong. Throughout the book, she crafts endless excuses for any questionable actions of Ethel Rosenberg’s. According to Sebba, Ethel’s continued support for the Soviet Union after the Hitler–Stalin Pact is explained by her genuine and admirable ideological integrity, and her maintaining of Julius’s innocence was induced by her hopeless devotion to her loving husband.

One may also see Sebba’s elaborate use of Ethel Rosenberg’s suffering and misfortune to paint a portrait of innocence, honor, and almost saintliness as an attempt to martyrize her legacy. Because she is a woman born in a society stifling to women, born to a mother unkind to her daughter, born prior to a brother eager to betray his own kin, she is somehow excused of all wrongs and made the protagonist of an “American tragedy” as though she herself had no part in inducing her own tragedy. In effect, Anne Sebba blames Ethel Rosenberg’s tragedy on her mother, her brother, her lawyer, her husband, the judge, the society, and essentially everything except for her.

It is difficult to not feel the slightest sliver of sympathy for Ethel Rosenberg’s troubled life regardless of her guilt or innocence. But sympathy for the plight of a woman wronged by her mother, husband, and brother and succumbing to the fruits of her own wrongdoings should not be confused with empathy with her actions, or the belief in her innocence — both, one may assume, are what Sebba aims at inspiring in readers of this book.

The thesis of the book, as enunciated in its final pages, is how Ethel Rosenberg betrayed no one, as opposed to her husband, who, as Sebba concedes, did betray his country.

The only problem is that she is wrong. Even according to Sebba’s account, Ethel Rosenberg clearly betrayed the trust of those who believed in both the Rosenbergs’ innocence when she proclaimed her husband’s innocence with full knowledge of his participation in delivering atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. She betrayed her duty as a citizen of the United States when she became complicit in her husband’s crimes through actively concealing them and perjuring herself in court. Most important, to many who are firm in their belief in Ethel’s guilt, she also betrayed her country.

After all, the Venona Records, a series of decoded Soviet-intelligence messages declassified by the U.S. in 1995, mention both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s involvement in recommending Ruth Greenglass, Ethel’s sister-in-law, to their subversive superiors. While Sebba casually casts this important piece of evidence aside as “open to different interpretations,” to many historians and most reasonable readers, this is indisputable proof of Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement in espionage activity.

Sebba also tends to exclude facts that may undermine her narrative. For instance, Sebba includes in this book Rosenberg defense attorney Alexander Bloch’s contention that the Rosenbergs had not received a fair trial but neglects to mention that Emmanuel Bloch, Alexander’s son and colleague in the Rosenberg case, in his summation not only thanked Judge Kauffman and the prosecutors for treating the defense with “utmost courtesy” but also expressed his belief that “the trial [had] been conducted . . . with that dignity and that decorum that befits an American trial.” Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation in his memoirs of how both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had “provided very significant help in accelerating the production of [the Soviet Union’s] atomic bomb” is also nowhere to be found in Sebba’s book.

Sebba demands a nuanced and sympathetic view of Ethel Rosenberg while not offering the same to other controversial historical figures she dislikes with an apparent passion. She is hardly reticent in coarsely characterizing figures unfriendly to the Rosenbergs as “pure evil” (Roy Cohn) and “unscrupulous” (Richard Nixon). Sebba also aggressively questions every piece of evidence suggesting Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt without applying the same level of scrutiny to testimony favorable to the Rosenbergs. For instance, Sebba first characterizes David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, as unreliable when presenting his testimony that Ethel Rosenberg had typed up notes containing confidential information in cooperation with her husband’s espionage activity. However, toward the end of the book, when Sebba relates how Greenglass later recanted his testimony, she hardly calls into question his reliability and treats his recantation as credible evidence proving Ethel Rosenberg’s innocence.

Ultimately, while the book is an interesting reexamination of Ethel Rosenberg’s conviction and legacy, it makes an unconvincing case for Ethel Rosenberg’s innocence, not only because the evidence proffered falls short of exonerating her but also because of the author’s overt biases and research antics. While one may assume this is an honest attempt of Anne Sebba’s to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg, the way that facts and testimony are selectively presented in the book attracts suspicion about the reliability of a conclusion drawn by an investigator so heavily biased in sentiment and so predisposed to proving her subject’s innocence.

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