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by Harold Ticktin
Discussed in this essay: Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World, by Lori Clune, Oxford University Press, 2016, 261 pages.
IT IS NOT OFTEN that an academic book reads like a novel, yet that is precisely the case for Executing the Rosenbergs. Lori Clune, professor of history at California State University, does an extraordinary job detailing not so much the trial as the worldwide response to it, persisting as late as 2009. Digging deeply, particularly into the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, Clune uncovers a vast world of protest that has been largely overlooked.
She pointedly notes, setting the stage: “The Rosenbergs remain the only married couple executed for a federal crime in the United States, and the only civilians put to death for conspiracy to commit espionage. No American civilian has ever been killed for espionage or treason, let alone conspiracy to commit these crimes. Even during World War II, soldiers who deserted and fought with the Nazis, and individuals convicted of treason . . . only received sentences of life in prison, or less. . . . Ethel Rosenberg remains only the second female killed for a capital offense in the United States, following Mary Surratt, a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.”
Clune emphasizes the marked deterioration of U.S. status caused by the trial and the Rosenbergs’ execution — that is, by the U.S. government’s obsession with the Soviet threat to the exclusion of every other humane concern. About the only sign of reluctance to impose the death sentence came when President Eisenhower, still new to the White House, felt obliged to postpone his golf game for five days after the June 19, 1953 execution. This despite protests and demands for clemency ranging from India to Canada, across Europe and South America. In Toronto, a radio station broadcasted a program that “impugned the evidence used in the trial ... portrayed FBI agents as bullies and emphasized the role that anti-Communist and anti-Semitism played in the case.”
Such protest was not a matter of a few placards by Communist sympathizers. In fact the USSR and most of its satellite countries actually ignored the Rosenberg trial in their newspapers; according to a State Department memo of January 16, 1953, “the Soviet press and radio is [sic] being consistent with past practice; it has always ignored such cases of espionage and spying brought before the courts of other countries.” Clune concludes: “Officials assumed that protestors were Communists . . . but outspoken and powerful critics -- including Pope Pius XII, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Pablo Picasso, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and French President Vincent Auriol . . . fanned the flames of protest in forty-eight countries.” Albert Einstein, Jean Cocteau, Fritz Lang, and numerous other artists, scientists, writers, and labor leaders pressed hard on the issue, to no avail.
As often happens when a government stubs its toe, there was dark comedy involved: “One CIA agent,” Clune writes, “. . . proposed a novel way the Rosenbergs could be used to benefit the U.S. . . . the FBI [could] offer to reduce the sentence . . . if the couple agreed to ‘appeal to Jews in all countries to get out of the Communist movement and seek to destroy it . . . Communist parties worldwide had built up the Rosenbergs as heroes and martyrs to American anti-Semitism.” Yet the mainstream American Jewish organizations washed their hands of any involvement in the case and did not support the calls for clemency.
Clune explores an interesting psychological element interwoven with the execution, revealed as recently as 2009, when she cites a communication from the Psychological Strategy Board, “created specifically to manage Cold War propaganda,” urging “that the President reconsider the case ‘on the basis of the psychological impact abroad . . . [Eisenhower’s idea that] clemency will be taken as a show of weakness is very far-fetched at the present time.’ ”
CLUNE UNDERLINES the tragedy of Ethel Rosenberg. Her husband Julius, Clune writes, was one of “more than five hundred Americans -- most from the Communist Party of the United States ... along with a smattering of fellow travelers . . . [who] spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s,” and Ethel was “aware of her husband’s activities and shared his ideals. Far less clear is the extent of her support. . . . Evidence clearly shows that officials applied the death penalty to Julius and Ethel to pressure one or both of them to talk. . . If the primary goal was to get them to talk, then following through on the death penalty was a blunder. Insufficient evidence against Ethel provoked particular criticism, causing many to label it a moral error . . .”
No one knew before the date of the double execution that the testimony at trial of Ethel’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, differed sharply from what she had told to the grand jury. At trial she stated that Ethel typed the notes from the material Ruth’s husband David Greenglass gave to Julius Rosenberg about the Los Alamos Project, clearly implicating her as a co-conspirator. But no such accusation exists in the grand jury transcripts. David, years later, admitted he was “protecting” his wife through this switch in her story. David’s corroboration about his wife’s testimony came decades after Ethel was dead.
Lori Clune has especially succeeded at embedding the Rosenberg trial within the larger, worldwide drama of the Cold War.
Harold Ticktin is a retired attorney in Shaker Heights, OH, long involved in the civil rights and labor movements, a self-taught Yiddishist, and a regular contributor to Jewish Currents.