Ethel Rosenberg: Cold War spy or tragic scapegoat?

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Their story is well known, not least for the opening lines of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, which begins with the famous line: “It was a queer sultry summer the summer they executed the Rosenbergs.” Less well known is that Ethel – who was convicted as an accessory to her husband – was a devoted mother who, together with her husband, left behind two devastated ­little boys, aged six and 10, when she went to the electric chair. But in her startling new biography of Ethel, subtitled A Cold War Tragedy, best-selling British author Anne Sebba proposes a radical new rereading of Ethel’s involvement in her husband’s activities.

She claims Ethel’s ­execution by the US was nothing less than a miscarriage of justice and her death was a tragedy.

“I don’t think in any way that Ethel deserved the death penalty,” asserts Sebba.

“She was guilty of being a wife, of knowing what her husband was doing – and I ­certainly don’t condone what Julius did.

“But a husband and wife are two separate individuals and I wanted to ask why was it so necessary to kill her?”

Worse, Sebba has revealed that Ethel was sent to her death by false testimony… from her brother.

The Rosenbergs were the only Americans put to death in peacetime for espionage, despite the fact they were young parents, and Ethel remains the only American woman executed for a crime other than murder.

Yet no other convicted member of the spy ring received a death sentence.

Instead, those named as their co- ­conspirators were sentenced to prison, including Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who actually stole nuclear secrets while working on the Manhattan Project and passed them to his brother-in-law.

Julius then refused to betray his contacts. Ethel took the fifth amendment and refused to say anything, as was her right.

The FBI opposed the death sentence, hoping the Rosenbergs would name names to receive a lesser punishment. ut even after Ethel’s husband was dead and she was being led to her own execution, she would not save herself.

“Ethel was desperate to be a good mother,” says Sebba. “People say ‘Why didn’t she just confess at the end?’ but I don’t think it was that simple.

“What could she confess to? She wasn’t going to name her friends. She wanted to behave morally.

“Much as she longed to survive for her sons, she believed that the most important legacy was showing them how to behave in a principled way.

“She was an idealist; loyal to her husband, loyal to her friends, and who wanted to leave her sons the example of not betraying.

“As for Julius, he was optimistic. He thought there was no evidence against him and that their best chance of survival was to stick together and claim that they were innocent. I know two people who say they owe their lives to him not speaking out.

“He thought they would be exonerated, but he was wrong. Julius as a father was not wholly responsible.”

By refusing to confess his own guilt he unintentionally betrayed Ethel, who was painted in court as a subversive figure – a “difficult woman” who had entirely twisted the image of what it meant in the 1950s to be a good mother and wife.

“By being married to a man sharing secrets with the Soviets she was deemed so awful that she surely deserved to die,” says Sebba, who asserts that Ethel became a victim of the wider American propaganda war against the Soviet Union.

Allegations made in court that Ethel was seen typing up intelligence information were key to this perspective.

“The case appealed to most American men, who were used to seeing women in a subservient typing role and here she was, allegedly passing on secrets through her typewriter,” explains Sebba.

Ethel’s dowdy clothes were judged, as was her “failure” to show emotion. “The jury made their guilty verdict on these sort of arguments.

Furthermore, the judge kept mentioning the word ‘treason’. The Rosenbergs were not accused of treason but he put the idea into the minds of the jury.”

For decades, the couple’s children, Michael and Robert Meeropol (their name came from the family who adopted them following their parents’ execution), were among those who maintained that Ethel and Julius were both innocent.

However, the publication of the hitherto unknown Venona decrypts – Soviet codes broken by the Americans – in 1995 confirmed that Julius had indeed run a spy ring for almost a decade.

But while there was a huge amount of evidence to implicate him, the evidence against Ethel was weak.

Julius was mentioned numerous times in the decrypted Venona cables, which also proved the involvement in Cold War ­espionage of Britain’s Cambridge Five – Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross.

But Ethel was only mentioned once by name.

“In one cable Ethel was mentioned by her own name. Tellingly she did not have a code name, so we know that she wasn’t in direct contact with the KGB.

No one has accused her of that,” says Sebba. “In the text she was described as ‘knowing about her ­husband’s work’.

“In the other decrypt, her name is not even used. Instead one reads the words ‘Julius and his wife recommend Ruth’.

Some people say this is proof Ethel was actively involved. I think it’s completely arguable.”

Just as ­worrying is recent evidence that suggests the case against Ethel was based on lies.

“There is almost no doubt that the trial was completely corrupt,” insists Sebba.

“How on earth can you justify electrocuting someone and orphaning two children when you know the evidence against her is perjury?”

The case against Ethel was based on ­evidence that she had typed up information, given by her brother David.

By testifying against Ethel he reduced his own sentence and saved his wife Ruth, who was also involved, from going to jail at all.

On the basis of his testimony his sister was sent to an early grave and his nephews became orphans.

However, after David’s death in 2014, at the age of 92, ­documents proving he had committed ­perjury were released.

Sebba says: “In these, David makes it clear ‘my sister had nothing to do with it’ and was not a part of it.

But at trial, in order to save his life and that of his wife, David concocted a lie that he had seen his sister typing up information for the Soviets.”

The espionage cell in which Julius and David were involved unravelled in the 1950s; and it was David and Ruth who first named Julius.

“They named only Julius at first,” points out Sebba. “It was assumed that if Julius was arrested he would name names. But he didn’t, he kept quiet.”

Three weeks later Ethel was arrested. “At this point, David then perjures himself to get a lighter sentence while his wife Ruth receives no sentence at all.

“The authorities knew the evidence against Ethel was extremely weak, so she was arrested as a ‘lever’.

The assumption was that surely she would talk; after all she had children of three and six at the time. But Ethel called their bluff.

“In my opinion, she had no way out,” Sebba adds. “It is quite clear Ethel was sent to her death on the basis of perjury.

Furthermore, the actual charge against her was ‘conspiracy to commit espionage’.

It’s almost impossible to disprove conspiracy. Given that there is no evidence, I think that her death was a tragedy.”

However, Sebba makes it clear in her book that Ethel was no saint.

“I’m not pretending she didn’t know or approve of Julius’s activities,” she explains. “But it’s not a crime to have a belief or a thought. The only crime is overt action.”

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy by Anne Sebba (W&N, £20) is out now. Call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P for orders over £20

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