By Lori Clune

Oxford University Press. 261 pages. £19.99/$29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-026588-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

History has shown that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were controlling a spy ring in the 1940s, though the extent of her involvement is still a matter for dispute. History has also indicated that among the information they handled, and passed to the Soviet Union, were documents relating to the development of the atom bomb. But, again, the extent to which any such documents were of practical use in helping the Russians produce a bomb is still questioned. Some scientists at the time of the trial of the Rosenbergs were dismissive of them, saying that they represented low-grade information of little or no relevance, whereas the prosecution, naturally enough, insisted that it was essential to the work the Russians were doing.

It needs to be said that, despite all the security precautions taken at Los Alamos, where the Americans and their allies built and tested an atom bomb, a great deal of information was passed to communist agents by scientists sympathetic to the Soviet Union. What secrets Klaus Fuchs, Ted Hall, and a few others, gave away far surpassed in significance anything that the Rosenbergs and their associates ever dealt with. Fuchs was a British citizen and as such was arrested and tried in this country. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Hall, an American, was never prosecuted, probably because, had the United States put him in court, it would have alerted the Russians to the fact that their secret codes had been cracked.

There’s no doubt that there was an extensive Russian spying network in the USA in the 1940s. Lori Clune quotes a figure of around five hundred Americans who spied for the USSR. Most were members of the American Communist Party. When the Rosenbergs were arrested in 1950 the atmosphere had changed from that of the war years, when Russia was looked on with a degree of sympathy, to one of deep mistrust. Events in the post war period – the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Air Lift, etc. – had culminated in the outbreak of the Korean War.

Senator McCarthy was beginning to make his mark with allegations of wholesale communist infiltration of the civil service, armed forces, and so on, Alger Hiss had been jailed for perjury when he denied knowing Whittaker Chambers, an ex-communist who claimed to have worked in the “underground” in America, and other defectors from the communist cause (Elizabeth Bentley was a notable example) had surfaced to tell their tales of nefarious activities. To cap it all, the Russians had succeeded in making an atom bomb. American was in a state of panic.

It isn’t Clune’s aim to look into the way the trial of the Rosenbergs was conducted, though she can’t help touching on the subject. Suffice to say that the couple claimed to be innocent, a stance they maintained until the very end. The prosecution rolled out various witnesses who were said to have been members of the Rosenberg group. Among them was Morton Sobell, who eventually served a lengthy prison term, though it was only many years later that he finally admitted to spying.

And there was David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, and a machinist at Los Alamos who provided what was claimed to be key evidence in the case against the Rosenbergs. Greenglass testified that he had known Ethel Rosenberg to be an active member of the spy ring. It was probably his evidence that put her in the position of facing the death penalty, along with her husband. Greenglass acknowledged, albeit years later, that he had lied in order to draw attention away from his wife, Ruth, so that she would not be charged with espionage.

The Rosenbergs were, of course, found guilty of conspiring to commit espionage, and sentenced to death. But it was only the start of a long process of appeals and delays which meant that it was 1953 before the sentence was actually carried out and they were executed. Clune’s account essentially starts at the point where the court had made its judgement, and a large protest movement began to take shape. As stated earlier, the Rosenbergs were insistent in their claim that they were innocent, and many people chose to believe them. The Communist Party was active in promoting an impression that they had been framed, and that it was their membership of the Party, together with their Jewishness, that had worked against them being given a fair hearing.

It isn’t correct to say that the Communist Party totally controlled the protest movement that began to develop on a world-wide basis. But it is true that, throughout Europe, where communists had a great deal of influence in countries like Italy and France, they did play a prominent part in organising petitions, parades, protest meetings, and other activities which were all designed to focus on making the United States seem irresponsible, even inhuman, in wanting to execute two supposedly innocent people.

There could have been a degree of cynicism in what the communists were doing. In Czechoslovakia and Hungary show trials were taking place, in which various officials, most of them Jewish, were being tried on outrageous and falsified charges of plotting against the state. Many of them were sentenced to death. It obviously was useful to have a sensational trial, and its aftermath, taking place in America, and so drawing attention away from what was happening in Prague and Budapest.

Because of the length of time that the judicial process dragged on, there was a change of presidency in America as Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Harry S. Truman. The onus of deciding whether or not the Rosenbergs should be executed, or granted some sort of clemency, therefore fell on Eisenhower, who won the election in late-1952 and took office early in 1953. By that time, the campaign to save the Rosenbergs was attracting notice from many prominent people.

What was worrying, especially to American officials in Europe, was that the situation was beginning to reflect badly on the United States at a time when it  needed to be seen as having a moral, as well as military, superiority to Soviet Russia. But with Senator McCarthy still on the prowl as he hunted for communists in all walks of American life, and people being blacklisted, passports being denied to others, and evidence of a climate of fear sweeping the country, it was easy for those with an anti-American agenda to build up a case for seeing the Rosenbergs as mere innocent victims of the hysteria, rather than spies who had been caught and deserved to be punished.

Many people, of course, were not swayed by the propaganda put out by pro-communist and anti-American groups, and just took the view that common humanity dictated that the death sentence was unjustified. It was too extreme, and a prison sentence would have been more appropriate in the circumstances. Some FBI and other officials in America thought that prison was the better option, though their reasoning was that, given time behind bars, the Rosenbergs might be prepared to co-operate with the authorities and provide information about members of their spy network.

The situation of Ethel Rosenberg particularly drew attention from sympathisers. No-one was really sure how far she had been involved in her husband’s activities, though she clearly knew about them. In addition, the Rosenbergs had two young sons, and the idea of executing a young mother struck some people as abhorrent. There hadn’t been an execution of a woman on charges of treason or espionage since Mary Surratt, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, had been hanged in 1865. 

The appeals for clemency came from many quarters. The Pope joined in, as did well-known writers and artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertold Brecht, and Picasso. Leaving aside the Pope, it’s probable that those who thought the death penalty was justified, could easily dismiss the appeals from Sartre, Brecht, and Picasso, all of them with reputations as left-wingers. Brecht, for example, had testified before HUAC in 1947 before fleeing to East Germany. But there were many more appeals for a reconsideration of the sentence from people who couldn’t be easily brushed off as tools of the communists or misguided intellectuals.     

Advisers to President Eisenhower were worried that carrying out the executions could be a mistake in terms of how it would reflect on America’s image in the world. But he refused to change his mind, arguing that if he granted a reprieve to Ethel Rosenberg it might encourage the Russians to use more women for spying. They could, he said, take it as proof that women would, if caught, be treated more leniently than men.

Petitions and protests had continued to roll in from around the world, and ambassadors and others in capitals like Paris and London had continued to file reports saying that America’s standing was being damaged by the obduracy of the government in failing to lift the death sentences. But the feeling in Washington was that, bearing in mind the situation with the Korean War, where American casualties were mounting, and the attitude among many ordinary Americans who thought the sentences appropriate, America should stand firm and present a strong front against communism.

The Rosenbergs were finally taken to the electric chair on June 19th, 1953. Julius died first, and Ethel was informed of his death and strapped into the chair. Even then, there was a last-minute attempt to find a way out of executing her when she was told that if she was prepared to give some names the execution would be called off. She refused and died.

The Rosenberg case has continued to arouse interest over the years. Various novels have been written around it, with E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel probably being the best. A film was also made of Doctorow’s book, though unlike the novel it aroused little interest. And there have been several deep studies, including Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton’s The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth, and Walter and Miriam Schneir’s Invitation to an Inquest, the former taking the view that all the evidence pointed to the Rosenbergs being guilty, and the latter emphasising irregularities in the case against them and the consequent unreliability of their convictions.

The post-prison statements by Morton Sobell and David Greenglass did clearly implicate the Rosenbergs in espionage. And the release of transcripts of the Venona tapes (the secret recordings made by American operatives of Russian messages) further added weight to what is an inescapable conclusion that they were involved in passing secrets to the Russians. There will, inevitably, always be arguments about whether or not that information was of real importance to the Soviets.

Lori Clune has produced a massively-documented book (almost a hundred pages of notes and bibliography) which charts the political ramifications of the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. Most other books that I’ve read on the subject focused primarily on the spying and the details of the subsequent court case. Clune’s approach, in terms of showing how American diplomats and people in foreign countries responded to events, adds a new dimension to the story. The effect on how America was viewed from abroad is intriguing. It’s certainly true that some of the agitation for clemency came about due to communists in Europe and elsewhere using it as a way of attacking the United States, and as pointed out earlier, taking attention away from the failings of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, a lot of sincere individuals perhaps felt disappointed because America did not seem to be living up to its proclaimed high ideals of truth and justice.