By Anne Sebba

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2021

ISBN: 978 1 4746 1961 5

RRP: $32.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


It is not something most people under 50 can understand. The “cold” war between the Soviet Union and the United States of America beginning just a few years after they were allies to bring about the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe in 1945. But it was a globally gripping reality and with it came an era of espionage fiction – and non-fiction. At the heart of it, secret armies of intelligence agents worked in the shadows to counter a secret army of insurgents and enemy agents. With it came fears in the West of an atomic war as the Soviets increasingly developed nuclear weapons helped by collaborators in the West stealing and passing on top secret defence information.

In Anne Sebba’s masterful account of the work and lives of just two of those known as enemy agents, one of the most notorious cases of spy catching is exposed and brought low. In this painful rendering of the huge injustice done to a woman and her two sons, Sebba unravels the story of Ethel Rosenberg, executed as a Soviet spy with her husband Julius in 1953, creating a mesmerising and affecting tale of a woman betrayed by her family and her country of birth.

There is no doubt in Sebba’s mind that Julius Rosenberg was certainly a collaborator who passed on US military secrets to the Soviets. And recruited other agents. However, of Ethel, she writes:

Ethel Rosenberg was not, I believe a spy. Nor was she a saint. She was obstinate, determined, prone to self-doubt and did not make friends easily. She was also a committed Communist, highly intelligent and fiercely loyal to her beloved husband, who undoubtedly was a Communist spy.

There is not much light relief in the story of Ethel Rosenberg who grew up as the impoverished and relatively unloved daughter of Barney Greenglass and his second wife Tessie, an illiterate who barely spoke English. As Barney and Tessie’s only daughter, Ethel was treated as unequal to her brothers, especially to David the younger of their two sons. David was petted and spoiled and would later betray his sister. The Greenglass parents were both immigrant Jews – Barney from Minsk and Tessie from Austria. Whether it was their deprived lives or part of their genes, but they appear to have been rather hard bitten and mean spirited as parents. Sebba creates a Dickensian style picture of Ethel’s lower east side Manhattan growing up.

Graduating from high school in 1931, Ethel had shown musical and acting talent. Such was her determination to take it further she won a scholarship to join a local amateur dramatic group. Later, while earning seven dollars a week most of which went to her mother, Ethel scraped together enough to buy a cheap piano which she placed in her room and practised singing and taught herself to read sheet music until she won a place with the highly regarded Schola Cantorum chorus which performed regularly at Carnegie Hall.

Against the odds, Ethel was fervent about rising above her mean beginnings. She was also, by the age of 20, a committed member of the Shipping Clerks Union and the Socialist Workers Alliance, gaining confidence in her activism. Her involvement with Communist Party subsidiary groups brought her in contact with Julius Rosenberg when they met at an International Seaman’s Union benefit concert where she was performing. Julius was a student in electrical engineering at New York’s City College. Once they became friends, Julius and Ethel were inseparable. Julius was Ethel’s door to a better world. Writes Sebba:

Meeting Julius Rosenberg that night in December 1936 transformed Ethel’s life. He fitted into a new pattern she was establishing: keenly educating herself about workers’ rights and world politics but still finding time for her first love, theatrical activities. Julius would draw her further away from her family, where none of the men went to college nor looked far beyond their own economic survival.

Ethel Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg were married on 18 June 1939 in a small low key Lower East Side Orthodox synagogue. Fourteen years later – almost to the day – they would die in the electric chair convicted of recruiting enemy agents for the Soviet Union and passing on to Moscow secrets of the US Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Sebba is upfront regarding the fact that Julius Rosenberg was leading a double life from the early years of his marriage. Having landed a job with the US Army’s Signals Corps in New Jersey in 1940, Julius managed to hide his links with the Communist Party until 1945, after which he was sacked. His next job, however, also involved links with the military – at the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation which was engaged with projects for the army and navy. By the mid-1940s, Julius was also well into work for Moscow. Among those he recruited was his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, who worked for a time, while enlisted, at Los Alamos. Sebba writes:

By late 1944, Julius was working so hard recruiting his friends for the cause that even the Russians, who had code-named him “Liberal” were worried that the burden of dealing with so many agents would be too much for him. In December 1944 he had “on hand eight people plus the filming of materials. The state of Liberal’s health is nothing splendid. We are afraid of putting Liberal out of action with overwork”.

But this is the story of Ethel Rosenberg. Anne Sebba largely separates the portrait she develops of Ethel from any personal understanding of Julius. For a woman whose name has been so fundamentally linked to her husband’s, it is Sebba’s achievement to write into history the personality and identity of Ethel Rosenberg both aside from and with her husband. A woman with such an unfortunate background who saw the ideals of self-improvement in communist propaganda as a way forward for her in her personal life.

Ethel Rosenberg struggled to be a worthy mother – to bring up her lively and quick learning first born son Michael in ways she had been deprived of. This was difficult, given her penurious circumstances and lack of family support She took advice and spent time learning how to mother him. In the post War US milieu of asking women to be perfect home makers, she also had relinquished her working life and that left her to concentrate on her son. Later there would be another son, Robert who had just turned six at the time of his parents’ executions.

Sebba’s portrait of Ethel as the overly anxious and committed mother and wife is revealing. Ethel struggled in her effort to be the perfect carer and first learning point for her sons. She took a special course in teaching music and learned the guitar to be part of helping educate her sons in a progressive ethos. Such was Ethel’s intensity in rearing her son Michael, she eventually was persuaded to seek the help of the Jewish run Child Guidance Clinic. While Michael was the “client”, Ethel also attended sessions for guidance herself.

Meanwhile Julius, who had not lasted long in his new job at the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Corporation, had opened a small engineering business helped by money invested by Ethel’s father Barney and brother David who had left the army and could not find work. The business did not go well and by 1949 David, who had by then found a paying job, was quarrelling with Julius over the return of his seed money for the business. The tragedy that was to follow for Ethel and Julius had as much to do with Julius’ work for Moscow as the breakdown in family ties with the Greenglasses, in particular David and his wife Ruth.

In February 1950, the arrest in England of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born anti-Nazi Communist scientist who had worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project developing the US atomic bomb, began the unravelling of the spy network behind the Soviet’s accelerated knowledge of atomic secrets. The trail led to Harry Gold in Philadelphia, codenamed “Raymond” who had contact with David Greenglass at Los Alamos. From there, the FBI soon linked up Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Where Fuchs talked, once arrested, and was given a punishment of 14 years, it would be the failure of Julius Rosenberg to confess that in time would see him executed, along with his wife.

The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in August 1949. In June 1950, Communist North Korea, supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea which was supported by the US. The world became alarmed at the prospect of a third World War, this time with nuclear weapons. The politics of the moment gave no room for tolerance of US citizens who had betrayed their country.

Julius Rosenberg was arrested on 17 July 1950; Ethel Rosenberg was arrested after her Grand Jury appearance on 11 August. The evidence against Ethel was feeble, even with attempts by Ruth Greenglass to pass the blame onto the Rosenbergs in order to spare her husband David. In the months that followed, both the Greenglasses would give statements that implicated the Rosenbergs, with Ruth escaping any punishment for being associated with the group.

Sebba takes apart the ensuing tragedy bit by bit in a page turner. The advantage of having access to documents released decades later adds to the drama showing that, however much Julius Rosenberg was involved in helping the Soviets, his information and contribution did little to advance their knowledge of the development of an atom bomb. Such documents certainly condemn him as an enemy agent but there are none that implicate Ethel in any serious way. Sebba’s closely drafted outline of Ethel gives an insight into how she was, almost to the point of fanaticism, the devoted wife of a man who was or might be a Soviet spy. The pain of leaving her children could not overcome her conviction that she must stay solidly with her Julius.

As the charges against the Rosenbergs advanced, documents now show that the pressure put on these two came from the FBI’s belief that it might crack one of them by threats – that Ethel’s charges and the possibility of decades in prison would persuade Julius to hand over information, give up some of the many names in his contact book. But the more intense the pressure, the more the Rosenbergs upped the ante and professed innocence, with the danger of execution mounting if found guilty.

The portrait of Ethel is heart wrenching. She was devoted to Julius and there is little evidence she knew much of what he was involved in. But she would never betray him. She refused to answer questions; she pleaded the Fifth Amendment; she was tripped up only once but tellingly in court. She listened while her much loved brother and wife made claims she must have been involved as she had typed a document for Julius giving information from David about the Manhattan Project. Claims which they contradicted in the telling and which David later admitted he was not sure ever happened.

Julius, as Sebba concludes, however, “came across as slippery, unable to remember dates precisely or explain convincingly why, for instance, he had suddenly splashed out on a new watch for Ethel”. His strong stand as having been wrongly charged was largely because he, naively, believed there was no evidence strong enough to convict him.

In Sebba’s account of the trial, the odds were clearly against these two small fry in the big world of power. Their legal team was outranked and outflanked; Judge Kaufman played to the political mood of the day. In the popular media, it was at times as if, single handedly, these two Communist activists were responsible for the Korean War and mankind’s coming destruction. And, with the full force of the charges bearing down on them, alongside their refusal to strike any sort of deal with authorities and continue to insist on an all or nothing outcome, their fate was sealed.

On 29 March 1951, Ethel and Julius were both found guilty of espionage. Under the Espionage Act of 1917 in the US, any person convicted of passing information relating to national defence to a foreign power may be imprisoned for life or put to death. In passing a sentence of death on the Rosenbergs, one can only feel that national feeling at the time and the intensity of public animosity had worked on Judge Kaufman. This was a political trial as much as a criminal one.

Kaufman denied he had consulted before imposing the death sentence, but he lied. He had consulted the prosecution team and government. FBI director J Edgar Hoover opposed the death sentence for Ethel arguing it would bring reputational damage to the US and that she must be presumed to be acting under the influence of her husband. The chief prosecutor was determined that it was the other way round, likewise Kaufman. To them, Ethel was something of a Lady Macbeth. The misogyny, nearly seven decades later, is breath taking. Sebba leaves us with an ache that J Edgar Hoover had more humanity than Judge Kaufman who declared that the Rosenberg’s crime was worse than murder as he handed down his sentence.

J Edgar Hoover was right in his assessment that the death sentence for Ethel was a mistake. The case caused a global reaction; the Rosenbergs became a divisive force with the crudity of Ethel’s execution a timeless stain on the US justice system. The Rosenberg boys, Michael and Robert, were eventually adopted by a creative couple, Anne and Abel Meerpol, whose surname the boys took as their own. Both went on to successful academic careers but were left searching for the truth of parents they barely knew.

That search became complicated with the mythical images of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg growing over time. Most obscured the reality. Sebba’s study of Ethel Rosenberg cuts through the myths. Ethel, from an ordinary and impoverished start in life, was a complex personality. In the land of the free, she emerged from the constraints of poverty and family to grow, through education and marriage. But she also freely chose the false promises of one of the most oppressive and brutal regimes of the twentieth century.

Sebba’s absorbing portrait of Ethel Rosenberg unpicks the complexities of both her life and times in intimate moments – the individual, the myth, the wife and mother. It is Sebba’s achievement to make that complexity accessible. Ethel’s public image became an inspiration for writers and artists. Her execution offers a small motif in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, for example, after it imprinted itself on Plath’s emerging feminist consciousness.

It is also evident from this study, that the overriding reason Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair was for love and the need for love. In their separate paddy wagon compartments, as they returned to their separate jails after their sentencing, Ethel had responded to Julius singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by singing Puccini’s famous aria where Madame Butterfly yearns for the return of her beloved husband. As Sebba records:

“Julie, you’re a low-down son of a bitch,” a prison guard reportedly told Julius, as Ethel sang on. “But you’re the luckiest man in the world because no one ever had a woman who loved him that much.”


Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.