The Rosenberg Letters
Their execution for espionage transformed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg into
high symbols of Cold War conflict. Now, a new edition of their letters restores
More than 40 years after their execution, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain
mythic figures -- heroic martyrs to many on the Left; vicious ideologues who
betrayed their country, their children, and their own humanity to many on
Until now the Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg1
has been the primary source for all versions of the Rosenberg mythology. Written
from prison during the three years preceding their death, and first published
in the month of their electrocution, these strange and fascinating texts occupy
a unique place in the history of the Rosenberg case and in the larger history
of American constructions of the Cold War.2
They were excoriated at the time of their publication in now-notorious essays
by Robert Warshow in the Partisan Review3
and by Leslie Fiedler in the inaugural issue of Encounter4.
Our understanding of this debate and of the Rosenbergs themselves has now
been transformed by the publication of The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete
Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, edited
by Michael Meeropol, the older of the two Rosenberg sons.5
Containing an astonishing 568 letters, this new edition demonstrates that
the anonymous editors of the Death House Letters did a terrible disservice
to their clients. Seeking to establish the Rosenbergs as popular heroes whose
letters would be recognized as "world classics of democratic eloquence and
inspiration" -- as the cover blurb of the second edition asserts -- the edited
versions obliterate nuance, distort sensible sentiments by eliminating their
context, and reduce the Rosenbergs to relentless ideologues for whom all topics
serve a political agenda.
The Rosenbergs were deeply committed Popular Front communists, and
their political principles were an essential part of their character. Moreover,
they knew at an early point in their imprisonment that their letters might
be published, and they understood also that every line they wrote to each
other, their children, and their lawyer Emanuel Bloch would be closely read
by prison authorities and the government.
The contradictions inherent in this situation -- the letters are simultaneously
personal communications, documents open to their jailers, and a public case
for their innocence -- are apparent even in the complete edition of their
correspondence. But the Death House Letters intensify these contradictions
-- through editorial carelessness, ruthless excision, principles of selection
that are relentlessly political -- making the Rosenbergs appear crudely manipulative
and insincere, easy targets for the anti-communist polemics of Warshow and
Warshow's attack consists primarily of a series of quotations from the Death
House Letters, fragmentary selections of material already simplified,
shortened, and fragmented. These quotations lead Warshow to speak of "the
awkwardness and falsity of the Rosenbergs' relations to culture, to sports,
and to themselves."6 Warshow's most damaging
argument -- the point, really, on which his whole case for the mendacity of
the Rosenbergs and their politics rests -- centers on a letter from Julius
to Ethel, written on July 4, 1951. His discussion of this passage confirms
Andrew Ross's notion that Warshow, like many other Cold War liberals, seized
on the Rosenberg case as an occasion to demonstrate his own righteous anticommunism.
[O]ne is forced to wonder whether the literal truth had not in some
way ceased to exist for these people. It is now seventeen years since the
Communists told the truth about themselves -- the "popular front" was inaugurated
during Julius Rosenberg's student days at City College -- and enough time
has passed for the symbolic language of Communism to have taken on an independent
existence. On July 4, 1951, Julius clipped a copy of the Declaration of Independence
from the New York Times and taped it to the wall of his cell. "It is
interesting," he writes to Ethel, "to read these words concerning free speech,
freedom of the press and of religion in this setting. These rights our country's
patriots died for can't be taken from the people even by Congress or the courts."
Does it matter that the Declaration of Independence says nothing about free
speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, and that Julius therefore
could not have found it "interesting" to read "these words" in that particular
document? It does not matter. Julius knew that America is supposed to have
freedom of expression and that the Declaration of Independence "stands for"
America. Since, therefore, he already "knew" the Declaration, there was no
need for him to actually read it in order to find it "interesting," and it
could not have occurred to him that he was being untruthful in implying that
he had just been reading it when he had not. He could "see himself" reading
it, so to speak, and this dramatic image became reality: he did not know
that he had not read it.7
The arrogant ease with which Warshow dismisses the values of the Popular
Front and speculates about Julius's powers of self-deception is characteristic
of the anticommunist rhetoric of the 1950s. The duplicity and hypocrisy of
communists are so complete, the argument ran, that they are not in the usual
sense human. "The implicit moral" of both Fiedler and Warshow's essays, as
Morris Dickstein has written, is that the Rosenbergs "were so empty, so crude,
so bereft of style that there was nothing for the electric chair to kill."8
But Warshow does make an apparently devastating point. Who but a blindly
careless propagandist, indifferent to truth and contemptuous of the ordinary
people for whom his sermon is intended, would claim to have read the Declaration,
even to have attached it to the wall of his cell, only to confuse it with
the Bill of Rights?
The new edition of the Rosenberg letters reveals that the propagandist who
committed this howler is not Julius Rosenberg but the anonymous editor who
prepared his letter for publication. Julius's version is inelegant and verbose,
but it does not mistake the Declaration of Independence for the Bill of Rights.
A comparison of the "improved" version with Julius's original demonstrates
in small compass the immense latitude taken by the editors throughout the
Death House Letters. First, the DHL version:
My Dearest Ethel,
Fortified by Ossining Manor's delicious ice cream on this Independence Day,
I'm making a celebration of this holiday for freedom. I clipped out a copy
of the Declaration of Independence from the New York Times. It is interesting
to read these words concerning free speech, freedom of the press and of religion
in this setting. These rights our country's patriots died for can't be taken
from the people even by Congress or the courts.
In RL, we find Julius' actual words:
My Sweetest Precious Girl,
Fortified by Ossining Manors [sic] delicious ice cream on the occasion of
Independence Day my thoughts naturally go to this memorable holiday of freedom
in our country. I clipped out a copy of the Delaration [sic] of Independence
that appeared in the New York Times. It should be read and studied especially
the history surrounding it. The greatness of our country is the heritage of
liberty derived from the sacred words of free speech, press and religion.
These rights that the forefathers and patriots of our country have fought,
bled and died for cannot even by Congress or the courts be taken away from
Nearly every one of the 187 letters in Death House Letters has undergone
similar corrective surgery, though this is perhaps the single most disastrous
revision if one judges by its impact on the reputation of the Rosenbergs among
American intellectuals. Warshow's essay was widely influential, and his deconstruction
of the July 4th letter was recognized as the linchpin of his argument. Here,
for example, is Irving Howe, in a 1982 memoir, recalling the Fiedler and Warshow
articles, which he describes as "perverse overkill":
Warshow and Fiedler scored points: who, against the Rosenbergs could
not? Julius had written his wife that he had hung the Declaration of Independence
on his cell wall so as to "read these words concerning free speech, freedom
of the press, and freedom of religion," whereupon Warshow tartly noted that
the Declaration says not a word about any of these matters. Very well, the
Rosenbergs were entrapped in Stalinist devices; but surely at the moment what
counted much more was that, innocent or guilty, they were waiting to be killed.
Was it not heartless to write in this spirit, even if the Rosenbergs were
indeed the poor besotted dupes one took them for?9
Howe's limited sympathy is creditable, I suppose. But, more fundamentally,
the passage reflects the damaging afterlife of an arrogant editor's careless
Many of the Death House Letters were condensed even more radically
than that of July 4, 1951. Words and phrases are routinely altered, long paragraphs
are excised or reduced to a few sentences, and, as the example of the July
4th letter indicates, even salutatory endearments are censored by editorial
commissars apparently reluctant to allow their heroic martyrs to lapse into
sentimentality or idiosyncrasy. This last practice is revealing precisely
because the intellectual or psychological stakes are so small. Ethel and Julius
are rarely permitted to exceed their allotment of one endearment per letter.
Here is a sampling chosen from dozens of similar repressions: "Darling" disappears
from "My Most Precious Darling Ethel" (August 16, 1951), and "Sweetest" from
"My Dearest Sweetest Wife" (August 23, 1951), Ethel's "Dearest Darling" of
February 29, 1952 becomes merely "Darling," Julius' playful "Hello Bunny"
of October 5, 1952 dwindles to "Hello Dear."
The impulse to minimize or suppress oddity or emotional display, simple playfulness
or high spirits, even verbal or grammatical complexity is linked to the editors'
political motives. The sad irony, of course, is that in their ruling passion
to place the political content of the letters in an unimpeded foreground the
Rosenberg editors taint the residue of personal material that has escaped
excision. Most of what might be called personal or non-political in the Death
House Letters -- discussions of their sons; remarks on books, songs, radio
programs; exchanges about their shared passion for baseball or the sustenance
they find in their Jewish heritage; even the couple's professions of love
and longing for one another -- all this is so persistently subordinated to
the political that it appears not merely secondary but insincere, a set of
transparent stratagems aimed at gaining the reader's sympathy. More ironic
still, even the Rosenbergs' defining political values lose much of their force
and credibility -- become mere dogmatic abstractions -- when they are severed
from their human context, from their role in the moral lives of particular
Here is a representative instance of this pervasive tendency of the Death
House Letters to simplify, purify, and thus dehumanize its protagonists
-- a letter from Ethel to her husband, written on October 4, 1951. First,
the unedited version:
Since my last letter to the children in which I described the activities of
the trash I have been observing I find it increasingly difficult to sort out
my thoughts and feelings concerning them, and to communicate there with some
degree of clarity to myself, let alone to attempt to establish an unbroken
line of correspondence with them. There is a commingling of resistance and
guilt which is most disconcerting indeed. Perhaps I need the stimulus of a
visit from Manny [the Rosenberg lawyer, Emanuel Bloch] and from Dr. [Saul]
Miller [her psychiatrist], bringing me news of them and the home situation
generally to arouse me out of the stupor into which I seem to have sunk. I
am most desirous of seeing one of them at least this week end.
My darling, I had never dreamed I could experience such intense hunger such
bitter longing; I glow with aliveness the better to savor the ashes of death.
[Yet?] can the acrid taste accomplish aught but a fanning of the flame, a
fiercer burning, a renewed striving to triumph and to live.
Sweetheart, I find myself regretting that we were unable to "exchange" our
individual visits with Lee [Julius' sister Lena]. Neither of us got around
to sharing information the other had received about the kids. For example
did she recount for you a certain phone call during which Robby assured her
he always gave Michael her regards "but what's the use, he never pays any
attention to what I say anyway!" She also mentioned that "Pop" [Ethel's affectionate
name for Alexander Bloch, Emanuel's father] had urged her not to forget to
tell Ethel that I [that is, "Pop"] am fast becoming acquainted with them and
they are very bright children! Incidentally Robby, with that refreshing lack
of inhibition common to our emotionally healthy normal child, complained to
"POP" about the size of the Hershey bar he had brought him compared it in
favorable (and out loud) [terms] to the kind his uncle Dave usually buys!
Oh, darling, what a wave of wanting washes over me for them and for you; it
grows more and more difficult for me to put off my natural human desires,
to warn myself of the searing destruction of our hopes that may yet be ours
to contend with!
Only love me, my dear husband, only love me; I am your wife with all of myself!
Your loving Ethel
Here is the "improved" version, purged not only of its human detail and awkward,
sometimes florid prose, but also of Ethel's confusion and pain, her very identity
as a mother and a wife:
I had never dreamed I could experience such intense hunger and such bitter
longing; I glow with aliveness the better to savor the ashes of death. No,
what is true is that the threat of death only fans the flame in me more fiercely,
creating a renewed striving to triumph and to live.
Oh, darling, what a wave of wanting washes over me for the children and for
you; it grows more and more difficult to put off my natural maternal and human
desires, to warn myself of the searing destruction of our hopes that yet may
Only love me, my dear husband, I am your wife.
Your loving Ethel
In their son's edition of the letters, the Rosenbergs appear, perhaps for
the first time, as credible human beings, neither monsters nor saints. They
are not sources of wisdom, not elegant writers -- although they achieve at
times a genuine, unforced eloquence that is usually undermined by the editors
of the Death House Letters. Their deep anguish over their children's
fate, their intense commitment to one another, their identity as Jews appear
now as essential aspects of their character.
It did not take shrewd editing to make politics the defining moral force
in the Rosenberg's lives. They were unswerving communists -- though the word
they had to use instead is "progressives" -- and their political and cultural
values were shaped by the eclectic simplicities of Popular Front culture.10
Julius's letters in particular are full of the unrigorous universalism, the
vague mingling of religious, patriotic, and marxist categories embraced by
communists and other Leftists nurtured in Popular Front circles. In a representative
letter in March 1953, he asserts that "the lessons of the struggle for freedom
of the Jewish people from bondage will continue to serve . . . as an example
of the endless striving for newer and broader horizons by mankind in every
sphere of human endeavor, physical, mental, social, political." But however
vulnerable such perspectives are as history and theory, they provide the moral
basis for the Rosenbergs' political commitment to the powerless, to racial
minorities, to the union movement.
"Advocacy of better conditions, social improvements, civil liberties and
world peace," Julius asserts defiantly, "are in the best traditions of the
forefathers of our country. It is not necessary to conform with the political
hacks who are in the saddle to-day to be a real patriot." In a similar vein
Ethel speaks of the "peace and good will and security all decent humanity
so bitterly craves," of a common "responsibility to our fellow-beings in the
daily struggles for the establishment of social justice. Jew and Gentile,
black and white, all must stand together in their might, to win the right!"
(The awkwardly rhyming final phrase is, characteristically, excised from the
version of this sentence in the Death House Letters.) Far more effectively
and movingly than the Death House Letters, the new collection serves
as an archive of the political and cultural values embraced by many thousands
of working class and lower middle class Leftists in the decades before and
after World War II.
Those values include many specific items with which few would now quarrel
-- civil rights, economic justice, free speech, and the right of political
dissent. What is troubling in the letters, especially those of Julius who
clearly sees himself as theoretically and philosophically enlightened, is
their unquestioning belief in the inevitable march of history, in "progress,"
"social advancement," the imminent triumph of the working class. This naive
marxist teleology is the governing principle both of politics and of personal
life for Julius. Through the agency of "the people" we are moving toward "peace
and a better world;" "the fraternal solidarity of mankind" gives him strength
to withstand his imprisonment. These terms operate in the letters as a kind
of mantra; their repeated invocation is Julius' form of prayer. Disturbing
even to a sympathetic reader because they are so entirely unanalyzed, these
professions of faith come to seem a routinized and desperate ritual as the
couple's numerous appeals for clemency fail.
"I am encouraged," Julius writes in a letter to Ethel less than three months
before their electrocution, "and feel strong in the unity that binds us with
our brothers all over the world against the tyrants that want to destroy us.
Since they have no faith in the people, they fail to understand the elementary
historical truth and to recognize the strength of the people." It would be
cruel to mock Julius' faith in this god that failed, but it would be intellectually
irresponsible not to acknowledge its moral and historical blindness.
Yet whatever the limitations of Julius' simplistic faith in progress and
in the people, his interpretation of the case is remarkably exact and persuasive.
In several letters he notes the subtext of anti-semitism that stains public
attitudes toward alleged communists; again and again he points to the link
between the Korean War and the American government's impulse to demonize communism;
his detailed analyses of the trial record powerfully expose the weakness of
the evidence against them and the surreal excess in Judge Kaufman's rationale
for the death penalty. In letter after letter there is a poignant and terrible
power of concentration and will in Julius' outraged critique of every detail
of the trial record and of the anticommunist propaganda and innuendo that
saturated mainstream press accounts of their arrest and trial.
Ethel, in contrast, falls into near silence during the last nine months of
their lives. Though she writes occasionally to their lawyer and to the children,
she writes nothing to Julius after October 3, 1952. (They were executed eight
months later.) Julius continues to write her two and three times a week, but
Ethel never answers. In her thoughtful biography of Ethel, Ilene Philipson
sees this near silence as evidence of clinical depression.10
The letters themselves are unreliable clues in this regard, of course, since
all were composed at least partly as public documents. But it is possible
to see a change in Ethel's writing. During the first year or so of her imprisonment,
Ethel's letters are in part light-hearted, even witty, and some to Julius
contain openly passionate expressions of sexual desire. These personal elements
subside over time, and she seems more and more to be addressing posterity,
sometimes in tones that hint at suffering and even hysteria. Here, too, one
may say that Ethel was ill-served by her first editors; their changes have
a marginally calming effect, but her excesses are surely more emotionally
truthful and revealing. In the following excerpt, from a letter to Emanuel
Bloch on February 9, 1953, the italicized material does not appear in the
Death House Letters:
So now my life is to be bargained off against my husband's; I need
only grasp the line chivalrously held out to me by the gallant defenders
of hearth and home and leave him to drown without a backward glance. How
diabolical, how bestial, how utterly depraved! Only fiends and perverts
could taunt a fastidious woman with so despicable, so degrading a proposition!
A cold fury possesses me and I could retch with horror and revulsion, for
these unctuous saviors, these odious swine, are actually proposing
to erect a terrifying sepulchre in which I shall live without living and die
In her first letter from prison, written August 12, 1950, the day after her
incarceration in the Women's House of Detention in New York City, Ethel tells
her husband, "Darling, we mustn't lose each other or the children, mustn't
lose our identities." They did, of course, lose each other and the children.
But some part of who they really were, surviving the Cold War and the mythmaking
of their friends and enemies, is available now in the words they wrote.
1 New York: Jero Publishing Company, Inc., 1953. Cited
2 A second printing was produced in July 1953. An enlarged
and revised edition -- which added thirty-four new letters to the 187 contained
in the first edition, and also reprinted the first and second appeals for
clemency to then-President Eisenhower -- appeared in 1954 under the title
The Testament of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (New York: Cameron & Kahn,
3 Robert Warshow, "The `Idealism' of Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg" in The Immediate Experience, (New York: Doubleday, 1962),
pp. 69-81. Originally published in Partisan Review, 1953.
4 Leslie Fiedler, "Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs" in
An End to Innocence. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 25-45. Originally
published in the first issue of Encounter, 1953.
5 New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994. Cited as
6 Warshow, The Immediate Experience, p. 76.
7 Warshow, The Immediate Experience, pp. 73-74.
8 Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties
(New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 44.
9 Irving Howe, A Margin of Hope (New York: Harcourt
Brace, 1982), pp. 215-16.
10 The "Popular Front" policy of making common cause
with socialists and other Leftists in the worldwide struggle against fascism
became official communist doctrine at the Seventh World Congress of the Comintern
in 1935. On the special appeal of the Popular Front for Jewish Leftists, see
Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976),
11 Ilene Philipson, Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths
(New York and Toronto: Franklin Watts, 1988), pp. 324-25, 337-38.
The Rosenberg Case: A Primer
The Rosenberg case coincides almost exactly with the Korean War. In July
1950, three weeks after the war began, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on charges
of conspiracy to transmit atomic secrets to the Soviet Union; his wife Ethel
was arrested on the same charges in August. Unable to raise bail, the couple
spent the last three years of their lives in prison.
The trial itself took place in March 1951, and ended in a guilty verdict.
Although Judge Irving Kaufman handed down the death penalty in April, the
sentence was delayed for the next twenty-six months, pending various legal
appeals and two separate appeals for clemency to then-President Eisenhower.
The Rosenbergs died in the electric chair on June 19, 1953, the only persons
in American history executed for spying after trial in a civil court. Fighting
in Korea ended in the month following their deaths.
All the evidence directly implicating the Rosenbergs in espionage came in
testimony from confessed accomplices who might mitigate their own punishment
by cooperating with the government. The key witnesses against the Rosenbergs
were David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel's brother and sister-in-law. They testified
that Julius Rosenberg had recruited them into a Soviet spy ring in 1944 and
that Greenglass had given sketches of parts of the A-bomb as well as written
accounts of the operation of the bomb to Julius Rosenberg in 1944-45 when
Greenglass worked as a U.S. army machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico facility
where the first atom bombs were constructed. David and Ruth Greenglass had
confessed to espionage after FBI questioning prior to the arrest of Julius
Rosenberg; Greenglass and his wife were named as co-conspirators in the Rosenberg
indictment. Ruth Greenglass was never indicted, and her husband received a
fifteen-year prison sentence the day after Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs
The Rosenbergs denied the charges against them and maintained their innocence
for the rest of their lives. At their trial they had invoked the Fifth Amendment's
clause against self-incrimination when asked if they were communists. In the
atmosphere of the 1950's this defense strategy was perhaps plausible. A few
weeks after their arrests, Congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950,
making membership in the communist party a crime. But by taking the Fifth
the Rosenbergs no doubt harmed their credibility with the jury and with the
general public and allowed the prosecution to develop testimony concerning
their communist sympathies.
The anti-communist hysteria of the late forties and early fifties was generated
in part by the revelation that the Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb.
Sentencing the Rosenbergs to death, Kaufman made the political context of
the trial disturbingly clear. He condemned the Rosenbergs not for the specific
acts of conspiracy for which the jury had found them guilty but for being
communists and for causing the Korean War. In assessing Kaufman's rationale
for the death penalty it is crucial to realize that not a single witness had
testified that the Rosenbergs had ever passed any classified information to
anyone. Accusing the Rosenbergs of "devoting themselves to the Russian ideology
of denial of God, denial of the sanctity of the individual and aggression
against free men everywhere," Kaufman said: "I consider your crimes worse
than murder . . . . I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the
Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would
perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression
in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding fifty thousand and who knows
but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason."
Nearly every aspect of the government's conduct in the Rosenberg case has
generated doubt and partisan controversy. But the extreme severity of the
sentence has incited the most widespread criticism. Leading atomic scientists,
including Harold C. Urey and J. Robert Oppenheimer, had publicly asserted
that there was no "secret" of the bomb even before the Rosenbergs were put
to death. Moreover, the Greenglass sketches presented at the trial -- not
documentary evidence in any event, since they were replicas recreated by the
witness for illustrative purposes -- were judged to be useless by reputable
scientists. Whether the Rosenbergs were actually guilty of anything may never
be decisively settled. That they were scapegoats, victims of Cold War propaganda,
seems beyond doubt.