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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 their humanity.

David Thorburn

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 the Right.

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 Fiedler.

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. Warshow writes:

[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 the people.

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 revision.

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 individuals.

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:

Dearest Sweetheart:
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:

Dearest Julie,
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 be ours.
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 without dying!

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 as DHL.

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, 1954).

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 RL.

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), pp. 341-47.

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 to death.

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.

-- D.T.

Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review

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