Friday, September 12, 2008

Ethel: She Loved Her Husband More Than Her Children

One of the most significant elements of the Rosenberg Affair has been the story of her two sons. They have kept alive the hope that somehow, their parents weren't spies. And if their father was, their mother wasn't.

Well, now we have heard from Martin Sobell. In this NYTimes article,

Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges...[and now] dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb...Was he, in fact, a spy? “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

...Most of the protagonists in the case, Mr. Sobell included, were committed Communists at the time they spied for the Soviets. “Now, I know it was an illusion,” Mr. Sobell said. “I was taken in.”

But what about Ethel?

“She knew what he was doing,” he said, “but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”

Julius's wife.

And the mother of her two sons? She was 34 and the mother of two young sons when she appeared before the grand jury and was arrested on the courthouse steps after her testimony. Being a mother doesn't count?

I guess not.

She went to the chair, knowing she could save herself but at the risk of condemning her husband. But her husband was already condemned.

Government prosecutors later acknowledged that they had hoped that a conviction and the possibility of a death sentence against Ethel Rosenberg would persuade her husband to confess and implicate others, including some agents known to investigators through secretly intercepted Soviet cables. That strategy failed, said William P. Rogers, who was the deputy attorney general at the time. “She called our bluff,” he said...

Why did the prosecutors go after her?

...the grand jury transcripts indicate that Mrs. Rosenberg was aware of the conspiracy. Spying was broached the first time by her husband in 1944 at the Rosenbergs’ Knickerbocker Village apartment in Lower Manhattan, Mrs. Greenglass testified. “I was horrified,” she said, but added that Mrs. Rosenberg “urged me to talk to David. She felt that even if I was against it, I should at least discuss it with him and hear what he had to say.”

Mrs. Greenglass, who died earlier this year, said her sister-in-law also was in the kitchen when Julius bisected the side of a Jell-O box that a courier would use as a signal to retrieve atomic secrets from David Greenglass.


...James Kilsheimer, the only surviving prosecutor of the Rosenberg-Sobell case, said on Thursday, “We always thought Sobell was guilty, and we knew that Julius was.” He said that the trial testimony about Ethel’s typing was not inconsistent with what Ruth Greenglass told the grand jury but was developed by him “during the pretrial process.”

And what do the sons say?

The Rosenbergs’ younger son, Robert Meeropol, described Mr. Sobell’s confession Thursday as “powerful,” but said he wanted to hear it firsthand. “I’ve always said that was a possibility,” Mr. Meeropol said, referring to the question of his father’s guilt. “This is certainly evidence that would corroborate that possibility as a reality.”

Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ son, said that even if he were to accept Mr. Sobell’s verdict, “It’s not the end of what happened to my mother and it’s not the end of understanding what happened to due process.”

Spy or not, was Ethel a good mother?

She had an option: to be a grieving widow/remarried icon or a martyr for Communism.

She made her choice.


Anonymous said...

Of course Ethel was guilty of numerous infractions and she's not particularly admirable. But her level of involvement did not merit the death penalty. The prosecutors knew this. They were trying to pressure her husband to give up more Soviet moles. It didn't work and Ethel was sent unjustly to the electric chair. That's the injustice here.

YMedad said...

I agree but that makes my question even more potent: she knew she was not guilty and could have gotten out of a potential death penalty but, it seems, loved her husband more than her children - or, was a really committed Communist after all even if she didn't directly spy.

Anonymous said...

Certainly, ymedad, she was a committed communist. She proved it by regarding other people, including her children, as things, as objects, to be sacrificed for the revolution no matter what.

I wonder--I don't know, I genuinely wonder--if the Communist Party had anything to do with her obstinacy. They were openly using the Rosenberg case as a means of deflecting attention from the Slansky trials. Does anyone know if the CP put pressure on her to stand her ground?

YMedad said...

Good question, Alex.

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