The last words that Ethel Rosenberg seems to have heard on earth were pronounced by Rabbi Irving Koslowe, Sing Sing’s Jewish chaplain. They were the Thirty-first Psalm:

I became a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbors; and they of mine acquaintance were afraid of me; and they that did see me from without, conveyed themselves from me….

For I have heard the blasphemy of the multitude, and fear is on every side; while they conspire together against me and take their counsel to take away my life.

There seem to be no means available for knowing whether the thirty-first was the psalm appointed for the chaplain’s chant as he averted his eyes from the fitting of the electrodes to the ankles of the condemned of Jewish identity. And yet Radosh and Milton have spread before us a landscape so barren of official decency—let alone courage—as to stir the longing for a Rabbi Koslowe who had scoured all the psalms of David and settled for the most despairing and reproachful of them all.

He would, of course, have done his office in Hebrew, a tongue beyond the comprehension of anyone in attendance except perhaps the Rosenbergs, who had commenced their schooling at the Downtown Talmud Torah. To select the Thirty-first Psalm with deliberation would then have been the subtlest of rebukes; but it would, even so, have been the only public one to emerge from a mouth fed from a governmental budget.

Radosh and Milton have been scrupulous in their research, persuasive in their deductions, and generally fair-minded in their exposition. Few of their readers can retain much doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a conscientious Soviet espionage agent and that his wife at the very least knew and approved of his vocational commitment, which was not, to be sure, a transgression that would excuse her dreadful punishment.

But that judgment is not, I think, the real point of an analysis whose authors leave us with thoughts about the Rosenbergs that evoke La Rochefoucauld’s reply to the Sun King’s toadeater, who reproved his expressions of sympathy for the imprisoned peculator, Nicholas Fouchet. “Misfortune,” La Rochefoucauld explained, “is a kind of innocence.”

Their fatal misfortune was not that the Rosenbergs were Jews but that they were judged as unbelieving Jews. They cried out to the end that they were victims of anti-Semitism, but it would be rather more accurate to describe them as martyred by Pharisees. Every schoolboy knows that their sentencing judge and their prosecutor were of the Jewish persuasion and showed themselves distinctly more vengeful in their passions than most of the other relevant law officers who were not.

The Rosenberg’s worst mischance was to draw Irving Kaufman as trial judge. On the day before sentencing Kaufman called their prosecutor, United States Attorney Irving Saypol, into his chambers to inquire what his disposition should be. Saypol answered that he himself wanted the capital penalty but was not at all sure his superiors agreed with him. Kaufman sent him to Washington to sound out the Justice Department, and Saypol returned to report that Deputy Attorney General Peyton Ford and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were opposed to a death sentence for Ethel Rosenberg.

The next day, Kaufman announced from the bench that he was so determined to carry his lonely burden all by himself that he would not ask the prosecution for a recommendation of punishment. After this affectation of scrupulosity that could have no design except to conceal its absence, Kaufman proceeded to visit the death penalty on both the Rosenbergs.

Afterward he informed the journalists that he was exhausted from the sleep he had lost worrying over the responsibility he had just exercised and that he had repaired to his temple to pray for “spiritual guidance” in the decision process. Radosh and Milton have disposed of this portentous nonsense by producing a memorandum written to himself by Atomic Energy Commission chairman Gordon Dean, that notes, a month before the Rosenberg trial began, an assurance from the chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division that “he talked to the judge [who] is prepared to impose [a death sentence] if the evidence warrants.”

I am myself by no means sure how to define a Pharisee but I know I have met one as soon as he tells me that he has prayed to God to direct him toward a path he has already chosen.

By the time all efforts to defer the execution of the Rosenbergs had writhed to their conclusion, Radosh and Milton remind us, the week appointed for it was all but over and the only hour left on the schedule was 11:00 PM, Friday, June 11, 1953. To the surprise and initial delight of defense counsel, Kaufman quickly agreed that to do the job on the Jewish Sabbath “would be totally unacceptable” and then, rather than postpone the performance of these obscene rites to a later date, he ordered them moved “forward to eight o’clock that evening, minutes before sundown.”1


But then the snobbishness that almost ceases to regard its objects as human is only one of several elements in the savagery of sacrifices dictated by notions of service to the tribal welfare. It is a curious irony of Kaufman’s career that the only real damage done it by the Rosenberg case came from the lasting animosity of Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter, who appears to have looked down upon him from his own higher rung on the ladder with the same withering disdain that suffused Kaufman’s downward gaze at the Rosenbergs.

Even in 1958, Frankfurter’s contempt remained so lively that he wrote Learned Hand that “I despise a Judge who feels God told him to impose a death sentence” and that “I am mean enough to try to stay here [on the Supreme Court] long enough so that K will be too old to succeed me.” He had been busily and, as was his habit, successfully lobbying to forestall Kaufman’s elevation to the Court of Appeals. It would be hard to conceive of Frankfurter thinking with so much severity about a judge who was not Jewish; and there is a special pang in the recognition that, revere our institutions as he overmuch may have done, Frankfurter seems to have taken it for granted that the Jewish quota on the Supreme Court was one seat and that no sharer of his own Jewish identity could hope to get there until he vacated it.

There was far less spite in the feelings of those public officials who did not share that identity and who were consequently unencumbered by the tribal police responsibilities that seem best to explain Kaufman’s pitilessness toward the Rosenbergs and Frankfurter’s outrage at Kaufman. They were simply public prosecutors and pressed for or agreed to the death penalty on their coarse trade’s customary assumption that to raise the ante on the accused is to move his common sense to confess his sins and to name other sinners.

But they had misjudged the Rosenbergs, who had a depleted store of common sense and an abundant one of dignity. As the mortal date drew closer and closer and its appointees gave no hint of surrender, the official mind grew more and more afflicted by the need for some measure of justification. It was rescued by the theory advanced by Morris Ernst, co-counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, that “Julius is the slave and his wife, Ethel, the master.”

The established order had located its excuse in its misogyny, and that did it for Ethel Rosenberg. Her final hope resided in President Eisenhower who had, after all, once wondered aloud to his Cabinet whether it might not be a mistake to execute the Rosenbergs, if only from the point of view of statecraft. But then Ernst’s notion—now enshrined as “a psychological study”—worked its way up to the president’s desk, and Eisenhower swallowed it greedily enough to reply to an old friend who had sent him a plea for mercy that Ethel was “the more strong-minded and the apparent leader of the two.” He could not be asked to forget how often his Mamie had nagged him.2

Morris Ernst could never have been as foolish as he often was if he bothered any longer to read trial transcripts; this one’s record would certainly have suggested that Julius Rosenberg was all else but the sort of man who would slump toward perdition under the lash of his wife. By the accounts of the prosecution witnesses, his sense of himself was formidable enough to approach grandiosity. His largest worry after his condemnation seems to have been that the torments mandated by Kaufman would break his wife’s will. The most persuasive portrait of Rosenberg as prisoner was the work of Jerome Tartakow, a confidence man who was his companion in servitude and who cultivated the acquaintanceship in hopes that a fling at informing might better his own lot.

Tartakow’s Rosenberg seems somehow the more authentic because the FBI persisted in disbelieving it: the voice is of someone talking from a great height about the years that began when Rosenberg sought out the Soviets and tendered his assistance. It assesses the merits of his subordinates with the acuity of a practiced executive; and it plainly thinks of his accomplishments as far larger than they could ever have been if he had marooned himself in the open Communist party.

This Julius Rosenberg may have exaggerated his place in history nearly as much as his judge did; but his personal powers were not small ones; he must indeed have had a stronger presence than his photographs suggest. In the course of the testimony that destroyed him, David Greenglass swore that the Julius Rosenberg who, he said, called himself a soldier of Stalin, had been his boyhood hero.


Beyond her stubborn endurance through the end of her ordeal, there is almost nothing, even in the still-disputable passages of the evidence, to give us reason to credit Ethel Rosenberg with a strength of character or powers of command comparable to her husband’s. Ruth Greenglass, who had come to detest the Rosenbergs, could impute very little more to her than loyalty to him and approval of his course. And even that assessment emerges from Mrs. Greenglass’s lips with the sound more of suspicion than of certainty. “I know she had to know,” she told Radosh and Milton in 1979. “I know there are husbands and wives where they never know what they are doing. But this was not the case with them.”

The direct evidence of Ethel Rosenberg’s role as co-conspirator turns out to be almost as vaporous as Mrs. Greenglass’s remark, and as little beyond surmise: a listener’s posture at the dinner table, a mission to sound out the Greenglasses’ intentions after David’s arrest, and the occasion, recalled by the Greenglasses disturbingly late in their conferences with the FBI, when she typed David Greenglass’s notes on the Hiroshima bomb under her husband’s supervision at her kitchen table. This is not the division of labor that the slave normally exacts from his master.3

We cannot, I think, do Julius Rosenberg proper justice until we accept his complicity and his wife’s devoted support. To treat him as an unstained innocent is somehow to demean a life seriously and strenuously lived. It is meager service to any victim’s dignity to account him no more than an especially horrible case of mistaken identity. The witnesses who served his prosecutors were not a wholly admirable assortment; but most of us would have trouble believing that they lied in every detail, particularly when we come upon those small strokes of the brush that are of minor interest to prosecutors but compelling to those of the curious who find the utmost conviction in small and subtle intimations. The portrait of Julius Rosenberg that looks out from David Greenglass’s testimony is of a craftsman proud of his workmanship.

There is the recollection that Rosenberg had torn a Jell-O box panel in two and told Ruth Greenglass to hold one piece until a courier came to pick up any information gathered at Los Alamos and identified himself with the matching half. When Greenglass commended the ingenuity of his device, Rosenberg replied, “The simplest things are the cleverest.” Late in the game he seems to have tended more and more to expatiate upon and even magnify the sweep of his exploits. His neglect of the machine shop he and Greenglass established after the war suggests someone by then too assured of his own consequence to stoop to petty bourgeois acquisition. He had dreams as grand as they were unrealistic of enrolling Greenglass in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and bringing him forth as a nuclear physicist after an interval of occasional repayments to his sponsors with oddments of classified materials.

Greenglass recalled that Rosenberg had told him that he had stolen a proximity fuse by slipping it into his briefcase at work as an inspector for Emerson Radio. By the time he reached prison Rosenberg’s image of himself may quite have overborne his discretion; and he filled the untrustworthy ears of Tartakow with exultations about the “terrific” material provided by one of the suppliers he had taken in his selfesteem to referring to as “my boys.”

Rosenberg may then have been almost as secure about the ubiquitous reach of his espionage career as Judge Kaufman was when he declared on the day of sentencing that,

…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.

This image was no very extravagant expression of a public vanity which could not conceive of any nation’s matching America’s technological prodigies unless it stole their formulas. That delusion would be disposed of by the Soviet space experiments; but its prior prevalence had been fatal to the Rosenbergs.

And yet, if we are to believe his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg shared the misapprehension that best explains his awful terminus: his first essay at espionage, he once told Greenglass, was the theft of Signal Corps tube manuals for a Soviet electronics industry he knew “was foundering.” He had hardly risen from this apprenticeship to be foreman of the crew that stole the atomic secret. Greenglass’s were its only contributions and they look crude and scanty indeed beside the richness and refinement of the material Klaus Fuchs was equipped to deliver. Milton and Radosh allow the inference that Greenglass’s information was most useful to the Soviets as a check on their haul from Fuchs, whose signal services could not exempt him from the KGB’s suspicions that it might be dealing with a double agent.4

Harry Gold, the courier, told his FBI debriefers that, two weeks after he handed over the Greenglass package, his Soviet control reported that it had been “extremely valuable.” A few months later Gold suggested re-establishing contact with Greenglass and was told not to bother because information from that source had not proved of much use after all. Since public prosecutors and their witnesses are what they are, Gold’s trial testimony stressed the original warmth of the Greenglass material’s reception and omitted mention of any subsequent cooling.

The commanding impression from the labors of Radosh and Milton is that the Rosenbergs were tried as the Soviet agents that he almost certainly, and she only possibly, was, and that they were condemned as witch and warlock. Those who hunt out witches and those they burn are, as often as not, alike convinced of the efficacy of the black arts. Full many an old woman suffocated between boards doubtless died in full assurance that her spells had indeed soured the udders of her neighbor’s cow. She was nonetheless a martyr to superstition. And so too was Julius Rosenberg, whether or not he breathed his last in the certain comfort that the Soviets eternally owed him the secret of the nuclear weapon. He died for having done what it was beyond his powers to do. His executioners had made his intent the equal of a deed; and, with that sin, they had rendered up to him the gift of absolution, and left themselves with a stain that all their pieties have never wiped away.

This Issue

October 27, 1983