Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World

By Staub, Michael E. | American Jewish History, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World


Staub, Michael E., American Jewish History


Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World. By Lori Clune. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 261 pp.

On Friday, June 19, 1953, after President Dwight Eisenhower denied their final appeal for clemency, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs had maintained their innocence from the very first moment FBI agents arrested Julius on July 17, 1950, followed by the arrest of Ethel a few weeks later at their Lower East Side apartment. The state also never wavered in its belief that the Rosenbergs would become informants. The Justice Department privately acknowledged that its case against Ethel was weak, but her arrest and subsequent sentencing to death in the electric chair--in a trial riddled with improprieties--was a blunt attempt to coerce Julius to name names of his Communist spy ring. There is little doubt that this stratagem amounted to a form of "psychological torture," especially given the fact that Julius and Ethel had two young sons the state was fully prepared to orphan if the couple refused to cooperate (5). But Julius said nothing. When she learned that Julius had been electrocuted, Ethel told the rabbi who pleaded that she could still be saved with a last-minute confession: "No, I have no names to give. I'm innocent. I'm prepared to die" (127).

Lori Clune's major contribution to the history of the Rosenberg case is to put the arrest, trial, and execution of the couple in a transnational perspective. With a cache of documents she uncovered in the U.S. State Department archive--sources that had been misfiled (possibly intentionally) for more than a half-century--Clune's book recreates with exacting detail the numerous reports that American diplomats stationed at embassies and consulates on nearly every continent nervously sent back to Washington about a mounting global protest movement demanding clemency for the Rosenbergs. The administrations of Truman and then Eisenhower reacted to these often urgent missives coming "from Argentina to Australia, from Iceland to India, and from Switzerland to South Africa," with either complete silence or callous indifference (xii). At one point, "the government in Poland took an unusual step and officially offered the Rosenbergs political asylum" (112). Yet, as Clune drily observes, "It was clear that diplomats on the ground had a different perspective than officials in Washington" (48). Time and time again, Washington ignored its diplomatic corps. Clune further interjects that the U.S. government's "inept management of the case's narrative" only served to intensify the fury of the international demonstrations and to increase "criticism of the persecution, prosecution, and impending execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" (68). As Clune's newly-discovered evidence makes abundantly apparent, the whole world was watching the Rosenberg case while, back in the nation's capital, "White House officials failed to get ahead of the spin" (161). …

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