In This Review

Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
By Anne Sebba
320 pp, St. Martin's Press, 2021

Ethel Rosenberg was the only American woman ever executed for a crime other than murder and, with her husband, Julius, was one of only two Americans ever to face capital punishment for conspiring to commit espionage in peacetime. In her tragic story, told here by an accomplished biographer, she often appears as a human Rorschach test onto which others projected their own passions, largely ignoring her individual identity and massively confusing the question of her guilt or innocence. Her life and death by electrocution, in 1953, were shaped to no small degree by misogyny, anti-Semitism, and, above all, a nationwide, exaggerated fear of the Soviet Union. Her mother ignored her both as a child and as an adult and had eyes only for Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who, ironically, himself spied for the Soviets but was not executed. Not until many years later was it finally revealed that Greenglass had perjured himself, lying in grand jury testimony about Ethel’s involvement in espionage. The government’s case against her was recognized to be extremely weak, but neither President Harry Truman nor President Dwight Eisenhower dared to appear soft on communism by admitting as much and dropping the case. Ultimately, it seems that although she was a Communist, Ethel was not a spy.