65 years on, revisiting the Rosenbergs
Protests to save Ethel and Julius Rosenberg from execution on spying charges 65 years ago fell on deaf ears. Maggie Gruner talks to Lori Clune, author of a new book on the subject
15 June, 2018 — By Maggie Gruner
The Rosenbergs leaving the US Courthouse after being found guilty
MASS protests in London failed to avert one of the Cold War’s most controversial events – the execution 65 years ago this month of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union.
Attempts to save the couple included thousands picketing the US embassy, threats to disrupt the Queen’s coronation and a last-ditch appeal to Winston Churchill.
But the Rosenbergs, who had two young sons, were sent to the electric chair on June 19, 1953.
With the anniversary looming and fear and distrust surrounding current US-Russian relations – President Trump tweeted recently that “our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been” – Lori Clune’s compelling book Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World is particularly timely.
She writes that the Rosenberg case remains “emblematic of the tragic consequences that result when actions are driven by paranoia and fear”.
Newly unearthed documents revealing global protest at the case are the basis for the book. The previously “hidden” files were discovered in two boxes after Lori probed US State Department archives.
Material from more than 80 cities and 48 countries around the world includes newspaper cuttings, petitions and detailed correspondence from embassies.
The Rosenbergs were arrested in 1950 for allegedly passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
Lori asserts that while few today do not acknowledge that Julius Rosenberg engaged in espionage, Ethel likely did no active spying of her own. Executing her was “the cruel, unjust act of a terrified nation”.
The case imprinted itself on popular culture. For example, Sylvia Plath, who lived, and killed herself, in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, “had the protagonist Esther Greenwood, in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar, obsessed with the executions”.
A Canadian protest flyer
On the morning of the executions Plath, then living in New York, wrote in her diary: “There is no yelling, no horror, no great rebellion. That’s the appalling thing.”
Lori, associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, writes that the majority of Americans considered “the two Communist spies who prompted the Korean War got what they deserved”.
International opinion vehemently disagreed. Letters, telegrams and petitions arguing that the death penalty was too severe began to “overwhelm” the US embassy in Grosvenor Square. Although there were no reports that threats to disrupt the Queen’s coronation materialised, in her first post-coronation excursion she was greeted by a giant banner on the 1666 Great Fire of London monument that read: “Save the Rosenbergs.”
Her chaplain, the Rev Charles E. Raven, protested that the verdict was “savage”, underlining the conviction that America was becoming “hysterical in its dread of communism”.
As the executions approached protesters from across England converged on the American embassy. Thousands picketed. Members of the London Save the Rosenbergs Committee begged prime minister Winston Churchill to call President Eisenhower immediately and advise clemency for the condemned couple. But Churchill’s reply was: “It is not within my duty or my power to intervene in this matter.”
America often dismissed overseas protests as communist inspired.
On one diplomatic cable (from the American embassy in Buenos Aires) someone from the State Department scribbled: “Protests in the Rosenberg case are not been (sic) dignified by a reply.”
The book says we may never know why the documents it draws on were hidden. We might guess it was to bury evidence tarnishing the nation’s reputation.
Lori Clune told Review she was surprised at the “often derogatory way in which American diplomats referred to protesters overseas. A few examples: “Dirty”… “just some housewives”… “mostly unkempt, probably Commies.’”
Her book says it would be incorrect to deduce that officials did not care about winning hearts and minds around the world.
So why did their reactions appear to suggest they didn’t care?
She said: “Fear, even justified terror of nuclear annihilation, is… irrational. Fear clouded the judgment of government officials. Most officials also could not fathom why protesters misunderstood that executing the Rosenbergs would make the world safer.”
There’s still “a climate of fear surrounding US /Russian relations,” she said. “While I do not see this as a new Cold War – the world is less binary than it was in the 1950s – we are living in dangerous and unstable times. The Doomsday Clock is currently set at two minutes to midnight, the same threatening level last reached in 1953, the year of the Rosenberg executions. I think some of the lessons of the Cold War, of coalition building, nuanced diplomacy, and restraint in foreign intervention, are more important now than ever.”
• Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World. By Lori Clune. Oxford University Press, £22.99