It’s been 63 years since the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but the main features of their crime and punishment are so familiar to Americans that an episode of The Simpsons in 2010 used their names—with no further explanation—to beef up a punch line. The long life of the Rosenberg case is due principally to the short life of its chief protagonists, for it was their deaths at the hands of the United States government that assured its longevity. Although the Rosenberg library is voluminous, the latest addition, Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World, has an original perspective. Approaching the story obliquely, it focuses not on guilt or innocence but on the response of two American administrations to the worldwide outcry the case inspired.
Historian Lori Clune, the author of Executing the Rosenbergs, tells us that she started out to write a different book, but plunged into this one when she uncovered a “treasure chest” of previously inaccessible telegrams and letters pertaining to the Rosenberg case. As one who decades ago took a similar plunge, and for a similar reason, I appreciate how exciting the discovery of a pristine archive can be to a historian. But while the documents she found are extensive and wide-ranging—consisting of more than 900 communications between the State Department and US foreign service officers in 48 countries—they tend to be redundant and some are not really new. Still, the collection offers interesting insights into the psyche of the American political establishment in the early Cold War years.
The first hint of trouble abroad came in October 1952, after the US Supreme Court declined to review the case. That month, US Ambassadors in London, Paris, Rome, and The Hague notified the State Department that pro-Rosenberg, anti-American articles were appearing in the Communist press. The London ambassador subsequently reported that much of the British public was critical of American justice and regarded the death sentences “with horror.” He advised Washington that, “From [a] public relations point of view here, the sooner [the] final outcome [in the] Rosenberg case is reached the better.” He requested a fact sheet on the case, but none came.
Soon, calls for information to help refute “Commie propaganda” were arriving in Washington from a number of embassies. Diplomats in Bonn specifically requested State Department guidance to combat claims that the Rosenberg jury had been “under [the] spell of U.S. hate psychosis” and that a “pogrom spirit” had gripped “Fascist U.S.A.” The US ambassador in Paris cabled Washington to ask for a fact-based account of the Rosenberg trial. His telegram, which was among those recently recovered, has a notation scrawled across it: “no action, file.” Ambassadors and consuls charged with representing US policy abroad were left to cope on their own without adequate knowledge of the government’s position.
Finally, a young press attaché at the Paris embassy took it on himself to return home to study the case and prepare an unofficial white paper that would answer the most pressing questions. But since the attaché, Ben Bradlee (later the editor of The Washington Post), was not granted access to FBI or other government files, his research was necessarily restricted to publicly available trial and appeals records. Consequently, most of Bradlee’s 18-page report was given over to a detailed summary of open courtroom proceedings. In the last two pages, however, he made a stab at framing answers to a number of commonly voiced doubts about the case. In response to concerns that anti-Semitism had influenced the verdict and sentencing, for example, he pointed out that “judge and prosecutor were Jewish.” And to mollify those who wondered, “How could [David] Greenglass, a mechanic, know anything about atomic energy?” he offered Greenglass’s own testimony that he had given Julius Rosenberg a drawing of a high-explosive lens mold and a schematic of an atomic bomb.