Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

Written by Anne Sebba
Review by Trish MacEnulty

Anne Sebba’s biography of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman snared by a capricious justice system, lives up to its subtitle of “An American Tragedy.” Sebba’s narrative is a gripping account of a woman who was both ordinary and extraordinary. Ethel Rosenberg grew up in stark circumstances. Unloved, ignored, and raised in abject poverty, Ethel overcame her upbringing to become a talented singer and performer, a committed political activist, and a loyal wife and mother. She met Julius Rosenberg when she was only twenty-one, and he was eighteen. Their love for each other was instantaneous and never wavered, but a perfect storm of injustice, societal inequities, misogyny, anti-Semitism, bad luck, bad judgment, and familial betrayal sent them to the electric chair.

While there is no longer any doubt as to whether Julius Rosenberg gave U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, Sebba makes a powerful case for Ethel’s relative innocence. While Julius was developing a close relationship with a Soviet handler, Ethel’s “focus was almost entirely on discussions of babies and worries about how to be a better mother.” Julius, on the other hand, was a hapless spy who thought he was helping an ally in the USSR and promoting a just cause. He “did not see any contradiction” in being a loyal American and supporting communist ideals.

Although the subject matter is often complex, Sebba’s accessible style of writing enables the reader to grasp how two intelligent, good-hearted people could make decisions that led to their downfall. She also unequivocally exposes the malfeasance of the U.S. government with malevolent mischief-makers like Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn riding roughshod over the rights of American citizens. This superbly written facet of history is both outrageous and heartbreaking, and in the end, oddly uplifting.