The best books on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case

Barron H. Lerner Author Of The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics
By Barron H. Lerner

Who am I?

The executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg seem so distant that it is jarring for me to contemplate that I was born in 1960, only seven years after their deaths. Growing up Jewish, I often heard the Rosenberg case invoked as an example of anti-Semitism. But it was not until I was an undergraduate history major that I read the scholarly literature about the Rosenbergs and subscribed to the newsletter of the Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case. My ongoing interest in the case helps me remind students about two crucial points: ongoing historical scholarship gets us closer to the “truth” but we may never know what “actually” happened. Which is OK.


I wrote...

The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics

By Barron H. Lerner,

Book cover of The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics

What is my book about?

The Good Doctor is my effort to contrast the “old” medical ethics of my father, an infectious diseases physician from the 1950s to the 1990s, with the “new” medical ethics that I learned in medical school and have practiced since. My father was an unabashed paternalist, thinking he knew what was best for his patients. While undoubtedly a remarkable and revered physician, he nevertheless made many choices that would be deplored today, including orchestrating the care of his relatives and even physically interfering with the resuscitation of a patient he thought should die.

Today, autonomy, in which patients make their own medical decisions, has become paramount—and with good reason. But we have also lost the passionate, patient-centered type of medicine that exemplified my father’s career.    

The books I picked & why

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Invitation to an Inquest: A New Look at the Rosenberg-Sobell Case

By Walter Schneir, Miriam Schneir,

Book cover of Invitation to an Inquest: A New Look at the Rosenberg-Sobell Case

Why this book?

The Schneirs did not write the first book on the famous case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, New Yorkers who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1951 and put to death by the U.S. government in 1953. But for 20 years after its publication in 1965, their book became the definitive version of how the Rosenbergs had been victims of a grave miscarriage of justice, convicted of a crime “that never occurred”.

When the Schneirs published a revised version in 1983, its claims directly conflicted with those of another 1983 book, The Rosenberg File by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, which argued that during World War II, Julius Rosenberg had absolutely been a spy who shared atomic secrets with the Soviet Union. These divergent views led to a very public debate over the Rosenbergs’ guilt.

Invitation to an Inquest: A New Look at the Rosenberg-Sobell Case

By Walter Schneir, Miriam Schneir,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Invitation to an Inquest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Currents Affairs, Politics, Espiaonage


We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

By Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol,

Book cover of We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Why this book?

This book was written in 1975 by the two Rosenberg children left orphaned after their parents were executed. Relying on Schneir as well as their own research, they also powerfully argued that their parents were innocent. Even though later disclosures would contradict this conclusion, the book is a moving and fascinating document that tells the previously secret story of whatever happened to the two Rosenberg boys—aged 10 and 6 at the time of their parents' death—whose parents had seemingly sacrificed their lives for a political cause. It turns out that the boys had quietly been adopted by a politically progressive New York family, the Meeropols, and then successfully pursued academic careers, gottten married, and had children of their own.

We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

By Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Are Your Sons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1950 Ethel & Julius Rosenberg lived with their two sons on New York's Lower East Side. The boys visited their father's machine shop on Houston Street, rode subways to the Bronz Zoo, were avid Brooklyn Dodger fans. Abruptly one day their life together dissolved - Julius was imprisoned, then Ethel; accused of "The Crime of the Century". They were utltimately sent to the electric chair; their sons were shunted between reluctant relatives and children's shelters. Eventually they were adopted and protected from the public eye. In this book the sons tell their own story, weaving together the nightmare events…


The Book of Daniel

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of The Book of Daniel

Why this book?

The great novelist E.L. Doctorow authored this 1971 fictional account of the Rosenberg case through the eyes of Daniel Isaacson, the oldest son of a couple executed by its own government for supposed spying. The book is fiction: the actual Rosenbergs are not mentioned; Daniel’s sibling is female; Daniel is a graduate student writing a dissertation on the American Old Left and dealing with the place of his late parents within that history. But as with the Schneirs and the Meeropols, Doctorow, a New York liberal, is unabashedly sympathetic to the Rosenbergs (AKA the Isaacsons).

Although this viewpoint eventually proved naïve, Doctorow’s paean to American progressivism from Communist sympathizers in the 1930s and 1940s to college protests in the 1960s—which Daniel joins at the end of the novel—is nevertheless remarkably poignant.

The Book of Daniel

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Book of Daniel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of delivering information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel includes a new introduction by Jonathan Freedland in Penguin Modern Classics.

As Cold War hysteria inflames America, FBI agents pay a surprise visit to a Communist man and his wife in their New York apartment. After a trial that divides the country, the couple are sent to the electric chair for treason. Decades later, in 1967, their son Daniel struggles to understand the tragedy of their lives. But while he is…


The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case

By Sam Roberts,

Book cover of The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case

Why this book?

Roberts, a journalist with the New York Times, provided a very needed update of the Rosenberg story in 2001. Roberts benefitted from the 1995 disclosures of the Venona project, an American spy operation that decoded World War II Soviet intelligence. Julius Rosenberg, the transcripts revealed, had indeed spied for the Soviet Union, although his wife Ethel was not implicated. Even more remarkably, Roberts, in a feat of journalistic derring-do, had managed to track down David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg whose testimony about Julius’s and Ethel’s supposed involvement in passing secrets to the Soviets had led to their convictions and deaths. Greenglass, previously in hiding, admitted that he had lied about his sister’s involvement to help exonerate his wife. There may be no more stunning confession in American history.

The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case

By Sam Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Brother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A fresh and fast-paced study of one of the most important crimes of the twentieth century” (The Washington Post), The Brother now discloses new information revealed since the original publication in 2003—including an admission by his sons that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a Soviet spy and a confession to the author by the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant.

Sixty years after their execution in June 1953 for conspiring to steal atomic secrets, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the subjects of great emotional debate and acrimony. The man whose testimony almost single-handedly convicted them was Ethel Rosenberg’s own brother, David Greenglass, who recently died.…


Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

By Anne Sebba,

Book cover of Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

Why this book?

This 2021 book, the latest in the Rosenberg oeuvre, not only recounts the history of what happened to the Rosenbergs but chronicles past historical accounts. One of the most important legacies of this literature is to remind us how all events are historically grounded. The Schneirs wrote that the Rosenberg trial “was a product of its times, displaying in microcosm many of the prevalent sociopolitical assumptions and preoccupations of the day.” The same could be said of the books by the Schneirs, the Meeropols, and Doctorow, which viewed the Rosenbergs through the sympathetic prism of American progressivism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sebba also explores the enduring mystery of the “single-minded” Ethel Rosenberg, a “tragic figure” who herself committed no espionage but orphaned her sons rather than naming names or implicating her husband.

Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

By Anne Sebba,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ethel Rosenberg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A heart-piercingly brilliant book about a woman whose personal life put her in the cross-hairs of history' HADLEY FREEMAN
'Totally riveting. I couldn't put it down' VICTORIA HISLOP
'Ethel sings out for all women who have been misunderstood and wronged, and refuse to bow down' NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE
'A shocking tale of betrayal, naivety, misogyny and judicial failure' SONIA PURNELL
'A historic miscarriage of justice laid bare for our times' PHILIPPE SANDS

Ethel Rosenberg was a supportive wife, loving mother to two small children and courageous idealist who grew up during the Depression with aspirations to become an opera singer.

On…


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