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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Walter Schneir, Miriam Schneir

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.


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

By Robert Meeropol, Michael Meeropol

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.


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The Book of Daniel

By E.L. Doctorow

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.


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The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case

By Sam Roberts

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.


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Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

By Anne Sebba

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.


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