(Part 2 of the The RFC at 25 and Ethel Rosenberg at 100 series)
The first blog in this series explored the public response to the press conference my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, held in her kitchen in support of her husband, Julius Rosenberg, after his arrest in 1950. As I mentioned in my previous blog, an image of Ethel from that day is the centerpiece of "Unknown Secrets," a collage by Martha Rosler.* Numerous atomic images and anti-communists “frame” or surround Ethel in Rosler’s artwork.
While the thought of communists focusing an attack on American kitchens might seem absurd today, historian Virginia Carmichael, who studied the Rosenberg Case with a special focus on how the public perceived Ethel, noted in her 1993 book, Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War, that, “a linkage between communist conspiracy and women’s reform groups had been established in the public mind in the 1920s by representations of women committed to social reform as part of a spider web conspiracy directed by Moscow to subvert the family and traditional American values” (page 23).
The idea that subversion might start with women meeting in their homes was especially alarming to many people in the 1950s. As William Levitt, the most prominent suburban developer of this era, had promised in an interview in Time magazine in July of 1940, “No man who owns his home and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.” Home ownership was seen as patriotic and wholesome, and the home was regarded by the mainstream as the epicenter of American values that included traditional gender roles and industriousness. Thus the idea of women – wives and mothers – plotting against America in the very location where they were supposed to be the nurturing the country’s most sacred ideals and the next generation of citizens – was very threatening.
Seen in this context, it’s not surprising that’s Ethel's press conference in her kitchen had the opposite effect from what was intended. It backfired by threatening that safe familial ideal. Suddenly, husband and wife were a team intent not on raising children or working to achieve the American dream, but instead plotting together, in the heart of the home, to erode democratic values.
World War II had been fought and won, the outside enemies were vanquished. But instead of euphoric victory, suddenly friend had become foe as the Soviet Union and the United States turned against each other. Perhaps most frightening of all, Rosler’s collage ironically suggests, the communist threat outside had worked its way inside: inside U.S. borders and, according to Senator McCarthy (whose image surrounds Ethel in the collage), inside the entertainment industry, and even to the House and Senate. Within this context it is easier to understand the widespread fear in the 1950s that maybe the threat had also moved inside the homes of American families.
As Richard Polenberg, a historian of Cold War America, noted in his book, One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States Since 1938:
World War II and the Cold War present a study in contrasts. The conflict with the Axis began and ended on dates fixed forever in the people's minds ... everyone knew why the war was being fought and that victory would occur only when the enemy surrendered. The conflict with the Soviet Union lacked this stark simplicity. No one could say for sure exactly when it began… few understood why the Cold War was being fought, and even fewer knew how victory was supposed to be gauged (p.86).
This uncertainty produced enormous anxiety during the Cold War era. The prosecution and the popular press exploited this fear, portraying Ethel as using the kitchen, an idealized meeting place for family and friends, to drag relatives into a spy ring with dire consequences. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Lane spoke to the press after Ethel’s arrest and claimed, “if the crime with which she is charged had not occurred, perhaps we would not have the current situation in Korea.” Given this hyperbole, it is perhaps not surprising that newspaper headlines the next day included the New York Time’s front page, “Atomic Energy Plot is Laid to Woman” (August 12, 1950).
With government officials blaming her for the Korean War, inflammatory articles in a newspaper with circulations in the millions, and anti-communist hysteria running rampant, Ethel’s domestic accoutrements were seriously outgunned. Clearly, the fear of Communists was a crucial factor in how the public perceived and treated Ethel, but it was not alone. Anxiety about women’s “proper” roles, fears of emasculated men and anti-Semitism also frame Ethel in Rosler’s collage as they did in the early 1950s.
How do you think these factors influenced Ethel’s trial and conviction? Share your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for upcoming blog posts on the role of these other forces….
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