Ethel at 100 (part 2): Communists in the Kitchen

(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….

*Martha Rosler's collage was part of the Rosenberg Era Art Project, a collection of art about the Rosenbergs and the 1950s, which resulted in a book and film.

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I am not so sure how this fits in with the various inferences of Communists in the kitchen. Although I had been involved at that time, the tragic events of that period overshadowed my ability to analyze the attack and attackers. They would use any propaganda, and still do to mess with the individual minds. I was very much involved in the fight for the lives of your grandparents. Suffice it to say, it was a terrible loss for the boys and to those of us who failed to believe that the desperation of capitalism would result in this tragedy. On a less painful note, but to mention the constant oppression of women, which could fill volumes, my mom was employed in a radio factory during WWII. The day that peace was declared, she was fired forever from the job. She had originally been recognized as an outstanding worker and contributor to the war efforts. Women were sent back to the kitchen. The propaganda machine invents a variety of ways to protect the power class and denigrate the working class.Everything gets turned into the opposite. As the song goes, "When Will They Ever Learn?!" Doris Katzen

It is absurd to say that Ethel Rosenberg contributed to the korean war simply because she liked to discuss politics in her kitchen. Ethel was doing whatever she could to make the world a better place for her children, working for social change through her activism in the labor, anti nuclear, and women's rights movement with what little resources she had. Furthermore, the rights of the children and their life's afterwards were never even considered.

My grandmother lily Ilomaki, was jailed dozens of times (many times in solitary confinement) and beaten over the head during her lifetime for her political views and for her activism most her life working for the labor movement among many other progressive issue's including the Rosenbergs.

Ethel Rosenberg should not be remembered as a bad person/parent. Rather as a woman who chose to do what she believed as right for her and her family, but ended up dying for what she believed in.

The United States envisioned by the majority of the early leaders of 1776 was undermined, not in the kitchens of the Rosenbergs' and other ordinary people, but in the Congress and White House, especially after the death of President Roosevelt, his weak successor Harry Truman, and the ascension of Dwight Eisenhower, who was even weaker than the president he followed. By current standards, of course, all three of these presidents were, as their contemporary opponents claimed, infected by communist thinking.

We live in the shambles of the once envisioned United States. In the Rosenbergs' kitchen, as in many others, urgent thought was given to keeping alive Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, maintaining the peace for which scores of millions had paid with their lives, and learning from the deadly racism that was a battle cry of our then enemy, that the concept of human equality must suffuse the nation.

And look at us now. Every advocate of freedom of speech and separation of state and church as a guarantee of freedom of religion, is conflated with the devil, and with indifference to the nation's security. Every voice for peace is treated with suspicion as supporting terrorism and terrorist nations. The industrial-military complex is freed of Eisenhower's prediction of its danger to the United States, and flies its flag on bases throughout the world, assassinates Americans and foreigners alike wherever on earth they may be, and the sun never sets on all our armies and navies and privatized military forces whose crimes the government says are not its business. And our civil police are now ready with tanks, machine guns, canons, stun guns, poison sprays and soon, possibly, local bombs of one kind or another - all directed at street parades and demonstrations for democracy plotted in American kitchens.

What happened? How did Mein Kampf, arranged for the American mind, become an inspiration to most of our 1% distant neighbors and to their bribed servants in Congress and the Executive? The 1%'s wealth has no patriotism. Its' flags are leased for the moment and are quickly changeable.

The kitchens of the 70% and the 29% who have no formal or legal kitchens, had better be filled with ardent Americans who want what the nation fought for in mid-20th century, without which our nation will expire in the smokey and poisoned detritus created by the 1%'s obsession with multiplying its gargantuan wealth, repressions and wars..

David Alman

I think you can find antecedents of the '50s hysteria in the '30s, when U.S. isolationism caused citizens to ignore Hitler's rise to power, while quarrels between socialists and communists in Germany prevented them from forming a United Front and thus facilitated that rise. The same conflict played out in the U.S., when the Depression caused many to turn to the left. For example, in the case of the unfair trial and conviction of the so-calledScottsboro Boys, 1931 and on for many years, the liberal N.A.A.C.P. competed with the communist International Labor Defense for the defense of the young men, unable to co-operate for the sake of the shared goal. I explore this (in fiction) in my novel, A Free Unsullied Land, forthcoming in October from Fomite Press.
Maggie Kast

The victimization that they suffered has it's roots in anti-Semitism for starters,
and ruthless cold war tactics. .The Powers That Be got to take action on these 2 mighty factors--(2 for the price of one),
Coupled with the HUAC proceedings they achieved their goal and almost wiped out the progressive movements in this country as well as the labor/union activities that had gained a good quota of momentum. They totally destroyed the scenario that prevailed during WW11 of a united America;
It just totally changed everything..

The Scottboro Boys were not convicted! You should see the excellent documentary "The Scottboro Boys" (which was nominated for an Oscar), showing how they were saved from being convicted!

I still struggle with the thought that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died for what they believed in, but rather with the thought they died for the lies the Greenglasses were responsible for and for a presiding judge who cared nothing about the truth.

This is a shameful time in our country and two innocent human beings were executed for a crime which did not exist. It is also shameful that women, including Ethel Rosenberg, who fought for the rights of those who needed a voice, would be suspected of not spending time cooking for her family and cleaning in her own kitchen as if this unwarranted speculation had any value in the allegations against Ethel Rosenberg. I find history repeating itself when in 2015, we are still fighting for the same rights Ethel fought for, such as free lunches for school children who were going without, and the atrocious conditions and wages for those who are forced to work in sweatshops, only today, the sweatshops exist overseas and American Corporations are using slave labor to increase their profits regardless of the poverty their overseas employees are forced to live in.

For a woman to become an activist does not mean she is not being a wife and a mother. I know I am rambling about this and jumping around. I used to be a person who supported the death penalty until I research the injustice committed against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Today, I would support sparing the life of a guilty person in order to save the live of an innocent person and Julius and Ethel are the lives which should have been saved.

My husband Elmer and I had tried to join the Party in 1948; we were to
meet our contact on a New York street corner, but they must have looked
us over and decided we weren't quite right - we had dressed up for the
occasion. We were disappointed but actually very lucky. Aspiring writers
just out of Stanford, we couldn't make it in New York and returned home to
Berkeley where Elmer taught and I got my teaching credential, used later
near Stockton. We continued to believe, as your grandparents must have,
that the world would be safer if both cold war enemies had the bomb. We
were right, of course, and so were they. The thing acted as a deterrent for
both. Looking at subsequent history, one can see that this country too
needed to be deterred.
We had two little boys later, just a little younger than your father and
uncle, and I can't put into words what we felt when they lost their parents.
Proud of you!

This is a very interesting point. What we know is that the Government counted on Ethel breaking, and also thought Julius would break in order to save Ethel. We also know that there was extreme hostility toward Ethel for not playing the role it was thought she should play - hostility not only from the Government and public, but also from her own family.

The militarization of the kitchen... The dreadful image of defenseless this installment evoked — fighting fire with a butter knife — led me directly to that ancient Yiddish plaint: "Es regent yukh, un ich shteyn mitn gopl" ("It's raining soup, and here I stand with only a fork.") But this soup was cooked up in the devil's kitchen. How horrifying… I'm reading on, but wanted tp pause to thank you for your courage in reopening such deeply painful material. Chazak!

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