E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel Turns 50: Reflections on a Novel Inspired by the Case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Posted in: Book Reviews

Seventy years ago, the jury in a federal criminal trial convicted Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel of conspiracy to commit espionage. The United States charged the couple (and several other defendants) with passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In the heat of the Cold War—the Korean War had begun the year before, in 1950—the judge who tried the case, Irving R. Kaufman, sentenced the Rosenbergs to death. Despite numerous legal appeals and a worldwide campaign for clemency, Rosenbergs were executed in 1953.

The Rosenbergs affair was a defining moment in the Cold War and still resonates today. Just this year, Anne Sebba’s biography of Ethel Rosenberg revived interest in the case. If Sebba’s book has piqued your interest in the couple, then you absolutely should read E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, an extraordinary novel inspired by the case published a half century ago.

Doctorow’s novel succeeds on two levels. It is an impressive work of historical fiction. The author creates a family loosely based on the Rosenbergs—the Isaacsons—and tells their story through their now-adult son, Daniel, who is writing his Ph.D. dissertation in 1967. Although Doctorow is writing a novel rather than history, he perceptively limns the issues raised by the trial.

The Book of Daniel also is a political novel that explores the continuities and differences between the Old Left that became popular during the Great Depression and the New Left that emerged in the 1960s. While events in the novel are driven by the anti-Communist zeal of the Cold War in the 1950s, protests against the Vietnam War also shape Daniel’s understanding of his parents.

The Rosenbergs and the Isaacsons

There are obvious parallels between the Rosenbergs and the Isaacsons, the fictional couple in the novel. Like Julius and Ethel, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson were first-generation Jewish immigrants who came of age during the Great Depression and embraced Communism. The Rosenbergs had two sons, Michael and Robert, who were ten and six years old, respectively, when their parents were executed. In The Book of Daniel, the Isaacsons have two young children, Daniel and his younger sister Susan.

One of the most notable aspects of the Rosenbergs trial is that all the major players—the principal prosecutors, the defendants and their lawyers, and the judge—were Jewish. To what extent, if any, were the actions of U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol and Judge Kaufman motivated by a desire to establish that they were loyal Americans dedicated to combating Communism?

Though Doctorow does not dwell on this point, he incorporates this aspect of the case into the narrative. The lead prosecutor in the novel is described by Paul Isaacson as an “arch assimilationist.” The judge, Paul learns, is a Jewish lawyer who “hopes to be appointed to the Supreme Court.” This description also applies to Judge Kaufman, who presided over the Rosenbergs trial and was known to be ambitious. (Though he was not the lead attorney, the infamous Roy Cohn helped prosecute the case; perhaps he is the inspiration for the “assistant” skewered by Paul as an “ass licker” in a letter to his wife during the trial.)

The Prosecution of the Isaacsons Illuminates the Case against the Rosenbergs

While there are similarities between the Rosenbergs and the Isaacsons, there also are differences. The key witness against the Rosenbergs was Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, who was stationed at Los Alamos and procured the atomic secrets that were passed along to the Soviet Union. After Greenglass was arrested, he cooperated with prosecutors and received a reduced sentence. In addition, his wife Ruth, who participated in the conspiracy, was not prosecuted.

Doctorow seems to have believed that truth would make for implausible fiction. He gave the role of cooperating witness to Selig Mindish, a clumsy, off-putting dentist who is a friend of the Isaacsons. Like Greenglass, who was arrested before the Rosenbergs, Mindish is arrested first then supplies evidence that leads to the arrest of the Isaacsons. That Mindish is viewed as a betrayer is suggested by the Judas kiss he bestows upon Daniel when they meet at Disneyland in late 1967.

When Doctorow wrote his novel, the question of whether the Rosenbergs were Soviet spies was still subject to debate. (It now is established that Julius Rosenberg ran a spy ring for the Soviet Union for nearly a decade. The legal case against Ethel was problematic for a number of reasons, as I discussed in this article.

While Doctorow does not resolve conclusively in his novel whether the Isaacsons engaged in espionage, he explores several critical themes that resonate with issues raised by the Rosenbergs trial. For instance, Rochelle Isaacson comments:

We are charged not with committing espionage, but with conspiring to commit espionage. Since espionage does not have to be proved, no evidence is required that we have done something. All that is required is evidence that we intended to do something. What is this evidence? Coincidentally enough under the law the testimony of our so-called accomplice is considered evidence. . . . [A]nything Mindish says against us has the weight of evidence.

Through Rochelle, Doctorow articulated what some viewed as a problematic aspect of the Rosenbergs case: the government’s reliance on a coconspirator—one who was the younger brother of one of the defendants, no less. While the government presented other witnesses and evidence in addition to David Greenglass, the guilty verdicts were vulnerable to question because of the critical role Greenglass played in the government’s case.

Another example, also presented through an observation by Rochelle, is the way in which the Isaacsons are accused of treason even though they, like the Rosenbergs, were not charged with that crime. During the trial, Rochelle hands her attorney “a piece of paper with some words in her own handwriting and behind each word vertical pencil strokes, crossed diagonally every fifth stroke.” Here is the list of words Rochelle has heard:

  • traitors
  • traitorous
  • treacherous
  • treasonous
  • betrayal
  • treachery

Treason, Rochelle’s attorney explains, is defined in the Constitution. It consists of giving “aid and comfort” to enemies of the United States and is such a serious offense that the Constitution provides that “No person shall be convicted unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

The Rosenbergs were not charged with treason. When the atomic espionage began during World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies, not enemies. In addition, there was only one witness, not two, to a number of the overt acts charged in the indictment.

Nonetheless, Judge Kaufman labeled the Rosenbergs’ actions as “treason” when sentencing them to death and a number of newspapers used this language to describe the couple in their coverage of the case. Writing in 1971, Doctorow shows how the Cold War inflamed passions against the Rosenbergs. They were and continue to be the only civilians ever to be executed for espionage during peacetime. (The United States never formally declared war during the Korean conflict.)

The Old Left and the New Left

Part of the tragedy of The Book of Daniel is its account of Daniel and Susan struggling to reconcile their private experiences as the Isaacson family with the political lives of their parents. Daniel occasionally is cruel to his wife and young child. Susan is suicidal.

As young adults, Daniel and Susan have taken different approaches in response to their parents’ execution. Daniel is a graduate student in history and researches his parents’ case in order to understand it. Susan, on the other hand, is a political activist who wants to establish a foundation “for Revolution” to honor her parents.

They debate the conflict between knowledge and action:

“Go back to the stacks, Daniel. The world needs another graduate student.”

“Well, I don’t have to go out and get beat up to justify my existence.”

“No, you’d rather jerk off behind a book.”

This is a very 1960s conversation, profanity and all. Amid the Vietnam War, while Daniel investigates his parents’ case, Susan wrestles with the relevance of their legacy. The character Artie Sternlicht, a leader of the New Left inspired, perhaps, by Abbie Hoffman, is dismissive of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. “They were into the system. They wore ties,” Sternlicht says. “They thought politics was something you do at a meeting.”

The Isaacsons’ greatest mistake, Sternlicht suggests, was playing by the “government’s rules” at their trial. Instead, he says, they should have turned the tables and put the government on trial. (Here, Doctorow alludes to the Chicago Seven trial in 1969; Hoffman was one of the defendants and repeatedly disrupted the proceedings.)

In Sternlicht’s view, there is no connection between the Old Left and the New Left. His rejection of the Isaacsons contributes to Susan’s decline. Doctorow does not subscribe to this view, however. Sternlicht comes off as a preening narcissist.

Moreover, Daniel is more successful than his sister in integrating their parents’ past into his life. He takes action by participating in the March on the Pentagon in the fall of 1967 and completing his dissertation.

To be sure, neither event is an unambiguous triumph. Daniel is beaten and arrested during the march, and it’s not clear whether his dissertation will be accepted. Nonetheless, he has survived his childhood, arrived at an understanding of his parents, and will bring his knowledge and experience to whatever is “going down” in the rest of the turbulent 1960s.

Why The Book of Daniel Matters Today

Doctorow’s novel continues to be relevant today, and not just because treason has become a popular charge in our politics. The Rosenbergs case is still debated when we examine the law and politics of the Cold War. The Book of Daniel not only illuminates the debate over the case, it also shows that this debate is important for understanding the 1960s and ensuing decades.

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