Seohye Kwon, Book Review of Martin J. Siegel, Judgment and Mercy: The Turbulent Life and Times of the Man Who Condemned the Rosenbergs @CornellPress

Irving Robert Kaufman’s American Dream

A Review of Martin J. Siegel’s Judgment and Mercy (Cornell University Press, 2023)

Seohye Kwon*


Most people would remember Irving Robert Kaufman for his infamous judgment of the Rosenbergs’ case. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of violating the 1917 Espionage Act for transmitting national security information about the atomic bomb to USSR. Martin J. Siegel notes that Kaufman’s death sentences for the American couple were broadly popular at first during the height of the Cold War and in the face of campaigns for clemency. However, later generations have not shared the same opinion, as “the Korean War ended, Stalin died, McCarthyism flamed out, and… miraculously, the Soviet Union itself disappeared.”[1]


While these facts are relatively familiar, the wider record of Judge Kaufman’s life and rulings is little known. The same judge extended the frontiers of liberalism through his rulings for desegregation, immigration rights, the distribution of wealth, and the pacifists against the Vietnam War. Siegel’s Judgment and Mercy provides a powerful lens for probing the apparent contradiction between Kaufman’s harsh judgment for the Rosenbergs and his mercy for social minorities. Siegel’s biographical examination of Kaufman and meticulous records of the cases the federal appellate judge took on are part of the author’s effort to resolve the riddle about the “judicial schizophrenia”[2] of Kaufman.


Siegel’s rich account of Kaufman’s Jewish immigrant family background provides a crucial clue to this question. His parents fled poverty and antisemitism in Galicia, landing in New York, where he was born with the name Isidore in 1910. Changing his name to Irving, he sought to rocket from the poor Lower East Side, where he grew up, to a self-made “American” man.[3] Starting as a student at Fordham Law School, Kaufman eventually achieved a successful career, reaching the position of Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and crafting an “impressive version of the classic American dream.”[4] Kaufman said, “This can only happen in America.”[5]


Siegel takes the position that Kaufman’s special faith in the country rooted in his personal experience took the form of a powerful belief in government. His pro-government bent led him to stand on the side of prosecutors in the Rosenbergs’ case, prejudging the defendants’ guilt and intervening in the trial in ways that almost always helped the prosecution.[6] Furthermore, Siegel contends that Kaufman found the Rosenbergs’ support for communism a threat to his America. Kaufman and the Rosenbergs had all been poor Jews on the Lower East Side. Whereas Kaufman realized his ultimate ambition to have a seat on the bench and glorified America, the Rosenbergs viewed Kaufman’s path as a mirage: “The American dream they saw was a put-on invented by those at the top to mask widespread class exploitation, violence against racial minorities, and imperialism abroad.”[7] Kaufman understood the couple’s turn toward a different dream as negating his own dream.


This faith in the American dream manifested in a different form during his later career. His equation of the country with the government faded as the era was drifting away from the welfare state into political liberalism, a shift that brought campaigns for particularized individual rights through the 1960s and 1970s.[8] In this new political environment, Kaufman sought to help America through his contribution to the reformation of legislation, cultivating a foundation for every individual to thrive in the country.


For example, according to Siegel, in John Lennon’s trial for U.S. deportation apparently due to his U.K. conviction in 1968 for possession of drugs, but, in fact, because of the Nixon government’s enmity toward his anti-Vietnam War protests and peace campaigning, Kaufman said as follows: “If, in our two hundred years of independence, we have in some measure realized our ideals, it is in large part because we have always found a place for those committed to the spirit of liberty and willing to help implement it. Lennon’s four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream.”[9] In this sense, what seemed fundamentally important for Kaufman was less a pro- or anti-governmental stance than the realization of justice that he believed could be actualized in the form of the American dream.


Despite Kaufman’s noble motives, it seems evident that his sentences for the Rosenbergs were overly harsh and rooted in his simplified and naive understanding of the government. However, Siegel seems to urge readers not to repeat the same kind of mistake by simplifying their views of Kaufman or his work based on the Rosenbergs’ case through the book’s ample descriptions of the judge’s career and life. That said, Judgment and Mercy is not only about Kaufman’s judgment and mercy for America but also about the reader’s judgment and mercy for Kaufman.

Judgment and Mercy


*Seohye Kwon is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at Louisiana State University.

[N.B. Ms. Kwon received a copy of Judgment and Mercy from the publisher, Cornell University Press, in exchange for her honest review. –Ed.]


*Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at Louisiana State University

[1] Martin J. Siegel, Judgment and Mercy (Cornell University Press, 2023), at 114.

[2] Id. at 3.

[3] Id. at 17.

[4] Id. at 343.

[5] Id. at 124.

[6] Id. at 101.

[7] Id. at 124.

[8] Id. at 187.

[9] Id. at 241.