Anna M. Rosen­berg, Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense, Man­pow­er and Per­son­nel (1950 – 1953) at her desk in the Pen­ta­gon, US Depart­ment of Defense

When I was in law school near­ly thir­ty years ago, the mantra was Read the statute, read the statute, read the statute.” Of the many skills required to be a good lawyer, they told us, most impor­tant was the abil­i­ty to read, re-read, then read it again. This is also true for writ­ers of nar­ra­tive his­to­ry. Turn every page,” coun­sels the dean of Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans, Robert Caro.

Caro, of course, is leg­endary for trans­form­ing a moun­tain of papers, inter­views, and doc­u­ments into a ver­sion of Lyn­don B. John­son that reveals the Shake­speare­an com­plex­i­ty of a man who attained the pin­na­cle of pow­er and was bedev­iled by tragedy.

Only a small frac­tion of LBJ’s papers, which have been housed at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library since 1987, tell of his long­time friend and trust­ed advi­sor, Anna Rosen­berg. These few box­es filled with let­ters, pho­tos, and news­pa­per clip­pings pro­vide the basics: Anna was a busi­ness­woman of renown who came into the orbit of the Roo­sevelts, faith­ful­ly served FDR in peace and war, and lat­er over­came a smear cam­paign by Sen­a­tor Joe McCarthy to serve as Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense. 

Today’s tech­nol­o­gy allowed me to stitch this out­line into a rich nar­ra­tive that became The Con­fi­dante. My research took me from Ann Arbor to Yale, Budapest to Bing­ham­ton. Find­ing Anna Rosen­berg required cross-ref­er­enc­ing the papers of fig­ures like men­tor Bernard Baruch, fel­low New Deal­er Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roo­sevelt — with whom she shared a pas­sion for social jus­tice — and Pres­i­dents Franklin Roo­sevelt, Tru­man, Eisen­how­er, and John­son. With every (dig­i­tal) page I turned, the three-dimen­sion­al fig­ure of Anna Rosen­berg came more and more to life. 

News­pa­per arti­cles from a cen­tu­ry ago reveal that Anna was schooled in the bare-knuck­led pol­i­tics of New York City by Belle Moskowitz, the de fac­to Chief of Staff for Gov­er­nor Al Smith, and Tam­many boss Jim Hagan. Long-defunct mag­a­zines from the late 1930s to the mid-fifties nev­er failed to men­tion her col­or­ful hats and even more col­or­ful lan­guage. In an inter­view about her rec­ol­lec­tions of Eleanor Roo­sevelt, Anna devi­at­ed from her sub­ject to tell the sto­ry of how she learned of the atom­ic bomb project by way of a let­ter. It was indis­creet [of the Sec­re­tary of War] to write such a let­ter,” she remarked. Indis­creet or not, FDR’s trust in her was so great that he let Anna in on a secret so tight­ly kept it was not even known by his own vice pres­i­dent, Har­ry Tru­man. Just a few years before she died, Anna was on TV, telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer that she had burned the let­ters FDR sent her.

Long-defunct mag­a­zines from the late 1930s to the mid-fifties nev­er failed to men­tion her col­or­ful hats and even more col­or­ful language.

Per­haps the biggest sur­prise I found was in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Tem­ple Sis­ter­hoods, dat­ed 1946. With­in those pages Anna recount­ed meet­ing ragged, age­less” sur­vivors of a new­ly lib­er­at­ed con­cen­tra­tion camp. It now made sense, I thought, that Pres­i­dent Tru­man assist­ed dis­placed French Jews.

That it took read­ing every page of dusty, dry meet­ing min­utes to dis­cov­er that Anna was one of the first Allied women to bear wit­ness to the con­cen­tra­tion camps is not sur­pris­ing. Anna was nev­er one to trum­pet her own expe­ri­ences. Not that she didn’t want to be found. She par­ried with news­pa­per reporters and smiled for mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­phers. But she played the game so as to advo­cate for an expand­ed democ­ra­cy and to give cred­it to the lead­ers of the war effort. She didn’t want to insert her­self into history. 

There are a num­ber of rea­sons for her ret­i­cence, start­ing with the unfor­tu­nate coin­ci­dence that she shared a sur­name with the noto­ri­ous Julius and Ethel Rosen­berg. She also nev­er went to col­lege. In Amer­i­ca then as now, where one has gone to school can con­fer pow­er and pres­tige. Rather than the posh trans-Atlantic accent taught in that era’s board­ing schools and thee-ah-tah class­es, Anna spoke all her life with a slight Hun­gar­i­an accent, tinged with a bit of the Bronx. While she was not inse­cure, Anna’s lack of cre­den­tials both­ered her. My con­scious­ness of how lit­tle I know,” she admit­ted in an address at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, has caused me to spend my life in thrall to all of those who have mas­tered the learn­ing of the arts and sciences.”

In 1954 she refused Eleanor Roosevelt’s urg­ing that she begin work with a biog­ra­ph­er. She turned down the major pub­lish­ing hous­es that sought her mem­oir, and she nev­er wavered. That’s a book that will nev­er be writ­ten.” Her devo­tion to Franklin Roo­sevelt was at the heart of this refusal. Part of what allowed her to rise in the world of pol­i­tics was that she learned the valu­able les­son of nev­er repeat­ing an inti­mate White House con­ver­sa­tion.” Anna found the avalanche of so-called me-and-FDR” mem­oirs dis­taste­ful. I’m nev­er going to write a book, and thank God, I’ve stuck to that. Every­one who comes out of Wash­ing­ton writes a book.”

The deep­er I delved into her life, the more it amazed me that her sto­ry had remained unsung. Now, sev­en decades after she reached the height of her pop­u­lar­i­ty as a styl­ish civil­ian woman in a top Pen­ta­gon post dur­ing wartime, there is final­ly a book about her. She was intel­li­gent, wit­ty, loy­al, hard­work­ing, and patri­ot­ic. But this is just a short list. For the full mea­sure of the woman who shaped major US poli­cies for a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry — who was trust­ed and admired by labor lead­ers and titans of indus­try, sol­diers and gen­er­als, and some of the great­est pres­i­dents in mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry—you’ll have to turn every page.

Christo­pher C. Gorham is a lawyer and teacher of mod­ern Amer­i­can his­to­ry at West­ford Acad­e­my, out­side Boston. He has degrees in his­to­ry from Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, where he stud­ied under leg­endary labor his­to­ri­an Sid­ney Fine. He has a J.D., sum­ma cum laude, from Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege of Law, where he served on the edi­to­r­i­al staff of the Syra­cuse Law Review. His writ­ing has appeared in The Wash­ing­ton Post and online journals..