The climax of the most sensational spy trial in American history is reached when a federal judge sentences Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for their roles in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Although the couple proclaimed their innocence, they were executed in June 1953.
The Rosenbergs were convicted of playing a central role in a spy ring that passed secret data concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union during and immediately after World War II. Their part in the espionage came to light when British physicist Klaus Fuchs was arrested in Great Britain in early 1950. Under questioning, Fuchs admitted that he stole secret documents while he was working on the Manhattan Project—the top-secret U.S. program to build an atomic bomb during World War II. He implicated Harry Gold as a courier who delivered the documents to Soviet agents. Gold was arrested a short time later and informed on David Greenglass, who then pointed the finger at his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Julius was arrested in July and Ethel in August 1950. After a brief trial in March 1951, the Rosenbergs were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. At their sentencing hearing in April, Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman described their crime as “worse than murder” and charged, “By your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.” He sentenced them to death.
READ MORE: Why Were the Rosenbergs Executed?
The Rosenbergs and their attorneys continued to plead their innocence, arguing that they were “victims of political hysteria.” Humanitarian organizations in the United States and around the world pleaded for leniency, particularly since the Rosenbergs were the parents of two young children. The pleas for special consideration were ignored, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953.
This Day In History: The Rosenbergs Were Sentenced To Death For Spying
This day in history, April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death just one week after they were found guilty of conspiring to transmit atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In June 1953, their sentence was carried out.
The Rosenberg case began with the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born and U.S.-employed scientist who confessed to passing classified information about the U.S. atomic program to the Soviets. He implicated Harry Gold as a courier who delivered the documents to Soviet agents. Gold was arrested a short time later, followed by David Greenglass, who had been stationed near the Los Alamos atomic testing site during the war.
In July 1950, Ethel Rosenberg, the sister of Greenglass, was arrested along with her husband, Julius, an electrical engineer who had worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. They were accused of convincing Greenglass to provide Harry Gold with atomic secrets.
After a trial in March 1951, the Rosenbergs were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman described their crime as “worse than murder” and said, “By your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.” Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Harry Gold was sentenced to a 30 years, and the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death.
The Rosenbergs continued to plead their innocence, arguing that they were “victims of political hysteria.” Some questioned the sentence as the most incriminating evidence came from a confessed spy who was given a reduced sentence to testify against them.
Seventy years ago today, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage by a Federal court in Manhattan, following a sensational trial that captivated the nation. One week later, the married couple was sentenced to death. The American public was out for blood. The Rosenbergs had betrayed highly classified U.S. defense secrets, including regarding the atomic bomb, and with American boys dying in Korea fighting the Communists, there was limited support for leniency.
The Rosenbergs went to their deaths in Sing Sing’s electric chair on June 19, 1953, unrepentant to the end. Julius was 35 and his wife was two years older they left behind two orphaned sons. No matter their guilt, the human aspects of the Rosenberg case were poignant – their sons, aged six and ten, asked to see the electric chair where their parents were soon to be executed – and so they remain, seven decades on.
For the remainder of the Cold War, the Rosenbergs had their defenders, mostly on the Left, who insisted that the couple was framed in a bout of McCarthyite hysteria. That case was superficially bolstered by the fact that the prosecution’s star witness, David Greenglass, was a revolting specimen who happened to be Ethel’s brother, an admitted Soviet spy who testified against his nephews’ parents to save his own skin.
However, the Rosenbergs-were-framed argument, which was always tenuous, fell apart in the 1990s, when revelations from Kremlin archives, bolstered by declassified U.S. intelligence – more on that later – made it abundantly clear that the couple was deeply involved in Soviet espionage networks in the United States in the 1940s. The issue of Julius’ guilt, particularly regarding the betrayal of American atomic secrets to Moscow, was settled in all reasonable minds. Ethel, however, still enjoys her defenders, who point to the seediness and unreliability of her own brother as exculpatory in her case.
Along comes Emily Tamkin, who seems to possess no expertise in intelligence history, in the New Statesman, with a piece whose title gives the game away: “The executed innocent: Why justice for Ethel Rosenberg matters.” Her account will be familiar to those versed in the Rosenberg canon, albeit retold for 2021, with citations of feminism, racial issues, and the Patriot Act. Tamkin emphasizes the Rosenbergs’ Jewishness, hinting at anti-Semitism in their case. It is an undeniable fact that Soviet espionage networks in the U.S., as across much of the West during the “golden age” of Kremlin spying in the 1930s and 1940s, included many Jews. Most of them were the children of Ashkenazi immigrants from the Russian Empire, like the forgotten traitor Bill Weisband, whose sensational, indeed world-changing espionage case I recently elaborated in Top Secret Umbra.
Tamkin references a Jewish civil war of sorts going on around Julius and Ethel, citing the role of the notorious Roy Cohn in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs. She does not mention that some of the finest, most balanced scholarship on the Rosenbergs, and on Soviet espionage against FDR’s America more broadly, has been done by Jewish historians like Ron Radosh and Harvey Klehr.
The keyword that’s entirely absent from Tamkin’s article is VENONA. That was the above-Top-Secret codebreaking program run by the National Security Agency between 1943 and 1980, which identified hundreds of Kremlin spies in several countries – including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When NSA declassified VENONA in the 1990s, the history of the early Cold War had to be rewritten. Tailgunner Joe was a drunk charlatan who, to be clear, knew nothing about the VENONA secret, he was shooting in the dark with his often wild counterintelligence claims, but 1940s America really was crawling with Soviet spies.
Omitting VENONA from the Rosenberg story is the last line of defense in Ethel Rosenberg’s case, and it’s hardly a new trick either. It’s tantamount to failing to mention the Mannlicher-Carcano M91/38 rifle purchased by Lee Harvey Oswald under the alias A. Hidell when discussing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A few years ago, Ethel’s sons appealed to President Obama (who sensibly had better things to do) to exonerate their mother and they, too, omitted VENONA entirely from their letter to the White House. That inspired me to explain, based on my expert knowledge of VENONA and NSA, just what they left out:
Julius Rosenberg appeared in several VENONA messages, under the cover names LIBERAL and ANTENNA, which made plain that he wasn’t just a Stalinist true-believer but an important agent of the Soviet secret police who gave Moscow every American secret he could get his hands on…VENONA likewise makes clear that Ethel Rosenberg was a Soviet spy.
Let’s review the formerly Top Secret/Special Intelligence-plus details, which are damning:
Several VENONA messages reveal important facts about Ethel Rosenberg. Number 1657, sent from the KGB’s New York residency to the Center (i.e, HQ) in Moscow on November 27, 1944, is worth citing in detail:
Your no. 5356 [a]. Information on LIBERAL’s [ii] wife [iii]. Surname that of her husband, first name ETHEL, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [ZEMLYaK] [iv] since 1938. Sufficiently well-developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR [v] and NIL [vi]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin [head of KGB foreign intelligence].
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] Ethel ROSENBERG, nee GREENGLASS.
[iv] ZEMLYaK: Member of the Communist Party.
[v] METR: Probably Joel BARR or Alfred SARANT.
[vi] NIL: Unidentified.
. . .
[xi] ANTON: Leonid Romanovich KVASNIKOV [KGB’s New York rezident].
This KGB report establishes that Ethel Rosenberg was a trusted person as far as the Kremlin was concerned, a Communist Party member who was aware of her husband’s secret work for Soviet intelligence, as well as the roles of other agents who were part of Julius’ spy network. Code-phrases such as being “devoted” and “well-developed politically” reveal that Ethel was a committed Stalinist in whom the Soviet secret police placed trust.
That Ethel’s role in Soviet espionage went beyond sympathy was revealed in Message 1340 from New York to Moscow, sent on September 21, 1944. It discusses the possible recruitment of a new American agent:
Lately the development of new people [D% has been in progress]. LIBERAL [ii] recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS, with a safe flat in view. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA] [iii], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TORNITsA] (iv) since 1942. She lives on STANTON [STANTAUN] Street. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P. M. FITIN.
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] GOROZhANKA: American citizen.
[iv] FIZKULITURNITsA: Probably a Member of the Young Communist League.
He we learn Ethel was a such a willing and witting member of the Soviet espionage apparat in mid-1940s America that she was setting up her own sister-in-law as a candidate for recruitment by the KGB. The observation that Ruth Greenglass had a “safe” flat indicates they had clandestine work in mind for her.
Moreover, it’s impossible to believe that Ethel was wholly unaware of what Julius was up to. As the head of his own Soviet agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for Moscow, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see Message 1600, November 14, 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s far-fetched to think she never noticed her husband photographing thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.
A standard, post-1996 comeback to VENONA from the Ethel-was-innocent camp is a quote from Aleksandr Feklisov, the legendary KGB colonel and Cold War spymaster who handled the Rosenbergs for several years, and who died in 2007. Feklisov claimed he viewed Julius as a friend, while Ethel was not involved in espionage directly: “Ethel never worked for us. She didn’t do anything,” Feklisov stated in 1997. He added that the Rosenbergs’ execution was “contract murder,” while downplaying the significance of their betrayal of U.S. atomic secrets to Moscow.
That, however, was not how Feklisov described the Rosenbergs in his memoir, published in English in 2001. Although Feklisov makes no effort at being dispassionate—he considers the Rosenbergs to be heroes and includes a picture of him kissing their tombstone (!)—he adds much more detail about the matter. He admits to more than 50 clandestine meetings with Julius, whose betrayal of his own country Feklisov describes in glowing terms. (Here Feklisov’s original Russian-language memoir, published in 1994, is helpful.)
As for Ethel, Feklisov says that he never met her. This does not surprise, as Julius was already such a trusted agent-handler for the KGB that there was no need for Feklisov, who lived in the United States in constant fear of being caught by the FBI, to expose himself to additional danger by meeting with her. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.
What totally undermines [the Ethel-was-innocent] case, however, is that Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was old school KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.
Tamkin, in customary fashion, makes much of the fact that FBI and Justice Department documents on the Rosenbergs case appear somewhat weak, particularly that they appear incomplete: because, in fact, they were. Indeed, all unclassified DoJ accounts regarding Julius and Ethel written up before 1996 omit any reference to VENONA, which when the Rosenbergs were on trial was one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the U.S. government. Indeed, so sensitive was the VENONA secret that when Julius and Ethel went to the electric chair, President Harry Truman hadn’t yet been briefed on the NSA project. Therefore, DoJ resorted to other testimony in the Rosenberg case such as the testimony of lowlifes like Greenglass, a traitor and a liar. He wasn’t a particularly credible witness, but Greenglass had observed espionage for Moscow conducted by his brother-in-law and his sister too, and that could be discussed in open court – unlike VENONA.
The painful reality about Ethel, as I summed it up in 2016, is this: “Ethel could have saved herself by cooperating—after all, if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, why not talk to the FBI? Especially when your execution is pending. The awful truth is that Ethel Rosenberg, a committed Communist, loved Stalin more than her own children.”
That seems like too much reality for Ethel’s defenders to accept seven decades on, yet VENONA and Soviet intelligence files make clear that she was witting of, and to some degree involved in, her husband’s substantial espionage for Stalin and his genocidal regime, including the passing of U.S. atomic secrets to Moscow. We can debate endlessly whether they should have been executed – the Rosenbergs remain the only Americans to receive the death penalty for espionage since the Second World War – but the witting involvement of Julius and Ethel in spying for the Kremlin has been established beyond any reasonable doubt by the release of VENONA.
That massive intelligence release by NSA came a quarter-century ago now and it’s historical malpractice to omit reference to VENONA in any discussion of the Rosenberg case. If anyone wants to debate VENONA and its crypto-linguistic intricacies with me, I’ve done plenty of that at the unclassified level, feel free to get in touch.
The apprehension of a British spy set off a string of arrests
The first shoe to drop in the case came with the arrest of German-born British physicist Klaus Fuchs on February 2, 1950. Fuchs had also worked at Los Alamos and passed along information to the Soviets independently of the Rosenbergs, though they shared a crucial link with their courier, Harry Gold.
In May the FBI hauled in Gold, who pointed his finger at another common denominator, Greenglass. The dominoes continued to fall with Julius&apos apprehension in July and Ethel&aposs arrest in August, with Sobell discovered to be hiding in Mexico at that time.
After Greenglass pleaded guilty, the trial for the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951, in the Southern District of New York. Making little attempt to portray himself as impartial, Judge Irving R. Kaufman opened the proceedings by declaring: "The evidence will show that the loyalty and alliance of the Rosenbergs and Sobell were not to our country, but that it was to Communism."
1951: Atomic Spies Convicted in the Rosenberg Case
Their case became one of the most famous spy scandals in world history. Their goal was, allegedly, to steal the secret of U.S. nuclear weapons production and deliver it to the USSR.
Spouses Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were New York Jewish immigrants and communists.
A jury in New York on this day pronounced the Rosenbergs guilty of espionage. A few days later they were sentenced to death.
Famous scientists and artists such as Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Paul Sartre raised their voice against the sentence and appealed that the Rosenberg’s lives be spared.
Even Pope Pius XII asked for them to be pardoned, but the spouses were nonetheless executed on 19 June 1953, at the electric chair at Sing Sing.
It was the first execution of civilians convicted of spying in the entire history of the United States.
Why did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy?
Click to explore further. Also to know is, was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg A spies?
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed after having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. Accused of overseeing a spy network that stole American atomic secrets and handing those over to the Soviet Union, the couple were the only spies executed during the Cold War.
how did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg get caught? On June 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage after having been named by Sgt. David Greenglass, Ethel's younger brother and a former machinist at Los Alamos, who also confessed to passing secret information to the USSR through a courier, Harry Gold. On August 11, 1950, Ethel was arrested.
Subsequently, question is, why did Julius Rosenberg commit espionage?
Rosenbergs convicted of espionage. In one of the most sensational trials in American history, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted of espionage for their role in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets during and after World War II. The husband and wife were later sentenced to death and were executed in 1953.
Why were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg considered dangerous?
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were considered dangerous during the Cold War because both worked to create the first atomic bombs for the USSR. Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg was a United States of America marriage executed in the electric chair accused of espionage in favor of the Soviet Union.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are sentenced to death for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union in 1951
A grim warning to America's homegrown Red spies was spelled out yesterday in Federal Court when Judge Irving Kaufman imposed death sentences on Julius Rosenberg, 32, and his wife, Ethel, 35, convicted of passing to the Russians A-bomb secrets which, the jurist said, had placed the kingkin weapon in enemy hands "years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb."
Their co-defendant, Morton Sobell, 35-year-old electronics expert, got off with a 30-year prison term, the longest permitted by law. He escaped the death penalty because the espionage evidence against him had not involved the atom bomb.
"Your crime is worse than murder," Judge Kaufman told the couple who stood, unblinking, before him. "Plain, deliberate, contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed."
He voiced belief that their conduct, in advancing Soviet preparation for A-bomb warfare and boosting Russian confidence, "has already caused the Communist aggression in Korea with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 Americans, and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason?"
The judge blasted the bespectacled Rosenberg as the "prime mover" in the conspiracy, but declared Mrs. Rosenberg was a "full-fledged partner," who encouraged and assisted him in his crime. Both, he asserted, had placed love of Communism over their love for their two children.
The Rosenbergs, pale during the preliminaries, colored as Judge Kaufman began reading from a prepared text. They showed no emotion as his searing words started breaking over them. But twice Mrs. Rosenberg extended her left hand to clasp her husband's right. They exchanged glances, then again faced the judge.
Mrs. Rosenberg moistened her thinly roughed lips as the judge's words made clear the coming penalty. Her husband's jaw muscles bulged slightly.
"The sentence of the court upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is death," Kaufman concluded, "to be executed during the week beginning May 21."
A long gasp came from spectators packing every available foot of courtroom. The Rosenbergs took it in silence: Judge Kaufman declared a brief recess, and attendant led the doomed pair out. Ten minutes later Sobell's turn came.
At 5:45 P.M. Marshal William A. Carroll escorted the prisoners to their night lodgings - Mrs. Rosenberg to the Women's House of Detention, her husband to the Federal House of Detention and Sobell to the City Prison. Carroll hopes to arrange for the transfer of the Rosenbergs to Sing Sing today.
Later the Rosenbergs burst into song in their cells. Ethel sang "One Fine Day" and "Goodnight Irene" and her husband sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Before calling in the Rosenbergs, Judge Kaufman had postponed until 2 P.M. today the sentencing of Mrs. Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, 28, pudgy ex-Army sergeant who was persuaded to transmit information to the Rosenbergs while he was stationed in 1945 at the super-secret Los Alamos, N.M., atom project.
Greenglass was indicted with his sister, brother-in-law and Sobell, but pleaded guilty and became a star witness against them. Though technically liable to the death penalty, it's a safe bet Greenglass will draw a prison term. Judge Kaufman mentioned that it had required "a lot of soul-searching and courage" for Greenglass to aid his Government against his kin.
Counsel for Sobell and the Rosenbergs announced they would appeal.
Mrs. Rosenberg, who formerly lived with her husband and children at 1 Monroe St. in Knickerbocker Village, was light-hearted on her way to court rom the Women's House of Detention. She chatted about the weather and hats with her escort, Deputy Marshal Lillian McLaughlin.
She entered the court anteroom at 9:40, wearing a gray coat, blue hat, blue skirt and red vest over a pinkish blouse. Sobell had arrived from City Prison earlier, handcuffed to a marshal. He carried a book titled "The Dead Stay Young."
Rosenberg was ushered in at 10. His glance fell first on Sobell, his friend since their student days at City College. Then he saw his wife. But there was no conversation attendants kept them apart.
In the court, defense counsel were putting up their last fight before the sentencing. Emanuel H. Bloch, for the Rosenbergs, moved for a new trial and an arrest judgment on grounds previously stated. Kaufman denied the motion.
Harold H. Phillips, Sobell's lawyer, charged his client had been snatched up illegally by Mexican officials in Mexico and thrust across the border unfairly into waiting FBI hands. Judge Kaufman was not impressed.
The Rosenbergs then were brought in, and U.S. Attorney Irving H. Saypol rose.
Saypol Cites Penalties.
Saypol cited the statuses on wartime espionage punishment, noting that the maximum alternatives were death or not more than 30 years' imprisonment. He confessed a certain confusion as to why Congress had not permitted a prison sentence of more than 30 years in lieu of death, but urged the court to consider closely the Rosenberg's offense.
"They gave their allegiance to forces which now are proven allied to the real enemy in Korea, where young American lives are being sacrificed daily," said Saypol.
"How can the life of a single individual engaged in such treasonable activities be weighed against the life of a single American soldier fighting in a distant land?
"In terms of human life, these defendants have affected the lives, and perhaps the freedom, of whole generations of mankind.
"In the light of these considerations, is there room for compassion or mercy? Is there not an absolute duty to exercise the only weapons of defense available to our free judicial system which is here charged with acting in defense of our society?"
The prosecutor declared leniency would be merely an invitation to increased activity by this country's internal foes.
Bloch, for the Rosenbergs, asked that their actions be judged in the light of the 1944-45 international situation when Russia still was playing the role of ally. Public opinion would not have been outraged had they been detected in 1945, he asserted. He also said the political wheel might turn again, with Russia becoming a friend.
"Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally were convicted of treason and received terms of only 10 to 15 years." Bloch argued in a last try, as Judge Kaufman remained unmoved.
In commencing sentence, the jurist called attention to a broad loophole in the espionage laws. While the Rosenberg-Sobell-Greenglass conspiracy occurred in wartime and thus became subject to the highest punishment, the current law provides only a 20-year maximum for similar actions in peacetime.
"I ask that some thought be given to that," Kaufman said, "for it most likely means that even if spies are successful in 1951 in delivering to Russia or any foreign power our secrets concerning the newer type atom bombs, or even the H-bomb, the maximum punishment that any court could impose in that situation would be 20 years.
"I, therefore, say that it is time for Congress to reexamine the penal provisions of the espionage statute."
Espionage such as committed by the Rosenbergs "does not reflect the courage of a Nathan Hale, risking his life in the service of his own country," Judge Kaufman observed.
"It was rather a sordid, dirty work - however idealistic the rationalizations of the persons engaged in it - with but one paramount theme, betrayal of one's own country."
At no time in American history, the judge added, has this country been confronted with such a challenge to its existence as today. "The atom bomb was unknown when the espionage statute was drafted. I emphasize this because we must realize that we are dealing with missiles of destructions which can wipe out millions of Americans."
America's competitive advantage in super-weapons, he continued, has put a premium on the services of a new school of species - "the home-grown variety that places allegiance to a foreign power before loyalty to the U.S."
Kaufman found it ironic that the country the defendants sought to destroy had given them a fair and impartial trial, last three weeks.
Different in Russia.
"I recall the defendant Julius Rosenberg testifying that our American system of jurisprudence met with his approval and was preferred over Russian justice," said the judge. "Even the defendants realize, by this admission, that this type of trial would not have been afforded them in Russia. Certainly, to a Russian national accused of a conspiracy to destroy Russia not one day would have been consumed in a trial."
He told the defendants that by their betrayal "you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country." He continued:
"We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day - for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack.
"In the light of the circumstances, I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation's security must remain inviolate that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology, or by a desire for monetary gains, must cease."
Judge Kaufman said he had deliberated "hours, days and nights" seeking a reason for mercy, but was convinced leniency would violate the public trust lodged in him.
"It is not in my power, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to forgive you," he said solemnly. "Only the Lord can find mercy for what you have done."
The doomed pair had a chance to exchange only a question and answer as they were led from the room.
Execution of Ethel Rosenberg
Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's names remain familiar to most Americans. Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to commit treason, the Rosenbergs were at the center of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century. Fifty-four years after her death, Ethel Rosenberg's role remains one of the most contested aspects of the whole affair.
Despite her sensational death, Ethel Rosenberg was not a lifelong political activist. Born to Russian immigrants on New York's Lower East Side in 1915, the young Ethel hoped for a career in theater or music. Although she went to work instead of to college after her 1931 graduation from high school, she studied experimental theatre at the Clark Settlement House and also studied music. She joined the Schola Cantorum, a vocal group that performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Even as she maintained the dream of a musical career, her work in a shipping company was leading her in a new direction.
At work, Ethel Rosenberg was introduced for the first time to union organizers and Communist Party members. Exploring radical political philosophy through music and theatre as well as evening discussions, she came to agree with many of the Communist Party's goals, such as fighting fascism and racism and supporting unions. When the workers in her union called a strike in 1935, she was one of four members of the strike committee. She continued to sing, however, and it was at a performance at a Seaman's Union benefit that she met Julius Rosenberg. They were married in 1939. After their marriage, Julius remained active in the Communist Party, but Ethel left both politics and music behind to focus on raising their two sons.
Following the arrest of a German-born physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the U.S. atomic bomb, a series of revelations led, in June 1950, to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg as an atomic spy. Ethel's arrest followed in July. The pair were turned in by Ethel's youngest brother, David Greenglass, apparently to protect his own wife from prosecution. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information.
On March 29, 1951, following a high-profile trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason, in the form of passing atomic secrets to Russia. Ethel's refusal to fulfill a stereotypical feminine role by breaking into tears during the trial was thought to show that she was unwomanly and more attached to Communism than to her children. Her stoicism may have helped to turn the jury of 11 men and one woman against her.
The global political context was also a clear factor. In pronouncing their death sentence, Judge Irving Kaufman described the Rosenbergs' crime as "worse than murder . causing the communist aggression in Korea," thus blaming them for the Korean War. The conviction and sentence were followed by a lengthy series of appeals.
Although a number of leftist organizations protested the verdict, Jewish organizations were conspicuously absent in the Rosenbergs' defense. Public condemnation of the Rosenbergs, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and the shadow of McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.
Following failed pleas for clemency to President Truman and then to President Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel was only the second woman ever to be executed by the federal government. To the end, both Rosenbergs insisted on their innocence. Documents recently unsealed in both the U.S. and Russia show that although Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty, Ethel's role in any conspiracy was tiny at most.
While scholarly debate over the Rosenberg case continues, their names remain a touchstone for many. Playwright Tony Kushner, for instance, offered a powerful portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg's strength and humanity in his landmark production Angels in America. Heir to an Execution (2004), a recent documentary by the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, presents a particularly moving portrayal of how Ethel confronted her arrest, trial and execution.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1174-1176 Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds., Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America (New York, 1995) Ilene Philipson, Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myth (New York, 1988) Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (New York, 1983) Joseph Sharlitt, Fatal Error: The Miscarriage of Justice that Sealed the Rosenbergs' Fate (New York, 1989) Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1951 New York Times, April 6, 1951, June 20, 1953 Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1952, June 20, 1953.
The Sentencing Of Julius And Ethel Rosenberg
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death by electrocution at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage (Fariello 178). The Rosenbergs were accused of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union as a part of a large spy ring. The presiding judge over the trial, Judge Irving R. Kaufman, handed down the sentence on April 5, 1951 (Wexley 597). There has been much controversy surrounding the guilt or innocence of Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel. As more documents have been released concerning the Rosenberg case, Julius Rosenberg's guilt as a spy has been established. Ethel Rosenberg was almost certainly an accomplice to her husband's crimes even though the government's case against her was weak (Radosh 448). The severity of the punishment, however, was too great for the crime committed by the Rosenbergs.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted, and sentenced in an era when communism was feared, Russia was an enemy, and scapegoats were needed to blame for foreign conflict. Justice requires that the punishment fit the crime however, at times the punishment fits the environment. At a time when anti-Communist sentiments ran high, the Rosenberg's sentence of death by electrocution was too severe for the crimes that they committed.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of conspiracy to commit espionage. Prosecutors usually use the conspiracy charge when there is a lack of evidence to prove the actual commission of a crime (Wexley 277). Julius Rosenberg was arrested and charged with recruiting his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, into a spy ring and providing Soviet agents with atomic secrets. Greenglass was to steal atomic information from Los Alamos, the site where the atomic bomb was being developed, so that it could be sold to Russian agents (Neville 16). Ethel Rosenberg was later arrested on the same charge as an accomplice to her husband's crimes.
Although a jury decided the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the judge decided their fate. Judge Irving R. Kaufman declared the death sentence for the Rosenbergs on April 5, 1951 (Wexley 597). The atmosphere of the courtroom was hostile towards the Rosenbergs and their only chance for a fair trial was if the judge presumed their innocence and conducted the trial appropriately. This was not the case. As the jury was selected, Judge Kaufman dismissed any perspective juror who had a prejudice against the atomic bomb or its use, believed that atomic information should be released to Russia, were members of a left wing party, read leftist publications, or opposed capital punishment. The resulting jury was made of eleven men, one woman, and no Jewish people (Phillipson 277). By early 1943, the Rosenbergs were passionate believers in Communism and full-fledged members of the Communist party (Radosh 53). By late 1943, they had stopped participating in the activities of the party (Radosh 54). Nevertheless, the Rosenbergs faced a jury of anti-Communists who would not be sympathetic to their past Communist affiliations. The judge also would not be sympathetic to the Rosenberg's Communist past (Caute 140). The judge's opinion of the Rosenbergs is clear in his questioning of the witnesses during the trial during which Ethel and Julius were forced to endure the "one-two combination of judge and prosecutor, working in tandem (Phillipson 292)." As Kaufman began his sentencing speech, his true feelings about the Rosenbergs were revealed. He told the Rosenbergs that he considered their "crime as worse than murder" because they put "into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before" American scientists predicted (Phillipson 306). His speech continued by blaming the soviet aggression in Korea that caused over 50,000 deaths on the actions of the Rosenbergs which "altered the course of history to the disadvantage" of the United States (Phillipson 306). This comment revealed that Judge Kaufman was not dealing with the crime at issue because no evidence had been presented linking the Rosenbergs to Soviet activity in Korea (Radosh 284). The judge continued in his speech with an accusation of treachery (Phillipson 306). The Rosenbergs were on trial for conspiracy, but the judge sentenced them with the thought of treason in his mind. Judge Kaufman continued his speech with accusations that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg believed in Soviet atheism, collectivism, and actions against the freedom of man (Neville 49). None of these accusations were addressed during the trial or found in the trial record (Wexley 594). The judge made these accusations based on his own opinion of the Rosenbergs as opposed to the facts that were brought forth during the trial. Judge Kaufman revealed in his sentencing speech his disapproval for the actions of the Rosenbergs. He exaggerated their transgressions with additional accusations that were not supported by trial testimony. The sentencing speech made by Judge Kaufman has been cited as an ideal model of the "paranoid style" of politics in America during the Cold War (Neville 49). The paranoia felt by Judge Kaufman concerning the Soviet threat in 1951 contributed to his action of exceeding the sentencing recommendations of the prosecution in the Rosenberg case (Radosh 289).
Judge Kaufman was known to exceed the recommendations of the prosecutors in atom spy cases. In cases that he had presided over previous to the Rosenberg case, he had set a precedent for handing down sentences that were more severe than expected. In the Rosenberg case, the government did not recommend the death penalty especially, for Ethel Rosenberg (Radosh 279). Judge Kaufman decided not to hear sentencing recommendations in court after hearing that the FBI was in favor of a prison sentence for Ethel Rosenberg (Radosh 281). After the trial, Kaufman claimed that he did not take sentencing recommendations from anyone (Fariello 184). Prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn claimed that in communications he had with Kaufman during the case, he convinced the judge to give Ethel Rosenberg a death sentence (Fariello 184). Improper conferences such as those with Roy Cohn led Judge Kaufman to make sentencing decisions based on his personal bias as opposed to the facts brought forth during the trial.
Ethel Rosenberg was the first American woman to be electrocuted by federal order (Neville 133). When she was arrested, she was not aware of the severity of the crimes of which she was accused. As far as she was aware, she faced a possible death penalty or life imprisonment for conferring with her husband, brother, and sister-in-law on two separate occasions (Phillipson 274). It was not until later when she learned that her brother had accused her of deeper involvement in the spy ring. The judge accused her of being "the she-devil" and the mastermind behind the Rosenberg spy ring (Fariello 184). Investigative files of the Federal Bureau of Investigations contain no information to link Ethel Rosenberg to active participation in the spy ring beyond the conferences with David Greenglass and her husband (Radosh 451). Ethel Rosenberg was convicted for being aware of her husband's activities (Radosh 167). The punishment she received was too severe for the involvement she had in these activities.
The majority of the prosecution's case rested on the testimony of David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg. David Greenglass was convicted as one of the conspirators in the trial. He confessed to the crime and testified against his sister and brother-in-law. David Greenglass implicated Julius Rosenberg of involvement in spy activities, but strongly denied any involvement of his sister until ten days before the trial. (Fariello 179). Less than two weeks prior to the start of the trial, Greenglass remembered that Ethel Rosenberg had typed some of the notes he made concerning the structure of the A-bomb (Fariello 184). This accusation led to the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg. Greenglass's wife, Ruth, claimed that her husband had a "tendency to hysteria" and "would say things were so even if they were not (Fariello 178)." This brings into question the validity of the testimony of David Greenglass. Greenglass's testimony was key for the prosecution in order to support the claims of the conspiracy with which the Rosenbergs were being charged. David Greenglass was convicted of the same crime as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, but was sentenced to only fifteen years in a federal prison (Phillipson 285). His wife admitted to having an active role in the conspiracy, but was never arrested as a conspirator (Radosh 100). David Greenglass's sentence was extremely mild compared to the punishment given to the Rosenbergs. If Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had cooperated with the government and confessed like David Greenglass, they probably would have received a lighter sentence. The death sentence, however, appeared to the prosecution as the only means to induce a confession and force the Rosenbergs to reveal other people involved in spy activities (Phillipson 266).
The severe punishment of the Rosenbergs was used to frighten other people who might be involved in spy activities so as to deter them from these activities (Radosh 451). The judge used the Rosenbergs as an example to prove that the United States government would not tolerate any activity that might lead to danger for the country. The sentence of the Rosenbergs was partially an attempt to shock future traitors and deter future imitators (Wexley280). The Rosenbergs died maintaining their innocence and refusing to turn over any other associates with whom they might have worked (Radosh 417). The hope that a stiff sentence could induce a confession from the Rosenbergs failed and they were put to death even though the government recommended a lighter sentence (Radosh 289).
The Rosenbergs were scapegoats in a time when anti-Communist sentiments were high. During the period of their trial and sentencing, the American climate was one of fear and apprehension toward anything associated with Communism. The United States government and the majority of citizens were determined to destroy anything or person with Communist affiliations (Phillipson 225). The Rosenbergs were accused of helping a country that was an ally at the time. They were tried after the ally nation became an American enemy. If the Rosenbergs had been tried in 1945, it is probable that there would not have been the hysteria that existed in 1951. Most likely, they would have been sentenced to a light jail term if any at all if they had been sentenced in 1945 (Radosh 282). During the sentencing of the Rosenbergs, the highly charged political atmosphere of the United States made it the best moment to find a scapegoat for Communist activities abroad (Wexley 397). The Rosenbergs were given such an extreme punishment because they could be the scapegoats of a propaganda war between the Communists and the anti-Communists (Radosh 452).
On the day of the Rosenbergs sentencing, the fear of the American people was evident. The headlines of the New York Times read "A Third World War May Be Near," "Troops for Europe Backed by Senate, House Asked to Act," and others that reflected the panic of the American people. The time was perfect for Judge Irving Kaufman to declare his sentence and receive approval from the American people. On April 5, 1951, Judge Kaufman was able to provide the worried citizens of the United States with a scapegoat on which they could blame the war in Korea. The Rosenbergs became this scapegoat (Wexley 597). Newspapers had made the Rosenbergs traitors to their country and defendants in a trial of treason. The public was told in the newspapers that the Rosenbergs were sentenced to die as a result of a treason trial (Wexley 280). They accepted the punishment because they were not aware of the true crime that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of committing, conspiracy to commit espionage. No American citizen had ever been put to death because of an espionage conviction (Fariello 178). Their death was caused by extreme apprehension in the United States concerning anything linked to Communism (Phillipson 225). Their death was caused by the bias of a judge who presumed guilt instead of innocence (Phillipson 277). Their death was caused by a prosecution's case that could prove conspiracy but not treachery (Wexley 277).
The Rosenberg story captured the attention of America. It brought fear into the hearts of those who feared nuclear attack and that citizens of the United States would endanger the country by selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The case also brought fear into the hearts of those that saw the injustice of the sentence that was handed down to the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs were not innocent victims of an unfair legal system, but they were victims of the time during which they were tried.
Bibliography Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Death House Letters of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. New York: Jero Publishing Company, Inc., 1953.
Fariello, Griffin. Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition: An Oral History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995 Gardner, Virginia. The Rosenberg Story. New York: Masses & Mainstream, 1954.
Neville, John F. The Press, the Rosenbergs, and the Cold War. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1995.
Philipson, Ilene. Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Radosh, Ronald and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
Wexley, John. The Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. New York: Cameron & Kahn, 1955.
Trial and Execution
After the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, the U.S. government began an extensive hunt to find out who had provided them with the knowledge to make such a weapon. The U.S. Army&aposs Signal Intelligence Service broke the code used by the Soviets to send messages in the mid-1940s. Some of these decrypted messages revealed that Julius Rosenberg, known by the codename "Liberal," was involved with the Soviets.
It was David Greenglass, however, who was the first to be caught in this spying case. He then told authorities about Julius Rosenberg&aposs activities. According to some reports, David Greenglass had initially failed to mention his sister&aposs involvement in espionage, later stating that she had participated as well. Julius Rosenberg was arrested on July 17, 1950, and his wife was taken into custody a few weeks later.
The Rosenbergs were brought to trial the following March, and both proclaimed their innocence. By this time, the U.S. military was engaged in the Korean War, and strong anti-communist sentiments were held nationwide. Julius and Ethel were both convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, and in early April 1951, the couple was sentenced to death. A series of appeals delayed their execution for more than two years. The couple&aposs supporters also requested clemency for the Rosenbergs from presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who both denied to issue a pardon.
On the night of June 19, 1953, Julius Rosenberg was executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Minutes later, his wife died in the same electric chair. The couple left behind two young sons, Michael and Robert.
Death and Aftermath
Supporters of the Rosenbergs campaigned and protested on behalf of the couple. Both presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were asked to give them clemency, but refused to grant a presidential pardon. The Rosenbergs fought for their lives through a series of court appeals, but to no avail.
Ethel was executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, on June 19, 1953, just minutes after her husband was put to death. A rabbi had reportedly asked to Ethel to cooperate with authorities after Julius&aposs death to stop her execution, but she refused. According to The New York Times, she said, "I have no names to give. I&aposm innocent."
The case against Ethel has been questioned extensively since her death. While more evidence on her husband has emerged over the years, Ethel&aposs role in the conspiracy has remained unclear. The most damaging testimony came from her own brother. David Greenglass, however, later admitted that he lied about his sister&aposs involvement in the case.