At 8 pm on 19 June 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair at the notorious Sing Sing Prison in New York. Convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, the couple were the only American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War.
While many supported the Rosenbergs’ punishment – it is estimated that the information they shared quickened the production of the USSR’s first atomic bomb by a year – national and international protests argued that the Rosenbergs were victims of Cold War paranoia and that their executions were unjust.
The trial and execution of the Rosenbergs continues to prove controversial. What is generally acknowledged, however, is that the widespread fixation on their case echoed the United States’ wider obsession with the nuclear arms race, the fight against communism and its reputation on the international stage. Here’s the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The Rosenbergs supported communism
Ethel Greenglass was born to a Jewish family in 1915 in New York. A member of the Young Communist League in the early 1930s, it was through her activism with the Communist Party that she met Julius Rosenberg in 1936. Rosenberg, from a family of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire, had a degree in electrical engineering. They were married in 1939 and went on to have two children.
In 1940, Julius joined the US Army Signal Corps as a civilian engineer and left the Communist Party to avoid suspicion. While there, he undertook important research on electronics, communications, radar and guided missile controls. However, Julius was discharged in 1945 after the army discovered his former Communist Party affiliation.
It’s probable that Julius Rosenberg was recruited to spy for the interior ministry of the Soviet Union on Labor Day 1942. By this time, the Soviet Union was an ally to Western powers including the United States, but the Americans did not share information with the Soviet Union regarding their development of the world’s first nuclear weapons via the Manhattan Project.
Julius Rosenberg shared valuable information with the Soviet Union
Julius recruited further spies, most notably atomic engineer Russell McNutt and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass along with his wife Ruth. By 1945, Julius Rosenberg and his espionage network were providing valuable information.
This included information about high explosive lenses being developed for the atomic bomb, physics and atomic research secrets, thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (including a complete set of design and production drawings for the US’ first operational jet fighter) and information about how to manufacture weapons-grade uranium.
The US and its allies were shocked by the speed at which the Soviet Union conducted their first nuclear test, ‘Joe 1’, on 29 August 1949.
The United States uncovered the spy ring in 1949
In 1949, the US Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) uncovered the Soviet spy ring, which led to the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Many were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.
On 6 March 1951, the Rosenbergs’ trial began in New York. Lasting nearly a month, the couple were charged with conspiracy and providing atomic secrets to the USSR, but since the US was not at war with the Soviet Union, they could not be charged with treason. Their lawyers Emanuel and Alexander Bloch also defended accused spy Morton Sobell.
The Rosenbergs denied all allegations of espionage
Judge Irving R. Kaufman opened the trial by stating: “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. Communism in this country and communism throughout the world. Sobell and Julius Rosenberg, classmates together in college, dedicated themselves to the cause of communism. This love of communism and the Soviet Union soon led them into a Soviet espionage ring.”
Both Julius and Ethel pleaded the Fifth Amendment (effectively the right to remain silent) when asked repeated questions related to espionage and when questioned about being members of the Communist Party. Many believed their refusal to answer questions and later denial of all allegations to be an admission of guilt. Moreover, they refused to incriminate anyone else.
David Greenglass testified against his own sister
The FBI arrested Greenglass for espionage in June 1950. The direct evidence of the Rosenbergs’ involvement came from the confessions and testimonies of David and Ruth Greenglass. Since the Rosenbergs were being charged with conspiracy, no hard evidence was required.
Before a grand jury in August 1950, David Greenglass secretly testified against Julius, stating that he was recruited to join the Soviet spy ring by him. However, he affirmed that he never spoke to his sister about anything to do with the spy ring at all.
This led to a weak testimony against Ethel for her alleged involvement. Crucially, however, this testimony was not shown to the lawyers during the Rosenbergs’ trial.
Just 10 days before the start of the Rosenbergs’ trial in February 1951, Greenglass re-testified and changed his original statements to doubly incriminate Julius and Ethel. This was the result of a deal granted to the Greenglasses which permitted Ruth to remain with their children.
Greenglass now claimed that Julius, with help from Ethel, recruited David into the atomic spy ring in 1944. He changed vital information, stating that crucial information had been handed over in the living room of the Rosenbergs’ New York apartment and that Ethel had been present. Moreover, he stated that Ethel was present during all meetings and had typed notes.
This information also led to the charges against Ruth being dropped.
The Rosenbergs’ death sentence was controversial
On 29 March 1951, the court convicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of conspiracy to commit espionage. They were sentenced to death. The judge stated, “I consider your crimes worse than murder. I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb [means that] millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason.”
In spite of Red Scare headlines and an American public who understood that Soviet espionage was serious, the outcome of the trial produced mixed reactions. Many felt that the Rosenbergs were persecuted solely for their past involvement in the Communist Party. This led to both national and international protests.
Their legal team attempted to have their verdict overturned, but neither President Truman or Eisenhower granted their request. J. Edgar Hoover publicly opposed the trial, stating that executing a young mother would reflect negatively on both the FBI and Justice Department.
In spite of mixed reactions, most American newspapers supported the death sentence, in contrast to European newspapers, which did not.
On 19 June 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed. Ethel’s execution was botched – her heart was still beating after three charges of electricity – and by the time she did die, it was reported that smoke was coming from the top of her head.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery in New York. The Times reported that 500 people attended, while some 10,000 stood outside.
The case is still heavily debated
Today, there are conflicting assessments among historians regarding the outcome of the trial. Many believe that the evidence against Ethel was fabricated by the Greenglasses (in an interview, David Greenglass stated, “my wife is more important to me than my sister”) while others maintain that she was actively involved and attended meetings with Julius and his sources, though there is no evidence that she typed notes.
Some argue that the Rosenbergs were ‘guilty and framed’, meaning that they were spies, but there was significant evidence fabricated against them which led to an unjust trial and punishment.
From a scientific point of view, it has been stated that the information that David and Julius passed to the Soviet Union would not have been of great importance since it was not very detailed.
The trial and punishment of the Rosenbergs stunned America at a time of extreme political, technological and social unrest. Whatever the truth, the magnitude of the couple being executed for espionage speaks volumes about the Red Scare and the US’ turbulent political past.