On This Day

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg custody
Roger Higgins/Library of Congress New York World-Telegram and the Sun Collection
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg leave the court after being convicted of espionage in March 1951.

On This Day: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Sentenced to Death for Espionage

April 05, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. They were executed by electric chair in 1953, becoming the only two American civilians to be executed for Cold War espionage.

The Rosenberg Spy Case

Husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of heading a spy ring during World War II that provided the Soviet Union with information about the United States’ development of the atomic bomb. The information obtained through the Rosenbergs may have played a small role in the Soviet Union’s development of an atomic bomb in 1949.

The U.S. federal government was aware that nuclear secrets had been smuggled to the Soviet Union. Its decoding of Soviet cables, known as the Venona intercepts, led it to Klaus Fuchs, a German-born scientist who had taken part in the Manhattan Project. Fuchs, after being arrested by British authorities in February 1950, confessed to handing over information to a spy later identified as Philadelphia chemist Harry Gold.

Gold told authorities that he had also received secrets from a soldier based in Los Alamos, the center of the Manhattan Project. That soldier, David Greenglass, implicated his wife Ruth and his sister Ethel’s husband, Julius Rosenberg, who was arrested in July 1950.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were each New York-born children of immigrants. They had become ardent members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Julius became a civilian member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1940 and remained in the position until he was fired in 1945 for his communist affiliation. It was during this time that Julius recruited his brother-in-law David Greenglass to provide secrets from Los Alamos.

Unlike others in the case, Julius Rosenberg refused to confess his guilt or offer any information to authorities. There was little evidence to suggest that Ethel Rosenberg was involved in the spy ring, but authorities arrested her to put pressure in Julius. The Greenglasses, in order to protect themselves, later implicated Ethel, who was charged alongside Julius under the Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited aiding U.S. enemies during wartime.

The Rosenberg stood trial alongside fellow spy Morton Sobell beginning on March 6, 1951. The prosecution’s key witnesses were Mr. and Mrs. Greenglass and Gold. The defense called only the Rosenbergs, who steadfastly denied all involvement in Soviet espionage and frequently invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about their allegiances to the Communist Party.

The jury convicted all three defendants on March 29, and the judge sentenced them to death a week later. The two were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953.

Were the Rosenbergs Guilty?

The question of the Rosenberg’s guilt has long been debated. Defenders of the Rosenbergs believed that they were victims of the rabid anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era and that they were convicted largely on the self-serving testimony of others implicated for espionage.

In the last 20 years, there has been a great deal of evidence released confirming that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, though it also suggests that Ethel Rosenberg played little or no role in the crimes.

In 1995, the U.S. government released the Venona intercepts, which made clear that Julius Rosenberg took part in the recruitment of David Greenglass.

Two years later, former Soviet agent Alexsandr Feklisov revealed that he had been Rosenberg’s contact and that he had received top-secret electronic information, though little of it was helpful in developing an atomic bomb (it did aid the Soviets in developing the technology to shoot down the U-2 spy plane in 1960. Feklisov said taht he did not believe the Rosenbergs deserved to die for their actions.

In 2001, David Greenglass admitted that he lied about his sister Ethel typing notes about atomic bombs in order to protect his wife. In an interview with CBS, he justified his actions by saying, “I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister.”

In 2008, Sobell, who had long maintained that he and the Rosenbergs were innocent, admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had indeed been spies. In an interview with The New York Times he said about Ethel, “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”

The Rosenberg case remains a controversial episode of the Cold War. A 2003 Times editorial wrote, “It now seems clear the Rosenbergs were neither as innocent as they claimed nor as guilty as the government alleged. … The Rosenberg case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.”

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