The American Experience:
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first American civilians executed under Section 2 of the Espionage Act. Charges related to passing atomic bomb secrets to Russian agents (the data came from Ethel’s brother, who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos). Their legal prosecution was the “Trial of the Century” (prior to O.J., at least), and many felt the couple were unfairly convicted.
Quotations Related to JULIUS ROSENBERG:
“My opinion was that if we had a common enemy we should get together commonly.” — Julius Rosenberg
“There was a possibility I could have been under surveillance.” — Julius Rosenberg
“This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be.” — Julius Rosenberg
“First of all, I am not an expert on matters on different economic systems, but in my normal social intercourse with my friends we discussed matters like that.” — Julius Rosenberg
“I would like to state that my personal opinions are that the people of every country should decide by themselves what kind of government they want.” — Julius Rosenberg
“If the English want a king, it is their business. If the Russians want communism, it is their business. If the Americans want our form of government, it is our business.” — Julius Rosenberg
“Now, I feel that if somebody looks through all the numbers through all those years, they will find one for Julius Rosenberg, and it is worth finding if it is such an important issue.” — Julius Rosenberg
“And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we’re gonna kill ya!” — Julius Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Convicted of spying for KGB:
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915 – 1953) and Julius Rosenberg (1918 – 1953) were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This was the first execution of civilians for espionage in United States history. Since the execution, decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but doubts remain about the level of Ethel’s involvement. The decision to execute the Rosenbergs was, and still is, controversial. The New York Times, in an editorial on the 50th anniversary of the execution (June 19, 2003) wrote, “The Rosenbergs case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.” This hysteria had both an immediate and a lasting effect; many innocent scientists, including some who were virulently anti-communist, were investigated simply for having the last name “Rosenberg.” The other atomic spies who were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass, served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Greenglass and the British scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was “in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.”
The Case Against the Rosenbergs
KGB Spy: According to his former NKVD handler, Alexandre Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg was originally recruited by the KGB on Labor Day 1942 by former NKVD spymaster Semyon Semenov. Julius had been introduced to Semenov by Bernard Schuster, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party USA as well as Earl Browder’s personal NKVD liaison, and after Semenov was recalled to Moscow in 1944, his duties were taken over by his apprentice, Feklisov. According to Feklisov, Julius provided thousands of classified (top secret) reports from Emerson Radio, including a complete proximity fuze, the same design that was used to shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 in 1960. Under Feklisov’s administration, Julius Rosenberg is said to have recruited sympathetic individuals into KGB service, including Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, William Perl and Morton Sobell. The Venona intercept show that Julius (code name LIBERAL) was indeed the head of this particular spy ring. According to Feklisov’s account, he was supplied by Perl, under Julius Rosenberg’s direction, with thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, including a complete set of design and production drawings for the Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star. Feklisov says he learned through Julius that his brother-in-law David Greenglass was working on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and used Julius to recruit him. The USSR and the U.S. became allies during World War II, after Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the USSR in 1941, but the U.S. government was highly suspicious of Joseph Stalin’s long-term intentions. Therefore the Americans did not share information or seek assistance from the Soviet Union for the Manhattan Project. However, the Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the U.S. government and made a number of attempts to infiltrate its operations at the University of California, Berkeley. The FBI file CINRAD (Communist Infiltration of the Radiation Laboratory) led particularly to J. Robert Oppenheimer, a consultant at the Radiation Lab and later, the key figure at Los Alamos.
A number of project members—some high-profile—voluntarily gave secret information to Soviet agents, many because they were ardent communists or were sympathetic to the Soviet Union’s role in the war and did not feel the U.S. should have a monopoly on atomic weapons. After the war, the U.S. continued to protect its nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. The West was shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test, “Joe 1”, on August 29, 1949. It was then discovered in January 1950 that a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs, had given key documents to the Soviets throughout the war. Fuchs’ identified his courier as Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. Gold also confessed and identified Sergeant David Greenglass, a former machinist at Los Alamos, as an additional source. Greenglass confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold as well. Though he initially denied any involvement by his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, eventually he claimed that she knew of her husband’s dealings and even typed-up some documents for him. He also claimed that her husband, Julius, had convinced Ruth Greenglass to recruit David while on a visit to him in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1944 and that Julius had also passed secrets, linking Julius and Ethel to Soviet contact agent Anatoli Yakovlev. This connection would be necessary as evidence if there was to be a conviction of espionage. Another accused conspirator, Morton Sobell, was on vacation in Mexico City when both Rosenbergs were arrested.
According to his story published in On Doing Time, he tried to figure out a way to reach Europe without a passport, but ultimately abandoned that effort and was back in Mexico City when he was allegedly kidnapped by members of the Mexican secret police and driven to the U.S. border where he was arrested. The government claimed Sobell was arrested for bank robbery on August 16, 1950, by the Mexican police and extradited the next day to the United States in Laredo, Texas, but in 1956 the Mexican government officially declared that he had never been deported. Regardless of how he was returned to the U.S., he was arrested and stood trial with the Rosenbergs on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage. Grand Jury: In August 1950, a federal grand jury was convened to hear the Justice Department’s case for indictments. The grand jury transcripts, made public in 2008, record that on August 3, Ethel Rosenberg’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, testified that in November 1944, Julius Rosenberg recruited her, and urged her to recruit her husband (Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass), into a conspiracy to engage in atomic espionage for the Soviet Union:
“[H]e proceeded to tell me that he knew that David was working on the atomic bomb…. that he felt there was not a direct exchange of scientific information among the Allies, and that it would be only fair for Russia to have the information, too… and he wanted to make that possible. He asked me if I would relate this to David and ask him to pass on information through Julius.”
She added that Ethel participated in this effort, urging her to comply:
“His wife said that I should at least relay the message, that she felt that David might be interested, he would want to do this…. [S]he urged me to talk to David. She felt that even if I was against it, I should at least discuss it with him and hear what he had to say.”
On August 17, the grand jury returned an indictment alleging 11 overt acts. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted, as were David Greenglass and Anatoli Yakovlev. Ruth Greenglass’s testimony alleging the involvement of Ethel as well as Julius would subsequently be corroborated by a decrypted Soviet Intelligence cable of September 21, 1944, from New York station to Moscow Center:
“LIBERAL recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS…. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TURNITsA] since 1942…. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her…. [Ruth] learned that her husband … is now working at the ENORMOUS [ENORMOZ] plant in SANTA FE, New Mexico.”
Notes by U.S. Signals Intelligence Service cryptographers (who partially decrypted this cable in the Venona project) identify the code-names LIBERAL as “Julius ROSENBERG,” GOROZhANKA as “American Citizen,” FIZKUL’TURNITsA as “Probably a Member of the Young Communist League,” and ENORMOZ as “Atomic Energy Project.”
Trial and Conviction: The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman and the attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. The prosecution’s primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. He also testified that he turned over to Julius Rosenberg a sketch of the cross-section of an implosion-type atom bomb (the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to a bomb with the “gun method” triggering device as used in the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima). The notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project and some suggest Ethel was indicted along with Julius so that the prosecution could use her to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. However, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg named anyone else and during testimony each asserted their right under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment to not incriminate themselves whenever asked about involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers, when later asked about the failure of the indictment of Ethel to leverage a full confession by Julius, reportedly said, “She called our bluff.”
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S. Code32 (now 18 U.S. Code 794), which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information “relating to the national defense.” The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair. The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:
“I consider your crime worse than murder… I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. 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.”
After the publication of an investigative series in The National Guardian and the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, some Americans came to believe both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grassroots campaign was started to try to stop the couple’s execution. Between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-semitism; the charges of anti-semitism were widely believed abroad, but not among the vast majority in the United States, where the Rosenbergs did not receive any support from mainstream Jewish organizations nor from the American Civil Liberties Union as the case did not raise any civil liberties issues at all. Marxist Nobel-Prize-winning existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, autos-da-fé, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear… you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.” Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein and Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Harold Urey, as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Dashiell Hammett, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed America’s Dreyfus Affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for the communist French newspaperL’Humanité, “The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place.” The all-black labor union International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Cinema artists such as Fritz Lang registered their protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful. Their case has been at the center of the controversy over Communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of political persecution and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and Early Modern Europe (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller’s critically acclaimed play, The Crucible). On September 12, 2008, co-defendant Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg were guilty of spying for the Soviet Union, but that any information about the atomic bomb that they had passed was of no value for the Soviets. He believed Ethel was aware of the espionage, but did not actively participate.
Execution: Because the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an electric chair at the time, the Rosenbergs were transferred to the New York State-run Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining for execution. The couple was executed at sundown in the electric chair on June 19, 1953. This was delayed from the originally scheduled date of June 18 because, on June 17, Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas had granted a stay of execution. That stay resulted from the intervention in the case of Fyke Farmer, a Tennessee lawyer whose efforts had previously met with scorn from the Rosenbergs’ attorney.
On June 18, the Court was called back into special session to dispose of Douglas’ stay rather than let the execution be delayed for months while the appeal that was the basis of the stay wended its way through the lower courts. The Court did not vacate Douglas’ stay until noon on June 19. Thus, the execution then was scheduled for later in the evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Desperately playing for more time, their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, filed a complaint that this offended their Jewish heritage, so the execution was scheduled before sunset, at 8pm on Friday instead of the regular time of execution at Sing-Sing of 11pm. which usually took place on Thursday. Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes the circumstances of the Rosenbergs’ death, noting that while Julius Rosenberg died after the first series of electrocutions, his wife did not. After the normal course of electrocutions, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Mrs. Rosenberg had not yet died (her heart was still beating). Three courses of electrocution were ultimately applied, and at conclusion eyewitnesses reported, Bob Considine among them, a grisly scene with smoke rising from her head in the chamber. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery in Pinelawn, New York.
Final letter from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to their children:
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death. The Rosenbergs remained on death row for twenty-six months. They were eventually executed by electric chair on June 19th, 1953. The following letter to their two sons was written on the day of their execution.
Dearest Sweethearts, my most precious children, Only this morning it looked like we might be together again after all. Now that his cannot be, I want so much for you to know all that I have come to know. Unfortunately, I may write only a few simple words; the rest your own lives must teach you, even as mine taught me. At first, of course, you will grieve bitterly for us, but you will not grieve alone. That is our consolation and it must eventually be yours. Eventually, too you must come to believe that life is worth the living. Be comforted that even now, with the end of ours slowly approaching, that we know this with a conviction that defeats the executioner! Your lives must teach you, too, that good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; that freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly. Be comforted then that we were serene and understood with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life; and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us. We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you. Your Daddy who is with me in these last momentous hours, sends his heart and all the love that is in it for his dearest boys. Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience. We press you close and kiss you with all our strength.
Lovingly, Daddy ( Julie)and Mommy (Ethel)
The Rosenbergs’ two sons, Robert and Michael, were orphaned by the execution, and no relatives dared adopt them for fear of ostracism, or worse. They were finally adopted by the songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne. Abel, under the pen name of Lewis Allan, wrote the classic anti-lynching anthem Strange Fruit made famous by singer Billie Holiday.