Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg were American citizens who were convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. They were born in 1918 and 1915 respectively, and were convicted of providing top-secret information about radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines as well as valuable nuclear weapon designs.
We have to remember that at the time the United States was the only country in the world with nuclear weapons. They were convicted of espionage in 1915, and executed by the federal government of the US in 1953 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. They became the first American civilians to be executed for such charges and first to receive penalty during peacetime.
In January 1950, the US discovered that Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, had given key documents to the Soviets during the war. He identified his courier, which was American Harry Gold. He was arrested in May 1950.
In June 1950, another person, David Greenglass was arrested by the FBI for espionage and soon confessed on having passed secret information to the USSR. David confessed that his sister Ethel’s husband, Julius Rosenberg, had convinced David’s wife Ruth to recruit him while visiting him in New Mexico in 1944.
David said that Julius had passed secrets and thus linked him to the Soviet contact agent Anatoli Yakovlev. This connection was the necessary evidence to raise a conviction for espionage.
In July 1950, Julius was arrested on suspicion of espionage based on David’s confession. In August, Ethel was arrested after testifying before a grand jury.
On February 8, 1950, twenty senior government officials met secretly to discuss the Rosenberg case. Gordon Dean, who served as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission at the time, said, “It looks as though Rosenberg is the kingpin of a very large ring, and if there is any way of breaking him by having the shadow of a death penalty over him, we want to do it”.
Myles Lane, a member of the prosecution team, said that the case against Ethel was not too strong, but it was important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence.
J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director of the FBI at the time, wrote that “proceeding against the wife will serve as a lever to make Julius talk”.
The case against Ethel was resolved within 10 days of the start of the trial. David and Ruth Greenglass were interviewed a second time. They were persuaded to change their original stories.
In the first interview, David said that he had passed the atomic data he had collected to Julius on a New York street corner. In the second interview, he said that he had given the data to Julius in the living room of the Rosenberg’s apartment in New York. In that version, he said that Ethel, on her husband’s request, had taken the noted and typed them up.
Ruth, in her second interview, said, “Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it and when he came out he called Ethel and told her she had to type this information immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter which she placed on a bridge table in the living room and proceeded to type the information that David had given to Julius”.
The new testimony helped the Ruth Greenglass. All charges against her were dropped. On August 11, Ethel testified before a grand jury.
She used the Fifth Amendment for all questions. As she left the courthouse, FBI agents took her into custody. Her attorney asked the US commissioner to parole her in his custody over the weekend, so that she could make arrangements for her young children. But that was denied.
Both Ethel and Julius were put under huge pressure to incriminate others involved in the spy ring. But neither of them offered any additional information. On August 17, the jury returned an indictment alleging 11 overt acts.
Julius and Ethel were indicted. So was David Greenglass. So was Anatoli Yakovlev.
Their trial began on March 6, 1951, in the US District Court for the Southern District Court of New York. Judge Irving Kaufman presided over the trial.
David Greenglass served as primary witness of the prosecution. He said that he turned over to Julius a sketch of the cross-section of an implosion-type atom bomb. This was the Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
In imposing the death penalty, Judge Kaufman noted that he held the Rosenbergs responsible not only for espionage, but also for American deaths in the Korean War.
He said, “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”.
The US Government offered to spare their lives if they provided the names of other spies and admitted their guilt. But they made a public statement, saying, “By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt ... we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness".
Many years went before the truth about this case came out. 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 people came to believe both Julius and Ethel were innocent or had received too harsh a sentence.
There was a campaign to prevent the couple’s execution. Between the trial and the execution, there were widespread protests and claims of anti-Semitism.
In Western European capitals, there were also protests that were in favor of the Rosenbergs. There was a plea for clemency from the Pope. President Eisenhower supported by public opinion at home, ignored the demands.
Jean-Paul Sartre, described the trial as “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.
For decades, their sons and many other defenders maintained that Julies and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country. They believed that their parents were victims of Cold War paranoia.
But after the fall of the Soviet Union, much information about the two was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables (code name Venona).
Those information detailed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets. Ether’s role was as an accessory who helped recruit her brother David into the spy ring and did clerical tasks such as typing up documents that Julius later passed to the Soviets.
In 2008, the National archives of the United States published most of the grand jury testimony related to the prosecution of the couple.
The Rosenberg case is one of the most famous trials in American history. The magnitude of the trail is something that has inspired many artists. Here are some examples.
- Bob Dylan wrote the song Julius and Ethel in 1983 based on the Rosenberg case
- The main character in the novel The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is interested in the Rosenberg case
- Images of the couple are engraved on a memorial in Havana, Cuba, with the caption saying they were murdered
- Billy Joel mentions the Rosenbergs in the lyrics of his 1989 song, We didn’t Start the Fire
Yet, the biggest inspiration and pop culture image of the Rosenberg case we see is in an Andy Warhol painting. Warhol pioneered silkscreen painting.
His painting, Big Electric Chair, was inspired by a press photograph of the execution device taken inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility where Ethel and Julius were put to death.