Julius (1918-1953) and Ethel (1915-1953) Rosenberg were a nondescript couple accused in 1950 by the United States government of operating a Soviet spy network and giving the Soviet Union plans for the atomic bomb.
The trial of the Rosenbergs became a political event of greater importance than any damage they may have done to the United States. It was one of the most controversial trials of the twentieth century, and it ended with their execution.
The arrest of the Rosenbergs was set in motion when the FBI arrested Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist who gave atomic secrets to the Soviets while working on the Manhattan project. Fuchs's arrest and confession led to the arrest of Harry Gold, a courier for Soviet spies. Gold in turn led investigators to David Greenglass, a small-time spy who confessed quickly. Greenglass then accused his sister Ethel and brother-in-law Julius of controlling his activities.
Julius Rosenberg was a committed communist who graduated from the City College of New York in 1939 with a degree in electrical engineering. He had married Ethel Greenglass in the summer of that year. She was a headstrong woman, active in organizing labor groups. The couple had two sons, Michael, born in 1943, and Robert, born in 1947.
Julius had opened a mechanic shop with his brother-in-law, but the business soon began to fail, largely due to a lack of attention from Julius, who had begun to spy for the Soviets. He began by stealing manuals for radar tubes and proximity fuses, and by the late 1940s had two apartments set up as microfilm laboratories. He had become the coordinator of a large spy network.
Julius immediately realized the implications of Harry Gold's arrest and began to make arrangements to get out of the country, but the FBI moved swiftly and he was arrested in July 1950.
His wife was arrested in August. The government had little evidence against her, but hoped to use the threat of prosecution as a lever to persuade Julius to confess. The couple was charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, and their trial began on 6 March 1951. The prosecutor was attorney Irving Saypol, the judge was Irving Kaufman, and the defense was led by Emmanuel Bloch.
From the beginning the trial attracted national attention. Saypol and his young assistant, Roy Cohn, decided to keep the scope of the trial as narrow as possible, with establishing the Rosenbergs's guilt the main target, and exposing their spy ring a lesser concern. Nonetheless, the trial was punctuated by numerous arrests of spies associated with the Rosenbergs, some appearing in court to testify against them.
From the beginning the defense had problems. Bloch tried to downplay the importance of the information the prosecution claimed the Rosenbergs had stolen, and then turned around and requested that all spectators and reporters be barred from the courtroom when the information was discussed. Bloch later said he was trying to impress the jurors with a bold move, but what he actually did was impress them with the importance of the information.
Bloch also accused David Greenglass of turning on his sister and her husband because of their failed business, but his efforts only elicited sympathy for a man who had been forced to turn in a family member. Greenglass damaged the Rosenbergs by testifying that Julius had arranged for him to give Harry Gold the design of the atomic bomb used on Nagasaki (which differed considerably from the Hiroshima bomb). When Gold himself testified, he named Anatoli Yakovlev as his contact. This directly tied the Rosenbergs to a known Soviet agent.
After months in prison, the Rosenbergs still maintained their innocence and began to write poignant letters, which were widely published, protesting their treatment. The case was followed closely in Europe, where many felt the Rosenbergs were being persecuted as Jewish (though Judge Kaufman was also Jewish). A movement began to protest the "injustice" of the Rosenberg trial. Passions both for and against the Rosenbergs grew so great that they even threatened Franco-American relations, as the french were particularly harsh in their condemnation of the trial as a sham.
By the end of the trial the defense had all but collapsed under the weight of the evidence and Bloch's incompetence. His summation appealed to the jurors' emotions, while prosecutor Saypol ran cooly through the testimony. Although the evidence against Ethel was slight, the jury and the public had come to believe that she was the mastermind of the operation. Both she and Julius were found guilty and sentenced to death, a punishment more fitting a treason conviction than the lesser charge of espionage.
In the months between the sentencing and execution, criticism of the trial grew more strident, and major demonstrations were held. Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre called the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation."
In spite of attempts at appeal and a legal stay issued by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on 19 June 1953, both refusing to confess.
Years after the execution the case still stirs debate. It can now be seen as arising from the height of Cold War hysteria fed by the Korean War, which had broken out the summer before the trial. It must be remembered that, although the Rosenbergs were communists and spies, they did not spy for an enemy of the United States, as the sentence might indicate, but rather for its wartime ally. Recent studies of the couple's activities show that the evidence against them was overwhelming. It is difficult, however, to imagine the execution of a married couple without understanding of the hysteria that the Cold War produced.
Further Reading on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Hanseman, Robert G., "Julius Rosenberg," in The Cold War:1945-1991, Vol. 1, edited by Benjamin Frankel, Gale Research, Detroit, Michigan, 1992, pp. 427-428
Meeropol, Michael, and Robert Meeropol, We Are Your Sons, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1986.
Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1983.
Schneir, Walter and Miriam, Invitation to an Inquest, Doubleday, New York, 1965.
Sharlitt, Joseph, Fatal Error, Scribners, New York, 1989.