Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Julius Rosenberg (May 12, 1918June 19, 1953) and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (September 25, 1915June 19, 1953) were Communist Jews in the United States who received international attention when they were executed after having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage in relation to passing information on the American atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.


Julius Rosenberg was born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New York City on May 12, 1918. His parents worked in the sweat shops of the Lower East Side. Julius became a leader in the Young Communist League where, in 1936, he met Ethel, whom he married three years later. He graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering in 1939 and joined the Army Signal Corps in 1940, where he worked on radar equipment.

Ethel Greenglass was born on September 25, 1915, in New York City, also to a Jewish family. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, USA, where she met Julius. The Rosenbergs had two sons named Robert and Michael, who were adopted by teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol (and took the Meeropol surname) after their parents' execution.

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.[1] 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.[1]

According to Feklisov, Julius provided thousands of classified reports from Emerson Radio, including a complete proximity fuze, the same design that was used to shoot down Gary Powers's U-2 in 1960. Under Feklisov's administration, Julius Rosenberg is said to have recruited sympathetic individuals to the KGB’s service, including Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, William Perl and Morton Sobell.[2]

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.[1]

The USSR and the U.S. became allies during World War II after Germany's 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. A number of project members—some high-profile, others lower in rank—did voluntarily give secret information to Soviet agents, mainly because they also were Jewish and sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

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." 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 Russians throughout the war. Through Fuchs' confession, U.S. and United Kingdom intelligence agents were able to make a case against his "courier," Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. A former machinist at Los Alamos, Sergeant David 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, he claimed that her husband, Julius, had convinced his wife to recruit him while on a visit to him in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1944 and that Julius had also passed secrets. 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 captured by members of the Mexican secret police and driven to the U.S. border where he was arrested and stood trial with the Rosenbergs on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage.

Trial and conviction

The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman. The attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch.[3] 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 asserted that a sketch he made of a cross-section of the implosion-type atom bomb (the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to the "gun method" triggering device that was in the one dropped on Hiroshima) was also turned over to Julius Rosenberg at that meeting.

From the beginning, the trial attracted a high amount of media attention. Aside from the Rosenbergs' own defense during the trial, there was not one single public expression of doubt as to their guilt in any media (even the left-wing and Communist press) before and during the trial. The first break in the media unanimity would not occur until August 1951, when a series of articles ran in the left-wing newspaper The National Guardian. Only after the publication of those articles was a defense committee formed.

However, between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-Semitism. For example, Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre called the case "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, auto-da-fés, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb."[4] Others, including Albert Einstein, Nobel-Prize-winning atomic scientist and Chemist Harold Urey,reference required Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, protested against the trial and execution and comparisons were made with the Dreyfus Affair.

It is believed that part of the reason Ethel was indicted along with Julius was so that the prosecution could use her as a 'lever' to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved.[5] If that was the case, it did not work. On the witness stand, Julius asserted his right under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment to not incriminate himself whenever asked about his involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Ethel did similarly. Neither defendant was viewed sympathetically by the jury.

The role played by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Cohn, the prosecutor in the case, is controversial. Cohn stated in his autobiography that he influenced the selection of the judge, and pushed him to impose the death penalty on both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

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.'[6]

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 1917 Espionage Act, 50 U.S. Code 32 (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.

The couple 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.[7]


The couple were executed at sundown in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, on June 19, 1953.[8] 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.[9]

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. Reports of the execution state that Julius died after the first application of electricity, but Ethel did not succumb immediately and was subjected to two more electrical charges before being pronounced dead. The chair was designed for a man of average size, and Ethel Rosenberg was a petite woman; this discrepancy resulted, it is claimed, in the electrodes fitting poorly and making poor electrical contact. Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes smoke rising from her head.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery in Pinelawn, New York.[10]

See also

  • McCarthyism - More generally on the Communist infiltration.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Feklisov, Aleksandr; Kostin, Sergei (2001). The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. Enigma books. ISBN 1-929631-08-1. 
  2. Feklisov, Aleksandr; Kostin, Sergei (2001). The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. Enigma books, 140-147. ISBN 1-929631-08-1. 
  3. "Died". Time (magazine). 1954. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,860424,00.html. Retrieved 2008-06-21. "Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, 52, longtime attorney for Communist causes, who defended Atom Spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ..." 
  4. Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest, p. 254
  5. Roberts, Sam (2001). The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Random House, 425-426,432. ISBN 0-375-76124-1. 
  6. {{cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Podcast: Spies and Secrecy |url=http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/26/podcast-spies-and-secrecy/#more-3235 |quote= |publisher=New York Times |date=June 26, 2008 |accessdate=2008-06-27 By Sam Roberts
  7. Judge Kaufman's Statement Upon Sentencing the Rosenbergs. University of Missouri–Kansas City. Retrieved on 2008-06-24.
  8. "Execution of the Rosenbergs". The Guardian. June 20, 1953. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1953/jun/20/usa.fromthearchive. Retrieved 2008-06-24. "Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed early this morning at Sing Sing Prison for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to Russia in World War II." 
  9. E. Thomas Wood, "Nashville now and then: A lawyer's last gamble". 2007-06-17. http://www.nashvillepost.com/news/2007/6/17/nashville_now_and_then_a_lawyers_last_gamble_and_a_universitys_divorce. Retrieved 2007-08-08. 
  10. "Executed At Sundown, 50 Years Ago.". New York Times. June 20, 2003. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F01E6D81E38F933A15755C0A9659C8B63. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
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