Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953 for espionage by giving information about atomic weapons to the Soviet Union. They were the first Americans executed for espionage. Charges of treason can be the basis for execution, but treason wasn’t a possible charge because we were not formally at war with the Soviet Union at the time. They were the only Americans executed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union for espionage. However, there were many executions for espionage in Europe during World War 2.
Rosenberg Spy Ring
It was clear that there was some sort of spy network forwarding nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union when the Russians tested a working nuclear bomb in 1949. In fact, some of the information had come from Los Alamos during the construction of the first atomic bomb. Ethel Rosenberg’s brother was among those at Los Alamos in 1944 and 1945 passing secrets to the Soviets.
The spy ring involved Julius Rosenberg as the contact with Soviet agent Feklisov. Rosenberg collected information from Morton Sobell, an electrical engineer and classmate of Julius, Sarant, Perl, Barr and his brother in law Greenglass. Harry Gold, a Philadelphia chemist, was identified in 1950 as part of the espionage and led to the identification of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg’s brother and eventually the entire spy ring.
Soviet cables released in 1995 confirmed that Julius Rosenberg was a courier for the Soviet atomic spy ring, but they did not implicate Ethel Rosenberg.
The Rosenberg Case
Julius Rosenberg was arrested for espionage in July, 1950. Ethel Rosenberg was arrested in August of 1951 on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage.
The espionage case against Julius Rosenberg was solid, as he recruited people to collect information on atomic weapons before collecting them and passing them on to the Soviet Union. The information they provided allowed the Russians to build a hydrogen bomb two years after the United States did. The case against Ethel Rosenberg was not as strong, and there are theories that two key witnesses against the couple were altered to expand her role to typing up notes in front of the witnesses to be passed on, instead of simply being present during one or more exchanges. The strongest case against Ethel came from David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, as well as Ruth Greenglass, Ethel’s sister in law.
The Rosenbergs themselves used their Fifth Amendment not to be forced to testify against themselves. As spouses, they could not be forced to testify against each other. Their involvement in the Communist party was verified through various sources, including others involved in spying for the U.S.S.R. and Communist Party members who testified to the Rosenberg’s long term involvement. Julius Rosenberg’s employment with the federal government was ended in 1945 because of his Communist Party membership, but he had a network in place already to continue gathering information for the Soviets. Ethel Rosenberg was also involved in the Communist Party, but it is less clear that she was involved in the spy ring.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were part of that spy ring, though they protested their innocence through their trial. Some believed Ethel was arrested along with her husband and separated from the children in an effort to force Julius to confess.
Morton Sobell, a fellow spy in the ring and friend, admitted that he spied for the Soviet Union and implicated Julius Rosenberg. He did not implicate Ethel.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage in March, 1951.
They were sentenced to death by a judge on April 5, 1951. Two years of appeals followed. The case took longer because they were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 instead of under the terms of the Atomic Energy Act that expired around 1950.
There were requests for clemency from the Pope of the time and others for Ms. Rosenberg. President Truman noted that if he gave her clemency while executing her husband, the Soviets would simply shift to recruiting all female spies. Ethel was executed along with her husband on June 19, 1953.
The other spies in the case received prison time. David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Harry Gold was in prison for fifteen years. Sobell received a thirty year sentenced and served 17.
Why Execution Over Life in Prison?
The primary justification for their execution was the specter of a world-wide nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that would be many times worse because the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. There were justifiable fears through the Cold War that a world war 3 would erupt, this time more horrific due to the atom bomb, potentially bombing humanity back to the Stone Age. Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!” The government held this sentiment and considered the millions likely to die in any nuclear strike to be the fault of the Rosenbergs.
Impact on the Family
The Rosenbergs had two children at the time of their deaths, Michael Allen Rosenberg and Robert Harry Rosenberg. Their children were bounced between relatives before being placed in a Jewish Children’s Home in New York. The boys were eventually adopted by high school teacher Abel Meeropol and his wife and adopted the Meeropol name. Their sons later wrote books about the events.
David Greenglass stated in an interview in 2001 that his wife may have done the actual typing up of notes to be passed on to the Soviet Union, but lied that it was his sister in order to protect himself and his own wife.