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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1951 - In the News - Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1951!
"This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be a hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. 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, as quoted by his attorney, Emanuel Bloch, September 22, 1953.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in happier times
Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918. Ethel was born on September 28, 1915. Their childhoods were typical for the time. Julius graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the Army and worked as a radar operator in the signal corps. Ethel was an aspiring actress and singer who worked as a secretary at a shipping company.

Upon leaving the Army, Julius, like many young men of the day, joined the Young Communist League.  It was at that time that he met Ethel.  The two were married three years later in 1939.

During the coming years, Ethel would give birth to their only two children, both boys. The couple worked, saved, and tried to build a home for their young family.

It was during this time period that Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, a former employee at the Manhattan Project, alleged that his sister Ethel and her husband were spying and passing US atomic secrets to the Soviets. Of course, it didn't matter that Greenglass was already a convicted spy sentenced to ten years in prison for passing those same secrets to the Soviets. A superficial investigation was carried out, and the trial moved forward swiftly.

At the trial, there were few sympathetic parties. The majority of the participants were Jewish and the country was awash with anti-Semitic sentiment. When questioned about their participation in the communist party, the Rosenbergs both invoked the Fifth Amendment. Though they were within their rights to avoid incriminating themselves, this did not sit well with any of the observers.

During the trial, the star witness was Ethel's brother, David Greenglass.  He claimed that Ethel would type notes about the US atomic program, and Julius would pass those notes to a Soviet operative.

Investigations into the couple's history revealed conflicting evidence that Julius Rosenberg may have had some dealings with a KGB agent. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian government has released documentation that shows Julius Rosenberg was providing information to the NKVD and later to the KGB. Julius Rosenberg's main KGB contact was Alexander Feklisov, who met Julius on over 50 occasions over a three year period beginning in 1943. Mr. Feklisov, when contacted by the press, said that he never received any atomic information from the Rosenbergs.

Before he died, Ted Hall, who moved to England from the US partly because of an FBI investigation of him in the 1950's, admitted that it was he, a scientist working at Los Alamos, who gave atomic information to the Soviets, not anyone else such as Ethel Rosenberg, a housewife living in a poor New York neighborhood.

As the trial drew to a close, there was little doubt in the minds of anyone involved that the couple would be found guilty. The shock came when a death sentence was handed down against both Julius and Ethel. Throughout the investigation and trial, it was believed by most concerned that the threat of death against Ethel was being used to leverage information from Julius. It didn't work.

The Rosenbergs' conviction on March 29, 1951 and death sentence on April 5, helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade against "anti-American activities" by US citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well-documented, the couple denied the spying charges even as they faced the electric chair. Their defenders said they never stood the chance of a fair trial given the anti-Communist Red Scare that pervaded the United States in the 1950's.

In the late 2001, Greenglass admitted that he had committed perjury and involved his sister Ethel, who had apparently been innocent of all charges. Greenglass said he chose to turn in his sister in order to protect his wife.

Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but he refused on February 11, 1953. All other appeals were also unsuccessful. The couple was executed on June 19, 1953, with the instrument of their execution being the electric chair. 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 electrical charges before being pronounced dead.

Certainly, the couple were pawns in a political tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of Americans. The couple were the only people executed for espionage during the entire Cold War. The truth behind the entire episode may never be fully known since most of the participants tooks their thoughts with them to the grave.

It is interesting to note, however, that more than 60 years later, the discussion of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg can still split a room full of people into two camps--those who believe they were spies and got what they deserved, and those who believe they were nothing more than innocents executed by a government blinded by a paralyzing fear of communism. Either way, we'll never know for certain what was discussed by Julius in his many meetings with the KGB operative. But, even the original accuser, David Greenglass, and the scientist working on the Manhattan Project claimed that they had been the ones passing secrets and that Julius and Ethel knew nothing.

You decide.

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