March 6, 1951: The Espionage Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg


Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American citizens accused of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, and providing top-secret, valuable information about nuclear weapons. They were convicted of espionage in 1951 and were executed by the federal government in 1953.

Ethel's brother, along with other co-conspirators, were sentenced to prison as well.

The couples' sons defended them for years, and blamed cold war paranoia for the harsh sentence and execution of both of their parents. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, information became declassified and it included indisputable information that Julius was a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, and that Ethel knew, but was not directly involved.


Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918 into a family of Jewish immigrants, and Ethel Greenglass was born on September 25, 1915, also to a Jewish family. They both were born and grew up in New York City.

Julius became a leader in the Young Communist League USA while in college, where he received a degree in electrical engineering. Despite Ethel's dreams of becoming a signer or actress, she became a secretary at a shipping company. She joined the Young Communist League as well, where she met Julius in 1936. They were married in 1939, and had 2 children together.

Julius joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories in 1940, working as an engineer inspector, but was fired after his history in the communist party came to light. Important research was conducted in the lab he had worked in during World War 2.

Rosenberg was allegedly recruited by spymaster Sermyon Semyonov after the Soviet Union became an ally to the U.S., and the 2 were introduced by a member of the Communist Party USA. Rosenberg, allegedly, provided thousands of classified reports, and recruited people to his cause. He was rewarded with $100 after recruiting Russell McNutt, who worked on designs for plants, and provided key intel about manufacturing weapons-grade uranium.

Though the USSR and US were allies at the time, Americans did not share any information about the Manhattan Project, and were shocked at the speed in which the soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test.


In January of 1950, the U.S. discovered that German refugee and theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs had provided key documents to soviets throughout the war. He identified Harry Gold as his courier, who, in his confession, gave up Ethel's brother David Greenglass, who, in his confession, gave up Julius Rosenberg. Julius was arrested on July 17, 1950.

Many senior government officials met, determining that Julius was the "kingpin" of a very large ring of betrayors. Ethel was given up by her brother and sister-in-law, who had initially not mentioned her at all, but on second interview, testified that she had taken notes for Julius in an exchange of secret information. David's wife, Ruth, was let go after this testimony.

Ethel testified in front of a grand jury, but plead the fifth the entire time, and was arrested after, the officials not allowing her any time to arrange childcare for her young sons. Though asked, neither Ethel or Julius ever gave any information on others involved in the ring.

The espionage trial began on March 6, 1951, with David Greenglass, Ethel's brother, serving as the prosecution's main witness. On March 29, 1951, they were convicted of espionage and were both sentenced to death.

After the conviction, judge Kaufman said that their crimes were worse than murder, saying that their work to put A-bombs in the hands of Russians years before they should have "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 innocent people pay the price of your treason." He said that their betrayal altered the course of history.


Some Americans believed that the Rosenbergs were innocent, or punished too harshly for their crimes, especially Ethel. A grassroots campaign began in an effort to overturn their execution, with protests and claims of antisemitism. But in a culture so terrified of communism, they did not receive widespread support.

In Western Europe, they did receive widespread support, with protests and picketing and demonstrations, pro-Rosenberg editorials written, and a plea for clemency from the Pope. Eisenhower ignored those overseas demands, as he was supported at home.

Other famous people at the time, communists and non-communists alike such as Albert Einstein, Jean Cocteau and Frida Khalo disagreed with the American stance, protesting to pardon the Rosenbergs.

Their 11pm scheduled execution was moved up after attorney complaints that to execute them during the Jewish Sabbath was offensive to the Jewish heritage. They were instead executed at 8pm.

Julius Rosenberg died quickly, after only one electric shock. The same could not be said for Ethel Rosenberg, who, after the standard 3 shocks, was determined to still be alive. They gave her 2 more shocks, and eyewitnesses remember seeing smoke coming out of her head. The Rosenbergs were the only 2 American citizens to be executed for espionage related activities during the cold war.

Physicist Hans Bethe estimated that the Soviets would have been able to build their own bomb in 5 years, but were able to do so in 4 because of the information that the spy ring provided.

The leader of the Soviet Union said he did not know exactly what Julius Rosenberg provided, but was assured by many that he helped significantly accelerate the development of their A-bomb, but Boris V. Brokhovich, an engineer who worked on the Soviet's first bomb, said he was a "silly fool" and they developed their own bomb with no help, and the Rosenberg's were executed for nothing.

According to Alexander Feklisov, who was the Soviet agent Julius worked with, "he didn't understand anything about the atomic bomb and couldn't help us."


In 1995, the Venona Decryptions were released and showed that Julius was the leader of the spies, and that Ethel's role was limited. It also helped prove that the Greenglass's were willing participants and did not need persuasion or recruitment from the Rosenbergs to join.

In 2001, Greenglass recanted his earlier statement that Ethel was involved, stating that he was protecting his wife, who actually likely was the one who typed the notes. He said, "I would not sacrifice my wife and children for my sister", and expressed no remorse that his false testimony lead to the execution of his sister.

Deputy Attorney General William P Rogers, who had been a part of the prosecution, said that their goal in pushing for Ethel's death sentence was to get a full confession from Julius, but she never broke down, and never requested her husband to do anything.

In 2008, Morton Sobell was interviewed about his involvement and he said te had given documents to a soviet contact, and that Rosenberg was also involved. He said that the hand-drawn diagrams and the atomic bomb details they provided were likely of little value, and only corroborated what they already knew. He also said that Ethel knew of Julius's involvement, but did not take part.

The Rosenberg's sons, Michael and Robert, were orphaned after the executions, as nobody in their family claimed them. Their high school teacher and his wife adopted them, and they took the last name Meerpool after them.

Though they had always campaigned their parents' innocence, after Sobell's confession, they acknowledged that their father was involved, but only should have been charged with conspiracy given the information he provided. They claim their mother was executed on flimsy evidence at best and should not have been found guilty.

In 2015, they called on the Obama Administration to exonerate their mother. Though no action has been taken from the U.S. Administration, on the 100th anniversary of Ethel's birth, the New York City Council issued a proclamation saying that she was wrongfully convicted and executed.

Before Obama left office, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent the president a request to pardon Ethel.



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