Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

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The Rosenbergs
The Rosenbergs

Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953) and Julius Rosenberg (1918-1953) were American Communists who were thrust into the world spotlight when they were tried, convicted, and executed for spying for the Soviet Union. The accuracy of these charges remains controversial, though decades later, Soviet communications decrypted by the VENONA project became publicly available and appeared to indicate that at least Julius Rosenberg was actively involved in espionage (although they provided no new evidence that he performed the specific acts of espionage for which he was convicted). Specifically, the couple were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage and were accused of passing nuclear weapons secrets to Russian agents.



Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918 in New York. He graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering in 1939 and in 1940 joined the Army Signal Corps where he worked on radar equipment. He became a leader in the Young Communist League, where he met Ethel in 1936, before marrying Ethel three years later.

Ethel Rosenberg was born on September 28, 1915 in New York. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretary job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, where she first met Julius. The Rosenbergs had two sons.

During World War II, the USSR and the USA were allies in war, but the USA was highly suspicious of Joseph Stalin's intentions. As such, the Americans did not share information or seek assistance from the Soviet Union for the Manhattan Project. The Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the US government, however, and had 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 Russian agents, many because they were sympathetic to communism (or the Soviet Union's role in the War) and did not feel that the USA should have a monopoly on atomic weapons.

After the war, the US resisted efforts to share nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. Their first nuclear test, "Joe 1", shocked the West in the speed it was produced. It was discovered in January 1950 that Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, had given key documents to the Russians throughout the war. Through Fuchs' confession, US and UK intelligence agents were able to find his "courier", Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. A former machinist at the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory, Sgt. David Greenglass, confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold as well. He testified that his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, had also passed secrets. Another accused conspirator, Morton Sobell, fled to Mexico City, but was later deported to the United States for trial.

Trial and conviction

The case against the Rosenbergs, and Sobell, began on March 6, 1951. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel, working as a "probationer" (in Soviet parlance), had typed notes containing US nuclear secrets, and these were later turned over to Harry Gold, who would then turn them over to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet vice consul in New York City.

From the beginning, the trial attracted a high amount of media attention, and like the trial of Alger Hiss, generated a largely polarized response from observers, some of whom believed the Rosenbergs to be clearly guilty, and others who asserted their innocence.

As the notes typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was new to the Soviets, supporters felt that a capital charge of espionage was not only far too severe, but scarcely could be considered evidence of wrong-doing at all; but for the prosecution this was sufficient evidence to convict Ethel Rosenberg.

It is believed that part of the reason Ethel was indicted in addition to 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. If that was the case, it didn't work. On the witness stand Julius asserted his right under the 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.

Investigations into the couple's history revealed conflicting evidence that Julius Rosenberg may have had some dealings with an NKVD agent. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian government has released documentation that shows Julius Rosenberg was providing information to the NKVD. Julius Rosenberg's main contact was Alexander Feklisov, who met Julius on over 50 occasions over a three year period beginning in 1943. Mr. Feklisov said that, though Julius had provided military secrets, he was never able to provide any information of substance concerning the atomic bomb. Mr. Feklisov also asserted that Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in any spying.

Before he died, Theodore Hall, who moved to the UK from the US partly because of an FBI investigation of him in the 1950s, claimed that it was he, a scientist working at Los Alamos, who gave atomic information to the USSR, not anyone else such as Ethel Rosenberg, a housewife living in a poor (the Lower East Side) New York neighborhood.

The role played by Assistant United States Attorney Roy Cohn, the prosecutor in the case, is controversial, since 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.


The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951 and sentenced to death by judge Irving Kaufman on April 5. The conviction 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, they 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 1950s.

The couple were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Judge Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:

I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-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.

Their case has been at the center of the controversy over communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of persecution typical of the "hysteria" of those times (see Red Scare, McCarthyism) and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and medieval Europe.

To the very end, the couple denied all charges and insisted they were innocent, but they were executed at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 1953, despite protests in the United States and abroad. The Rosenbergs were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 of "conspiring to commit espionage in wartime" and sentenced to death, despite the fact that the US was not at war with the Soviet Union at the time their ring was supposedly active.[1] (

At the time, some Americans believed both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grass-roots campaign was started to try to stop the couple's execution. Other Americans felt that the couple got what they deserved. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but he refused on February 11, 1953 and all other appeals were also unsuccessful.

The couple were executed by the electric chair on June 19, 1953. 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, and Ethel Rosenberg was a petite woman; this discrepancy resulted, it is claimed, in the electrodes fitting poorly.

Posthumous revelations

In 1995, the National Security Agency publicly released documents from the VENONA project, an effort to decrypt intercepted communications between Soviet agents and the NKVD/KGB. A 1944 cable from New York to Moscow makes it clear that Julius Rosenberg was engaged in espionage, though the importance of their effort is not clear, particularly considering that the Soviets were receiving information on the Atomic bomb from Klaus Fuchs and Donald Maclean. Ethel's involvement is not clear from the VENONA transcripts. A document from November 27, 1944 [2] ( specifically about Ethel lists her as a "fellowcountryman" and claims that she was aware of Julius' work, and asks for advice in whether she should be "used" or not. Ethel was apparently never assigned a code name — Julius was always referred to as "ANTENNA" or "LIBERAL" — which has cast doubt onto her significance and involvement.

In his posthumous memoirs, published in 1990, Nikita Khrushchev praised the pair for their "very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb." Whether this was in fact the case, however, has been disputed. [3] ( The quality of the information given to the Soviets, as reported by Greenglass, was also quite poor in comparison to the information given by Fuchs, who had a much more intimate understanding of the research being done, as revealed by records of Fuchs' detailed transmissions in the now-opened Soviet archives.

David Greenglass was spared execution in exchange for his testimony. He spent 10 years in prison and was released in 1960, and has lived under an assumed name since his release. Decades later, in late 2001, Greenglass admitted that he had committed perjury and falsely implicated his sister Ethel. Greenglass said he chose to turn in his sister in order to protect his wife and children.


From the beginning of their trial through the present, the Rosenberg case has been a controversial issue, with individual opinions falling roughly among ideological lines. In learned circles, there are a number of points of contention which still hold, even after the revelation of many hundreds of pages of previously secret evidence.

  • To what extent was Ethel involved? As noted above, there seem to be reasons to believe that while Julius was likely involved in some form of espionage, his wife Ethel may have not been, or not to the extent to which she was convicted. The VENONA transcripts are ambiguous as to Ethel's involvement, and the government case against her seems to have rested only on the testimony of her brother, David Greenglass, who later apparently told reporters that he had perjured himself in order to lessen his own sentence and to help his wife avoid jail time. [4] (
  • Were they given a fair trial? There are many critics who have alleged that the political climate of the time, and the seemingly a priori conviction by Judge Kaufman of the pair's guilt, would have made it impossible for the Rosenbergs to have had a fair trial by an impartial jury. The Rosenberg lawyer, Emanuel Bloch, also made a number of massive legal blunders (such as not cross-examining Harry Gold, who in later trials was found to be highly unreliable) suggesting either his incompetence or inability to cope with such a high-profile trial.
  • Was their sentence fair? The imposition of the death sentence upon the Rosenbergs has been the most controversial aspect of the case, as they were sentenced far more harshly than any other "atomic spies," primarily because they refused to confess to their alleged crimes. Klaus Fuchs, who spied for many more years than the Rosenbergs were alleged to and gave far more sensitive information to the Soviet Union, was only sentenced to 14 years in jail by comparison, in part because he cooperated with authorities and because the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States and the United Kingdom at the time he passed on information. This latter point—whether the alleged Rosenberg espionage in 1945 should be held to the international politics of 1950—is one of special contention, as some critics (the Rosenbergs' sons, in particular) have argued that the Rosenbergs were not trying to undermine the United States when they gave the USSR classified information, but rather trying to help the USSR fight against a greater enemy, Nazi Germany. In 1950, though, this distinction was not made by the U.S. judge or jury, who saw their espionage in the context of the Cold War, Judge Kaufman going so far as to blame the couple for the Korean War.
  • Did they actually help the Russian program? Recent scholarship has suggested that Greenglass and the Rosenbergs actually knew very little about the workings of the atomic weapons aside from basic concepts that the Russians had already acquired through other espionage sources anyway (or would have likely figured out fairly quickly on their own once their atomic bomb project was put into full production), and compared to the information given by Fuchs and Theodore Hall, it is unlikely that the Rosenberg/Greenglass data would have significantly aided the Soviet project. Even the detailed information given by Fuchs and Hall seems to have only marginally sped up the Soviet project, as it was heavily distrusted by project leader Lavrenty Beria. This, of course, is a question not necessarily related to their guilt or sentencing.

The Rosenbergs' children

The Rosenbergs' two sons, Robert and Michael, were orphaned by the execution, and no relatives dared adopt them for fear of ostracism or worse. They were finally adopted by the songwriters Ann and Abel Meeropol. Abel Meeropol wrote the classic anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" made famous by singer Billie Holiday. Robert and Michael co-wrote a book about the experience, We are your sons: The legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975), and Robert wrote another book in 2004, An execution in the family: One son's journey. In 1990, Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a non-profit foundation which provides support for children whose parents are progressive activists involved in court cases.

See also

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