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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Victims of a Miscarriage of Justice?

Updated on April 16, 2017
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Nuclear Espionage

During the latter years of World War Two and the ensuing “Cold War”, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a race to develop nuclear weapons. The US clearly won the race in terms of being first to actually deploy a weapon – the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and brought the war against Japan to an end – but that did not stop the Soviet Union from doing everything it could to catch up, including stealing nuclear secrets from wherever it could.

Members of the American Communist Party were recruited who were in a position to obtain the sort of information that would be useful to the Soviet nuclear program. This activity began well before 1945 and continued into the 1950s. The secrets obtained through spying probably took several years off the time needed for the Soviets to perform their first nuclear test, which was in 1949.

A Spy Ring

Julius Rosenberg joined the American Communist Party when he was a student in New York and he married a fellow party member, Ethel Greenglass, in 1939. He joined the US Signal Corps and worked at the Fort Monmouth (NJ) radio research laboratories.

He was approached by Soviet agents and agreed to pass on any useful information that came his way, as well as recruiting a network of fellow spies.

In addition to his wife, her brother David and his wife Ruth were members of the spy ring. At first, their duties were purely administrative as they did not have direct access to classified material.

In 1943 David Greenglass was called up by the US Army and assigned to the nuclear research project at Los Alamos that was part of the Manhattan Project. His spying consisted of making copies of plans that came his way, although just how valuable these documents were to the Soviets is a matter of debate, given that David Greenglass was not a nuclear physicist.

David Greenglass was not the only spy at Los Alamos. An employee named Harry Gold was the link between the information gatherers and Anatoli Yakolev, an agent based at the Soviet Consulate in New York. This route was also used by Klaus Fuchs, a naturalized British citizen who was a nuclear physicist and whose contributions were of much greater value to Yakolev than those of David Greenglass.

David and Ruth Greenglass
David and Ruth Greenglass

Breaking the Ring

The spy ring was discovered in 1950 thanks to British Intelligence which decoded documents implicating Klaus Fuchs as having spied for the Soviet Union during his time at Los Alamos. Fuchs had returned to the UK in 1946 in order to work on the British nuclear weapons program and he had continued his activities in terms of passing material to the Soviet Union. Once Fuchs had confessed to the British secret service the details were passed back to their American counterparts, who up to that point had had no idea that a spy ring had been operating at Los Alamos.

Fuchs named Harry Gold as his former contact, and Gold soon implicated David and Ruth Greenglass. It was David Greenglass who told the FBI that he had been recruited by Julius Rosenberg.

However, when they were arrested the Rosenbergs said absolutely nothing. They neither confessed to being spies nor agreed to implicate anyone else.

Klaus Fuchs
Klaus Fuchs

The Trial

The trial of the Rosenbergs and other members of the spy ring began in New York on 6th March 1951. This was at the height of the anti-Communist “Red Scare” initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the opportunity was not lost to make an example of some real Communist spies who had been unmasked, as opposed to the many phony cases of supposed “anti-American activities” that McCarthy claimed to have revealed.

During the trial the Rosenbergs clearly came off worst. Their fellow conspirators had no qualms about pointing the finger of blame at them, but they continued their silence and cited the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution that allowed them not to answer any questions that might have incriminated them.

This silence was probably the reason why they received death sentences as opposed to the prison terms given to the other conspirators. The essence of McCarthyism was that people under suspicion would seek to lessen the consequences to themselves by spreading the net of suspicion to others, and this was what the Rosenbergs refused to do.

Harry Gold
Harry Gold

The Electric Chair

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electrocution at Sing Sing Correctional Facility on 19th June 1953. Julius died after one jolt of electricity but the system did not work as well for Ethel, whose heart was still beating after three shocks had been applied and a further two were needed. It is possible that she experienced considerable pain for at least part of the procedure.

Was Justice Served?

The convictions and executions of the Rosenbergs pose a number of disturbing questions that revolve around the issue of whether or not justice was served.

There can be little doubt that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of the crimes with which he was charged. He was the central pivot around which everything else revolved, having been the recruiter of his wife and the Greenglasses. But was Ethel equally guilty, and was she more guilty than her brother and sister-in-law? That would appear to have been the conclusion of the trial judges given that she received the same sentence as her husband which was far more severe than that of any of the other defendants.

When one looks at what Ethel Rosenberg actually did, the suspicion that a miscarriage of justice took place becomes extremely strong. If she had any role in the business it was no more than that of a secretary who typed the handwritten reports produced by her husband and brother. There was never any suggestion that she actively sought the information that was passed on and she was certainly not the prime mover of the spy ring.

So why was she executed when others, more guilty than she, were not? One reason could be the evidence provided in court by her brother, David Greenglass, who was at the heart of the information gathering at Los Alamos. Evidence was also given against her by her sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass.

Exactly what was said in court was not known at the time, due to the need to maintain secrecy because of the highly sensitive nature of the evidence, and it was many years later that the trial transcripts became public knowledge.

In 2001 David Greenglass, then aged nearly 80, recanted the evidence he gave in court that sent his sister to the electric chair. His aim had been to save his own skin and that of his wife, who was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his evidence.

The evidence that Ethel Rosenberg was the group’s secretary, and therefore an important cog in the whole process, was provided by the Greenglasses, and this was the evidence that David Greenglass recanted and admitted had been given falsely under oath. He served a jail sentence of less than ten years, and had to live with the guilt of having – in effect – murdered his sister for the rest of his long life. He died in 2014 at the age of 92.

Victims of National Hysteria

As mentioned above, the trial of the Rosenbergs took place at the height of the McCarthy era when many people believed that the United States was in very real danger of being subverted by Communism. Many false accusations were thrown around and careers ruined – most notably in Hollywood – when perfectly innocent people were accused of having left-wing sympathies. It is therefore not surprising that a court trying a case of actual espionage involving extremely sensitive material smuggled to the Soviet Union by admitted Communists would want to throw the legal book at the perpetrators.

But why was the death sentence passed on the Rosenbergs? Espionage during wartime is regarded as a capital crime in many jurisdictions around the world, but this is not normally the case when the countries involved are not at war. The beneficiary of the spying in question was the Soviet Union, which was an ally of the United States during World War Two and officially the nations were at peace during what was termed the “Cold War”. Spies are simply not executed by civilized countries under such circumstances.

The answer has to be the McCarthyite hysteria and the fact that the Rosenbergs said nothing at their trial to defend themselves. As a result, they were executed and others – more guilty than themselves in some respects – received relatively light sentences. The accusation that justice was not fairly administered has much to support it.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy

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