Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after their conviction for "conspiracy to commit espionage."
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after their conviction for "conspiracy to commit espionage."

Julius Rosenberg ( May 12, 1918 – June 19, 1953) and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg ( September 28, 1915 – June 19, 1953) were American Communists who received international attention when they were executed for passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, Soviet communications decrypted in the VENONA project were released which supported the general allegations of espionage by Julius, though not supporting the specific charges on which the Rosenbergs were convicted. Also supporting the conviction were Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's posthumously published memoirs.


Julius Rosenberg was born to a Jewish family on May 12, 1918 in New York City. He became a leader in the Young Communist League where, in 1936, he met Ethel, whom he married three years later. 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.

Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915 in New York City, also to a Jewish family. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial 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.

According to his former KGB handler, Alexander Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg was originally recruited by the KGB on Labor Day 1942, by former KGB spymaster Semyon Semyonov. Julius had been introduced to Semenov by Bernard Schuster, a high ranking member of the Communist Party USA as well as Earl Browder's personal KGB liaison. After Semenov was recalled to Moscow in 1944, his duties were taken over by his apprentice, Alexander Feklisov.

According to Feklisov, Julius was his most dedicated and valuable asset, providing thousands of classified reports from Emerson Radio including a complete proximity fuze, the same design that was used to shoot down Francis Gary Powers's U-2 in 1960. Under Feklisov administration, Julius Rosenberg is said to have recruited sympathetic individuals to the KGB’s service, including Joel Barr, Al Sarant, William Perl and Morton Sobell.

According to Feklisov's account, he was supplied by Perl, under Julius Rosenberg’s direction, with thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics including a complete set of design and production drawings for the Lockheed's P-80 Shooting Star. Feklisov says he learned through Julius that his brother-in-law David Greenglass was working on the top secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and used Julius to recruit him.

During World War II, the USSR and the US became allies in war, but the US government 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. However, the Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the US government 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 Soviet agents, many because they were sympathetic to communism (or the Soviet Union's role in the war) and did not feel that the US should have a monopoly on atomic weapons

After the war, the US continued to resist efforts to share nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. Its first nuclear test, " Joe 1", shocked the West in the speed it was produced. It was then 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 make a case against 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 back to the United States for trial.

Trial and conviction

Police photograph of Julius Rosenberg after his arrest.
Police photograph of Julius Rosenberg after his arrest.
Mugshot of Ethel Rosenberg.
Mugshot of Ethel Rosenberg.

The case against the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing US nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. He also asserted that a sketch he made of a cross section of the implosion-type atom bomb (the one dropped on Nagasaki as opposed to the "gun method" triggering device that was in the one dropped on Hiroshima) was also turned over to Julius Rosenberg at that meeting.

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. The difference from the Hiss case is that the controversy over the fairness of the trial and the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs did not begin until five months after the trial because the media did not publish one word questioning the verdict in the case. (There were a few references to the severity of the death penalty but even the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker did not publish anything questioning the guilty verdict until much later.)

Although the notes typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project, this was sufficient evidence for the grand jury to indict Ethel and enough for the jury to convict on the conspiracy to commit espionage charge. Supporters today feel that a capital charge of conspiracy to commit espionage was not only far too severe, but was not supported by the available evidence.

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 did not 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 evidence that Julius Rosenberg had many dealings with an NKVD agent. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian government has released documentation that demonstrates that Julius Rosenberg was providing secret information to the NKVD. Alexander Feklisov has stated in a memoir and in many interviews that he was Julius Rosenberg's control agent, and met Julius on over 50 occasions over a three year period beginning in 1943. Feklisov said that, though Julius had provided military secrets, he was never able to provide any information of substance concerning the atomic bomb. He also said that Ethel Rosenberg, as a "probationer," did not meet directly with Soviet Agent handlers, but she assisted Julius's activities and the products of other members of the group. Somewhat contradictorily, Soviet intelligence control agents nevertheless have stated that both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were considered for recommendations in recognition of their services, describing their espionage activities as an important contribution to the Soviet state. In his memoirs, published posthumously in 1990, Nikita Khrushchev praised the pair for their "very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb".

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 on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under section 2 of the Espionage Act, 50 U.S. Code 32 (now 18 U.S. Code 794), which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information "relating to the national defense." The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities by US citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair.

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 consider your crime worse than murder...I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the 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. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack.

Their case has been at the centre 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 (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play, The Crucible).

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 in 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 of average size; and Ethel Rosenberg was a petite woman: this discrepancy resulted, it is claimed, in the electrodes fitting poorly and making poor electrical contact. Eyewitness testimony describes smoke rising from her head.

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 clearly indicates that Julius Rosenberg was engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union, though the importance of his effort is not clear, particularly considering that the Soviets were receiving information on the Atomic bomb from Klaus Fuchs, Donald Maclean and Theodore Alvin Hall (another scientist at Los Alamos). Ethel's involvement is not clear from the VENONA transcripts. A document from November 27, 1944 specifically about Ethel lists her as a "fellowcountryman" and claims that she was aware of Julius' work. Ethel was apparently never assigned a code name — the only reference to her states she "does not work". Julius was always referred to as "ANTENNA" or "LIBERAL" — which has cast doubt onto her significance and involvement. In his memoirs, published posthumously 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.

Faced with the VENONA transcripts and periodic revelations from former Soviet intelligence officials and archives, most critiques of the Rosenbergs' prosecution today centers around the usefulness of classified information provided by the Rosenbergs to the Soviet Union, the severity of their punishment, and the fact that not all Soviet spies were caught, and not all who were caught were prosecuted by the U.S. government. David Greenglass claimed that the atom bomb information believed to be given to the Soviets by Greenglass was quite poor in comparison to the information given by Fuchs, who had a much more intimate understanding of the research being done (revealed by records of Fuchs' detailed transmissions in selective releases from Soviet archives). There was also significant information provided independently of Fuchs by the young scientist Theodore Alvin Hall, as well as a number of other agents, the identities of whom have not yet been fully established.

Fuchs' data was most valuable of all of the Soviet atomic spies, giving a range of specific information on everything from nuclear physics details, production of the plants for uranium enrichment, and the exact values for the bomb design itself. However, it was standard Soviet intelligence policy to use several intelligence sources if at all possible, as any information the Rosenbergs provided could serve as a control to check the accuracy of other intelligence.

David Greenglass was spared execution in exchange for his testimony. More importantly, his wife, who according to the Venona decrypts was given a code name, was never even indicted. 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 recanted and claimed that he had committed perjury when he testified about the typing activity of his sister Ethel. Greenglass said he chose to falsely testify against his sister in order to protect his wife and children.


The Rosenberg case has always been a controversial issue, with opinion dividing along ideological lines. There are a number of points of contention which still hold, even after the VENONA revelations.

  • Ethel Rosenberg’s Involvement: While the preponderance of evidence indicates that Julius was involved in Soviet espionage, the record is unclear for Ethel. The VENONA transcripts are ambiguous as to Ethel's involvement, and her brother, David Greenglass, a key prosecution witness, later told his biographer Sam Roberts that he had perjured himself in order to lessen his own sentence and to help his wife avoid jail time.
  • The Trial: There are many critics who have alleged that the political climate of the time, and the seemingly a priori belief by Judge Kaufman of the pair's guilt, his agreement to impose the death penalty before the trial had even begun, his willingness to permit a cross-examination of Ethel Rosenberg which destroyed her credibility by suggesting that there is a contradiction between asserting the Fifth Amendment before a Grand Jury and asserting one's innocence at a trial, 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 moving to impound exhibit 8 a Greenglass sketch purporting to show a cross section of the implosion-type atom bomb, thereby in effect acquiescing in the prosecution's charge that the sketch was in fact the "secret of the atom bomb" and also 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. Also, prosecutor Roy Cohn influenced the choice of Kaufman as judge.
  • The Sentence: 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". Klaus Fuchs, who spied for many more years than the Rosenbergs, provided far more sensitive nuclear information to the Soviet Union, and was caught, confessed, tried, convicted, and sentenced in the United Kingdom, received 14 years in jail, which was the maximum penalty in that nation for passing military secrets to friendly nations. In 1950 the Rosenbergs' conspiracy charge was prosecuted in the United States in the context of the Cold War and the concurrent Korean War, with Judge Kaufman placing culpability on the couple for the Korean War. It is not clear that the prosecution proved that the Rosenbergs' activities had caused the Korean War, even if they had given the Soviet Union the secret of the atomic bomb.

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 songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne. Abel Meeropol (under the pen name of Lewis Allan) wrote the classic anti-lynching anthem " Strange Fruit," made famous by singer Billie Holiday. He also co-wrote (with Earl Robinson) "The House I Live In", made famous in a short film starring Frank Sinatra to promote the war effort under a theme of tolerance for all types of Americans. (This song has a line referring to "My neighbors white and black" which was omitted from the film and Frank Sinatra's recorded versions. In the film all the characters, even the members of Sinatra's band are white.) 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 Leftist activists involved in court cases.

Michael's daughter, Ivy Meeropol, directed a 2004 documentary about her grandparents, Heir to an Execution, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.

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