Fifty years since their execution as “atomic spies”
By: Julien Ball
June 19 will mark the 50th anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple who supposedly sold atomic secrets to the former Soviet Union. With their trial coming at the height of the Cold War hysteria, they are the only two people ever executed in the U.S. for alleged spying on behalf of the Soviet Union.
To understand the Rosenberg case, it is necessary to understand the political climate in the U.S. in the early 1950s. During the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, made famous by Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, tens of thousands of people were investigated, imprisoned, lost their jobs or were deported.
McCarthy’s rise to prominence began in February 1950. He made headlines by charging that the State Department employed more than 200 Communist agents. A Senate committee dismissed these claims, but the “Red Scare” picked up steam after the start of the Korean War. In July 1950, Julius Rosenberg, a dedicated member of the Communist Party, was arrested for allegedly providing atomic secrets.
The evidence against him was dubious at best. But as historian Douglas Linder said, “It was a bad time to be a suspected Communist; it was a terrible time to be a suspected spy.” The only physical evidence produced at the Rosenbergs’ trial was a supposed sketch of the high-explosive lens mold that scientists were developing at the Los Alamos weapons research center. The Rosenbergs had been implicated by a machinist at Los Alamos, David Greenglass, who claimed that the couple had recruited him to be part of a spy ring that got the sketch to a KGB agent. But scientists with the Manhattan Project said the sketches produced by Greenglass were “too incomplete, ambiguous and even incorrect to be of any service or value to the Russians in shortening the time required to develop their nuclear bombs.”
In a March 1997 article, Alexandr Feklisov, a former KGB agent who said that he met with Julius Rosenberg between 1943 and 1946, confirmed this in the New York Times: “He [Rosenberg] didn’t understand anything about the atomic bomb, and he couldn’t help us.”
Even more disturbing was the conviction of Ethel Rosenberg, also a Communist Party activist. “She had nothing to do with this — she was completely innocent,” said Feklisov. Decades later, David Greenglass would admit that he had lied to implicate Ethel, his own sister. In exchange for his cooperation with the FBI, he and his wife were never prosecuted.
A statement by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover clearly shows the motives behind the prosecution of Ethel Rosenberg. “There is no question,” he said, “[that] if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. [P]roceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter.”
On March 29, 1951, a jury convicted the Rosenbergs of “conspiracy to commit espionage.” Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced them to death, calling their actions a “diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” Kaufman also blamed the Rosenbergs for the casualties 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.”
After more than two years of appeals, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison, but not before an international solidarity campaign had arisen on their behalf.
In December 1952, 1,000 people came to Ossining, N.Y., to bring messages of support to the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing. On the day of the execution, 5,000 protesters rallied at Union Square in New York City. Clergy, writers and scientists from all over the world supported the Rosenbergs. Pope Pius XII, a virulent anti-Communist himself, appealed for clemency. Albert Einstein and Jean Paul Sartre spoke out. In Milan, Paris and London, people protested at U.S. consulates. In February 1953, a New York Times survey reported that the Rosenberg case was the “Top issue in France.”
The movement in support of the Rosenbergs didn’t have the impact it needed to stop their executions, but it was important for many people. As Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of the Rosenbergs and founder of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization that aids the children of targeted political activists, said in a 1996 speech in Boston: “Wherever I speak about my parents’ case, people tell how the struggle to save my parents’ lives started them on a lifetime of radical activism.”