Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951
Ossining, New York, U.S. (both)
|Resting place||Wellwood Cemetery
Suffolk County, New York
|Occupation||Actress, singer, secretary (Ethel); electrical engineer (Julius)|
|Children||Michael Meeropol, Robert Meeropol|
|Criminal charge||Conspiracy to commit espionage|
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American citizens who spied, with others, for the Soviet Union and were tried, convicted, and executed by the federal government of the United States. They provided top-secret information about radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines to the USSR and were accused of transmitting valuable nuclear weapon designs to the Soviet Union; at that time the United States was the only country in the world with nuclear weapons.
Other convicted co-conspirators were imprisoned, including Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents from Los Alamos to Julius and who served 10 years of a 15-year sentence; Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass and served 15 years in federal prison as the courier for Greenglass. Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist working in Los Alamos and handled by Gold, provided vastly more important information to the Soviets. He was convicted in Great Britain and served nine years and four months in prison.
For decades, the Rosenbergs' sons Michael and Robert Meeropol and many other defenders maintained that Julius and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country and victims of Cold War paranoia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables, code-named VENONA, which detailed Julius's role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets and Ethel's role as an accessory.
Their sons' current position is that Julius was legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, though not of atomic spying, while Ethel was only generally aware of his activities. The children say that their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted. They continue to campaign for Ethel to be posthumously and legally exonerated.
In 2014, five historians who had published works based on the Rosenberg case wrote that Soviet documents show that Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, relayed her personal evaluation of individuals whom Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources. They also demonstrate that Julius reported to the KGB how Ethel persuaded Ruth Greenglass to travel to New Mexico to recruit David Greenglass as a spy.
Early lives and education
Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918, in New York City to a family of Jewish immigrants. The family moved to the Lower East Side by the time Julius was 11. His parents worked in the shops of the Lower East Side, as Julius attended Seward Park High School. Julius became a leader in the Young Communist League USA while at City College of New York (CCNY). In 1939, he graduated from CCNY with a degree in electrical engineering.
Ethel Greenglass was born on September 25, 1915, to a Jewish family in Manhattan, New York City. She originally 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 met Julius in 1936. They married in 1939. Together they had two sons, Michael and Robert, born in 1943 and 1947 respectively.
Julius Rosenberg joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1940, where he worked as an engineer-inspector until 1945. He was fired when the U.S. Army discovered his previous membership in the Communist Party. Important research on electronics, communications, radar and guided missile controls was undertaken at Fort Monmouth during World War II.
According to a 2001 book by his former handler Alexander Feklisov, Rosenberg was originally recruited by the NKVD on Labor Day 1942 by former spymaster Semyon Semyonov. He had been introduced to Semyonov by Bernard Schuster, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party USA as well as Earl Browder's personal NKVD liaison. After Semyonov was recalled to Moscow in 1944, his duties were taken over by Feklisov.
Rosenberg provided thousands of classified reports from Emerson Radio, including a complete proximity fuse. Under Feklisov's administration, Rosenberg recruited sympathetic individuals into NKVD service, including Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, William Perl, and Morton Sobell. Perl supplied Feklisov, under Rosenberg's direction, with thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, including a complete set of design and production drawings for Lockheed's P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. operational jet fighter. Feklisov learned through Rosenberg that Ethel's brother David Greenglass was working on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; he directed Julius to recruit Greenglass.
In February 1944, Rosenberg also succeeded in recruiting a second source of Manhattan Project information, engineer Russell McNutt, who worked on designs for the plants at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. For this coup, Rosenberg received a $100 bonus. McNutt's employment provided access to secrets about processes for manufacturing weapons-grade uranium.
The USSR and the U.S. were allies during World War II, but the Americans did not share information about or seek assistance from the Soviet Union regarding the Manhattan Project. The West was shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test, "Joe 1", on August 29, 1949.
In January 1950, the U.S. discovered that Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, had given key documents to the Soviets throughout the war. Fuchs identified his courier as Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. Gold confessed and identified David Greenglass as an additional source.
On June 15, 1950, David Greenglass was arrested by the FBI for espionage and soon confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold. He also claimed that his sister's husband Julius had convinced his wife Ruth to recruit him while visiting him in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1944. He said Julius had passed secrets and thus linked him to the Soviet contact agent Anatoli Yakovlev. This connection would be necessary as evidence if there was to be a conviction for espionage of the Rosenbergs.
On June 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage, based on David Greenglass' confession. On August 11, 1950, Ethel Rosenberg was arrested after a grand jury appearance (see section, below).
Another accused conspirator, Morton Sobell, fled to Mexico City, where he tried to figure out a way to reach Europe without a passport. Abandoning that effort, he returned to Mexico City, from which he claimed to have been kidnapped by members of the Mexican secret police and driven to the U.S. border, where he was arrested by U.S. forces. The government claimed Sobell was arrested by the Mexican police for bank robbery on August 16, 1950, and extradited the next day to the United States in Laredo, Texas. He was charged and tried with the Rosenbergs on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Twenty senior government officials met secretly on February 8, 1950 to discuss the Rosenberg case. Gordon Dean, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, stated: "It looks as though Rosenberg is the kingpin of a very large ring, and if there is any way of breaking him by having the shadow of a death penalty over him, we want to do it." Myles Lane, a member of the prosecution team, said that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was "not too strong", but that it was "very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence".
Their weak case against Ethel Rosenberg was resolved just 10 days before the start of the trial when David and Ruth Greenglass were interviewed for a second time. They were persuaded to change their original stories. David originally had said that he'd passed the atomic data he'd collected to Julius on a New York street corner. After being interviewed this second time, he stated that he'd given this information to Julius in the living room of the Rosenbergs' New York apartment and that Ethel, at Julius's request, had taken his notes and "typed them up". In her re-interview Ruth expanded on her husband's version: "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it and when he came out he called Ethel and told her she had to type this information immediately ... Ethel then sat down at the typewriter which she placed on a bridge table in the living room and proceeded to type the information that David had given to Julius." As a result of this new testimony, all charges against Ruth Greenglass were dropped.
On August 11, Ethel Rosenberg testified before a grand jury. She took the fifth amendment in answer to all of the questions and as she left the courthouse she was taken into custody by FBI agents. Her attorney asked the U.S. Commissioner to parole her in his custody over the weekend, so that she could make arrangements for her two young children. The request was denied. Julius and Ethel were put under pressure to incriminate others involved in the spy ring. Neither offered any further information. On August 17, the grand jury returned an indictment alleging 11 overt acts. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted, as were David Greenglass and Anatoli Yakovlev.
Trial and conviction
The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951, with Judge Irving Kaufman presiding. U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol prosecuted for the Southern District of New York. Criminal defense attorney Emmanuel Bloch represented the Rosenbergs. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that he turned over to Julius Rosenberg (his brother-in-law) a sketch of the cross-section of an implosion-type atom bomb (the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to a bomb with the "gun method" triggering device as used in the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima). He also testified that his sister Ethel Rosenberg typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945.
The Rosenbergs both remained defiant as the trial progressed. During testimony, they asserted their right under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment not to incriminate themselves when asked about their involvement in the Communist Party or their activity with its members.
On March 29, 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage. They were sentenced to death on April 5 by Judge Kaufman under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 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". Prosecutor Roy Cohn, who would play a major role assisting Joseph McCarthy with his hearings as his chief counsel, later claimed that his influence led to both Kaufman and Saypol being appointed to the case, and that Kaufman imposed the death penalty based on Cohn's personal recommendation.
In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held the Rosenbergs responsible not only for espionage but also for deaths in 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.
Julius Rosenberg claimed the case was a political frame-up.
Campaign for clemency
After the publication of an investigative series in the National Guardian and the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, some Americans came to believe both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grassroots campaign was started to try to stop the couple's execution. Between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of antisemitism; the charges of antisemitism were widely believed abroad, but not among the vast majority in the United States, where the Rosenbergs did not receive any support from mainstream Jewish organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to acknowledge any violations of civil liberties in the case.
Across the world, especially in Western European capital, came an outburst of picketing and demonstrations in favor of the Rosenbergs, along with editorials in otherwise pro-American newspapers, and a plea for clemency from the Pope. Eisenhower, supported by public opinion and the media at home, ignored the overseas demand.
Marxist (and later Nobel Prize-winning) existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, autos-da-fé, sacrifices – we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear ... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb." Others, including non-Communists such as Jean Cocteau, Albert Einstein, and Nobel Prize–winning physical chemist Harold Urey, as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Bertolt Brecht, Dashiell Hammett, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed the U.S. Dreyfus affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for the communist French newspaper L'Humanité, "The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place." The all-black labor union International Longshoremen's Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Cinema artists such as Fritz Lang registered their protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful.
The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an execution chamber when the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. They were transferred to New York State's Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, for execution. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted by executioner Joseph Francel at sundown on June 19, 1953.
The execution was delayed from the originally scheduled date of June 18, because Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas had granted a stay of execution on the previous day. That stay resulted from intervention in the case by Fyke Farmer, a Tennessee lawyer whose efforts had previously been scorned by the Rosenbergs' attorney, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch.
While Douglas decided whether or not to grant the stay on the evening of June 16, Chief Justice of the United States Fred Vinson met with Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. and Solicitor General Robert Stern. They agreed that if Douglas granted the stay, Chief Justice Vinson would call the Court back into special session to overturn it. This was before Vinson or any other member of the Supreme Court had seen Douglas's reasoning or heard arguments on the case. The next day, after Douglas had granted the stay, the Attorney General petitioned the Supreme Court for a special session, according to an FBI file released in 1975 after a partially successful Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Rosenbergs' sons. The meeting was confirmed by former Solicitor General Stern decades later.
On June 18, the special session convened with the stated intention of deciding whether to let Douglas's stay stand or dispose of it. The rationale for disposing of the stay was not to let the execution be delayed for months while the appeal on which the stay was based moved through the lower courts. Justice Felix Frankfurter later wrote that he was convinced all minds were made up "before we met." The court vacated Douglas's stay on Friday, June 19 at noon.
The execution was scheduled for 11 p.m. that evening, during the Jewish Sabbath, which begins and ends around sunset. The Rosenbergs' lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, asked for more time, filing a complaint that execution on the Sabbath offended the defendants' Jewish heritage. Rhoda Laks, another attorney on the Rosenbergs' defense team also made this argument before Judge Kaufman. The defense's strategy backfired. Judge Kaufman, who also stated his concerns about executing the Rosenbergs on the Jewish Sabbath, rescheduled the execution for 8 p.m. - before sunset (and the Jewish Sabbath) and before 11 p.m., the regular time for executions at Sing Sing.
Julius was executed first; he died after the first electric shock. Ethel's execution did not go smoothly. After she was given the normal course of three electric shocks, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Ethel's heart was still beating. Two more electric shocks were applied, and at the conclusion, eyewitnesses (Bob Considine among them) reported that smoke rose from her head.
The funeral services were held in Brooklyn on June 21. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Pinelawn, New York. The Times reported that 500 people attended, while some 10,000 stood outside:
The bodies had been brought from Sing Sing prison by the national "Rosenberg committee" which undertook the funeral arrangements, and an all-night vigil was held in one of the largest mortuary chapels in Brooklyn. Many hundreds of people filed past the biers. Most of them clearly regarded the Rosenbergs as martyred heroes and more than 500 mourners attended to-day's services, while a crowd estimated at 10,000 stood outside in burning heat. Mr. Bloch [their counsel], who delivered one of the main orations, bitterly exclaimed that America was "living under the heel of a military dictator garbed in civilian attire": the Rosenbergs were "Sweet. Tender. And Intelligent" and the course they took was one of "courage and heroism."
The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. Deputy Attorney General of the United States William P. Rogers, when later asked about the death sentence imposed on Ethel in an effort to extract a full confession from Julius, reportedly said, "She called our bluff."
Soviet nuclear program
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, investigated how much the Soviet spy ring helped the USSR to build their bomb. In 1945, Moynihan found, physicist Hans Bethe estimated that the Soviets would be able to build their own bomb in five years. "Thanks to information provided by their agents", Moynihan wrote in his book Secrecy, "they did it in four." In his posthumously published memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, said that he "cannot specifically say what kind of help the Rosenbergs provided us" but that he learned from Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov that they "had provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb". However Boris V. Brokhovich, the engineer who later became director of Chelyabinsk-40, the plutonium production reactor and extraction facility that the Soviet Union used to create its first bomb material, called Khrushchev a 'silly fool' and claimed the development of the bomb had been a matter of trial and error. "You sat the Rosenbergs in the electric chair for nothing," he said. "We got nothing from the Rosenbergs." The notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was directly used in the Soviet atomic bomb project. According to Alexander Feklisov, the former Soviet agent who was Julius's contact, the Rosenbergs did not provide the Soviet Union with any useful material about the atomic bomb: "He [Julius] didn't understand anything about the atomic bomb and he couldn't help us."
In 1995, the results of the Venona decryption project were released by the U.S. government, clearly showing Julius Rosenberg's role as the leader of a productive ring of spies. They show Ethel's role was more limited, and despite the fact that the historians mentioned above claim that she hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, provided her personal evaluation of individuals Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources, there was no evidence in the VENONA decryptions, nor the Vassiliev notebooks published online in 2009 to support those assertions. These historians also continue to assert that Julius reported to the KGB that Ethel persuaded Ruth Greenglass to travel to New Mexico to recruit David as a spy. Testimony from Greenglass' trial doesn't completely align with declassified KGB documents, which suggest that both Greenglasses were enthusiastic recruits into Soviet espionage, needing no persuasion from either Ethel or Julius Rosenberg.
David and Ruth Greenglass
David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother and key prosecution witness, recanted his testimony about his sister having typed the notes. In 2001 he stated, "I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember." He said he gave false testimony to protect himself and his wife, Ruth, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so; "My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children." He refused to express any remorse for his decision to betray his sister, saying only that he did not realize that the death penalty would be invoked. He stated, "I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister." In September 2008, hundreds of pages of grand jury transcripts were released. With this release, it was revealed that Ruth Greenglass had irreconcilable differences between her grand jury testimony of August 1950 and the testimony she gave at trial. At the grand jury, Ruth Greenglass was asked, "Didn't you write [the information] down on a piece of paper?" She replied, "Yes, I wrote [the information] down on a piece of paper and [Julius Rosenberg] took it with him." But at the trial, she testified that Ethel Rosenberg typed up notes about the atomic bomb.
In 2008, Morton Sobell admitted (after years of denials) that he was a Soviet spy. He confirmed that Julius Rosenberg was "in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information ... [on] the atomic bomb", and that, "He never told me about anything else that he was engaged in." However, he stated that he thought the hand-drawn diagrams and other atomic-bomb details that were acquired by David Greenglass and passed to Julius were of "little value" to the Soviet Union, and were used only to corroborate what they had already learned from the other atomic spies. He also stated that he believed Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband's deeds, but took no part in them. In a subsequent letter to The New York Times, Sobell denied that he knew anything about Julius Rosenberg's alleged atomic espionage activities – that the only thing he knew for sure was what he himself did in association with Julius Rosenberg.
The Rosenbergs' two sons, Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol, spent years trying to prove the innocence of their parents. They were orphaned by the executions and were not adopted by any relatives. They were adopted by the high school teacher, poet, songwriter, and social activist Abel Meeropol (author of the popular song "Strange Fruit") and his wife Anne, and they assumed the Meeropol surname. After Morton Sobell's 2008 confession, they acknowledged their father had been involved in espionage, but said that "whatever atomic bomb information their father passed to the Russians was, at best, superfluous; the case was riddled with prosecutorial and judicial misconduct; their mother was convicted on flimsy evidence to place leverage on her husband; and neither deserved the death penalty."
Michael and Robert co-wrote a book about their and their parents' lives, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975). Robert wrote a later memoir, An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey (2003). In 1990, he founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a nonprofit foundation that provides support for children of targeted liberal activists, and youth who are targeted activists. Michael has recently retired as the Chair and Professor of Economics, School of Arts and Sciences, Economics at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Michael's daughter, Ivy Meeropol, directed a 2004 documentary about her grandparents, Heir to an Execution, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
Campaign for exoneration of Ethel Rosenberg
In 2015, following the most recent grand jury transcript release, the Rosenbergs' sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol called on the Obama administration to acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg's conviction and execution was wrongful, and issue a proclamation to exonerate her. Similarly, on September 28, 2015, the 100th anniversary of Ethel's birth, 11 members of the New York City Council issued a proclamation stating that "the government wrongfully executed Ethel Rosenberg", and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer officially recognized, "the injustice suffered by Ethel Rosenberg and her family", and declared it, "Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan". In March 2016, Michael and Robert (via the Rosenberg Fund for Children) launched a petition campaign calling on President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg before they leave office in January 2017. In October 2016, the CBS news show 60 Minutes presented the story of the Rosenbergs' children who were seeking a proclamation from President Barack Obama that their mother's conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful. However, nothing has been done to exonerate them by any US president.
- The E. L. Doctorow novel The Book of Daniel (1971) is based on the Rosenberg case as seen through the eyes of a (fictionalized) son. Doctorow wrote the screenplay of the Sidney Lumet film Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton.
- Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977) dealt with the case. Unlike Doctorow, Coover uses real names for most protagonists of the case, and uses a fictionalized Richard Nixon as his narrator for half of the chapters. This sparked a long delay in the publication of the novel, since publishing houses feared a lawsuit from Nixon.
- Ethel Rosenberg is a major supporting character in Tony Kushner's critically acclaimed play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993), in which her ghost haunts a dying Roy Cohn. In the HBO 2003 miniseries adaptation of the play, she was portrayed by Meryl Streep.
- Ethel Rosenberg also appears in the memories of Cohn, and then as a spirit to haunt the dying Cohn, in the biography Citizen Cohn as well as its HBO film adaptation.
- Jillian Cantor's The Hours Count (2015) tells the fictional story of a woman who befriends Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and is drawn into their world of intrigue.
- The main character in Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, is morbidly interested in the Rosenbergs' case. The novel begins with the sentence, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."
- Images of the Rosenbergs are engraved on a memorial in Havana, Cuba. The accompanying caption says they were murdered.
- Kurt Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions features an oblique reference to the Rosenberg execution during a post-coital discussion of recent uses of the electric chair (p. 160).
- The song "Julius and Ethel" by Bob Dylan is based on the Rosenberg case.