Julius Rosenberg was a citizen of the United States who was born on 12 May 1918, but would die prematurely at the age of only 35, seated on the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional facility in New York. His wife Ethel was executed soon after, with the couple having the terrible distinction of being the first American civilians to be executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.
The circumstances leading up to the executions, the trial and the sentencing have remained highly controversial, with the Rosenberg’s sons Michael and Robert Meeropol later proclaiming that their parents should never have been executed and were largely the victims of Cold War anti-communist hysteria that was rife at the time.
Both Julius and Ethel were members of the Young Communist League, not a criminal offence, but amid the rising tide of McCarthyism and fear of the Communists that broke across America in the 1950’s, certainly a stamp of undesirability.
Ethel’s brother David Greenglass worked at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico from 1944 to 1946, when work on Project Manhattan was at its height. This was the research program that led up to the assembly and explosion of the first atomic weapon and which was of primary interest to the Soviets at the time. However his work was as a machinist
and he was not considered as any sort of security risk by the authorities.
The Rosenbergs were idealists and genuinely believed that it was untenable for only one nation, particularly a capitalist one, to possess nuclear technology and they therefore agreed to pass classified information to the Soviets – in effect to become spies.
Greenglass was also recruited into a Soviet spy ring and began to pass top-secret Project Manhattan information back to the Soviets through a local courier. However the identity of this operative was revealed following the arrest of top physicist Klaus Fuchs who had also spied for Russia during the war. Fuchs revealed the identity of the courier and investigators tracked back to Greenglass – and the Rosenbergs – soon after. They were arrested in 1950 and committed for trial charged with the offence of conspiracy to commit espionage.
They were found guilty and sentenced to death on 5 April 1951, and despite an extensive international campaign for clemency, went to the electric chair on 19 June 1953.
Greenglass was also found guilty and subsequently served ten years in prison.
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After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 a great deal of previously classified information was made public, including a large collection of Soviet documents codenamed VENONA.
These indicated that both Rosenbergs were involved in espionage for the Soviets, with Julius acting as a courier and recruiter and Ethel acting as an accessory. However their sons maintain that they were both low-level operatives, probably guilty of conspiracy, as charged, but not deserving of the death sentence.
In a sensational development during a 2001 television interview, David Greenglass admitted to providing misleading testimony about the Rosenbergs during their trial, deepening the implication of their guilt in order to protect himself and his family. In effect he allowed his sister to be sacrificed to protect his wife – a decision for which he remains unrepentant.
In 1990, Robert Meeropol founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children that operates under a mission statement:
“The Rosenberg Fund for Children was established to provide for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have suffered because of their progressive activities and who, therefore, are no longer able to provide fully for their children. The RFC also provides grants for the educational and emotional needs of targeted activist youth. Professionals and institutions will be awarded grants to provide services to beneficiaries”.
By: R. Whitaker
Image: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave a U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.