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The Atomic Accusations and Soviet Espionage Trial of the Rosenbergs

Steve Palace

Some marriages go beyond building a home and raising a family. When deeply-held convictions are involved, a couple can defy convention and become something more complex, dangerous even.

Such a partnership were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose role in Soviet espionage during World War II put them at the epicenter of one of the most sensational and controversial episodes of 20th century justice.

Julius Rosenburg and Ethel Greenglass were both born into Jewish families in New York. They were in proximity to one another from an early age, with both attending the same high school. She was two years older than him.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury.

Arguably the thing that bound them together the most, aside from their love, was politics. As a teenager, Julius — whose parents were Russian immigrants — had signed up for the Young Communist League, having previously thought about becoming a rabbi.

In an article for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Ethel was described as “intent upon making a career for herself in music or theater.” Social change was perhaps less of a concern for her back then. “Radical politics, although widespread and eagerly embraced by Jews in New York City, were not part of the Greenglass family’s world.”

Mugshots of Ethel Rosenberg.

Mugshots of Ethel Rosenberg.

When Julius and Ethel met, she had already experienced first hand what she saw as exploitation in the workplace, at a shipping company. This had led to her becoming involved with the Young Communist League, and dictated the path of her future life.

Despite ultimately leaving show business aspirations behind, it was the bright lights of the stage that brought them together. Introduced during a union benefit she was singing at in 1936, it led to a relationship that progressed to marriage three years later.

Mugshot of Julius Rosenberg.

Mugshot of Julius Rosenberg.

While Ethel stayed at home and raised sons Michael and Robert, Julius spread the word about Communism and recruited to the cause wherever possible.

A qualified electrical engineer, Julius was a member of the U.S. Signal Corps during WWII. Believing the Soviet Union needed him more than the Americans, he began operating as a Russian agent.

Helping him in his endeavors was Ethel’s brother David, who was a machinist on the infamous Manhattan Project. Someone who was well-placed to pass on the secrets of atomic development.

Mugshot of David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Greenglass-Rosenberg.

Mugshot of David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Greenglass-Rosenberg.

In addition, Julius “procured information on how to make an important weapons part called a proximity fuse…. used in a weapon that shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960. Francis Gary Powers, the plane’s pilot, was captured by the Soviets.” The story was dramatized by Steven Spielberg for the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies.

The leaks had stayed under wraps until the fruits of the Rosenberg’s and Greenglass’ labors were apparent. Russia had their atomic bomb ready in 1949 and U.S. intelligence twigged that information had escaped its confines.

Ethel Rosenberg, arrest photograph.

Ethel Rosenberg, arrest photograph.

As the Jewish Women’s Archive put it, “The sequence of events leading to the arrest of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began, like falling dominoes.”

Biography.com writes, “Signal Intelligence Service broke the code used by the Soviets to send messages in the mid-1940s. Some of these decrypted messages revealed that Julius Rosenberg, known by the codename ‘Liberal,’ was involved with the Soviets.”

David Greenglass was promptly arrested after being exposed by Harry Gold, an American who was working as a courier for Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs, a German physicist who’d contributed to the Manhattan Project, was apprehended in 1950.

Klaus Fuchs

Klaus Fuchs

Julius’ brother in law cooperated with authorities, reportedly due to his own wife being in the frame for a jail sentence. A year later the Rosenbergs were in the dock, and David was chief witness for the prosecution.

The political atmosphere in America was heated and their sentencing was harsh. Biography.com points out that “By this time, the U.S. military was engaged in the Korean War, and strong anti-communist sentiments were held nationwide.”

David Greenglass’s sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design, illustrating what he allegedly gave the Rosenbergs to pass on to the Soviet Union.

David Greenglass’s sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design, illustrating what he allegedly gave the Rosenbergs to pass on to the Soviet Union.

Ethel’s behavior in court, which was viewed as emotionless, contributed to a savage depiction of the marriage. Jewish Women’s Archive writes that her “refusal to accommodate gender convention and dissolve into a hysterical or weeping victim suggested to many, including President Dwight Eisenhower and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, that she was in fact the dominant force in the spy network.

Cartoons and illustrations of the Rosenbergs often depicted the diminutive Ethel Rosenberg, barely reaching five feet in her high heels, as towering over her bespectacled, stoop-shouldered husband.”

To a mixed reception, Julius and Ethel were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in March 1951. A sentence of death followed swiftly the next month.

David and Ruth Greenglass claimed the Russians had given the Rosenbergs a console table outfitted for microfilming stolen documents. On the witness stand Julius testified that he had purchased the table at Macy’s for about $21.

David and Ruth Greenglass claimed the Russians had given the Rosenbergs a console table outfitted for microfilming stolen documents. On the witness stand Julius testified that he had purchased the table at Macy’s for about $21.

Some high profile voices opposed the ruling, which made the Rosenbergs the first American civilians to face death for spying, as well as the first to be executed during peacetime.

History.com said “These supporters felt that the Rosenberg trial was an attempt to suppress progressive thinkers in an era increasingly dominated by a Communist scare.”

Add to that the actions of Chief Justice Fred Vinson who accelerated the process leading to the couple’s demise, bypassing a stay of execution, and those who believed Julius and Ethel were innocent only had their suspicions strengthened.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility on the Hudson River, where the Rosenbergs were executed in Old Sparky. Photo by Brett Weinstein (Nrbelex) CC BY-SA 2.5

Sing Sing Correctional Facility on the Hudson River, where the Rosenbergs were executed in Old Sparky. Photo by Brett Weinstein (Nrbelex) CC BY-SA 2.5

The Rosenbergs met their maker in the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State. It was June 19, 1953. Julius was 35-years-old and Ethel 37.

In coverage written for The Guardian it was revealed that “Only a few minutes before, President Eisenhower had rejected a last desperate plea written in her cell by Ethel Rosenberg. Mr Emanuel Bloch, the couple’s lawyer, personally took the note to the White House where guards turned him away.”

No-one felt a sense of injustice more keenly than their sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol (adopted name). They were seven and three-years-old respectively when Julius and Ethel were arrested. The children wound up at the Hebrew Children’s Home in the Bronx.

Morton Sobell (left), Marshall Perlin, Robert Meeropol, Franz Loeser, April 19, 1976.

Morton Sobell (left), Marshall Perlin, Robert Meeropol, Franz Loeser, April 19, 1976.

Their quest as adults for closure and a possible clearing of their parents’ names led to a hard reality in the form of documentary evidence. Having challenged the CIA and FBI, they obtained the paperwork and finally saw for themselves the incriminating material on Julius.

As for Ethel, it’s felt she was more caught up in events rather than directly responsible. The case against her was acknowledged as far from watertight. David Greenglass went on to admit he’d invented the detail that she’d acted as a typist, transcribing Julius’ notes.

The Jewish Women’s Archive notes, “To some she was an arch-villain, to others a crass ideologue, and yet to others a hapless victim.”

Read another story from us: The Cross-Dressing French Aristocrat Who Became an Elite Royal Spy

When it comes to the absolute truth, it’s feared that may have died along with the Rosenbergs.