The Rosenberg Espionage Case

Couple Was Convicted of Spying For Soviets and Executed In Electric Chair

News photograph of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in police van.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in a police van following their espionage trial. Bettmann/Getty Images

The execution of New York City couple Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after their conviction for being Soviet spies was a major news event of the early 1950s. The case was intensely controversial, touching nerves throughout American society, and debates about the Rosenbergs continue to the present day.

The basic premise of the Rosenberg case was that Julius, a committed communist, passed secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, which helped the USSR develop its own nuclear program. His wife Ethel was accused of conspiring with him, and her brother, David Greenglass, was a conspirator who turned against them and cooperated with the government.

The Rosenbergs, who were arrested in the summer of 1950, had come under suspicion when a Soviet spy, Klaus Fuchs, confessed to British authorities months earlier. Revelations from Fuchs led the FBI to the Rosenbergs, Greenglass, and a courier for the Russians, Harry Gold.

Others were implicated and convicted for participating in the spy ring, but the Rosenbergs drew the most attention. The Manhattan couple had two young sons. And the idea that they could be spies putting the national security of the United States at risk fascinated the public.

On the night the Rosenbergs were executed, June 19, 1953, vigils were held in American cities protesting what was widely seen as a great injustice. Yet many Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, who had taken office six months earlier, remained convinced of their guilt.

Over the following decades controversy over the Rosenberg case never entirely faded. Their sons, who had been adopted after their parents died in the electric chair, persistently campaigned to clear their names.

In the 1990s declassified material established that American authorities had been solidly convinced that Julius Rosenberg had been passing secret national defense material to the Soviets during World War II.

Yet a suspicion that first arose during the Rosenbergs' trial in the spring of 1951, that Julius could not have known any valuable atomic secrets, remains. And the role of Ethel Rosenberg and her degree of culpability remains a subject for debate.

Background of the Rosenbergs

Julius Rosenberg was born in New York City in 1918 to a family of immigrants and grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. He attended Seward Park High School in the neighborhood and later attended City College of New York, where he received a degree in electrical engineering.

Ethel Rosenberg had been born Ethel Greenglass in New York City in 1915. She had aspired to a career as an actress but became a secretary. After becoming active in labor disputes she became a communist, and met Julius in 1936 through events organized by the Young Communist League.

Julius and Ethel married in 1939. In 1940 Julius Rosenberg joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps. He worked as an electrical inspector and began passing military secrets to Soviets agents during World War II. He was able to obtain documents, including plans for advanced weaponry, which he forwarded to a Soviet spy whose cover was working as a diplomat at the Soviet consulate in New York City.

Julius Rosenberg's apparent motivation was his sympathy for the Soviet Union. And he believed that as the Soviets were allies of the United States during the war, they should have access to America's defense secrets.

In 1944, Ethel's brother David Greenglass, who was serving in the U.S. Army as a machinist, was assigned to the top-secret Manhattan Project. Julius Rosenberg mentioned that to his Soviet handler, who urged him to recruit Greenglass as a spy.

In early 1945 Julius Rosenberg was discharged from the Army when his membership in the American Communist Party was discovered. His spying for the Soviets had apparently gone unnoticed. And his espionage activity continued with his recruitment of his brother-in-law, David Greenglass.

After being recruited by Julius Rosenberg, Greenglass, with the cooperation of his wife Ruth Greenglass, began passing notes on the Manhattan Project to the Soviets. Among the secrets Greenglass passed along were sketches of parts for the type of bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

In early 1946 Greenglass was honorably discharged from the Army. In civilian life he went into business with Julius Rosenberg, and the two men struggled to operate a small machine shop in lower Manhattan.

Discovery and Arrest

In the late 1940s, as the threat of communism gripped America, Julius Rosenberg and David Greenglass seemed to have ended their espionage careers. Rosenberg was apparently still sympathetic to the Soviet Union and a committed communist, but his access to secrets to pass along to Russian agents had dried up.

Their career as spies might have remained undiscovered if not for the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who had fled the Nazis in the early 1930s and continued his advanced research in Britain. Fuchs worked on secret British projects during the early years of World War II, and then was brought to the United States, where he was assigned to the Manhattan Project.

Fuchs returned to Britain after the war, where he eventually came under suspicion because of family ties to the communist regime in East Germany. Suspected of spying, was interrogated by the British and in early 1950 he confessed to passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. And he implicated an American, Harry Gold, a communist who had worked as a courier delivering material to Russian agents.

Harry Gold was located and questioned by the FBI, and he confessed to having passed atomic secrets to his Soviet handlers. And he implicated David Greenglass, the brother-in-law of Julius Rosenberg.

David Greenglass was arrested on June 16, 1950. The next day, a front-page headline in the New York Times read, "Ex-G.I. Seized Here On Charge He Gave Bomb Data to Gold." Greenglass was interrogated by the FBI, and told how he had been drawn into an espionage ring by his sister's husband.

A month later, on July 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested at his home on Monroe Street in lower Manhattan. He maintained his innocence, but with Greenglass agreeing to testify against him, the government appeared to have a solid case.

At some point Greenglass offered information to the FBI implicating his sister, Ethel Rosenberg. Greenglass claimed he had made notes at Manhattan Project labs at Los Alamos and Ethel had typed them up before the information was passed to the Soviets.

The Rosenberg Trial

The trial of the Rosenbergs was held at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan in March 1951. The government argued that both Julius and Ethel had conspired to pass atomic secrets to Russian agents. As the Soviet Union had detonated its own atomic bomb in 1949, the public perception was that the Rosenbergs had given away the knowledge that enabled the Russians to build their own bomb.

During the trial, there was some skepticism expressed by the defense team that a lowly machinist, David Greenglass, could have supplied any useful information to the Rosenbergs. But even if the information passed along by the spy ring wasn't very useful, the government made a convincing case that the Rosenbergs intended to help the Soviet Union. And while the Soviet Union had been a wartime ally, in the spring of 1951 it was clearly seen as an adversary of the United States.

The Rosenberg, along with another suspect in the spy ring, electrical technician Morton Sobell, were found guilty on March 28, 1951. According to an article in the New York Times the following day, the jury had deliberated for seven hours and 42 minutes.

The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death by Judge Irving R. Kaufman on April 5, 1951. For the next two years they made various attempts to appeal their conviction and sentence, all of which were thwarted in the courts.

Execution and Controversy

Public doubt about the Rosenbergs' trial and the severity of their sentence prompted demonstrations, including large rallies held in New York City.

There were serious questions about whether their defense attorney during the trial had made damaging mistakes that led to their conviction. And, given the questions about the value of any material they would have passed to the Soviets, the death penalty seemed excessive.

The Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, on June 19, 1953. Their final appeal, to the United States Supreme Court, had been denied seven hours before they were executed.

Julius Rosenberg was placed in the electric chair first, and received the first jolt of 2,000 volts at 8:04 p.m. After two subsequent shocks he was declared dead at 8:06 p.m.

Ethel Rosenberg followed him to the electric chair immediately after her husband's body had been removed, according to a newspaper story published the next day. She received the first electric shocks at 8:11 p.m, and after repeated shocks a doctor declared that she was still alive. She was shocked again, and was finally declared dead at 8:16 p.m.

Legacy of the Rosenberg Case

David Greenglass, who had testified against his sister and brother-in-law, was sentenced to federal prison and was eventually paroled in 1960. When he walked out of federal custody, near the docks of lower Manhattan, on November 16, 1960, he was heckled by longshoreman, who yelled out that he was a "lousy communist" and "a dirty rat."

In the late 1990s, Greenglass, who had changed his name and lived with his family out of public view, spoke to a New York Times reporter. He said the government forced him to testify against his sister by threatening to prosecute his own wife (Ruth Greenglass had never been prosecuted).

Morton Sobel, who had been convicted along with the Rosenbergs, was sentenced to federal prison and was paroled in January 1969.

The two young sons of the Rosenbergs, orphaned by the execution of their parents, were adopted by family friends and grew up as Michael and Robert Meeropol. They have campaigned for decades to clear their parents' names.

In 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg contacted the White House to seek a statement of exoneration for their mother. According to a December 2016 news report, White House officials said they would consider the request. However, no action was taken on the case.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Rosenberg Espionage Case." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, August 1). The Rosenberg Espionage Case. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Rosenberg Espionage Case." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).