This Day in Jewish History Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Go on Trial for Espionage

The Jewish duo from New York was tried for passing military technology to the Soviets throughout the 1940s; they were put to death in 1953.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On March 6, 1951, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began, in New York Southern District federal court, in Manhattan. The Jewish couple had been indicted the preceding August on charges of conspiring to commit espionage against the United States by delivering military secrets -- including information connected to the development of the atomic bomb -- to the Soviet Union.

Julius Rosenberg (born 1918) and Ethel Greenglass (born 1915) both grew up in New York, and were married in 1939 after meeting at a union fund-raising party. Long passionate about politics, Julius had joined the Young Communist League while studying at City College, where he earned an engineering degree. In 1940, he began working as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories, at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey. Ethel had been an aspiring actress, but settled for a job as a secretary with a shipping company after they wed.

A 2001 book by Aleksandre Feksilov, Julius’ Russian spy handler, claimed that Rosenberg was recruited in 1942, and that he and his recruits passed on thousands of pages of documents related to military technology to the Soviets throughout the 1940s.

Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies for most of World War II, the Americans did not share information about the Manhattan Project with the Russians. So when the Soviet Union conducted its first test of a nuclear bomb, on August 29, 1949, the Americans were alarmed. The January 1950 arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee who had worked on the Manhattan Project, on suspicion of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, started the chain reaction that led to the Rosenbergs' arrest.

Fuchs’ courier had been Harry Gold, a Jewish chemist from Philadelphia. Gold in turn identified David Greenglass, a former U.S. Army machinist, and the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who had worked at the Los Alamos labs where the bomb was developed, as a source. Greenglass claimed that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law and had turned over the material he had stolen to him. He said that Ethel too was involved in the plot. This last point was critical, because it was the only testimony directly linking Ethel to the espionage. In 2001, Greenglass admitted in a television interview that he had fabricated an account about Ethel typing up Julius’ notes for the Soviets. He said that he implicated his sister to protect himself and his pregnant wife. (Greenglass spent 10 years in prison for his part in the conspiracy.)

FBI agents arrested Julius Rosenberg on July 17, 1950, and Ethel a month later. It later became clear that Ethel's arrest was intended to pressure her husband to name names of others involved in the spy ring. But Julius Rosenberg didn’t crack: He never admitted his own role in the espionage and never gave up any accomplices. Ethel also refused to cooperate with the authorities, even when she found herself charged as a full-fledged conspirator.

Within days, a number of Rosenberg acquaintances were either arrested -- or disappeared. One of them was Morton Sobell, who escaped to Mexico, where he was soon was kidnapped, apparently by “bandits” who then drove him north to the U.S. border and turned him over to FBI agents. Sobell, an electrical engineer, was tried with the Rosenbergs, and spent 17 years in prison. Yet he continued to proclaim innocence up until 2008, when at age 91 he granted an interview to Sam Roberts of the New York Times. In the interview, he finally admitted that Julius had been a spy, but said that what he passed to the Soviets was “junk.”

Irving Saypol prosecuted the Rosenbergs, with the help of a 26-year-old U.S. attorney named Roy Cohn, who went on to a prolific career as red-baiter and legal fixer. Cohn later claimed that he had played a role in having Judge Irving Kaufman appointed to the case, and in encouraging him to sentence the Rosenberg couple to death. Emanuel Bloch defended the duo. He later helped care for Robert and Michael, the Rosenbergs’ two sons, until they were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol.

The trial went to the jury on March 28, 1951. After only a few hours of deliberation, they voted to convict. On April 5, Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs. In condemning both Julius and Ethel to death, he told them that, “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 … 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, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953. They are the only people in American history to have been executed for espionage.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by wire screen, as they leave a U.S. courthouse after being found guilty by a jury.Credit: Wikipedia

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