Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists who were executed on June 19, 1953, on charges of smuggling atomic secrets to the USSR.
Julius was a 35-year-old man and Ethel was his 37-year-old wife. They were executed at New York’s Sing Sing prison. Since Julius’ cell was closer to the execution chamber, he went first. That way Ethel didn’t have to watch her husband pass in front of her cell on his way to the chamber.
Julius was killed on the first shock from the electric chair. Ethel, though, needed five shocks before she died. Neither of them had any final words.
In the late 1940s, the US special services were able to crack the Soviet’s secret codes and read their communications. This led to the identification of several spies in the US atomic research program. These spies included Claus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who was working in Britain.
Fuchs had worked with many of the scientists who were involved with the Manhattan Project. He was sending any information he received to the Soviets. It was partly due to his involvement that the Soviets were able to develop their own atomic arsenal just four years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Following the trail from Fuchs, the US agents were able to capture David Greenglass. In 1944, Greenglass had been assigned to the Manhattan Project. According to the Times, Greenglass preached the benefits of communism everywhere he went, including Los Alamos.
Greenglass’ sister was Ethel Rosenberg. Greenglass told her that her husband had recruited him to spy for the Soviets. He had sent Julius a sketch and several pages of technical details on the atomic bomb. Federal agents arrested Julius in July of 1950.
Greenglass also testified against his sister to the federal agents. He claimed that she helped Julius with his spying. Later, he would recant. He said that he had implicated his sister in order to keep his wife out of the investigation. He claimed that his wife was more important to him than his sister.
Unlike other spies brought to trial in the US at the time, the Rosenbergs never abandoned their claim of innocence. The judge found both guilty and ordered the death penalty for both in April of 1951. The judge cited the harm they caused to the country as the basis for the death penalty.
Until the 1990s, many claimed that the Rosenbergs had been unfairly convicted. These people felt that the Rosenbergs were innocent and that the US was guilty of anti-Semitism in killing the couple. But in the 1990s, the Venona Project was declassified and all of the Soviet communications that had been decrypted were released to the public.
Morton Sobell, an engineer with General Electric and who had been convicted of spying in 1951, confessed that he had been a spy with Julius.
Alan Dershowitz, the famed American lawyer, stated in 1995 that the Rosenbergs had been both guilty and framed. The reason he said this was because prosecutors in the Rosenberg trial admitted that they relied on weak and false evidence because the Venona files were classified and could not be used in the trial.
There are still doubts about the fairness of the sentence given to Ethel. She does not appear to have assisted her husband in spying. Her only tie to her husband’s crimes was her brother’s slander.
Alexander Feklisov, a retired KGB agent that worked with the atomic spy ring, later confessed that Ethel had nothing to do with the program. Further, Feklisov said that the information they received from Julius had been practically useless.
While the actual damage the Rosenbergs’ caused the US is in doubt, they clearly were motivated by their ideology. They dreamed of a socialist state with no discrimination and were willing to die for it.