This Week in History: The Rosenberg espionage trial

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, later sentenced to death, would become one of the most famous cases of Cold War spying in the United States.

March 4, 2012 14:10
3 minute read.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg leave courthouse

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg leave courthouse 390. (photo credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divisio)


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On March 6, 1953, at the height of the Cold War, two American Jews accused of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union were put on trial in New York. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, later sentenced to death, would become one of the most famous cases of Cold War spying in the United States. They became a cause célèbre for people around the world who believed them to be innocent, or at least the victims of injustice.

Julius Rosenberg was the son of Polish immigrants to New York. A member of the Young Communist League in the United States, he had been fired from his job as a civilian inspector from the US Army Signal Corps during the Red Scare, in which Communists and Communist sympathizers were sought out and purged from a wide range of industries and government positions.

Having decided to spy for the Soviet Union, Julius recruited his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, to acquire and pass him information. Greenglass worked on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory, and following his brother-in-law’s dismissal from the Army Signal Corps, his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband Julius pushed him to pass information. Greenglass would later become the government’s star witness in the trial of his sister and brother-in-law.

Greenglass too, was accused and convicted of passing drawings of a nuclear detonator. In order to save his wife, who was also involved in the plot, he implicated his sister Ethel in typing up notes to be passed by her husband Julius to the Soviets. It would later come out, however, that he had sacrificed his sister in order to protect his wife. "I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister,” he said in a television interview nearly 50 years later.

The prosecution in the case, it came out later, had a good idea that Ethel Rosenberg had not been directly involved in the espionage conspiracy. Nevertheless, prosecutors put her on trial alongside her husband in an attempt to pressure Julius to name other American members of the spying ring. But neither Julius nor Ethel ever named any other co-conspirators. Then-US deputy attorney-general William Rogers later explained that the state had hoped Ethel’s desire to remain free with her children would lead her to seek a plea deal and convince her husband to confess. “She called our bluff,” Rogers told The New York Times.

There is little doubt today that the Rosenbergs indeed spied for the Soviet Union but at the time, and to this day, many viewed the case as an injustice and to some, an example of anti-Semitism. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre decried the trial as “a legal lynching.” International groups and activists described the prosecution as a contemporary iteration of the Dreyfus Affair and modern anti-Semitism.

Despite questions of the importance of the information provided by Julius Rosenberg to the Soviets, however, the fact that he spied for Moscow stands. Nikita Khrushchev later confirmed in his memoir that Julius provided the Soviet Union with “significant” help in its drive for nuclear weapons, although some assessments described the information he passed on as only helping it develop the atomic bomb one year earlier than it would have without his help.

Nonetheless, the Rosenberg trial has remained one of perennial interest in the United States and abroad, as well as in Jewish communities. It is often cited both to defend and condemn the communist witch hunts conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy in that era. In recent years, supporters of Jonathan Pollard have cited the punishment levied on the Rosenbergs in attempts to argue that in both cases, the punishment did not fit the crime. In Tablet Magazine in 2010, Jerusalem Post columnist Gil Troy wrote, “With the Rosenbergs — as with the Pollards — the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment.”

Indeed, the Rosenbergs are to this day, the only Americans ever executed for espionage in a time of peace, which is similar to the claim by Pollard supporters that his life sentence is the harshest in modern time for committing espionage for an ally.

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