“After a trial lasting less than a month, Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed on the evening of June 19, 1953, the only persons ever put to deathin America for such a crime.”
“Testimony that could help clear executed American communist Ethel Rosenberg of charges she helped pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s will remain secret, a judge ruled on Tuesday”
A show trial is a “highly public trial in which … the judicial authorities have already determined theguilt of the defendant… its only goal [is] to present the accusation and the verdict to the public as… a warning.”
Introduction: When think of the term “show trial” we are likely to relate it to Stalin era purges, Solzhenitsyn’s gulags and the Doctors Trial. But neither was the United States innocent of using the courts to pursue political ends. If, for example, “trial” is removed from the courtroom and introduced to the halls of Congress, some of the most spectacular such examples of political abuse were produced in this country” the prominence of Jews targeted as “communists in HUAC’s “investigation” into “Communists in Hollywood” discussed earlier. But McCarthy did HUAC one better by taking his show to the airwaves: television made the McCarthy witch hunt a daily drama with a nation-wide audience.
As regards the more traditional show trial staged in a courtroom, the most prominent referred to in recent history was that of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. Less appreciated may be the “trials” of the Rosenbergs in 1951, and the Pollards in 1987.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg arrested, (Wikipedia)
The trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg took place in an atmosphere of continuing and intense antisemitism in the United States. At the time of their arrest, and as the trial progressed, the case appeared open and shut: according to the steady stream of news reports the Rosenbergs had provided atomic secrets to the Soviet Union resulting in that country, according to Judge Kaufman, having the bomb years before the Russians otherwise would have. More recently government files revealed that, while espionage had provided “atomic” secrets to Russia, the spy involved was not Julius Rosenberg but a scientist working on the top secret “Manhattan Project” and secondarily by a 19 year old Harvard student also working on the project. The Russians tested their first bomb in 1949. Those recently released government documents also disclosed that, not only were the real sources of those atomic secrets known before the Rosenbergs went to trial, but that the FBI and government prosecutors were aware also that Julius Rosenberg had provided the Russians information on radar, not the bomb. Regarding Ethel Rosenberg, “declassified documents now show that decrypted information reporting that Ethelwas NOT involved in Soviet spy work was passed to the FBI… the government knew she did not commit [the crime].”
The FBI had implicated Ethel in order to coerce her husband to cooperate in other on-going investigations.
“The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death.”
In sentencing the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair Kaufman justified his decision with a public display of hyperbole. Although the couple was tried under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S. Code 32 enacted “to deal with the American anti-war movement,” in his closing statement he referred to them as guilty of the far more serious crime of treason. His statement (which may be accessed here) reads in part,
“I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with crime you have committed.... 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, in my opinion, 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 [my emphasis].”
Apparently the judge was ignorant of the legal distinction between espionage and treason, or he was ignorant of the fact that at the time of Julius Rosenberg’s crimes the United States and the Soviet Union were, in fact, allies in the war against Germany. Treason refers to aiding an enemy, not an ally of the United States.
Although Jews were targeted in this “show trial,” they were neither the only nor most important “atomic spies.” Klaus Fuchs, who had “extensive access to high-level scientific data and [the] ability to make sense of it through his technical training” is considered the most important Soviet source at the Manhattan Project. Other non-Jews included Theodore Hall, Alan Nunn May and Alfred Sarant, and the “Kleenex box”Harvard student.
As to Russian spies at Los Alamos, it appears they had a front row seat from the start! “Klaus Fuchs, a German-born Lutheran and naturalized British physicist employed on the project was later tried and sentenced in a British court to 14 years for espionage on behalf of Russia. And a nineteen year old Harvard student employed on the Manhattan Project “carried A-bomb plans across the U.S. hidden in a Kleenex box…”
On seven occasions appeals were presented to the United States Supreme Court, and seven times they were refused:
“Most of the justices were motivated by personal considerations such as personal prestige and a conservative point of view. They deliberately ignored breaches of law and ethics that took place during the trial, as well as perjury and dubious and unreliable evidence and, moreover, chose to disregard the unacceptable and unethical relationship between the Judge and the prosecutor [my emphasis].”
Justice Felix Frankfurter was alone in supporting the appeal and accused the other justices of having made up their minds, “long before they met.” He later remarked that the, “manner in which the Supreme Court disposed of that case is one of the least edifying episodes in its modern history (for a summary of the Supreme Court decision against appeal; for an excellent and comprehensive discussion of the case, The Rosenberg Case and the Jewish Issue, by Arnon Gutfeld).”
Thirty years later another Jew would be paraded before the nation in another highly publicized show trial. And the similarities regarding government conduct of the two trials is nothing short of uncanny if judged as “coincidence.” Both cases involved espionage, and in both cases the accused was publicly portrayed as traitor. In both cases the government charged the wife of the spy although known in both cases to be innocent. And when prosecutorial coercion failed both wives were “judged” guilty and punished: Ethel died in the electric chair; Anne spent several years in prison.
Next week the Show Trial of Jonathan Jay Pollard.
Recent writings in this Series: