|Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (September 28, 1915 – June 19, 1953) and Julius Rosenberg (May 12, 1918 – June 19, 1953) were American communists who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
This was the first execution of civilians for espionage in United States history.
Since the execution, decoded Soviet cables have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but doubts remain about the level of Ethel's involvement. The decision to execute the Rosenbergs was, and still is, controversial. The New York Times, in an editorial on the 50th anniversary of the execution (June 19, 2003) wrote, "The Rosenbergs case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.” The other atomic spies that were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed. Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass, served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Greenglass and the British scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was "in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb."
The USSR and the U.S. became allies during World War II, after Nazi Germany's surprise attack on the USSR in 1941, but the U.S. government was highly suspicious of Stalin's long-term intentions. Therefore the Americans did not share information with the Soviet Union for the Manhattan Project. However, the Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the U.S. government and made a number of attempts to infiltrate its operations at the University of California, Berkeley. The FBI file led particularly to Robert Oppenheimer, a consultant at the Radiation Lab and later, the key figure at Los Alamos. A number of project members voluntarily gave secret information to Soviet agents, many because they were sympathetic to Communism (or the Soviet Union's role in the war) and did not feel the U.S. should have a monopoly on atomic weapons.
After the war, the U.S. continued to protect its nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. The West was shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test in 1949. It was then discovered that a German refugee physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs, had given key documents to the Soviets throughout the war. Fuchs' identified his courier as Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. Gold also confessed and identified Sergeant David Greenglass, a former machinist at Los Alamos, as an additional source.
The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman and the attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in 1945. He also testified that he turned over to Julius Rosenberg a sketch of an implosion-type atom bomb The notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project and some suggest Ethel was indicted along with Julius so that the prosecution could use her to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. However, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg named anyone else.
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under the Espionage Act of 1917 which prohibits transmitting to a foreign government information "relating to the national defence." The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well-documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair.
The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:
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, 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. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.
Some Americans believed both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grassroots campaign was started to try to stop the couple's execution. Between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-semitism; the charges of anti-semitism were widely believed abroad, but not among the vast majority in the United States, where the Rosenbergs did not receive any support from mainstream Jewish organizations nor from the American Civil Liberties Union as the case did not raise any civil liberties issues at all.
Nobel-Prize-winning existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb." Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Dashiell Hammett, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed America's Dreyfus Affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for the communist French newspaper L’Humanité, "The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place." Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful.
Their case has been at the center of the controversy over Communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an example of political persecution (McCarthyism) and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and Early Modern Europe (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play, The Crucible).
Because the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an electric chair at the time, the Rosenbergs were transferred to Sing-Sing for execution. The execution was scheduled for later in the evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Desperately playing for more time, their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, filed a complaint that this offended their Jewish heritage. But, the couple were executed at sundown in the electric chair on June 19, 1953.
Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes the circumstances of the Rosenbergs' death, noting that while Julius died after the first series of electrocutions, his wife did not. After the normal course of electrocutions, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Mrs. Rosenberg had not yet died (her heart was still beating). Three courses of electrocution were ultimately applied, and at conclusion eyewitnesses reported, a grisly scene with smoke rising from her head in the chamber.
The Rosenbergs' children
The Rosenbergs' two sons, Robert and Michael, spent years trying to prove the innocence of their parents, until 2008 when they said that their father had likely been involved after Sobell, at age 91, confessed. The Rosenberg children were orphaned by the executions and no relatives adopted them. They were finally adopted by the songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne, and they assumed the Meeropol surname. Abel Meeropol (under the pen name of Lewis Allan) wrote the classic anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" made famous by singer Billie Holiday. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs
Robert and Michael co-wrote a book about the experience, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975), and Robert wrote another book in 2003, An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey. In 1990, Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a non-profit foundation that provides support for children of targeted progressive activists, and youth who are targeted activists themselves. Michael is recently retired as the Chair and Professor of Economics at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Michael's daughter, Ivy Meeropol, directed a 2003 documentary about her grandparents, Heir to an Execution, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival.
Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol believe that "whatever atomic bomb information their father passed to the Russians was, at best, superfluous; the case was riddled with prosecutorial and judicial misconduct; their mother was convicted on flimsy evidence to place leverage on her husband; and neither deserved the death penalty.”
The E. L. Doctorow novel The Book of Daniel is based on the Rosenberg case as seen through the eyes of the (fictionalized) son. Doctorow wrote the screenplay of the Sidney Lumet film, Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton.
Often referred to in Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, including in the famous opening line, "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
Allusions/references to actual history
Neither the book nor the film (1983 by Sidney Lumet) make direct reference to the Rosenberg events (though Lumet did claim that the execution scene was 'as it happened'). In particular the introduction of Susan as the younger child, and her lingering death, is a clear attempt to distance the novel from being considered biographical. Other key differences include - Rochelle is a graduate, Paul is not - (this is the reverse of the Rosenberg case, but perhaps makes for a stronger delineation of Rochelle's character). Mindish appears to be a fusion of two characters, Morton Sobell and David Greenglass. A key scene (in part 1), is the family's attendance at the Robeson concert at Peekskill (1949); in the novel Paul leaves the bus to argue with the right-wing protesters and is violently set upon by them.
from Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: 1988.
Historiographic metafiction is one kind of postmodern novel which rejects projecting present beliefs and standards onto the past and asserts the specificity and particularity of the individual past event. It also suggests a distinction between “events” and “facts” (discourse-defined) that is one shared by many historians. Since the documents become signs of events, which the historian transmutes into facts, as in historiographic metafiction, the lesson here is that the past once existed, but that our historical knowledge of it is semiotically transmitted. Finally, Historiographic metafiction often points to the fact by using the paratextual conventions of historiography to both inscribe and undermine the authority and objectivity of historical sources and explanations.