Executed ‘Atomic” Spies. Convicted by Circumstance
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for their alleged roles in passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. No hard evidence against them was offered at their trail, although they had been implicated by several of their coconspirators, including Ethel’s brother David Greenglass and Max Elitcher, a college classmate of Julius’s. The Rosenberg’s maintained their innocence throughout their trial. The fact that they were convicted on circumstantial evidence and the severity of their sentence indicate how seriously Americans took two of the greatest fears of the 1950’s: communism and the atomic bomb.
A Communist Couple
Julius Rosenberg met his future wife, Ethel Greenglass, at a 1936 New Year’s Eve benefit for the International Seamen’s Union. Ethel was a strong union sympathizer, and she found that she and Julius held many political views in common. Julius, a student in electrical engineering at City College of New York, had joined the Young Communist Leagues in 1934. After he graduated college in 1939, the couple married and moved into a small Brooklyn apartment. Soon Julius found work as an engineer inspector for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. For a while the Rosenberg’s were active participants in the Communist party. They brought Ethel’s younger brother David into the party and, later, David’s wife Ruth. But after Ethel had a child in 1943, the Rosenberg’s dropped out of the party and appeared to fall into a simple, domestic life.
David Greenglass was stationed as a machinist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of the first atomic bomb test, during the Manhattan Project. On 15 June 1950 Greenglass confessed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he had passed information about the project to Harry Gold, a Swiss immigrant. Gold had already confessed to conspiring with Dr. Karl Fuchs, a high-level atomic scientist on the Manhattan Project, to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets. Greenglass also claimed that he had handed over documents to his twenty-six- year-old sister, Ethel, and her husband Julius Rosenberg. The next day FBI agents showed up at the Rosenberg’s apartment.
Julius Rosenberg told the agents that his brother-in-law was a liar. His refusal to cooperate convinced the FBI that he was hiding something and that they were about to uncover a spy ring of unprecedented important. Intensifying and broadening its investigation, the bureau found Max Elitcher, who told agents that Rosenberg had approached him various times during the mid 1940s attempting to obtain classified information to which Elitcher had access through his work with air force and navy contract. The FBI felt it now had its case.
On 17 August 1950 a federal grand jury indicted the Rosenberg’s for conspiracy to commit espionage. Lack of direct evidence kept them rom being charged with the more serious crime, treason. Their trial began on 6 March 1951 with Morton Sobell, who had been implicated by Elitcher as Rosenberg’s accomplice, as the third defendant. The hysterical publicity and questionable procedures of prosecutor Irving Saypol compromised the fairness of the trial. Saypol told the jury “the evidence of the treasonable acts of these three defendants you will find overwhelming,” even though the defendants were not accused of treason. During the trial the prosecutor announced in a national news conference that he had secured sworn affidavits from an old friend of the Rosenberg’s, William Perl, which convulsively proved the conspiracy. Saypol decided against putting Perl on the stand, however, when Perl admitted to lying in his affidavits.
One by one, Greenglass, his wife, Gold and Elitcher took the stand and testified that the Rosenberg’s were involved in a spy ring, although Elitcher admitted that he never actually passed any documents to Julius Rosenberg. Sobell never took the stand. The Rosenberg’s denied any wrongdoing on their part. When Saypol questions them about their past affiliations with the Communist party, they pleaded the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer. A large part of Saypol’s case rested on Sobell’s flight to Mexico and Julius Rosenberg’s attempt to obtain a passport after Fuch’s confession. The defendants’ attempted flight damned them in the eyes of the jury. After a day of deliberating, the jury found all three defendants guilty of conspiracy.
“Worse Than Murder”
Now Judge Irving Kaufman had the responsibility of imposing the punishment. Although the defendants had not been convicted of treason, the judge appeared to pass sentence on unproven acts and uncharged crime. Announcing that their crime was “worse than murder,” he explained that “putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but what that millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” On 5 April 1951 Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair and Sobell to thirty years in prison.
1. Explain what the Rosenbergs’ were accused of doing.
2. Name two pieces of evidence that may confirm the governments concerns with the Rosenbergs.
3. Do you think the Rosenbergs were guilty? Why or Why Not?
4. What are your thoughts about the punishment that Judge Kaufman imposed on Ethel and Julius?
5. What does this prove about the society of America in the 1950’s (How people acted in 1950’s)?