The Cold War and the Atomic Bomb
The end of World War II ushered in both the nuclear age and the Cold War. The first was inaugurated when the United States compelled Japan to surrender by dropping the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Manhattan Project, a top-secret program, whose main laboratories were located in the remote area of Los Alamos, New Mexico, had developed the bombs during the war. The physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, led the team of scientists whose work resulted in the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site on July 16, 1945, followed by the production of the two bombs that were dropped on Japan in August 1945. The Second World War thus concluded with the U.S. as the world's lone nuclear power.
Even before the war ended, relations with the Soviet Union, one of America's leading wartime allies, were rapidly deteriorating. Conflicting ideologies and world interests drew the two nations apart. The Soviet Union, a one-party dictatorship with a communist ideology of public ownership and authoritarian state control, presented a stark contrast to the democratic and capitalistic ideals the United States sought to uphold. Indeed, President Harry Truman believed that one of the side-benefits of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan would be to impress the Soviets with the power of this immense new weapon, and thereby to persuade them to be more respectful of American interests. U.S. foreign policy for the next four decades came to focus on fighting the challenge of communism and attempting to maintain its military advantage in the ensuing Cold War. As each nation tried to keep ahead in this conflict, the postwar world became an increasingly frightening place.
In August 1949, four years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union announced it had successfully tested its own atomic bomb. After verifying the accuracy of this report, President Truman announced the startling news to the American people. In response, his administration increased military spending and made a commitment to build an even more devastating nuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb. The nuclear arms race had begun.
Questions were immediately raised in the United States about the rapid development of the Soviet atomic program. How were the Soviets able to construct their A-bomb so quickly? Though it was well known that the Soviet Union possessed the scientific knowledge to develop the bomb, U.S. military officials and scientists had expected that it would take another five years before the Russians could perfect the required technology. Suspicions quickly emerged that the Soviets had relied on spies within the U.S. atomic program. Such fears were further intensified by the growing ideological tensions within U.S. political culture. Many on the right now asked: to what extent were left-wingers and communist sympathizers a threat to national security?
The FBI Investigation of the Atom Spy Ring
The Soviet development of the A-bomb set off a hunt for communist spies in the United States. In the summer of 1949, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discovered and decoded a clandestine report regarding the progress of the Manhattan Project. Found in the office of a Soviet official in New York, it had been written in 1944 by Klaus Fuchs, the British atomic scientist. The discovery suggested that Soviet spies had penetrated the Manhattan Project: they had either stolen the report or Fuchs himself was a Soviet spy.
When interrogated, Fuchs admitted to having given information to the Soviets while working on the Manhattan Project in the United States. He named a man called "Raymond" as the contact to whom he had passed the secret documents. A few months later, the FBI identified Harry Gold, a chemist working in New York, as the man known to Fuchs as "Raymond." Gold confessed as well. He told the FBI that he took information from a soldier at Los Alamos and delivered it to Anatoli Yakovlev, the head of Soviet spy operations working in New York City. Gold did not know the name of the soldier at Los Alamos, but he recalled that the soldier's wife was named Ruth. Further investigation led the FBI to David Greenglass, a soldier working as a machinist at Los Alamos and the husband of Ruth Greenglass.
David Greenglass was brought into custody. Like Klaus Fuchs and Harry Gold, David Greenglass was ready to talk. He confessed to giving information about the atomic bomb to Gold. Then, Greenglass implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, telling the FBI that Rosenberg had recruited him to become a spy and had given him the instructions concerning his meeting with Harry Gold in New Mexico.
Rosenberg was questioned a few days later. He called Greenglass a liar and denied working for the Soviets as a spy. The FBI released Rosenberg and continued to gather evidence about the spy ring. On July 17, 1950, agents returned to the Rosenberg's apartment. This time, they came with an arrest warrant. Rosenberg was taken away in handcuffs, leaving behind his wife, Ethel, and their two young sons. He would never return.
The Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived in a three-room New York City apartment. In 1950, they appeared to be an ordinary couple raising two young sons, Michael, age seven, and Robert, age three. Although they both grew up in the same predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Julius and Ethel did not meet until Julius was a student at City College of New York (CCNY). Ethel had been an advanced student in high school and graduated early at the age of fifteen. She enjoyed singing and acting, but never aspired to attend college. Ethel met Julius at a New Year's Eve dance where she was singing. They married in the summer of 1939, right after he received his degree in electrical engineering from CCNY.
The couple had a common interest in politics. Julius had been introduced to left-wing political ideas in college. This was the time of the Great Depression. Many Americans were out of work and living in dire poverty, while the nation as a whole suffered through an unprecedented economic crisis. Like many on the left at the time, Julius came to believe that communism would be a better economic system for the United States because it sought to address the problems of poverty and unemployment and to prevent future economic depressions. Ethel also embraced communism. At her job as a shipping clerk, she became upset with the working conditions and led 150 of her co-workers in a strike against the company. Ethel was fired for her union activities, but her experience left her convinced that a communist system would benefit all workers.
For a few years before their sons were born, Julius and Ethel were active members of the Communist Party. On occasions, they hosted party meetings in their apartment. Ethel's younger brother, David Greenglass, and his wife, Ruth, also joined the political movement, becoming members of the Young Communist League. David was an impressionable teenager who looked up to Julius. In early 1944, Julius and Ethel withdrew from the Communist Party and stopped receiving subscriptions to the Daily Worker, the party's official voice. It is possible that the couple did not stop their communist activism, but were distancing themselves from formal party involvement while secretly working as spies for the Soviets.
In 1943 and 1944, the Communist Party in the United States had more members than at any other point in its history. At the time, as the Second World War reached its climax, the United States was allied with the Soviet Union. Many in the U.S. were drawn to the communist ideology because they saw the Soviet Union as a leader in the struggle against fascism. In addition, as the Nazi regime in Germany pursued its murderous treatment of Europe's Jewish population, many Jewish Americans, like the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses, became converts to communism. Confessed spy Harry Gold later explained why he favored the Soviet Union: "Nazism and fascism and anti-Semitism were identical...anything that was against anti-Semitism I was for" (Hornblum, 2010, pp. 39-40).
When David Greenglass went into the army in 1943, he was proud to serve his country, but he also felt pride in furthering the communist cause by supporting the Soviet Union and recruiting fellow soldiers into the Communist Party. As a soldier, Greenglass was assigned to the Manhattan Project lab facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He worked as a machinist and later became foreman in the high explosives unit.
Julius had been exempted from military service and was instead assigned to be an engineering inspector of electrical equipment for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. However, before the war ended, in the spring of 1945, Julius was fired when it was discovered that he had concealed his previous membership in the Communist Party. Subsequently, he took a job working with Emerson Radio Corporation, where he was involved with many of the military contract projects he had earlier worked on as a government inspector (Radosh and Milton, 1997).
The Trial and its Political and Social Context
A federal grand jury was convened in August 1950. At first, Ethel was not named in the indictment, but she was arrested while returning home on the subway following her testimony to the grand jury that was considering the indictment against Julius (Burnett, 2004). Both husband and wife were indicted for conspiracy to commit espionage. Morton Sobell, a friend of Julius's from his days at CCNY was also named in the indictment as a member of the spy ring. All three would be tried together as co-conspirators under the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917. The charge of "conspiracy" was chosen because it was much easier for the prosecution to prove than espionage itself. Once the existence of a conspiracy was established by the court, each co-conspirator could be held legally responsible for the actions of the others. Further, in a conspiracy case, hearsay testimony is permissible. Yet, like espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage was a capital offense (Burnett, 2004).
The trial was set for March 1951. The political climate at that moment was fervently anti-communist. The Korean War had recently broken out in Asia, and, in Washington, Senator Joseph McCarthy had set off the "Second Red Scare," as he began his campaign to identify and expose communists and their sympathizers within the United States government. It was not until 1954 that McCarthy came to be censured by the Senate and his activities discredited for ruining the reputations and careers of innocent people. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was also actively pursuing communists. The Hollywood blacklist was growing and a new investigation into the film industry's connections with communism was launched in the same year. Further, a HUAC investigation had led to the arrest of Alger Hiss, a U.S. State Department and U.N. official, who was accused of being a Soviet spy. In January of 1950, at the conclusion of a high profile trial, Hiss was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison.
Judge Irving Kaufman presided over the Rosenberg-Sobell trial in March of 1950. The jury was comprised of eleven men and one woman. One of the jurors was African American. The rest were white. None of the jurors was Jewish. The lack of diversity and absence of Jewish representation would spark controversy after the trial, when some of the supporters of the Rosenbergs came to claim that the couple did not have a fair trial. However, both the prosecution and the defense had rejected potential Jewish jurors during the jury selection process (Burnett, 2004).
The prosecution called many witnesses, including Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and Max Elitcher, another friend of Julius' from CCNY. All confessed to spying on behalf of the espionage ring. Ruth Greenglass also testified. Among the evidence submitted by the prosecution was a replica of a Jell-O box that Greenglass had testified was cut and given to him as a recognition signal, and sketches of the A-bomb and other equipment that Greenglass also recreated for the prosecution, based on the ones he claimed to have drawn and passed to Harry Gold.
Overall, the testimony was strong against Julius Rosenberg, but scant against Ethel. The most incriminating evidence regarding Ethel's participation came in testimony by her brother and sister-in-law. Both David and Ruth Greenglass stated that they had witnessed Ethel typing up the handwritten notes that David had brought back from Los Alamos. The defense questioned the Greenglass' motives. It emerged that the FBI had promised David that they would not prosecute his wife if he told all he knew (Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev, 2009). The defense also said that David had lost money in a business partnership with his brother and Julius, suggesting that he was seeking revenge for a business deal gone bad.
Up until the end, many expected Julius to confess his own guilt in order to spare Ethel's life. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that the prosecution knew that she was innocent of direct involvement in the conspiracy, and only used the threat of a death sentence for Ethel to persuade Julius to confess and name other conspirators (Radosh and Milton, 1997). However, both Julius and Ethel pleaded the Fifth Amendment, invoking their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves. They appeared cold and arrogant to the jury.
In the end, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty for all of the defendants. Morton Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and David Greenglass (officially a defendant, but not convicted by the jury since he had previously pled guilty) was given 15 years. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg received the death penalty.
Trial Aftermath and the Execution of the Rosenbergs
For the next two years, the Rosenbergs' attorneys appealed the verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court. They presented three main arguments to the appellate judges: (1) that the government failed to prove that the Rosenbergs acted with the intention of doing vital harm to the country; (2) that David Greenglass had testified for ulterior reasons; and (3) that Judge Kaufman had biased the jury by using emotional language and adding vastly exaggerated accusations (Burnett, 2004). As the date of execution neared, support for the Rosenbergs intensified. Ethel's poems and letters from prison showed she was a loving wife and mother. Sympathy for the Rosenbergs grew and a grassroots organization, the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, was formed to support their cause. However, mainstream public opinion supported Judge Kaufman's ruling. Most Americans believed the Rosenbergs were traitors who deserved to be put to death.
In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to re-consider the case, and President Truman left the decision about granting clemency to his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower flatly denied clemency, but there was a glimmer of hope for the Rosenbergs just before their execution date. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas issued a stay of execution as the court was commencing for the summer holiday, after the Rosenberg defense team had argued to Douglas that the Rosenbergs had been tried under the wrong law. Instead of the Espionage Act of 1917, Julius and Ethel should have been tried under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. The 1946 law required that a judge not sentence defendants to death without a sentencing recommendation by the jury (Arnow-Alman and Alman, 2010). Douglas had expected that the court would hear the case when it resumed in the fall. The Rosenbergs would have lived for at least a few more months and might even have been granted a new trial. To Douglas' surprise, the chief justice called the court back into session, where the stay of execution was lifted by a majority ruling of the justices present. The Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on Friday, June 19, 1953. At their death, Julius was 35 and Ethel was 37.
The Rosenbergs' two sons, Michael, 10, and Robert, 6, were left orphaned after the execution of their parents. Most of the Rosenberg and Greenglass family members wanted to distance themselves from the infamous atom spy case and formally changed their names. Michael and Robert were adopted by a family named Meeropol and lived private lives until adulthood. Since then, they have spoken out to proclaim their parents' innocence and denounce the death penalty. They have also been instrumental in securing the release of sealed documents related to the case.
New Evidence and Questions that Still Remain
Since the trial in 1951, there have been several new developments in the case, most significantly, the declassification of the Venona files. The Venona Project was the CIA-National Security Agency decoding of secret Soviet reports that began in 1943 and lasted several decades. Partial translations were released in 1995. The messages did not provide any new ground-breaking evidence related directly to the Rosenberg case, but they confirmed Julius' participation in the Soviet spy ring. The absence of any reference to Ethel in the files suggests that she was not involved directly in the ring's activities.
Other information, including records of the deliberations of the Supreme Court and the Atomic Energy Commission, documents from the FBI and Justice Department, and memos and diaries of the participants have become available over the decades. Each new release offers something of interest to Rosenberg scholars. For example, in a closed hearing of the AEC, General Leslie Groves, the military director of the Manhattan Project, revealed that the information passed to the Soviets by the spy ring had been of minor value (see References: Reactions to the Rosenberg Case Resource Sheet #07: Quote B).
Most of the grand jury transcripts were released in 2008, except for David Greenglass' testimony, who requested that it remain sealed. Greenglass was, however, interviewed by journalist Sam Roberts for the CBS television program, 60 Minutes, in 2001. Greenglass, who insisted on wearing a disguise during the interview, admitted that he did not recall ever observing Ethel Rosenberg type his handwritten notes for the design of the atomic bomb, and said that he was encouraged to say so by the prosecutors, who promised not to charge his wife, Ruth, if he testified against both Rosenbergs (Landes and Rosenbaum, 2001). Recently released transcripts of Ruth's own testimony to the earlier grand jury support her husband's admission. They show that she had originally confessed to having herself written the notes given to the Soviets, though she later joined her husband in testifying at the trial that Ethel Rosenberg had done so (see References: Resource Sheet #3: Source F - Excerpt of Testimony of Ruth Greenglass to the Grand Jury. See also Washington Post, 2008).
Contemporary views on the Rosenberg case reflected the deeply divided opinion at the height of the Cold War. For some, the execution of the Rosenbergs was a deserved punishment for spies who had betrayed their nation and was meant to punish their treason and deter future espionage. For others, the Rosenbergs were the scapegoats for Cold War anxieties and the disquieting loss of America's short-lived nuclear monopoly.
Today, a preponderance of scholars who have studied the notorious case believe that the Rosenbergs were far from innocent, but their trial and execution were a miscarriage of justice. There is consensus that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy and that Ethel probably knew of his activities and supported them. However, it is now thought that David and Ruth Greenglass may have committed perjury in some of their testimony, especially against Ethel. This is confirmed by David's later admission that he did not see his sister typing up the reports, a confession that appears to undermine the only direct evidence that she had been actively involved in her husband's spying efforts. The contradictions in his wife's own testimony to the grand jury and at the trial about who actually wrote the notes for the Soviets also indicate that the evidence against Ethel may have been fabricated by the Greenglasses and the prosecution. Other pieces of key evidence presented at trial, such as the drawings of the bomb, were facscimiles that did nothing to prove the existence of the original material that Greenglass claimed to have given to the spy ring. In any case, the scientific information contained in those documents was judged by contemporary experts, such as General Groves, to have been of little real value.
At the same time, it is known that the prosecution did not enter into evidence records of communications that demonstrated that Julius was a spy because the FBI had obtained the records via an unauthorized wiretap. Other evidence could not be revealed in open court because of national security concerns (Radosh and Milton, 1997).
The imposition of the death sentence has also been the subject of much controversy. Some contemporaries supported the sentence as the legitimate punishment for the crime committed. However, Judge Kaufman had justified his imposition of this most extreme sentence by suggesting that in passing the design for the nuclear bomb to the Soviets, the Rosenbergs were indirectly responsible for the new-found confidence that encouraged the communist bloc to start the Korean War. Yet we now know from recently released sources that this was a wild exaggeration of the actual significance of the information given to the Soviets. In addition, legal scholars argue the death penalty sentence should not have been imposed under the provisions of the law, since the death penalty under the Espionage Act was reserved for aiding enemy foreign nations in wartime. The Soviet Union had been an ally during the time the crime was committed and was not a combatant during the Korean War (Radosh and Milton, 1997).
In their 1997 book, The Rosenberg Files, considered the leading piece of Rosenberg scholarship, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton summarize the lessons Americans should take away from the Rosenberg case:
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their accomplices were so captive to their blind adulation of Stalinist Russia that they failed to perceive the true implication of their espionage, much less to comprehend how their actions would discredit the Left in the eyes of their fellow Americans. The Rosenberg's accusers, on the other hand, were oblivious to the fact that the danger to national security for ideologically motivated amateur spies—already a vanishing breed by the time of the trial—was far less than the damage that would be done by allowing American justice to appear to serve as a handmaiden to Cold War politics. Partisans on both sides were convinced that they held a monopoly on the truth and that the end justified the means. The result was the grisly tandem electrocution of a husband and wife—a sentence that seemed justified by the passions of the moment but that had begun to inspire public revulsion even before it was carried out. The execution of the Rosenbergs stands as an ominous footnote to the first decade of post-nuclear history. (pp. 453-454)
- Alman, E. A., & Alman, D. (2010). Exoneration: The trial of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell – Prosecutorial deceptions, suborned perjuries, anti-Semitism, and precedent for today's unconstitutional trials. Seattle, WA: Green Elms Press.
- Bernett, B. (2004). The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: A primary source account. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.
- Glazer, N. (1983). "The death of the Rosenbergs." In P. Kurtz (Ed.), Sidney Hook: Philosopher of democracy and Humanism(pp. 65-76). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Hornblum, A. M. (2010). The invisible Harry Gold: The man who gave the Soviets the atom bomb. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Landes, J. & Rosenbaum, M. (Producers). (2001). The Traitor [Television series episode]. 60 Minutes II. New York: CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7409384n
- Radosh, R., & Milton, J. (1997). The Rosenberg File (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1983)
- Schneir, W. (2010). Final verdict: What really happened in the Rosenberg case. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
- Washington Post (2008), Watt, Holly. "Witness Changed Her Story During Rosenberg Spy Case". (September 12, 2008).