Rosenberg, Julius; and Rosenberg, Ethel

▪ American spies
Ethel Rosenberg née  Ethel Greenglass 
Respectively,
 
born May 12, 1918, New York, New York, U.S.
died June 19, 1953, Ossining, New York
born September 28, 1915, New York, New York, U.S.
died June 19, 1953, Ossining, New York
 the first American civilians to be executed (capital punishment) for espionage and the first to suffer that penalty during peacetime.

      Ethel Greenglass worked as a clerk for some years after her graduation from high school in 1931. When she married Julius Rosenberg in 1939, the year he earned a degree in electrical engineering, the two were already active members of the Communist Party. In the following year Julius obtained a job as a civilian engineer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and he and Ethel began working together to disclose U.S. military secrets to the Soviet Union. Later, Ethel's brother, Sergeant David Greenglass, who was assigned as a machinist to the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, provided the Rosenbergs with data on nuclear weapons. The Rosenbergs turned over this information to Harry Gold, a Swiss-born courier for the espionage ring, who then passed it to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet Union's vice-consul in New York City.

      Julius Rosenberg was discharged by the army in 1945 for having lied about his membership in the Communist Party. Gold was arrested on May 23, 1950, in connection with the case of the British spy Klaus Fuchs (Fuchs, Klaus), who was arrested for giving U.S. and British nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The arrests of Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg followed quickly in June and July, and Ethel was arrested in August. Another conspirator, Morton Sobell, a college classmate of Julius Rosenberg, fled to Mexico but was extradited.

      The Rosenbergs were charged with espionage and brought to trial on March 6, 1951; Greenglass was the chief witness for the prosecution. They were found guilty and sentenced to death. (Sobell and Gold received 30-year prison terms, and Greenglass, who was tried separately, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.) For two years the Rosenberg case was appealed through the courts and before world opinion. The constitutionality and applicability of the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs were tried, as well as the impartiality of the trial judge, Irving R. Kaufman (Kaufman, Irving Robert)—who in pronouncing sentence had accused them of a crime “worse than murder”—were key issues during the appeals process. Seven different appeals reached the Supreme Court of the United States and were denied, and pleas for executive clemency were dismissed by President Harry Truman (Truman, Harry S.) in 1952 and President Dwight Eisenhower (Eisenhower, Dwight D.) in 1953. A worldwide campaign for mercy failed, and the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Ethel became the first woman executed in the United States since Mary Surratt (Surratt, Mary) was hanged in 1865 for her alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, Abraham).

      In the years after the Rosenbergs' executions, there was significant debate about their guilt. The two were frequently regarded as victims of cynical and vindictive officials of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Highly sympathetic portraits of the Rosenbergs were offered in major novels, including E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977). (The former was released as the motion picture Daniel in 1983.) The controversy over their guilt was largely resolved in the early 1990s after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the release of Soviet intelligence information that confirmed the Rosenbergs' involvement in espionage.

John Philip Jenkins

Additional Reading
Virginia Carmichael, Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War (1993), emphasizes treatments of the Rosenbergs' case in literature, art, and culture. Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (eds.), Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America (1995), places the case within the social and cultural context of the United States in the 1950s.

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Universalium. 2010.

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