Rosenberg Case

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ROSENBERG CASE , U.S. spy case involving Julius Rosenberg (1918–1953), his wife, Ethel (1920–1953), Morton Sobell (1918–), and others. They were charged and convicted of conspiracy to deliver U.S. atomic bomb secrets to Russia (1951). The case was tried in New York before Judge Irving R. *Kaufman, who declared he sought divine guidance before imposing sentence. The principal witnesses, judge, and chief prosecutor were Jews. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. There was a worldwide outcry: Some felt that the Rosenbergs were not guilty; others felt they should be permitted to live in case one day they might be persuaded to talk, and finally there were those who were against capital punishment in general or felt that peace-time spying should not be a capital offense. The case was carried to the U.S. Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court. After executive clemency was denied by President Eisenhower, a further effort was made to secure a Supreme Court review. Justice Douglas granted a stay during the court's summer recess, but the court was summoned into extraordinary session and, by a narrow vote, set aside the stay and permitted the sentence to be carried out. Justice Felix *Frankfurter wrote a dissenting judgment, protesting the unseemly haste and lack of full review. The Rosenbergs were the first civilians convicted as spies to be executed in the U.S. Sobell was not charged with transmission of the bomb secrets but with having agreed to supply national defense data. He was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment. His wife and mother worked tirelessly on his behalf and enlisted many distinguished persons in his cause. His wife raised and spent $1,000,000 on seven court appeals. Sobell was released by a United States Court of Appeals in 1969 after having served 17 and a half years. The case remained a highly controversial one, the subject of many books and articles by objective students as well as proponents of special causes. The Rosenbergs were executed on a Friday evening, which was regarded by some as evidence of antisemitism in the case; their children were raised under the name of their adoptive parents. Robert and Michael Meeropol have pressed for an opening of some secret records.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of its archives, little doubt remains in the scholarly community over Julius' guilt, but the participation of Ethel is seen as marginal at most. Among those who switched positions was Smith College historian Allen Weinstein, who said that under today's circumstances Ethel would probably have not been indicted, let alone executed. She is listed in Soviet archives as Julius' wife but did not have a code name.


Rosenberg Letters (1953); J. Root, Betrayers: The Rosenberg Case (1963); S.A. Fineberg, Rosenberg Case (1953); G. Flayfair and D. Sington, Offenders (1957), 186–213; J. Wexley, Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1955); W. and M. Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1965). add. bibliography: R. Meeropol, An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey (2001); A. Weinstein and A. Vassilev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era (1999); R. Radosh and J. Milton, The Rosenberg File: Second Edition (1997); S. Roberts, The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case (2002). m. sobell: National Rosenberg-Sobell Committee, Request for Senate Investigation (1954); International Herald Tribune (Jan. 15, 1969).

[Elmer Gertz /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

Rosenberg Case

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ROSENBERG CASE. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for World War II atomic espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, were first exposed as spies after an investigation into security leaks from Los Alamos, New Mexico. As a result of this investigation, Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British scientist; Harry Gold, a courier; and David Greenglass, an army machinist, had all confessed to espionage. The latter implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. Although the evidence against Ethel was thinner, the FBI arrested her in the hope that Julius would also confess. Tried along with Morton So-bell, who was sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment, the Rosenbergs were convicted in April 1951 and sentenced to die. The most damning testimony came from Green-glass, who received a fifteen-year sentence, and his wife, Ruth.

A worldwide campaign to save the Rosenbergs emphasized the fate of their two young children and charged that the evidence was manufactured and the trial and sentence tainted by anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, they were executed at Sing Sing Prison on 19 June 1953. The release

of FBI files on the case in the late 1970s confirmed that Julius had headed a large ring of industrial spies and that Ethel was aware of his activities but had played only a minor role in the espionage, conclusions reinforced by decrypted Soviet cables released in 1995 and by revelations from Julius's KGB controller, Alexander Feklisov.


Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. 2d. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Contains revelations from National Security Agency and Soviet sources.


See alsoAnticommunism ; Cold War ; Subversion, Communist .

Rosenberg Case

views updated May 21 2018

Rosenberg Case (1951–53) US espionage case. A New York couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were found guilty of passing atomic bomb secrets to Soviet agents. They became the first civilians executed for espionage.

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