Must They Die?

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Must They Die?


By: William A. Reuben

Date: March 6, 1951

Source: Reuben, William A. "To Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case." New York: National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, 1951.

About the Photographer: William A. Reuben wrote a seven-part series of articles for the socialist journal National Guardian, which were published along with letters from the Rosenbergs in the pamphlet "To Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case."


Charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of giving critical information about nuclear and other weapons development to the Soviet Union. Following their conviction in 1951 and execution in 1953, critics claimed their sentence was excessive and that the Rosenbergs were victims of a growing fear of communism in the U.S.

Julius Rosenberg, born to Polish immigrant parents in 1918, studied electrical engineering at the City College of New York, where he became active in the Young Communist League. Ethel Greenglass, a social activist fellow member of the Young Communist League, was several years older than Rosenberg. After they married, the couple became full members of the American Communist Party. They left the party in 1943, claiming they wanted to spend more time with their family. In reality, however, it allowed them to pursue espionage activities. Julius was fired from his civilian job with the U.S. Army Signal Corps when it was discovered that he had lied about his membership in the Communist Party.

In 1950 the Rosenbergs were accused of giving the Soviets sketches of atomic weaponry components and other crucial technical information from the Manhattan project, the secret government program that developed America's atomic bomb. Rosenberg's brother-in-law, David Greenglass, also a socialist, worked as a military machinist on the project. He confessed that he had agreed to provide information to Julius, who then passed it on to Soviet intelligence.

Aleksandr Feklisov, a KGB intelligence officer who worked in the Russian consulate office in New York, recruited and ran a network of spies in the U.S. He first met Julius Rosenberg in 1943 and claimed to have had over 50 meetings with him from 1943 to 1946. In 1997 Feklisov revealed that Rosenberg had given the Russians the information that enabled them to build a proximity fuse—a device necessary for several weapons, including one that shot down an American U2 spy plane in 1960.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to unravel the arrangements between Greenglass and Rosenberg when they arrested Harry Gold, a courier for the Soviet spy ring who in turn sent the information to Anatoly Yakolev, vice-consul at the Soviet embassy in New York City.

The authorities charged Ethel Rosenberg hoping to pressure her husband into confessing and naming his coconspirators, even though evidence against her was minimal. Throughout their trials, and up to the time of their execution, the Rosenbergs vehemently asserted their innocence. Gold and Greenglass received prison sentences, not the death penalty, in exchange for their cooperation with authorities and testimony. Greenglass later admitted that he lied about his sister Ethel's involvement to protect his own wife. Ethel Rosenburg became the first woman killed in the U.S. since Mary Surratt, convicted of complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was hanged.



See primary source image.


The Rosenbergs' appeals ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, when the justices, in special session, voted 6-3 to permit their execution. For two years there was a tremendous amount of support on their behalf, with thousands of people in the U.S. and in Europe marching in protest. The Rosenbergs' two young sons, Michael and Robert, carried signs that read, "Don't Kill My Mommy and Daddy." The White House received many letters asking for clemency, which was denied by both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

In the years following their executions, Rosenberg supporters claimed the couple had been victims of a McCarthy-era witch-hunt. But in his posthumously published memoirs, Kruschev himself praised the Rosenbergs for hastening Soviet development of atomic weapons. And in 1995 the U.S. National Security Agency released transcripts of the Venona Project, a 1940s intelligence operation in which Soviet espionage cables were intercepted and decrypted. The cables proved decisively that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviet Union. Strong evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, however, has never been conclusive.



Haynes, J.E., and H. Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. Yale University Nota Bene, 1999.

Radosh, R., and J. Milton. The Rosenberg File. 2nd ed. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1997.

Reuben, W.A. To Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. New York: National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, 1951. Michigan State University Library Archives. 〈〉 (accessed January 28, 2006).

Roberts, S. The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Random House, 2001.

Web sites

BBC. "Wars and Conflict: The Cold War." 〈〉 (accessed January 28, 2006).

City College of New York Libraries. Reference and Research. "Government Views of the Rosenberg Spy Case." 〈〉 (accessed January 28, 2006).

NOVA Online. Tyson, Peter. "Read Venona Intercepts" 〈〉 (accessed January 28, 2006).

University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. "Famous Trials: The Rosenberg Trial." 〈; (accessed January 28, 2006).