In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for helping the Soviet Union acquire the secrets to the atomic bomb from the United States during world war ii. Judge Irving R. Kaufman, who presided at the trial, sentenced the Rosenbergs to death after concluding that their "betrayal … undoubtedly … altered the course of history to the disadvantage of [the United States]." The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence from the time of their arrest until they were executed. Their two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have spent much of their adult lives attempting to clear their parents' names.
Morton Sobell (born April 11, 1917), a former employee of the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, was also indicted for conspiracy to commit espionage with the Rosenbergs and was named as a codefendant. During June 1950, Sobell fled to Mexico with his wife under an assumed name. After being apprehended and extradited back to the United States, Sobell was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was paroled in January 1969.
Both of the Rosenbergs were members of the American Communist Party. Julius had come from an impoverished background. He had received a degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York but had had trouble obtaining and keeping employment. At the time of his arrest, he was struggling to run a small machine shop with Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. Like her husband, Ethel had come from a poor family.
The Rosenbergs' trial has been the subject of legal, political, and historical controversy for nearly half a century. Some view the Rosenbergs as martyred victims of the communist hysteria that menaced the political landscape in the United States during the 1950s. Others see them as criminals who were singularly responsible for ending the United States' nuclear monopoly and compromising the security of millions of people. The picture painted by historians has always been incomplete because many documents concerning the Rosenbergs remain classified.
The U.S. government did not indict the Rosenbergs for treason and might have encountered constitutional difficulties if it had pursued such an indictment. Article III, Section 3, of the Constitution defines treason as giving "aid and comfort" to the enemies of the United States. During World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, not an enemy, of the United States. Further, the Constitution requires that every "overt act of treason" be witnessed by two persons. Yet, as the trial revealed, many of the conspiratorial acts committed by the Rosenbergs were witnessed by only one person.
The Rosenbergs' trial began on March 6, 1951, at the federal courthouse in New York City. Spectators and members of the press packed the gallery, the hallways, and the courthouse steps in an effort to catch a glimpse of the so-called atom spies in what some observers called the "trial of the century." Judge Kaufman conducted the voir dire and impaneled a jury in less than two days. Irving Saypol was the chief prosecuting attorney and was assisted by roy cohn and James Kilsheimer. Julius Rosenberg was represented by Emanuel Bloch, while Emanuel's father, Alexander Bloch, represented Ethel.
The Prosecution's Case
The first witness against the Rosenbergs was Max Elitcher, a 32-year-old electrical engineer employed by the Naval Bureau of Ordnance during the 1940s. Elitcher testified that in June 1944 Julius asked him to assist the Soviet Union by providing classified information about naval equipment. Over the next several years, Elitcher said, Julius had made other references to his central role in a Soviet espionage ring with members scattered across the United States. Nonetheless, Elitcher maintained that he had never disclosed any confidential information to the Rosenbergs.
Elitcher also provided the only testimony against Sobell. Elitcher told the jurors that on several occasions Sobell had attempted to entice him to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Elitcher recalled one instance when he had accompanied Sobell on a drive to Knickerbocker Village, where the defendant had delivered a can of film to Julius Rosenberg. Although Elitcher was unable to tell the court what, if anything, had been inside the can, he did testify that Sobell had described the contents as "too valuable to be destroyed and too dangerous to keep around."
David Greenglass, the 29-year-old brother of Ethel Rosenberg, was the prosecution's second witness. Greenglass, a member of the American Communist Party, had enlisted in the army as a machinist in 1943. In July 1944, he had been assigned to the Manhattan Project, the top secret Allied program based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the development of the atomic bomb. As part of his job, Greenglass had performed research on high explosives.
Greenglass testified that he had learned about the nature of the Manhattan Project in November 1944, when his wife, Ruth, had visited him in Albuquerque. Before leaving for New Mexico, Ruth had been invited to the Rosenbergs' apartment in New York City, where Ethel had disclosed that Julius had been sharing classified information with the Soviets. During the same visit, Julius had informed Ruth that her husband had been working on a project to develop an atomic bomb and proposed that David help the Soviets by stealing secrets from Los Alamos. Upon learning of Julius's invitation
from Ruth, David testified that he had agreed to engage in atomic espionage for the Soviet Union.
In January 1945, David went home to New York City on furlough and met with the Rosenbergs. David testified that during one visit he had provided Julius with a verbal description of the atomic bomb, explaining that the Los Alamos scientists were designing a high-explosive lens mold. David had accompanied this description with a packet of sketches outlining the mold. He also had provided Julius with a list of the scientists who had been working on the Manhattan Project and an overview of the Los Alamos facilities. Because some of the written material had been illegible, David told the jury, Ethel had typed his notes.
A few days later, the Greenglasses had eaten dinner at the Rosenbergs', where they had designed a plan for David to exchange information in New Mexico with a courier whom Julius would send. To enable David to identify this courier, Julius had cut a Jell-O brand gelatin box into two irregularly shaped pieces, given one piece to David, and said the other piece would be given to the courier.
The next summer, Ruth had rented an apartment in Albuquerque, where David usually had spent the weekends. During the first weekend in June, a man had visited the Greenglass apartment, identifying himself as "Dave from Pittsburgh." The man had told the Greenglasses that he was a courier sent by "Julius." After the courier had produced the matching half of the Jell-O box, David had given him some additional sketches of the lens mold experiments.
In September 1945, David had returned to New York City on a second furlough. Meeting with Julius and Ethel at the Rosenbergs' apartment, David had drawn a cross section of the atomic bomb and had described the implosion principle underlying it. David testified that Ethel again had typed up the written material, correcting spelling and grammar where necessary. The prosecution asked David to draw a replica of the sketches that he had given to the Rosenbergs and the courier. The prosecution then called Walter Koski, a physical chemist, who testified that the sketches were "reasonably accurate" and revealed much of what the government had been attempting to keep secret at Los Alamos.
Ruth Greenglass, who testified next, corroborated the central elements of her husband's testimony. She testified that she had assisted David in procuring classified information from Los Alamos for the Rosenbergs. She also testified that the Rosenbergs had showed her a mahogany table that they had received from the Soviets as a token of their appreciation. A portion of the table was hollow, Ruth said, and a lamp had been inserted so that microfilm pictures could be taken.
As the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) had been closing in on the Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs, Ruth told the jurors, Julius had developed a plan for David and Ruth to elude law enforcement. The plan had called for David and Ruth to travel to Mexico, where a Soviet agent would be waiting with passports and cash. The agent would then escort the Greenglasses to Czechoslovakia or Russia. Although Julius had given the Greenglasses more than $4,000 to defect from the United States, Ruth testified that neither she nor David had ever left the country.
The primary corroborating witness for the Greenglasses' testimony was Harry Gold, a 40-year-old chemist who testified that he had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1935 and that he had been working with Anatoli Yakovlev, a Soviet agent, for a number of years. Gold said that Yakovlev had sent him on a vital mission to New Mexico during the first weekend of June 1945.
On Saturday, June 2, Yakovlev had instructed Gold to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he would meet with Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear scientist from Great Britain, who had been working on the Manhattan Project. During their meeting, Fuchs had provided Gold with diagrams and had written descriptions of the atomic bomb. On a previous occasion, Fuchs had given Gold a complete set of his notes from Los Alamos. In February 1950, Fuchs was captured by British intelligence and confessed to his role in the atomic espionage conspiracy. Fuchs, who received a 14-year sentence, identified Gold as the Soviet liaison he had met in Santa Fe.
Gold also testified that the day after meeting with Fuchs, he had traveled to Albuquerque, where he was scheduled to meet a man whom Yakovlev had described only as "Greenglass." Yakovlev had given Gold the matching half of the Jell-O box and had told him to bring Green-glass greetings from "Julius." When Gold had arrived at the Greenglasses' apartment, a man whom Gold identified as David Greenglass had gave him an envelope of drawings and other materials in exchange for $400.
Gold testified that he had turned this envelope over to Yakovlev, who had immediately transmitted it to the Soviet Union. Gold said that Yakovlev had subsequently thanked him for obtaining such "excellent" and "valuable" data. The prosecution introduced two exhibits to bolster Gold's testimony, a receipt indicating that Ruth Greenglass had deposited $400 into her account at the Albuquerque National Bank on June 4, 1945, and a registration card from the Albuquerque Hilton Hotel, signed by Harry Gold on June 3, 1945.
The final witness for the prosecution was Elizabeth Bentley, a 44-year-old former Soviet spy who was known to the public as the "Red Spy Queen." Bentley bragged that as a top-ranking member of the Communist Party in the United States, she had been responsible for pilfering a wide variety of industrial, military, and political secrets. Bentley then had become a double agent for the FBI and had been assigned to infiltrate and expose domestic Communist espionage networks.
In addition to testifying at the Rosenbergs' trial, Bentley had testified in a number of cases involving the prosecution of her former comrades in the American Communist Party. In each case, Bentley's testimony had verged on the theatrical. At the Rosenbergs' trial, she testified that she had received a number of late-night, espionage-related phone calls from a man who had called himself "Julius." Bentley admitted that she had never met this man, however, and that she could not identify his voice.
Whereas the prosecution's theory of the case seemed relatively straightforward, the defense's strategy was enigmatic. The defendants' case was fraught with errors, ranging from minor to monumental. Most of these mistakes have been attributed to lead defense attorney Emanuel Bloch.
Bloch's first major mistake occurred during the direct examination of David Greenglass. When the prosecution sought to introduce one of the sketches that Greenglass had drawn, Bloch made a motion, asking the court to impound the exhibit. When the prosecution attempted to question Greenglass about his notes that accompanied the sketches, Bloch asked the court to clear the press and spectators from the courtroom to prevent any further leaks of atomic secrets. The prosecution, who had been expecting Bloch to challenge Greenglass's qualifications to testify as an expert regarding the scientific significance of the sketches, happily concurred with Bloch's dual motions.
As it turns out, the prosecution had reason to be relieved. Several nuclear physicists vehemently disputed whether an ordinary machinist such as Greenglass possessed sufficient experience and educational background to testify or to explain the complex principles behind the atomic bomb. In an effort to obtain executive clemency for the Rosenbergs in 1953, for example, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Harold Urey told President dwight d. eisenhower that a "man of Greenglass's capacity is wholly incapable of transmitting the physics, chemistry, and mathematics of the bomb to anyone." Other physicists wondered why the Soviets would even want Greenglass's sketches, as they already had received diagrams of the bomb from Fuchs, a nuclear scientist. Bloch never called any scientists to challenge Greenglass's testimony.
Historians have argued that by failing to challenge Greenglass's scientific expertise and by asking the court to impound his sketches, Bloch convinced the jury that it was about to hear the secret of the atomic bomb. At least one of the Rosenberg jurors agreed with this analysis, stating that it was not until Bloch had asked the court to keep the Greenglass exhibits confidential that he had become impressed with the importance of the trial.
A second major mistake occurred when Bloch failed to cross-examine Gold. Gold was an admitted liar. During a prior legal proceeding, he had told the court that as a result of his espionage activities he "had become so tangled up in a web of lies that it was easier to continue telling an occasional lie than to try and straighten out the whole hideous mess." When the impeachment value of this prior testimony is coupled with the large number of glaring inconsistencies between Gold's testimony during the Rosenbergs' trial and his pretrial accounts of the same events, Bloch's decision against cross-examining Gold looms larger.
The Controversy Continues
Why Bloch made these mistakes is a question that remains unanswered. Although some historians claim that he was simply a bumbling attorney, Bloch had defended a number of defendants who had been accused of espionage, and had developed a reputation as a competent litigator. Other historians have suggested that Bloch purposely botched the trial in an effort to make martyrs of the Rosenbergs as part of a larger socialist agenda. In any event, Bloch later expressed regret for his mistakes, attributing them, in part, to the politically charged legal climate of the times.
Indeed, during the early 1950s, hysteria over communism pervaded almost every aspect of life in the United States. As a result, criminal defendants who were associated with communist influences often received less-than-impartial hearings from judges and jurors. This paranoid fear of communism began to manifest itself shortly after World War II.
Several events contributed to the concern about communism. In 1948 Greece, Turkey, and Czechoslovakia were under siege by communists. China came under communist control in the spring of 1949. On January 21, 1950, alger hiss, a former member of President franklin d. roosevelt's administration, was convicted of perjury for statements he had made in response to espionage charges that had been lodged against him. A few weeks after the Hiss conviction, a senator from Wisconsin, named joseph r. mccarthy startled the nation by brandishing a list of 205 communists who, he asserted, were employed by the federal government. In June 1950, the korean war erupted, and the Rosenbergs were arrested.
This series of events affected the FBI's investigation of the Rosenberg conspiracy. j. edgar hoover, the director of the FBI, had become concerned about public perception of his organization. Some officials had begun to question whether Hoover and the FBI were acting with sufficient vigilance to extinguish the internal communist threat. With each new revelation about communist spies in the U.S. government, Hoover took more severe measures to shore up what some perceived as national security breaches. The Rosenberg case was an example of the most extreme measures taken by the FBI.
Government files demonstrate that the FBI had expressed little interest in prosecuting Ethel Rosenberg until her husband refused to confess and implicate others in his spy ring. "There is no doubt," Hoover wrote to attorney general j. howard mcgrath, that "it would be possible to proceed against other individuals" if "Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities." "Proceeding against his wife," Hoover emphasized, "might serve as a lever in this matter." Shortly after this letter was written, Ethel was arrested and charged with the same crime as her husband.
When Julius refused to cooperate with the FBI, the government informed the defendants that the death penalty would be sought in the event of their conviction. The FBI never relented from its use of Ethel as a "lever" against Julius, ultimately executing Ethel for her role as an accessory to the crime committed by her husband and brother. Declassified documents show that the entire testimony relating to Ethel's role as a typist for her husband's espionage ring, which was the only evidence offered to implicate her in the conspiracy, had been concocted by the FBI and the Greenglasses just eight days before the trial began.
Historians have raised other suspicions with regard to the FBI's investigation of the Rosenbergs. On May 22, 1950, Gold submitted an initial, written confession to the FBI. The confession made a passing reference to Albuquerque but made no assertion that he had been sent by "Julius" to see a man named "Greenglass" from whom he had acquired secret information about the atomic bomb. Nor did the confession allude to irregularly shaped pieces of a Jell-O box or a Soviet agent named Yakovlev.
After a number of subsequent interviews with the FBI, some of which had been conducted in the presence of David Greenglass, Gold said that he was able to remember each of the missing details that he had earlier "forgotten." Walter and Miriam Schneir, authors of Invitation to an Inquest, have argued that these allegedly "forgotten" details were supplied to Gold by the FBI so that his story would corroborate the Greenglasses' testimony. The FBI has steadfastly maintained that it did nothing improper, unethical, or illegal to jog Gold's memory, and declassified government files from the case have offered no "smoking gun."
Many supporters of the Rosenbergs who have long suspected that the FBI manufactured evidence to strengthen its case do not deny that Julius was involved in some form of espionage for the Soviet Union. In 1995, the U.S. government released 49 decoded Soviet intelligence messages that it had intercepted during World War II. These messages offer proof that Julius, whose code name was "Liberal," was the ring-leader of an espionage network of young U.S. communists who provided the Soviets with documents relating to classified radar and aircraft information.
The intercepted messages imply that Julius might have been involved in efforts to obtain information from the Manhattan Project but reveal nothing specific. Nikita Khruschev, the former Soviet premier, noted in his memoirs, however, that the Rosenbergs "provided very significant help in accelerating the production of the atomic bomb." As the federal government declassifies and releases more documents from the Rosenberg files, a clearer picture of the Rosenberg espionage network will emerge. The most recently released files suggest that Ethel did not participate in her husband's espionage efforts, due to her health.
In light of the murky questions that still surround the Rosenberg case, the jury's guilty verdict and the judge's death sentence remain a source of controversy. Supporters of the verdict and sentence point out that U.S. Supreme Court justice william o. douglas granted a temporary stay of the Rosenbergs' execution so that the Court could consider whether to hear the case on appeal. After reviewing the Rosenbergs' petitions to determine whether they presented any legal issues that were appropriate for appellate review, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Justice hugo l. black was the lone dissenter. On June 19, 1953, the day after their twenty-second wedding anniversary, the Rosenbergs were put to death in the electric chair.
Burnett, Betty. 2003. The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: A Primary Source Account. New York: Rosen.
Jensen, Rita Henley. 1993. "Data Helps Rosenbergs Cheat Death." National Law Journal (August 23).
Parrish, Michael E. 2000. "Revisited: The Rosenberg 'Atom Spy' Case." UMKC Law Review 68 (summer).
Radosh, Ronald and Joyce Milton. 1983. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. New York: Vintage Books.
Roberts, Sam. 2001. The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair New York: Random House.