Sixty-six years ago today, the famed espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg opened in a federal court in New York. The couple stood accused of selling nuclear secrets to the Russians at the height of the Cold War.
A series of developments after the end of the World War II created the belief the Soviet Communists were working toward global domination and that the Soviet Union posed a threat to the United States. Perhaps the most alarming took place in August 1949, when the Soviets conducted their first successful test of the atomic bomb, shocking those who operated on the belief that the Russians were years away from attaining the bomb.
‘The crime of the century’
The Rosenberg trial was sparked by the arrest for espionage of the British atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs in England in February 1950.
During its probe, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found his courier, Harry Gold, in Philadelphia, who in turn led the FBI to David Greenglass, a U.S. soldier who had worked at the atomic bomb facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Greenglass testified at the trial of the Rosenbergs that he had given notes and sketches of the atomic bomb to his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg.
He went on to say Rosenberg’s wife, Ethel, typed them and turned them over to the Russians.
The prosecution’s case against the Rosenbergs rested primarily on the testimony of four witnesses—David and Ruth Greenglass, Harry Gold, and Max Elitcher. Elitcher, a classmate of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell at the City College of New York in the late 1930s, was the only witness to name Sobell as a member of the Rosenberg espionage ring.
David and Ruth Greenglass provided the only testimony linking the Rosenbergs to espionage.
The case became a cause celeb among American leftists, who argued the case was an extreme overreaction by the government and an inaccurate stoking of hysteria over Soviet infiltration in the American democratic political system. The reaction to the Rosenberg trial was often referred to by supporters of the couple as more evidence of a “Red Scare” or “McCarthyism,” referring to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), famed for his claims that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.
The trial lasted nearly a month, finally ending on April 4, 1951 with convictions for all the defendants. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death row on April 5. Sobell received a 30-year sentence. Greenglass got a reduced term of 15 years for his cooperation.
The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953.
The Rosenberg legacy
In 1995, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. National Security Agency released intercepted cables, which, along with declassified documents from the Soviet archives, confirmed that Julius Rosenberg did spy for the Soviets throughout the 1940s and was part of a larger spy ring within the United States.
As many suspected given the scarcity of evidence against her, Ethel Rosenberg, while likely an accessory, was almost certainly not a spy. A Soviet cable from 1944 stated that Ethel was “sufficiently well developed politically” and that she knew about her husband’s espionage activities, but noted, “in view of delicate health [she] does not work.”
In 1960, David Greenglass was released from prison and rejoined his wife and children, who were living under assumed names. In 2001, Greenglass publicly admitted committing perjury on the stand in order to save Ruth from prosecution. Morton Sobell was released in 1969 and maintained his innocence until 2008, when he admitted in interviews that he had been a Soviet spy.
However, in 1983, Ronald Radosh, with Joyce Milton, wrote the book “The Rosenberg File,” in which he argued that Julius was indeed a spy, and that Ethel was not an innocent victim; rather, that she actively assisted her husband.
In 2013, Radosh backed up that assertion based on the release and examination of additional information that has been made public since the publication of his book.