Julius & Ethel Rosenberg: Case, Trial, Facts & Execution

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The controversy surrounding their conviction and subsequent execution will be explained, and the evidence against them will be considered.

The Rosenbergs

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the only American citizens executed for espionage during the Cold War. What the Rosenbergs did exactly has been a matter of vociferous, heated debate from the moment of their indictment until the present day. Today, it appears that Julius Rosenberg was probably spying for the Soviets in some capacity, although it is much less clear that he passed on the nuclear secrets for which he was executed. The case against Ethel Rosenberg was far less strong than the case against her husband. Many historians today believe that Ethel Rosenberg was executed for a crime she did not commit.

Context and Background

During World War II, the United States and the other Allied Powers were engaged in a desperate struggle against Nazi Germany and the other Axis Powers. Although temporarily allied with Germany during the early part of the war, the Soviet Union joined the Allied Powers after Germany invaded Russia in 1941. This began a short-lived, but deeply significant, alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, without which World War II may have gone quite differently.

The United State's temporary alliance with the Soviet Union did not alleviate anxieties about communist infiltration and subversion within the U.S. Many law enforcement agencies in the United States perceived communists to be a more serious internal threat to the security of the country than fascist or Nazi sympathizers, in spite of the United States' alliance with the Soviet Union. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, a rabid anti-communist, were particularly concerned about any left-wing or pro-communist activities in the United States.

As World War II intensified, the United Sates focused on developing a nuclear weapon. Although physicists had theorized about the possibility of nuclear power, no one had yet developed a nuclear weapon. To this end, the United States began a top-secret development program at Los Alamos, in New Mexico. Dubbed the Manhattan Project, the top-secret project would eventually develop an atomic bomb by 1945. By this time Germany had already surrendered, but Japan had yet to do so. In August of 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, ending World War II and inaugurating the Cold War.

Evidence Against the Rosenbergs

The Rosenbergs were certainly dedicated communists. They belonged to numerous communist organizations and petitioned for various communist causes. In the post-war period, American citizens theoretically had the right to the political convictions of their choice. In reality, many groups that were considered 'subversive' were subject to official persecution.

Although the FBI and other law enforcement agencies certainly overreached their authority, and violated the law during the post-war years, they had good reason to be worried about communist infiltration. Soviet Russia became the United States' primary international foe after World War II, and communism was spreading throughout the world. The Soviets were spying on the U.S., and the arms race was a profound, potentially cataclysmic concern.

Julius Rosenberg worked as an engineer for the U.S. Army until 1945. He was fired when the Army realized that Rosenberg had been a member of the Communist Party. It is not clear when the FBI began to track the Rosenbergs, but they clearly saw Julius Rosenberg as an important Soviet spy by the end of the war. Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass, worked as a machinist on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos.

Klaus Fuchs

When the FBI identified that Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, had given secrets to the Soviets, they pressured Fuchs and he fingered a man named Harry Gold as one of his conspirators. Gold confessed and identified David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, as another link in the espionage chain.

The FBI presented David Greenglass with an unpleasant proposition: testify that your sister and her husband, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, supplied nuclear secrets to the Soviets, or you and your wife will spend a very, very long time in prison. The FBI believed that the Rosenbergs were the lynch pins of a whole spy network, and they wanted proof to corroborate their theory. Greenglass gave the FBI the information they wanted.

Trial and Execution

Julius Rosenberg, arrest photograph, 17th of July, 1950.

In August of 1950, a grand jury indicted the Rosenbergs for espionage. The case against Ethel in particular was rather shaky. Testimonies by David and Ruth Greenglass, as well as by Harry Gold, were the primary evidence in the case.

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