Saturday, June 19, 2010

Execution Day: Ethel Rosenberg 1918-1953 Spy?

Julius Rosenberg (May 12, 1918 – June 19, 1953) and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (September 28, 1915 – June 19, 1953) were American communists who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This was the first execution of civilians for espionage in United States history.

Since the execution, decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but doubts remain about the level of Ethel's involvement. The decision to execute the Rosenbergs was, and still is, controversial. The New York Times, in an editorial on the 50th anniversary of the execution (June 19, 2003) wrote, “The Rosenbergs case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.” The other atomic spies that were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed. Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass, served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for him and the British scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was "in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb." He believed Ethel was aware of the espionage, but did not actively participate. In a letter to the New York Times soon after the Roberts article appeared, Sobell denied that he knew anything about Julius Rosenberg's alleged atomic espionage.

Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, in New York City, also to a Jewish family. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, USA, where she met Julius. The Rosenbergs had two sons, Robert and Michael, who were adopted by teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol (and took the Meeropol surname) after their parents' execution.

The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman and the attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. He also testified that he turned over to Julius Rosenberg a sketch of the cross-section of an implosion-type atom bomb (the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to a bomb with the "gun method" triggering device as used in the "Little Boy" bomb dropped on Hiroshima). The notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project and some suggest Ethel was indicted along with Julius so that the prosecution could use her to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. However, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg named anyone else and during testimony each asserted their right under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment to not incriminate themselves whenever asked about involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers, when later asked about the failure of the indictment of Ethel to leverage a full confession by Julius, reportedly said, "She called our bluff."

The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S. Code 32 (now 18 U.S. Code 794), which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information "relating to the national defense." The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well-documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair.

The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:
"I consider your crime worse than murder...I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack."
Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre called the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, auto-da-fés, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb."

Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein and Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Harold Urey, as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, protested the position of the American government in what the French termed America's Dreyfus Affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for French newspaper L’Humanité, "The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place." Pope Pius XII also condemned the execution. The all-black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Cinema artists such as Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht registered their protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful.

Their case has been at the center of the controversy over Communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of political persecution (see McCarthyism) and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and Early Modern Europe (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play, The Crucible).


Because the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons did not operate an electric chair at the time, the Rosenbergs were transferred to the New York State-run Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining for execution. The couple were executed at sundown in the electric chair on June 19, 1953. This was delayed from the originally scheduled date of June 18 because, on June 17, Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas had granted a stay of execution. That stay resulted from the intervention in the case of Fyke Farmer, a Tennessee lawyer whose efforts had previously met with scorn from the Rosenbergs' attorney.

On June 18, the Court was called back into special session to dispose of Douglas' stay rather than let the execution be delayed for months while the appeal that was the basis of the stay wended its way through the lower courts. The Court did not vacate Douglas' stay until noon on June 19. Thus, the execution then was scheduled for later in the evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Desperately playing for more time, their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, filed a complaint that this offended their Jewish heritage, so the execution was scheduled before sunset, at 8 P.M. on Friday instead of the regular time of execution at Sing-Sing of 11 P.M. which usually took place on Thursday.

Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes the circumstances of the Rosenbergs' death, noting that while Julius Rosenberg died after the first series of electrocutions, his wife did not. After the normal course of electrocutions, attendants removed the strapping and other equipment only to have doctors determine that Mrs. Rosenberg had not yet died (her heart was still beating). Three courses of electrocution were ultimately applied, and at conclusion eyewitnesses reported, Bob Considine among them, a grisly scene with smoke rising from her head in the chamber.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were buried at Wellwood Cemetery in Pinelawn, New York.

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