The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg begins in New York Southern District federal court. Kaufman presides over the espionage prosecution of the couple accused of selling nuclear secrets to the Russians (treason could not be charged because the United States was not at war with the Soviet Union). The Rosenbergs, and co-defendant Morton Sobell, were defended by the father and son team of Emanuel and Alexander Bloch. The prosecution includes Roy Cohn, best known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy.
READ MORE: Why Were the Rosenbergs Executed?
David Greenglass was a machinist at Los Alamos, where America developed the atomic bomb. Julius Rosenberg, his brother-in-law, was a member of the American Communist Party and was fired from his government job during the Red Scare. According to Greenglass, Rosenberg asked him to pass highly confidential instructions on making atomic weapons to the Soviet Union. These materials were transferred to the Russians by Harry Gold, an acquaintance of Greenglass. The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb (and effectively started the Cold War) in September 1949 based on information, including that from Greenglass, they had obtained from spies.
The only direct evidence of the Rosenberg’s involvement was the confession of Greenglass. The left-wing community believed that the Rosenbergs were prosecuted because of their membership in the Communist Party. Their case became the cause célèbre of leftists throughout the nation.
The trial lasted nearly a month, finally ending on April 4 with convictions for all the defendants. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death row on April 6. Sobell received a thirty-year sentence. Greenglass got fifteen years for his cooperation. Reportedly, the Rosenbergs were offered a deal in which their death sentences would be commuted in return for an admission of their guilt. They refused and were executed.
In 2008, the only surviving defendant, Morton Sobell, admitted that he was a Soviet spy and implicated Julius Rosenberg in industrial and military espionage.
READ MORE: Why the Rosenbergs' Sons Eventually Admitted Their Father Was a Spy
How Today’s World Can Help Us See That There’s More to the Ethel Rosenberg Story
O n June 19, 1953, Ethel Rosenberg was electrocuted, having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
In the scant three years between her arrest and her execution, this impoverished housewife moved from obscurity to internationally known figure of controversy. To the right, she was a commie spy who deserved her fate to the left, a wronged wife who epitomized the collateral damage wrought by McCarthyite hysteria. And more or less in the middle, she became an icon of flawed justice, her fate bizarrely uniting the Pope, Einstein and Jean-Paul Sartre in condemnation of her impending killing, which would leave two children orphaned.
The case has been fictionalized and debated constantly in the intervening seven decades, but today&rsquos world offers a new way to tell Ethel&rsquos story. Most of the protagonists have now died but not the two boys, now men, for whom Ethel wanted desperately to be a mother, nor the social worker who helped her, before she was arrested, in her then primary goal of becoming a better mother. Most importantly, her brother David, whose perjured testimony was the only evidence against her, died in 2015, which enabled the release of his Grand Jury testimony&mdashthe long-hidden statements he made before he was coached by prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn. It is not my concern here either to draw attention to the miscarriages of justice in the case nor to justify Julius&rsquo activities as a spy-ring recruiter, now accepted as fact. However, I fervently believe 2021 is a potent time to look again at Ethel as a woman in her own right, not just one half of the Rosenbergs.
In the last few years we have understood with fresh eyes why it&rsquos important to reassess attitudes toward women when they face off against male power. It may seem lazy to reframe Ethel&rsquos story as fitting neatly into the #MeToo narrative, even though attitudes towards sex and (usually) male power have radically shifted since 1950. She was not, after all, a victim of sexual harassment or assault. But we now better understand the gender dynamics of the courage required to speak truth to power. Although everyone with any authority in the courtroom and judicial system was male she did not give way.
Ethel has hitherto always been seen as either victim (to the extent that, if she knew what Julius had done yet refused to insist on the difference of her own innocence, she was a victim of both her husband and the U.S. government), or martyr, as if she were willingly seeking death to prove her dramatic talents as the actress she had once hoped to be. And Judge Irving Kaufman accused her of being fully involved in the business of espionage. &ldquoShe was a mature woman&mdashalmost three years older than her husband and almost seven years older than her younger brother,&rdquo he said. &ldquoShe was a full-fledged partner in this crime.&rdquo
From the moment of their arrest in 1950 Ethel and Julius had become inseparable as &ldquoThe Rosenbergs.&rdquo President Eisenhower jointly condemned them: &ldquoBy their act these two individuals have in fact betrayed the cause of freedom.&rdquo
But the Ethel I have discovered, through careful reading of the sources and from discussions with those who knew her, eludes labeling. There may not be a single word to describe her. Ethel was a complex if flawed human being facing an unimaginable kind of torture and, to me, she emerges as a heroine in one sense: her refusal to be used as a weapon in the government fight against communism.
When some in the clemency campaign urged that she, but not Julius, should be saved out of a humanitarian consideration for her as a woman and as a mother, she raged at those &ldquowho are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulchre in which I shall live without living and die without dying.&rdquo She did not want to be spared simply out of pity for being a wife, nor could she accept that she was the mastermind. Both stereotypes of her as either a dutiful or domineering wife failed to see how she had struggled all her life to forge her own identity as a wife and mother but above all as herself, Ethel.
When government officials came to her for a deal, after she had already spent 26 months on death row, she was equally furious. &ldquoBy asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the Government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt… Our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity is not for sale. Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder.&rdquo
Now, through a 2021 lens, we can finally see Ethel, neither folded into her husband&rsquos crimes nor meekly approaching her death as a woman without agency&mdashbut as a mother who bravely chose to die rather than betray anyone, and in so doing bequeathed her sons a legacy of which they could be proud.
By 1945, the Soviets considered Rosenberg and his espionage network to be providing valuable information. The network included: engineers (Julius Rosenberg, Nathan Sussman, Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, Morton Sobell), a military aviation scientist (William Perl), a civil design engineer (McNutt), and a machinist (Greenglass), among others. Greenglass served in the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment (SED), and was a machinist at Los Alamos. McNutt was an engineer who worked at the Kellex design bureau in New York City. By 1944, Julius had recruited him to spy for the Soviets. Perl contributed to the development of the first jet fighter in the U.S. The engineers worked at top electronic firms, and they passed on confidential and useful information to the Soviet Union.
Greenglass passed information to Julius, including information about the high explosive lenses being developed at Los Alamos for the implosion bomb. Harry Gold, a lab chemist and Soviet spy, passed this information to the USSR. Gold paid Greenglass $500 in exchange for information about the implosion lens in the atomic bomb. He also worked with Klaus Fuchs, a physicist at Los Alamos and Soviet spy, to pass on atomic research secrets.
The espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg begins - HISTORY
Ethel Rosenberg was married to Julius Rosenberg.
Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass was involved in the research taking place in Los Alamos, New Mexico on the atomic bomb. Code-named “the Manhattan Project”, the work involved many of the most respected scientific minds in the world. One of the people involved was Klaus Fuchs, a brilliant physicist from sent over from England.
Julius Rosenberg had begun working as an organizer and recruiter of spies and sought help from Greenglass. He convinced David’s wife, Ruth Greenglass to visit him in New Mexico and obtain classified secrets about the atomic bomb from her husband, explaining that the information would be passed on to the Soviet Union so that the United States ally would be in a position to better defend itself against Nazi Germany. Ruth returned from her visit with names of scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, locations of test sites and descriptions of different experiments being conducted. She passed this information to the Rosenbergs.
In January 1945, while on leave from New Mexico, Greenglass met with Julius and Ethel. He had been a member of the Communist Party for several years already, persuaded to join by his sister Ethel. Emphasizing the importance of his contributions, Julius took a box of Jell-O and tore it in half marking each half in a particular manner. He gave one half to David Greenglass and told him that a new Soviet contact would be arranged for him, recognizable because the contact would possess the other half of the box.
In June 1945, David was approached by Harry Gold, a Soviet agent who was also gathering information at the time from Klaus Fuchs. Gold showed Greenglass the other half of the Jell-O box as his identification. Greenglass gave Gold the documents that he had procured and Gold, in exchange, gave Greenglass $500.00.
In September 1945, Greenglass traveled to New York and met with the Rosenbergs. Here, he gave a detailed description of the Uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the Plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In 1945, Julius Rosenberg was dismissed from his position at the U.S. Signal Corps, based in large part, because his loud, pro-Soviet stance had placed him under suspicion of being a Communist.
On February 3, 1950, Klaus Fuchs was arrested and charged with stealing secrets from the Los Alamos research center. Fuchs confessed, identifying Harry Gold as his Soviet contact. Julius warned the Greenglasses that Gold might implicate David and that David should make plans to flee the country. As Julius predicted, Gold was arrested in May 1950 and ultimately would name Greenglass as another source of information.
Although he was provided with an escape plan developed by the Soviets that would take him to Moscow by way of Mexico, David decided not to leave the United States. Subsequently, he was arrested on June 15, 1950. He quickly informed the FBI about the Julius Rosenberg and the spy ring that Julius was involved in. In spite of his preparations for the inevitability of arrest (Julius had obtained passport photos and applications for his family), Julius and Ethel did not flee in time (as had other Soviet spies, including Morris and Leona Cohen) and he was arrested on July 17, 1950. Ethel was subsequently arrested on August 11, 1950 and both were charged with espionage, as was Greenglass. Greenglass pled guilty while the Rosenbergs pled not guilty. Also arrested was Morton Sobell, another spy involved.
The Rosenbergs were tried in March of 1951 represented in the U.S. District Federal Court by the noted attorney Emanuel Bloch. Julius took the stand but denied involvement with anything actionable, repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Ethel did much the same. The jury found Ethel, Julius and Sobell guilty of espionage. Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in prison and Greenglass 15, but the judge harshly sentenced both of the Rosenbergs to death, a sentence aggressively sought by the Justice Department. The judge in the case, Irving Kaufman, reasoned that by passing the secrets to the Soviets, they had allowed the Soviet Union to begin building an atomic weapon years faster than it other would have, setting in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead to the Korean War.
The death sentences provoked world-wide criticism and charges of anti-Semitism, despite the fact that Judge Kaufman as well as two of the prosecutors was Jewish. It was believed that Ethel, whose role was much more limited than Julius’ was sentenced to death in order to compel Julius to make a full confession, yet none would be forthcoming. More than 15 appeals to the United States Supreme Court and to President Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were denied and the execution date was set for June 19, 1953.
Julius Rosenberg was executed in the electric chair at the Ossining Prison in upstate New York as was Ethel minutes later. Both maintained their innocence until the end.
This Day in History: The Rosenberg Trial Begins
It was on this date in 1951 that the infamous espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began. The Jewish-American Communists, along with Soviet spy Morton Sobell, were accused of selling nuclear secrets to Russia. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and allegedly supplied Julius with information regarding the atomic bomb. Harry Gold, an acquaintance of Greenglass and a chemist, is alleged to have passed the information on to the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb, purportedly at least in part based upon information gathered from U.S. spies, beginning a tense and deadly chapter in the Cold War.
The trial was held at the New York Southern District federal court, presided over by Judge Irving R. Kaufman. It lasted less than four weeks, with a conviction of the Rosenbergs rendered on March 29th. The only direct evidence of the Rosenbergs’ involvement was the confession of Greenglass. However, the couple was sentenced to death . Sobell was sentenced to 30 years and Greenglass to 15. The execution of Julius and Ethel was the first execution of civilians for espionage in the country’s history, and remains a haunting symbol of the Red Scare. In 2003, on the 50th anniversary of the couple’s death by the electric chair at Sing Sing, the New York Times said, “The Rosenberg case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.”
Did you know, though, that the Rosenbergs’ story has many chapters rooted in the Village?
Ethel Rosenberg was born in 1915 to Russian immigrant parents on Sheriff Street on the Lower East Side. Her upbringing was typical of the poverty of the Lower East Side at the time. Their home was a 2-room, cold-water tenement and her father had a sewing machine repair shop in the front room. Julius was born in 1918 to Polish immigrant parents in a similar upbringing. Both Ethel and Julius attended Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. They were married in 1939 and moved to Knickerbocker Village, a low-income housing development located on the block bounded by Catherine, Monroe, Market, and Cherry Streets.
L: Knickerbocker Village R: Seward Park High School
In the 1940s, after having two sons, the family moved to 103 Avenue A, between East 6th & 7th Streets and right next door to 101 Avenue A. According to the book Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths, their apartment, one of 21 in the building at the time, “had no color, no pictures on the wall, nothing to personalize the surroundings, except for mess and clutter.”
After being arrested, Ethel was sent to the Women’s House of Detention. This prison opened in 1932 and was built to replace an old jail that was part of the Jefferson Market. According to Ephemeral New York, “it focused on reforming the inmates, often charged with prostitution. There were some illustrious inmates, held for other crimes, like Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis, and Valerie Solanas.” The building was bulldozed in 1974 and replaced by the Jefferson Market Garden.
Women’s House of Detention
The former Sigmund Schwartz Gramercy Park Chapel, at 152 Second Avenue (which is now slated for a complete overhaul) was the site where Julius & Ethel were memorialized after their execution.
Sigmund Schwartz Gramercy Park Chapel
We believe there are more sites associated with Julius & Ethel, especially in the East Village, so if you have any tips send them our way!!
The Rosenberg Trial: This Day in History
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.
The Case Is Not Closed
The guilt of Julius now hinges on nineteen Venona messages. This seems a flimsy basis on which to declare the Rosenberg case closed. Further examination of the accuracy of these messages and analysis of their contexts may very well further qualify their meaning. Some, even many, of the Venona releases may be exactly what they appear to be. But it does not follow that all 3,000 are exactly what the NSA, the CIA, Allen Weinstein, Radosh and Milton, and Haynes and Klehr say they are, if for no other reason than that neither the US translators and decrypters nor the KGB and their informants are infallible.
There is general agreement that the process of decoding was complex and difficult. Indeed, the code has not yet been completely broken since components of varying length within the supposedly decoded messages are still not decoded. As I understand the process from a conversation with an NSA spokesperson in 1999, the messages were in Roman letters because American telegraph services would not transmit material in any other form. These letters correlated to numbers, which in turn correlated to Cyrillic letters. The Cyrillic letters presumably were combined into Russian words, which were then encrypted by the interpolation of random units. These messages, decoded and decrypted, then had to be translated into English. It taxes credibility to believe that the production of English plain text versions of the Venona intercepts are entirely accurate.
As well as inaccuracies of translation, there is always the potential for errors of transmission. Did those supplying information to the KGB always communicate complete and unvarnished truth? Did the KGB agents always understand the information they were receiving? And, finally, did they always transmit that information accurately, given that they too had to code and encrypt data? Take, for example, one of the first messages translated by American cryptographers. The intercept “New York 1699 to Moscow, 2 December 1944” provides a list of seventeen scientists engaged in “the problem,” that is, American atomic research:
Enumerates [the following] scientists who are working on the problem — Hans BETHE, Niels BOHR, Enrico FERMI, John NEWMAN, Bruno ROSSI, George KISTIAKOWSKI, Emilio SEGRE, G. I. TAYLOR, William PENNEY, Arthur COMPTON, Ernest LAWRENCE, Harold UREY, Hans STANARN, Edward TELLER, Percy BRIDGEMAN, Werner EISENBERG, STRASSENMAN. 
Fifteen of those mentioned were involved in the American atom bomb project. Two of them, Werner Eisenberg and Strassenman, had no connection with the project.  Eisenberg was, according to West, actually Werner Heisenberg, who not only was not invovled in the American project, but was the 1932 Nobel Prize winner in physics who remained in Germany during World War II.  Eisenberg and Strassenman are mistakenly linked to the other fifteen either by the informant or by the KGB agent. What such an error demonstrates is that the Venona documents need to be read cautiously and critically. This concern about textual accuracy would obtain even if there were no ideological predisposition by the employees of the NSA to read this material in a particular way.
Scrutiny of text is one way in which the Venona messages may be reassessed study of context is another. The Venona messages need to be read in relation to FBI and other US government agency files they also need to be read in relation to KGB and other Russian government files. One of the great mysteries of Venona is that, through William Weisband, who worked on Venona and was thought to be a Soviet agent, and Kim Philby, who was a Soviet agent and, according to Benson and Warner, “received actual translations and analyses [of the Venona material] on a regular basis,” the Soviets knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that their codes were broken.  So why did they continue to use them? Finding the appropriate contexts to answer this and the other questions provoked by the Venona intercepts will undoubtedly influence not only how the Venona intercepts are read, but also how the Rosenberg case is understood. Without those contexts, the Venona material and what it is supposed to tell us about the Rosenbergs must be approached with great caution.
How Ethel Rosenberg Offered Her Own Life as a Sacrifice
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An American Tragedy
By Anne Sebba
Few trials in American history can match that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for its sensationalism. The young couple were arrested in 1950 for atomic espionage. Less than a year earlier, the Soviet Union had unexpectedly tested its first nuclear bomb, a mere four years after the U.S. atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mao Zedong had just declared the People’s Republic of China. Cold War hysteria was at its peak. The couple were quickly convicted, sentenced to death and, after two years of international protest and a series of failed appeals, executed in June 1953. They remain the only individuals put to death for peacetime espionage in American history and most everyone agrees neither should have been killed.
To the very end, the Rosenbergs protested their innocence. Though they took the Fifth regarding their Communist Party affiliation, they insisted that they were being persecuted for their radical political views. In left and liberal circles, how one stood on the Rosenberg case became not just a proxy for one’s views on Communism and the Soviet Union but also, like the Dreyfus case in France a half-century earlier, instantly defined who one was.
There was high family drama as well. Ethel’s own younger brother David Greenglass admitted to spying at Los Alamos for the Russians. Julius, he testified in court, was his handler Ethel, Julius’s accomplice.
And then there was the other “family” affair. The Rosenbergs were Jewish. So were both the defense and prosecution teams (featuring a young Roy Cohn in a debut supporting role), as was the judge, Irving Kaufman. Many saw the proceedings as playing out a particularly Jewish American drama, with both prosecution and judge intent on proving their loyalty to America and ridding Jews of any Communist taint through their fierce prosecution of the couple.
Over time, research by scholars and the release of once-classified documents, first in America and then in the former Soviet Union, have proved that Julius was, in fact, guilty of running an espionage network intent on stealing the secrets of the Manhattan Project among other defense programs, though he did not provide the most significant information that led to the Soviet bomb.
Regarding Ethel, the case has always been muddied by two significant facts. Her brother’s key testimony against her — that she typed some of the documents he provided to Julius — was a lie, as he later admitted, meant to deflect attention from his own wife’s involvement. Even more damningly, Ethel was mercilessly used as a pawn by the government to force Julius to confess. This has led some, including her two sons, to continue to insist on Ethel’s innocence and seek her exoneration. But the Soviet archives provide strong evidence that while Ethel was never a formal agent, she not only knew of Julius’s work but aided him at times, including in the recruitment of her brother and sister-in-law.
Anne Sebba’s new book, “Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy,” comes in the wake of the public release of the last of the grand jury testimony in the case, that of David Greenglass, after his death in 2014. But while that testimony reaffirms that David lied on the stand, it adds nothing substantive to the record. On the question of Ethel’s guilt, Sebba, who has written many biographies of famous women, waffles and confuses, declaring at the beginning that Ethel was not “legally complicit,” only later to write that she was, in fact, “complicit to a conspiracy,” but then asks: “Was that a crime?” She also points to the relevance of the Rosenberg case in demonstrating how widespread fear of foreign enemies can lead to government abuses, though she stops short of directly tying the case to recent events.
In the end, the book is a plea for Ethel the woman, an attempt to understand who she really was, to free her from the confines of the stock political figure she inevitably became. Because of the dour demeanor she publicly showed, many viewed her not just as an accomplice but also as the calculating mastermind behind the espionage. This was far off the mark. Less so was the portrait of her as a kind of political fanatic. According to one woman who met her in prison, Ethel “followed the party line uncritically, unquestionably and aggressively.”
But she was more than this. Sebba gives us a portrait of Ethel as a smart, ambitious and thoughtful woman, one with a beautiful singing voice and dreams of a career in music and theater. She was also emotionally fragile, wounded by a mother who denied her talents, and always placed her brothers before her. Ironically, the only one of her three brothers to whom she was close was David, her future betrayer, on whom she doted. As a mother herself, she sought out therapy, worried that she, too, would not be a good enough parent.
But as biography the book falls short. The information to really fill out her story, to add depth and richness to her early internal struggles, is lacking. Sebba wants us to see Ethel as an extraordinary woman, but instead we feel her ordinariness. The book’s strongest chapters are the later ones, among them one on Ethel’s years in prison, which she spent in almost complete isolation with no support from her family and only occasional visits from her sons, who were 10 and 6 when their parents were executed. She was, somehow, granted the right to visits from her psychiatrist, who became her only real outside lifeline and to whom, in the midst of her emotional turmoil, she began to write passionate letters.
Equally interesting is Sebba’s meditation on Ethel in the context of American culture. Here Ethel becomes a stand-in for a generation of ambitious women who willingly sacrificed their own careers to their sometimes less talented husbands.
And yet what partly doomed Ethel was her perceived lack of femininity. Her refusal to court the press or the public and her stony-faced stoicism throughout the trial were taken as signs of her coldness, even masculinity. No one understood that this was, at least in part, her only protection against the onslaught she felt to her fragile being. President Eisenhower, to whom she appealed for clemency, worried about sending a young mother to the electric chair, but then absolved himself because “in this instance it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one.” Is there a more revealing example of the straitjacket of postwar femininity than this outrageous comment, which helped to seal Ethel Rosenberg’s fate?
Sebba sees Ethel as the one actor in the drama who did not betray anyone, who insisted on protecting her husband even to the point of her own death. The only thing that apparently would have saved her was a confession from Julius, which he, with her full support, refused to make, or her own willingness to implicate her husband and others. Yet she refused to say anything to save herself to the very end, even in the moments after Julius’s execution. Was it because of an inner defiance and stubborn rigidity? A misguided idealism and belief in the Soviet cause that amounted to a kind of moral confusion, a refusal to see espionage as a crime, particularly for a country that had once been a wartime ally? Or perhaps it was far more personal, a link to her husband that she saw as inviolable, a belief that her fate was inextricably tied to Julius’s.
“A cold fury possesses me and I could retch with horror and revulsion for these unctuous saviors, these odious swine [who] are actually proposing to erect a terrifying sepulcher in which I shall live without living and die without dying,” she wrote of the prospect of surviving without Julius.
The choices made by this outwardly strong, cold and “masculine” woman became in effect a form of suttee. Ethel, who had been subordinated to her brothers as a child, now willingly immolated herself as a sign of ultimate devotion to Julius (and perhaps to Stalin), even if it meant leaving her two young sons behind.
Fat Man, Little Boy, A Packet of Jell-O
A search for “Rosenberg” in the Open Public Access system of the National Archives brings up a strange and poignant collection of documents: a passport picture of a family with the mother clutching a tiny infant, childlike sketches of shapes, a smiling couple, and an empty Jell-O box.
In September 1949, the White House announced the Soviets had successfully detonated an atomic bomb. The secrets behind the construction of Fat Man and Little Boy—the atomic bombs that had devasted Nagasaki and Hiroshima—were in the hands of the Soviets.
In 1950 the FBI arrested Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British atomic scientist. Although Fuchs did not know his American contact, the FBI eventually identified Harry Gold, a Philadelphia chemist. And in turn, this led to David Greenglass, a U.S. Army soldier and Soviet agent who had been assigned to Los Alamos, NM, where the bombs were built.
In June 1945, Greenglass had given material in to Anatoli Yakovlev, former Soviet vice-consul in New York City. And according to the FBI, Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs had been instrumental in persuading and assisting David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg, in passing the secrets to Yakovlev.
But what about the Jell-O box?
Like a “Best Friends” necklace, pieces of the Jell-O box could be matched, and the spies would be able to confirm their identities.
The Greenglasses were living in Albuquerque when a man came to their home, introduced himself saying “Julius sent me,” and produced a piece of Jell-O box. It matched the one David Greenglass was holding. The other spy was chemist Harry Gold.
A Jell-O box was introduced at the trial. It was not the original box, but “trial transcript shows that the prosecution introduced this facsimile Jell-O box to represent the recognition signal.” The evidence is now part of the holdings of the National Archives at New York City.
The Rosenbergs denied all espionage allegations, but on April 5, 1951, the couple received a sentence of death, and both were executed on June 19, 1953.
In the first activity students will learn about the FBI's ongoing investigation of suspected Soviet agents in the United States. They will do so by reading excerpts from actual recently-declassified FBI memoranda regarding the Venona Project, located at the FBI's website (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters), but available in excerpted form in the Text Document. Note that these are not the Venona transcripts themselves, but rather a series of internal FBI memos describing the project and summarizing its findings. While these memos were written in the 1950s, they are describing work that had been going on since 1948, when the Soviet code was first broken.
Teachers should divide their students into small groups. All will read an introduction to Venona, found on pages 1–4 of the Text Document. This provides an overview of the program, including the methods used to identify the real names of individuals referred to only by code names in the decrypted messages. It also offers reasons why the FBI chose not to reveal the Venona information. As the students read, they should answer the following questions, available as a worksheet on page 5 of the Text Document:
- What is the purpose of this document?
- What is Venona?
- What are the main limitations on Venona as a source of information about Soviet espionage?
- What advantage might there be in using the Venona information as evidence to prosecute suspected spies?
- What legal problems might be involved in using Venona information as trial evidence?
- Why, according to the author of the memo, might it be unwise politically to try to use Venona information as trial evidence?
- How does the author think the Soviets would react if the Venona transcripts became public?
Next, each group will be responsible for reading about a particular individual or group suspected of spying for the Soviets. The Text Document contains information about all of the following individuals. However, teachers should not feel compelled to assign all of these. An asterisk has been placed next to those that are of particular importance, since the names of these individuals will come up in the next activity on the Rosenberg Trial, as well as in subsequent lessons in this unit:
- Judith Coplon (page 6)
- Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs (page 7)
- Alger Hiss (page 8)
- Harry Dexter White (pages 9-10)
- Harry Gold (page 11)
- David Greenglass (page 12)
After reading all these materials students will complete a worksheet, found on page 13 of the Text Document, with the following questions.
- What is the real name of your subject?
- By what code names was your subject also known?
- What evidence exists that your subject was engaged in espionage against the United States?
- Over what period of time did this alleged espionage take place?
- Who, if anyone, was also involved in your subject's alleged espionage activities?
- What actions, if any, did the U.S. government take against this alleged espionage activity?
Finally, teachers should lead an in-class discussion regarding the nature of Soviet espionage in the United States, and the methods that were used to identify and prosecute spies. Drawing on what the students have read, they might, as a class, draw a web showing how the various individuals mentioned in the documents were connected to one another. One student should begin by writing the name of his or her subject on the board, along with lines connecting him or her to any other individuals named in the document. Others should follow, so that ultimately a large network of agents will be displayed.
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Newly released Rosenberg letters shed personal light on controversial case
Lead witness against A-bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg dies
2009: KGB spy murdered in Moscow
Julius Rosenberg (born 1918) and Ethel Greenglass (born 1915) both grew up in New York, and were married in 1939 after meeting at a union fund-raising party. Long passionate about politics, Julius had joined the Young Communist League while studying at City College, where he earned an engineering degree. In 1940, he began working as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories, at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey. Ethel had been an aspiring actress, but settled for a job as a secretary with a shipping company after they wed.
A 2001 book by Aleksandre Feksilov, Julius’ Russian spy handler, claimed that Rosenberg was recruited in 1942, and that he and his recruits passed on thousands of pages of documents related to military technology to the Soviets throughout the 1940s.
Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies for most of World War II, the Americans did not share information about the Manhattan Project with the Russians. So when the Soviet Union conducted its first test of a nuclear bomb, on August 29, 1949, the Americans were alarmed. The January 1950 arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee who had worked on the Manhattan Project, on suspicion of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, started the chain reaction that led to the Rosenbergs' arrest.
Fuchs’ courier had been Harry Gold, a Jewish chemist from Philadelphia. Gold in turn identified David Greenglass, a former U.S. Army machinist, and the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who had worked at the Los Alamos labs where the bomb was developed, as a source. Greenglass claimed that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law and had turned over the material he had stolen to him. He said that Ethel too was involved in the plot. This last point was critical, because it was the only testimony directly linking Ethel to the espionage. In 2001, Greenglass admitted in a television interview that he had fabricated an account about Ethel typing up Julius’ notes for the Soviets. He said that he implicated his sister to protect himself and his pregnant wife. (Greenglass spent 10 years in prison for his part in the conspiracy.)
FBI agents arrested Julius Rosenberg on July 17, 1950, and Ethel a month later. It later became clear that Ethel's arrest was intended to pressure her husband to name names of others involved in the spy ring. But Julius Rosenberg didn’t crack: He never admitted his own role in the espionage and never gave up any accomplices. Ethel also refused to cooperate with the authorities, even when she found herself charged as a full-fledged conspirator.
Within days, a number of Rosenberg acquaintances were either arrested -- or disappeared. One of them was Morton Sobell, who escaped to Mexico, where he was soon was kidnapped, apparently by “bandits” who then drove him north to the U.S. border and turned him over to FBI agents. Sobell, an electrical engineer, was tried with the Rosenbergs, and spent 17 years in prison. Yet he continued to proclaim innocence up until 2008, when at age 91 he granted an interview to Sam Roberts of the New York Times. In the interview, he finally admitted that Julius had been a spy, but said that what he passed to the Soviets was “junk.”
Irving Saypol prosecuted the Rosenbergs, with the help of a 26-year-old U.S. attorney named Roy Cohn, who went on to a prolific career as red-baiter and legal fixer. Cohn later claimed that he had played a role in having Judge Irving Kaufman appointed to the case, and in encouraging him to sentence the Rosenberg couple to death. Emanuel Bloch defended the duo. He later helped care for Robert and Michael, the Rosenbergs’ two sons, until they were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol.
The trial went to the jury on March 28, 1951. After only a few hours of deliberation, they voted to convict. On April 5, Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs. In condemning both Julius and Ethel to death, he told them that, “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 … 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.”
After more than two years of appeals, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953. They are the only people in American history to have been executed for espionage.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by wire screen, as they leave a U.S. courthouse after being found guilty by a jury. Wikipedia skip -