Julius and Ethel Rosenberg:
What Really Happened?

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 1998

The Rosenbergs incarcerated.

At Sing Sing Prison in New York, on June 19, 1953, at 8 p.m., the executioner threw a switch and sent 2,000 volts of electricity surging into Julius Rosenberg. The condemned man slammed against the leather straps of the electric chair and snapped back and forth like a bullwhip. He was pronounced dead at 8:06 and wheeled out on a gurney.

His wife, Ethel Rosenberg, was brought in and strapped down. The switch was thrown and the current coursed through her body. Two minutes later a doctor examined her and backed away – she was still alive. Unconscious, but still alive.

Guards tightened the straps. More jolts. A plume of smoke rose from the prisoner’s head and curled up to the ceiling fan – her brain, it seemed, was cooking.

A pause. The doctor came forward and held a stethoscope to Ethel’s heart. He said, “I pronounce this woman dead.”

News of the deaths quickly reached a huge crowd of Rosenberg supporters in Manhattan. The people could only stand there silently, in mourning and disbelief, stunned that the government would execute two people they regarded as innocent. Meanwhile, many Americans were pleased and relieved to hear of the deaths, even elated.

Two years earlier, the Rosenbergs had been found guilty in a federal courtroom of conspiring to commit espionage. Judge Irving R. Kaufman sentenced them to die, saying they had stolen America’s most precious military secret, the atomic bomb, and given it to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence. A great many people in America, especially on the political left, adopted as an article of faith that the couple had been framed by a government caught up in the Red Scare of 1949-54. The Rosenbergs, writes journalist and historian Ted Morgan, became “the most internationally celebrated martyrs since Captain Dreyfus.”

What really happened?

Julius Rosenberg, born on May 12, 1918, the son of Polish immigrants and the youngest of five children, grew up poor on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a studious boy interested in rabbinical studies. In 1933, in his early teens, he became politically inflamed after hearing a street corner orator talk about Tom Mooney, a San Francisco labor leader who, said the speaker, had been unjustly imprisoned in 1916 for a bombing.

Rosenberg’s left wing ardor grew when he enrolled at City College of New York in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression. City College was a hotbed during the ’30s of American radicalism. It was the site of frequent political protests (“actions”), and a place where, on any given afternoon, young Trotskyists and Stalinists might engage in passionate debates about humanity’s future in lunchroom alcoves No. 1 and No. 2. Many students felt that Marxism offered more solutions to humanity than capitalism; the latter, so far as they could see, had wrought just as much suffering as gain. Rosenberg became a committed Stalinist, active in the Young Communist League.

He met Ethel Greenglass on New Year’s Eve, 1935, at a union fundraiser in New York City. Born on September 25, 1915, she, too, was a product of the Lower East Side tenements, a bright young woman (she graduated from high school at age 15) who had been stagestruck as a girl and aspired to become a performer. In the middle 1930s she worked as a clerk for a shipping company, at one point organizing 150 female co-workers in a strike for shorter hours and higher wages. The women laid down in the middle of 36th St. in New York to stop the company’s delivery trucks, and achieved their goals, but Ethel eventually lost her job, apparently because of her activism.

Ethel and Julius married in the spring of 1939 after Julius graduated from CCNY with a degree in electrical engineering. He got a job in Brooklyn with the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The marriage was close. Together they joined the U.S. Communist Party, read the Daily Worker and New Masses, and studied Marx and Engels. They had two children, Michael (born in 1943) and Robert (1947). (See sidebar, below, for background on the sons.)

See Here for This Website’s Articles on the Cold War

The activities of the Rosenbergs during World War II and immediately afterward have been examined for half a century in courtrooms, public debates, on television programs, and in many books. The full story may never be known; by definition, espionage cases are murky. But according to many scholars and observers, a convincing version of events is offered by historians Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their 1983 book “The Rosenberg File.” A new edition of the work was published last year incorporating insights that have surfaced only recently with the opening of certain Cold War files in Moscow.

In 1943, Aleksandr Feklisov, a KGB officer at the Russian Consulate in New York, was given the name of Julius Rosenberg as a potential recruit for his cadre of secret agents. Feklisov met Rosenberg. Perhaps they talked of Marxist ideals and the valiant struggles of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Rosenberg agreed to spy for the Soviets and said he would seek out others who would also engage in espionage.

Over the next couple of years, using his access to wartime industrial facilities, Rosenberg stole technical secrets and handed them over to Feklisov, including a proximity fuse, used in anti-aircraft weaponry. Passing along such material was, of course, illegal, even though the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies against Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, had gotten a job as a machinist in the Manhattan Project, America’s massive effort to build an atomic bomb. Julius recruited David into the spy network, obtained from him data about the inner workings of the bomb, and passed this to the Soviets. Aleksandr Feklisov said in 1997 the material was not useful to the Soviet bomb-building effort.

After the war Julius continued spying for the Soviet Union, turning over military and industrial information. Ethel knew of his work but her participation in it was minimal.

Federal agents discovered the Rosenbergs via a circuitous route. Another spy for the Soviets, a top scientist named Klaus Fuchs, was arrested in Great Britain in January, 1950, and quickly signed a confession. He led investigators to Harry Gold, a longtime Soviet spy in the United States. Gold had collaborated in espionage with David Greenglass (Ethel’s brother, as noted). Gold named Greenglass to the FBI; Greenglass fingered the Rosenbergs and agreed to testify against them. In the summer of 1950 the FBI arrested the Rosenbergs.

The arrest came in the midst of boiling U.S. fears about Communism. Many Americans believed that cadres led from Moscow wanted to take over the world, eliminate religion, sack privilege in all its forms, and force a lot of people to face firing squads.

The roots of the fear dated at least to 1917 when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. In the middle 1940s, as World War II ended in Europe, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, America’s erstwhile ally against the Nazis, held Eastern Europe in an iron grip by dint of the presence of millions of Red Army soldiers. In the waning days of the war, Stalin reneged on certain promises made at the Yalta Conference about the future of Eastern Europe. Soviet-U.S. relations deteriorated over the course of 1945, and took a decisive turn for the worst in February, 1946, when Stalin blamed “monopoly capitalism” for World War II, and implied, writes historian James T. Patterson, that capitalism “must be replaced by Communism if future wars were to be averted.”

In early 1946 a key document of the Cold War circulated in Washington – the so-called “Long Telegram” written by George F. Kennan, a respected U.S. diplomat and long-time student of the Soviet Union. Kennan analyzed what he saw as Kremlin expansionism and suggested a policy of “containment” against the Soviets. (Kennan predicted that containment would, in time, lead to a break-up of the Soviet Union or a mellowing of Soviet power.) On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri. The Cold War was underway.

American officials were haunted during these months by events of a decade earlier, when Western democracies failed to stand up against Hitler at an early stage. Germany kindled World War II and tens of millions of lives were lost. The American government became convinced, in the words of historian Patterson, that the United States needed to “act decisively” against the Soviets “if it hoped to avert repetition of the sad spectacle of appeasement in the 1930s.”

Public opinion in the U.S. began hardening against all things Russian in 1946. Life and Time magazines offered “highly slanted accounts of perfidious Communist activities….” writes Patterson. The stage was set for a good many people to get frightened.

The Soviet Union cut off Berlin in June, 1948. The Alger Hiss case surfaced in August. A year later, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb (August 29, 1949). A few weeks after that, on October 1, Mao Zedong established a Communist state in China. The Korean War began in June, 1950.

Americans were stunned. What, they demanded, is going on here? Why is everything spinning out of control? And who is to blame?

Thus was launched one of the darkest chapters of recent U.S. history, the Red Scare of 1948-54, when certain government officials, and a large segment of the citizenry, came to the mistaken idea that the Communist Party of the United States, abetted by Stalin, was capable of overthrowing the U.S. Constitution and was aggressively plotting to do so. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others launched witch hunts, destroyed lives and careers, and damaged the fabric of trust that bound the nation together.

Good reasons existed for a medium level of concern about the ties of American Communists to Moscow and about Soviet-sponsored espionage. Some investigations of this period were justifiable, including that of the Rosenbergs. But did Julius Rosenberg steal the “atomic secret”?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy on March 29, 1951. U.S. Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced them to die in the electric chair, basing his decision, he said, on the fact that they were guilty of “putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb.” This, he said, led to “the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000.” Further, “millions more innocent people” might suffer in the future.

Kaufman’s central premise – that the Rosenbergs had in effect given the Soviets the atomic bomb – was not accurate. Several spies put on trial by the U.S. and Britain in the Cold War years did much more damage to Western interests than the Rosenbergs. For example, material stolen by Klaus Fuchs was far more important. (Fuchs was imprisoned in England for nine years.) And it should be noted that a legion of Soviet scientists did the heavy lifting in terms of creating an atomic bomb.

There’s no question that Julius Rosenberg committed a serious crime. His spying contributed somewhat – exactly how much is still subject to debate – to the Soviet Union getting the atomic bomb sooner than it otherwise would have. Because of the combined efforts of a number of spies, Stalin – a man who murdered about 20 million of his own citizens – had access to nuclear weaponry in the last four years of his life, as he sank into paranoia and actively prepared for World War III by building long-range bombers.

However, according to historians Radosh and Milton, the capital sentences meted out by Kaufman had “little to do with the precise nature of the crime at hand.” Rather, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to die in order to get them to talk – to identify collaborators in exchange for life imprisonment. The government wanted names, enmeshed as it was in the fears and political complexities of the Red Scare. The death sentences given to the Rosenbergs likely would have been commuted if they had coughed up a few names. Radosh and Milton add that Ethel Rosenberg was dragged into the case solely to put pressure on her husband to talk. David Greenglass said in 2001 that he lied on the witness stand about her involvement. J. Edgar Hoover himself, director of the FBI, was appalled that she was executed.

As the clock ticked away the final hours of life for the Rosenbergs in 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review questions related to the law under which they were tried and convicted. Justices Hugo Black, William Douglas, and Felix Frankfurter believed the case deserved further study, but they were outvoted on June 19, 1953. The Rosenbergs were electrocuted within hours.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg devoted a great deal of time in prison to crafting eloquent protestations of their complete innocence. Many people around the world believed them. And, in fact, the Rosenbergs themselves essentially believed that they had done nothing wrong in the grand scheme of things. They apparently felt that their acts were part of the dialectic of history, important steps in the world’s march toward socialism. They probably believed that the triumph of socialism (i.e., the triumph, in their opinion, of righteousness) depended on loyalty to the death by its cadres against its enemies, and that, by submitting to the electric chair, they set a shining example. True believers, they died for their beliefs. ●

Rosenberg Sidebar: The Sons

By Harold Frost

The sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol, live today in Springfield, Massachusetts. After the deaths of their parents they were raised by a couple named Abel and Anne Meeropol and took their name. (See here for more on Abel Meeropol.)

Michael was ten years old, Robert six, when their parents were executed. Needless to say, they were traumatized by the event, and submerged much of the pain for years. Michael required a full six years after the executions before he could let the tears flow.

Michael today is a professor of economics at Western New England College; Robert is executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which, he says, “provides for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities.” They are both married. Each has two grown children. They adhere to radical left-wing politics. They’re exceptionally knowledgeable about the Rosenberg case.

Robert insists that he and his brother can be objective about the matter: “Unlike Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton (authors of “The Rosenberg File”) we have tried to be very cautious in our pronouncements.” The brothers disagree with the contention of Radosh and Milton that the case is closed; they believe there are large uncertainties remaining, evidence still worthy of sifting – “a great deal of gray,” says Robert.

The brothers agree with Radosh and Milton on at least one point – their parents should not have been executed. “The evidence is overwhelming,” Robert says, “that they did not do the thing they were killed for; that is, conspire to steal the secret of the atomic bomb.”

Robert continues, “When you engraft this false notion of ‘the secret of the atomic bomb’ onto their case, you then have what J. Edgar Hoover called ‘the Crime of the Century.’ But if you remove this false notion, it’s just another espionage or conspiracy case, of which there were several in that period.

“One thing that angers me is this: I can’t help thinking that the government knew about all these scientists who were in fact stealing vital secrets of the atomic bomb. But the government couldn’t prove anything against them, so it pinned everything on my parents.”

Robert Meeropol and Michael Meeropol are authors of the 1975 book “We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.” A 1971 novel by E.L. Doctorow, “The Book of Daniel,” is an interesting fictional speculation about the arc of their lives; it was made into the 1983 film “Daniel.”