"Citizens of this country who betray their fellow
countrymen can be under none of the delusions about the
benignity of Soviet power that they might have been prior
to World War II. The nature of Russian terrorism is now
self-evident. Idealism as a rationale dissolves…
Ethel Rosenberg (née Greenglass), the only daugher of Barnet and Tessie Greenglass, was born 28 September 1915 in New York. Her Russian father, Barnet, and Austrian mother, Tessie, had two sons, David & Bernard,. She also had a half-brother, Samuel. Her family was poor since her father had to provide for his wife and four children on a sewing machine repairman's salary and so, most winters, they couldn't even afford heat. Ethel demonstrated remarkable intelligence and graduated from high school at the age of 15 in 1931. Her destitute upbringing caused her to believe that worker's rights were essential and nothing was more important than the communist cause.
A year out of high school, Ethel became a secretary at the National New York Shipping Company for four years where she was fired after organizing a strike of 150 women workers and chaining herself to a radiator. By this time, she had joined the Young Communist League and soon became a member of the American Communist Party.
She met Julius Rosenberg in high school and they became friends in 1932. Her parents didn't approve of their friendship together but, living in an upstairs apartment with her younger brothers, Julius could visit without their knowledge and discuss Communism - supposedly the apartment was filled with Communist Party literature and papers. It appears that in 1934, Julius began courting Ethel, but in 1935 they apparently stopped seeing each other.
In 1936, Ethel was an entertainer at a National Maritime Union rally where she re-met Julius. They married on 18 June 1939. From 1938 - 1940, Ethel worked for the Bell Textile Company.
"I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain
deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by
comparison with the crime you have committed… Indeed, by
your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the
course of history to the disadvantage of our country.
Julius Rosenberg was born 12 May 1918 in New York, son of Harry, who worked in the clothing industry, and Sophie Rosenberg, Jewish-Russian immigrants. He had four siblings - one brother and three sisters. When he was 14, Julius joined the Young Communist League and, at the time, attended Seward Park High School (along with Ethel Greenglass) where he graduated at age 16. His family hoped he'd become a rabbi but, instead, Julius went to City College of New York and studied electrical engineering.
In college, Julius joined the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT), a left-wing, radical union for professionals. Julius Rosenberg became extremely involved in political activities - working (along with Ethel) to get the American Students Union established on campus. Julius graduated in 1939 with his EE degree and, later that same summer, Julius married Ethel Greenglass.
"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…
[T]he error of your ways in setting yourselves
above our properly constituted authorities and
the decision of those authorities not to share the
information with Russia must now be obvious…
Now married, Julius became a Junior Radio Engineer with the War Department's Signal Supply Office, Brooklyn in 1940. During the period before his employment, Ethel worked as a temporary clerk for the Census Bureau but, like any good housewife, quit once he was employed. By most accounts, Julius was a good employee (then again, I suppose it'd be ironic for a good communist to be a bad worker) – he and Ethel moved to Philadelphia for a year when he was transferred to the Signal Corps there. In 1943, back in New York, he was promoted to an Associate Engineer, Inspection.
"In the light of this, I can only conclude that the
defendants entered into this most serious conspiracy
against their country with full realization of its implications…
While Julius did well careerwise (through 1945), the family prospered. He and Ethel purchased a house and their first son, Michael, was born in 1943. His brother, Robert, would be born in 1947. Unfortunately, Julius and Ethel's political involvement started to be their downfall. In 1939, after graduating, Julius had joined the Communist Party. He managed to keep this a secret from the US Government until 1944 but, meanwhile, until 1943, he was Chairman of Branch 16B, Industrial Division for the Communists and held meetings in his apartment. He transferred to the 1st Assembly District to lower his profile, became a member of the International Workers Order (along with Ethel), and began espionage activities. Shortly after doing so, his involvement was discovered and so, he was terminated. He then worked a variety of odd jobs for machine shops and radio companies for the next five years but still managed to save money and keep the family at a middle class level.
"The statute of which the defendants at the bar stand
convicted is clear. I have previously stated my view that
the verdict of guilty was amply justified by the evidence.
In the light of the circumstances, I feel that I must pass
such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical
conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will
demonstrate with finality that this nation's security must
remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether
promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a
desire for monetary gains must cease…
In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a GRU (Soviet Army General Staff Intelligence Directorate) code clerk based in Ottawa, was about to return to Russia when he decided to defect, taking secret documents with him. These documents found their way to the NSA and FBI in the US.
Shortly thereafter, British physicist Alan Nunn May confessed to providing info obtained from his position on the National Research Council of Canada to the USSR and a partially burned NKVD code book was found in Finland. Using this codebook along with some items filched from a NY NKVD office, the NSA's Venona Project was able to begin slow deciphering of Soviet messages.
Finally, four years later, the Venona project began to yield results. The most disturbing was the discovery of a list of scientists on the Manhattan Project. From the contents of the message, it was easily determined that the author was Klaus Fuchs, an ex-German, now British, nuclear scientist. After examining his past, it was evident that prior to World War II, he had been a Communist. He was arrested and questioned immediately.
Fuchs cooperated fully with the government and told them about his contact "Raymond". In addition to his method of communcation, he also described Raymond as a Jewish chemist. Thanks to other information the FBI had, this left them with two potential suspects and they quickly closed in on Harry Gold.
Harry Gold, son of poor Russian immigrants, also cooperated and gave them to his NKVD contact, Anatoli Yakolev, who had already fled the country. Yakolev had been the one Fuchs' and a Los Alamos soldier's documents were given to. Based on Gold's information about the soldier and his wife, Ruth, they quickly determined that David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, was their suspect. David was all too willing to implicate his wife, sister, and brother-in-law whom he blamed for his financial troubles.
"The evidence indicated quite clearly that Julius Rosenberg
was the prime mover in this conspiracy. However, let no
mistake be made about the role which his wife, Ethel
Rosenberg, played in this conspiracy. Instead of deterring
him from pursuing his ignoble cause, she encouraged and
assisted the cause... She was a full-fledged partner in this crime.
David Greenglass and his wife had been members of the Communist party since 1943 and he entered the Army as a machinist in 1943. His technical skill proved extremely valuable causing him to be moved to Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project. In early 1944, his wife, Ruth, visited and told him that his brother-in-law, Julius, said he was working on an atomic bomb and asked him to pass along any information he had, specifically any diagrams, personnel lists, or potential recruits.
In January of 1945, David started to come through and Julius passed along lens mold drawings and names of scientists that David provided and Ethel wrote up. Julius then gave the Russians, in September, an annotated diagram of the atomic bomb along with amounts of explosives to detonate and how the bomb was triggered provided by David. David also gave lists of potential recruits and scientists. Ethel dutifully compiled the report and Julius gave the Russians a proximity fuse he managed to steal from his employer. In 1946, David left the army.
From 1946 - 49, Julius made other contacts, including those at General Electric, and sent information about various US technology and about a supposed satellite project the US was working on. Once Fuchs was arrested, Julius told David to leave the country but wouldn't flee himself.
With David's information, the Rosenbergs were arrested. The FBI wanted names of other contacts but the Rosenbergs both refused to divulge them. They threatened to prosecute them for espionage and, when that had no effect, did.
The Rosenbergs were both found guilty of espionage (but not treason) and were sentenced on 31 January 1951 to be executed. They then proceeded to appeal and failed each time, eventually having the Supreme Court in 1953 rejecting their attempt to have the execution sentence overturned. For 2.5 years, they fought the decision.
"Indeed the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
placed their devotion to their cause above their own
personal safety and were conscious that they were
sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be
detected—all of which did not deter them from pursuing their
course. Love for their cause dominated their lives—it was
even greater than their love for their children."
— Hon. Irving Kaufman's statement during sentencing
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by electric chair on June 19, 1953, at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.
In high school, I did a report on the Rosenbergs (this is not that report) and came to the conclusion that many others did: The Rosenbergs were like Sacco & Vanzetti - scapegoats because of their political views, charged with a crime they almost definitely did not commit.
The evidence against the Rosenbergs seemed vague and almost ludicrous (some of it involving pieces of a box of Jell-O), their attorney seemed dedicated yet somewhat incompetant, and the Rosenbergs seemed like sad people railroaded by a system that had predetermined their guilt with possibly vindictive witnesses like David Greenglass.
And then, a few years ago, it became evident to me that wasn't the case.
In 1995, the NSA's extremely secret Venona Project became public. The project's purpose had been to decrypt messages sent by Soviet operatives in the US back to Russia in the 1940s. The Russians used a variety of cryptographic systems of varying strength, including a perfectly secure system (a one-time pad) for their most secret messages. Unfortunately for them, they foolishly reused the pads, allowing decryption to be feasible but difficult.
Among the items decrypted was Klaus Fuchs' list of scientists, Julius' identity - the KGB referred to him as "ANTENNA" and "LIBERAL" and mentioned he had a wife, Ethel, and a relative with the last name of Greenglass - and other people Julius recruited. This evidence, among other secrets, was not presented publically as it would have severely hampered the government's ability to continue its counter-espionage efforts.
Now my conclusion is that the Rosenbergs were definitely guilty of the crimes with which they were charged. Unfortunately, their punishment didn't fit their crime.
In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb causing a panic in the US. Many didn't believe that Russian scientists were capable of developing such a device without assistance. It was around this time that Joseph McCarthy came into prominance wielding his supposed list of traitorous government employees and Americans were looking for who they could blame for their sudden lack of security. They found a middle-aged, middle-class, Jewish couple.
The Rosenbergs were essentially couriers and collectors - they didn't have virtually any secrets themselves, they simply passed along information to others. In my opinion, Klaus Fuchs, a scientist working on the bomb itself, was guilty of a far greater crime. The US Government realized the Rosenbergs weren't very important but unlike most of their other captures, the Rosenbergs were unrepentant and uncooperative and therefore handled differently - they were to be made an example.
It appears Ethel was primarily made a suspect to put pressure on Julius and her and it was made clear numerous times to them that sharing information regarding their contacts would lead to a commutation of their death sentances but they refused each time. Harry Gold, who played a fairly similar role to Julius, was given a 30 year prison sentence because of his cooperation while Klaus Fuchs received a fourteen year sentence (though that was the maximum allowed by British law). It is also possible that some elements of anti-Semitism were present - prejudice against Jews was not uncommon in the US and many European countries until the 1960s.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were communists and they were spies but they were not extremely important to either the Soviet Union or the United States. It was the love of their cause - to help a country they'd never known - over even the love of even their children - allowing themselves to be charged, put on trial, and eventually executed instead of fleeing or cooperating - that brought their downfall. Perhaps they wanted to be caught or perhaps they wanted to be martyrs. They allowed the full wrath of a paranoid nation to fall on them.
More Information and Resources Used:
- FBI: Julius & Ethel Rosenberg - http://foia.fbi.gov/roberg.htm - Extremely useful in compiling this writeup and essentially a detailed report of the FBI's findings. Contains biographies and activities of people and events in the case.
- The Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg -
http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/ROSENB.HTM - Contains diagrams, excerpts, decisions, and biographies & pictures of trial participants. Helpful site but appears to be slightly factually incorrect with dates and has a fairly a pro-Rosenberg stance. Judge Kaufman's quote was excerpted from this site.
- The VENONA Homepage - http://www.nsa.gov/docs/venona/ - NSA decrypts of Soviet messages from the 1940s. While most of the messages do not relate to the Rosenberg case, it has a good history of the US cryptanalysis efforts. I recommend this site in general - it can be somewhat shocking to see an actual message sent to the Russians containing the names of everyone on the Manhattan Project, for example. It was this site which made me think to myself "Holy shit, the Rosenbergs were guilty." The FOIA is a Good Thing.
- Atomic Spies: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg - http://www.foia.cia.gov/rosenberg.asp - CIA reports related to the Rosenberg trial. Not as well organized as the FBI's and the images of photocopies aren't easy to read.