The history of the United States is full of unsolved mysteries. One of the greatest
mysteries which occurred in 1953 was the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg under the Espionage Act. They were convicted for giving the secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The anti-communist sentiment that characterized the Cold War and McCarthyism led to their trial and execution. Even though there is some evidence of the Rosenbergs’ guilt, numerous facts which were discovered after the death of Ethel and Julius argue more convincingly that they were innocent victims of Cold War hysteria.
the United States almost as soon as Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945.”(Larsen,24) Before the elections in 1946, the U.S.Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet which had a title – “Communist Infiltration in the United States: Its Nature and How to Combat It.” This pamphlet was suppose to show that the New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt initiated the beginning of communism in the United States. Before World War II, the Communist Party was considered legal. However, starting in 1950, people could be prosecuted if they were members of the Party. (Larsen,24)
The Cold War started to develop between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the twentieth century. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, became the main anti-communistic figure in U.S. government. On February 9,1950 he said that “Communism not only threatened capitalism but that Russia was a moral enemy of the United States.” (Moss,Wilson,220) He organized HUAC, The House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy held hearings where he asked people whether they have ever participated in communist activities. The ones who answered yes were blacklisted and could not find jobs. People who came before the committee also had an option to “take the Fifth.” The Fifth Amendment gave people the right against self-incrimination, meaning that they did not have to testify or give evidence against themselves. However, most of the people who “took the fifth,” were under suspicion. The “red scare hysteria grew.”(Larsen,25) The Internal Security Act of 1950 made not only political actions illegal but also political beliefs. The word “communist” became synonymous with the word “Russian spy.” ( Larsen, 24-27) McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover were convinced that the communist spies in the U.S. were selling the secrets of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. They arrested many people including Klaus Fuchs who was a member of the Manhattan Project and who was selling information about the atomic bomb to Moscow. McCarthy and Hoover “began a massive witch-hunt,” which led to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Moss,220-222)
On July 17, 1950 Julius Rosenberg was arrested for spying and giving secrets
about the atomic bomb to Russia. On August 11,1950 his wife Ethel Rosenberg was arrested on the charge of aiding her husband in spy activities.(Moss, 225) On Friday, June 19, 1953 Ethel and Julius were electrocuted in New York State’s Sing Sing Prison. Their sons, Michael who was ten and Robert who was six were sent to foster homes and later were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol in 1957.(Moss, 224) How did the FBI find out that the Rosenbergs were spying and how did the investigation begin?
The investigation began when the FBI found a name, Klaus Fuchs, written in a notebook of a Russian spy. Dr. Fuchs had worked on Manhattan Project (the secret name for the project which worked on the development of the atomic bomb) from 1943 to 1946. When Dr. Fuchs was arrested, he confessed that he was giving the information about the bomb to the Soviet Union. However, Fuchs was not the only one. Harry Gold who was a Philadelphia biochemist said that he was told by his Soviet contact Yakovlev to meet Fuchs in Santa Fe New Mexico on June 2, 1945, where Fuchs would give him “scientific information which included data about implosion lens.”(Larsen, 29) Afterwards, Gold was sent from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Yakovlev supposedly gave him a password- “I come from Julius” and the name and address of a person with whom he was suppose to meet. He also gave Gold a section from a Jello-O box. This section was supposed to match other sections from the Jell-O box which a person in Albuquerque had, and make up a password. As it turned out, when Gold testified for the FBI, the person with whom he met and who gave him the drawings of the lens, was a machinist at Los Alamos- David Greenglass. In June of 1945 Gold finished the whole operation. He gave the material which he received from Fuchs and Greenglass to Yakovlev. David Greenglass was identified as Ethel Rosenbergs brother. He confessed that he was a spy and that Julius was a leader of the spy ring. However, the list of those accused of spying was not finished yet. The FBI had an interview with Max Elitcher, who was an engineer in the navy. His best friend was a scientist whose name was Morton Sobell. Elitcher said that Julius told him that Sobell was among the others who gave the information about the bomb to Russians. (Larsen, 29-31)
On April 5, 1951 the court pronounced its final decisions. David Greenglass
was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His wife Ruth was freed. Gold and Sobell were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Julius and his wife Ethel were sentenced to death. Forty-five years have passed since the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, however “questions about their case still nag the American psyche.” ” Were the Rosenbergs really guilty of spying for the Soviet Union, providing a Cold War enemy with the secrets of the atomic bomb?” “Or were they convenient victims of Americas anti-communist hysteria, or anti-Semitism, or both?”(Pizzo).
Security Council released the Venona files. Those files were encoded KGB files which contained secret Soviet codes. The Venona files provided much evidence that showed that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg participated in a Soviet espionage operation. Feklisov, a former KGB officer, said that “he recruited Julius Rosenberg to spy for the Soviet Union in 1943, that he had fifty meetings with Rosenberg, that Rosenberg gave him valuable military information, and that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband’s spying but did not participate in intelligence work.” (Radosh, “Final Verdict”) Feklisov also said that Rosenberg stole the plans for a “friend and foe” device from Emerson Corporation. This device distinguished allied aircraft from enemy aircraft. Julius also stole the proximity fuse. Feklisov testified that a proximity fuse “increases the possibility to shoot down enemy planes may be ten….twenty times and that it was used to shoot down the U-2, which put the end to the 1960 summit conference between Eisenhower and Khrushchev.”(Radosh, “Final Verdict”) There is also evidence that Jerome Eugene Tartakow, who was an FBI informer and who shared cell with Julius said that Julius told him that he gave secret information to a Russian named Alex. As it turned out, Alex Fomin was a code name which Feklisov used. (Radosh, “Final Verdict”) A very important piece of information which proves Rosenbergs’ guilt came from Soviet leader Khrushchev. He said that : ” The Rosenbergs are people sympathetic to our ideals who did what they could to help the Soviet Union acquire the atom bomb.” (Radosh, The Rosenberg File,453) Khrushchev said that he heard from both Stalin and Molotov that “The Rosenbergs provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atom bomb.”(Radosh, “Proof that Rosenbergs Spied”) Even though this evidence mentioned afore seems to prove the Rosenbergs’ guilt, this evidence is not sufficient. It is illegitimate to believe what other people said about the Rosenbergs and draw conclusions from their statements. Much more evidence exists that proves their innocence and that shows that the Rosenbergs’ deaths “remain a blot on American conscience.” (Radosh, The Rosenberg File, 453)
All the evidence clearly shows that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of spying. Ethel was arrested only for one reason: so that she would pressure her husband into telling the names of the other spies who were involved in giving the secret information. As written above, even Feklisov said that Ethel did not participate in her husband’s political activities. When Feklisov testified that the Rosenbergs were involved in spying activities, he did not present any documents from the KGB archives. Some documents say that because the state of the Russian pension was awful after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Feklisov could have said anything in exchange for American dollars. (Radosh, “Final Verdict”) During the release of Venona documents, Rosenbergs sons Robert and Michael said that they personally read the documents and that the name of their mother was barely mentioned in them. (Meeropol) There is information which says that the law under which the Rosenbergs were tried, only allowed capital punishment for wartime espionage. The law did not allow the execution of people who spied for the United States wartime allies. A lawyer and civil libertarian Zechariah Chafee wrote to Judge Jerome Frank that: “It is absurd to punish the betrayal of Russia in 1944, 1945 with death, when a similar betrayal today, which would be far more injurious to the U.S., would be punished only with life imprisonment.”(Radosh, The Rosenberg File,452) There are facts that show that Judge Kaufman was involved in illegal activities. Kaufman discussed the Rosenbergs’ sentence with the Justice Department prosecution staff before the trial. One of the members of prosecution staff told the FBI that “he knew the judge would impose the death penalty if the Rosenbergs were convincted.” (Radosh,The Rosenberg File, 428) It is also evident that Judge Kaufman condemned the Rosenbergs to death not because they were spying, but because they were communists who had started the Korean War. Kaufman said: “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 fifty thousand and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.”( Tornburn)
People are still confused as to why David Greenglass testified against his brother-in -law even though during the court hearings he said that Julius was his hero.(Radosh,The Rosenbeg File, 195) Many facts point to the conclusion that David Greenglass was angry over the family business and he wanted to “get” Julius and Ethel for it. “David Greenglass’s ability-or lack of it-was a major reason the business was failing. Customers reject bad work. David’s work was bad.”(Larsen,37-38)
Scientific evidence exists that shows that the Rosenbergs were not guilty of giving information about the bomb. Even if they did give information it was useless. Nobel prize winning physicist Harold C. Urey sent a telegram to the President Eisenhower a couple of days before the Rosenbergs’ execution in which he wrote that an army mechanic like David Greenglass was “wholly incapable of transmitting the physics, chemistry and mathematics of the bomb to anyone.”( Radosh,The Rosenberg File, 433) When Philip Morrison, who was a major Los Almos physicist, looked at Greenglass’s sketches of the cross section of the bomb, he said that they “demonstrate a lack of comprehension” and that they do not give any “correct quantitative information.”( Radosh,The Rosenberg File,432-33) In 1945, the “Official Report of the United States Government on Atomic Energy Development for Military Purposes” was published. The book was derived from the report which was called Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. The Soviet Union received 30,000 copies of the book. It is said that professional, trained scientists could clearly understand what the structure of the bomb was. The Rosenbergs did not really give Russia any unknown secrets (Larsen,38).
In 1965 there was another discovery which proved the Rosenbergs’ innocence. Miriam and Walter Schneir wrote a book about their studies of tapes which included Gold’s statements to his lawyer. In those tapes Gold never said anything about Jell-O box and he said that the password was “Benny sent me” instead of “I come from Julius”(Larsen,37).
The unfair execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg had a significant effect on U.S. society. The execution affected their sons Robert and Michael Meeropol. In 1990, Robert organized The Rosenberg Fund for Children. The purpose of the fund is to help children whose parents have been executed because of their “participation in the struggle against war, for Justice of native Americans, in environmental activism and other progressive causes.” (Searle) Organizers of the fund try to make a million of dollars every year. (Searle)
The book The Rosenbergs also shows that the Rosebergs affected art, prose, poetry and plays. It focuses on the art work of Picasso, Leger, Alice Neel as well as the work of Robert Amerson, Rudolph Baranik, and Sue Coe. Famous fiction, poetry and plays by Adrienne Rich , Robert Coover and Allen Ginsberg, “underscore the hold the case has had on the literary imagination.” (Okun,161)
The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953 for giving secret information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, will stay in the hearts of both nations, the Soviet Union and the United States. History cannot be turned forty five years back, but most of the evidence proves that Julius and Ethel were innocent victims of the Cold War hysteria.
Larsen, Anita. The Rosenbergs. New York:Crestwood House, 1992.
Meeropol, Robert and Michael. “Michael Meeropol Statement on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.”1995. http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/meeropol/-on-rosenbergs.html (15 Jan. 1998).
Moss, Joyce. “George Wilson.” Profiles in American History. Ed. Carol DeKane Nagel. Vol.7. Detroit:
Gale Research, Inc., 1995.
Okun, Rob A., ed.The Rosenbergs. New York”Universe Books, 1988.
Pizzo, Stephen. “The Rosenberg Communiques.” 1997. http://webreview.com/news/natl/rosenberg/index.html (15 Jan.1998.)
Radosh, Ronald. “Final Verdict.” The New Republic 7 April 1997:12
Radosh, Ronald. “Proof the Rosenbergs spied.” The New Republic 22 October 1990:9.
Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. New York: Holt,Rinehard and Winston, 1983.
Sarle, Betty. “The Rosenberg Fund for Children.” Social AlternativesOct.1993 :43.
Tornburn, David. “The Rosenberg Letters.” 1997. http://www.-polisci.mit.edu/bostonreview.html (15 Jan. 1998.)