Imagine being accused of treason, and executed based on very limited evidence. Julius Rosenberg was arrested in July of 1950 on suspicion of espionage and heading a spy ring. His wife, Ethel, was arrested two months later with hopes that Julius would confess.
After a brief trial and much media attention, the couple was convicted. In 1951, a judge sentenced them to death, and both were taken to Sing Sing until their execution in 1953. However, they both fiercely proclaimed their innocence until the end.
It’s hard to imagine now how nervous the United States was becoming, by the early 50’s, about Communism in general, and the Soviet Union in particular.
Not all U.S. Americans were loyal to U.S. interests, even during WWII, or the following Cold War. At Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was developed, and other secret sites, spies had collected secrets and sent them on to Moscow.
Julius Rosenberg was apparently guilty of recruiting spies, including David Greenglass, his brother-in-law.
Through the decryption of cables, authorities learned of the treason and arrested Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, among others. The case is complex but we now know that David lied about his sister, Ethel, alleging she typed up spy documents when instead it was probably his wife, Ruth.
It’s also clear the government knew the case against Ethel was weak, at best, but they leveled the death penalty at her, as leverage for Julius to tell what he knew.
The Rosenburg’s went to the electric chair in 1953, proclaiming their innocence, perhaps true in Ethel’s case. One government official later admitted that she “had called their bluff.”
The Rosenbergs became the subject of international debate. They were the first U.S. citizens to ever be convicted and executed for espionage during peacetime, and many believed that they were the victims of hysterical anti-communist feelings and Cold War propaganda.
Many years later, the Rosenberg’s children obtained documents from the CIA and FBI, and came to the conclusion that their father may actually have been guilty, but their mother deserves exoneration. Every decade or so, more documentation is uncovered, and the mystery always deepens more.
We may never know precisely what the Rosenburg’s did, and what effect it had on the Soviet development of the Atomic Bomb. Government officials reporting to President Dwight Eisenhower, however, filled his ear with the harshest interpretations of the Rosenburg’s acts, knowing he was the one man who could grant them clemency.
Eisenhower declined to intervene, stating: “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world.”