In this study of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg case, you will discover why this communist couple was executed in 1953.
After a brief look at the biographies of Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Greenglass, who became Rosenberg after her marriage, we will look at the international context of the Cold War, as well as the political stakes within American democracy itself. Finally, explanations will be provided on the alleged espionage acts, the echo in world opinion at that time, as well as the latest evidence revealed years later on the real knowledge of the American administration.
Who are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?
Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918 in New York City, in the Lower East Side, to a Jewish family. He studied science and obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He was deeply communist, and in the 1930s joined the Communist Party of the United States, known by its English abbreviation CPUSA. He was then a member of a white-collar union (as opposed to blue-collar workers, white-collar workers are office workers, often in decision-making positions). He joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories and worked there until 1945, when the U.S. Army discovered his ties to the Communist Party.
Ethel Rosenberg was born on September 25, 1915, also into a Jewish family, this time in Manhattan. She had ambitions for an artistic career as a singer or actress, but began by working as a secretary in a shipping company. Already an activist for workers’ rights, Ethel Rosenberg was, like Julius, a profound communist.
It was through their political commitment to workers’ rights that they met, specifically at a meeting organized by the Youth Communist League in 1936. They married three years later and had two children.
What historical background made the Rosenberg affair possible?
In order to understand the stakes of the Rosenberg affair, which unfolded from the 1940s until the death of the couple in 1953, it is important to depict the historical context at both the global and the American level.
The doctrine of containment
→ The beginning of the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine – A popular history of United States society after 1945
The 1940s were obviously marked in their first half by World War II, which was ended by the nuclear bombs dropped by the United States on Japan in August 1945. This was the beginning of an era called the Cold War, marked by the confrontation between a communist bloc and a liberal bloc. It is in this regard that President Truman (President of the United States from 1945 to 1953) developed his doctrine of containment, an expression that can be translated as containment, and which aims to limit as much as possible the expansion of Soviet influence, the communist bloc whose leader is of course the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). President Truman thus sought to show his voters his firmness in terms of foreign policy.
It is in line with this containment that historical events such as the Berlin blockade (June 1948 – May 1949) or the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (April 1949), outside of American territory, follow. These policies aimed at countering Soviet influence in the world had their counterpart in the United States, a dimension essential to understanding the Rosenberg affair.
Red Scare, or McCarthyism
The Communist Party in the United States was rather small but active in the 1930s and 1940s, and won some victories on civil and workers’ rights. But it kept links with the communism of the USSR. For example, during World War II, American communists – about 500 Americans – had leaked secret information to the USSR. When this espionage was uncovered in the United States, the Communist Party was considered a real threat to national security in the context of the Cold War. Thus, at the end of the 1940’s, but especially in the 1950’s, the United States was gripped by what is known as the Red Scare. An Executive Order numbered 9835 issued by President Truman in 1947 requested that the “loyalty” of federal employees be verified. And therefore to chase out of the federal administration the communists or more generally the subversive people and who are considered a threat to the United States. The FBI, whose director was then John Edgar Hoover, was thus charged with applying this unprecedented policy, and to this end its staff almost doubled between 1946 and 1952. The abuses of which the FBI was guilty were later proven, between expeditious justice and illegal means to remove communists. It was in 1950 that McCarthy‘s personality emerged, and his name became synonymous with this period: McCarthyism .
McCarthy led a campaign to discredit Democratic President Truman, whose weakness he wanted to show. He accused the American presidency of allowing communists to infiltrate the American administration, in defiance of the truth and objectivity. Although the Republican Party, which included future President Eisenhower, distanced itself somewhat from these accusations, McCarthy was still very much listened to by the American population. This was all the more true during the Korean War.
The need for credibility after the Korean War
→ The Cold War and the confrontation between two blocs
Korea had been left divided on either side of the 38th parallel (i.e., latitude at 38° north) after Japan’s abdication in 1945, with American troops in the south, and USSR troops in the north. In 1950, North Korea, with a Marxist-Leninist regime and led by Kim Il-Sung, invaded the south. The United States is convinced that this was encouraged or even ordered by Stalin’s USSR. The same Soviet Union at that time was boycotting the United Nations, and so the way was clear for a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in South Korea.
The United States was the majority force alongside South Korea, accounting for nearly 90% of the troops sent. But North Korea had the strong support of the Soviet air force… and from 1950 onwards of an impressive Chinese force of at least one and a half million volunteers. The conflict, with its terrible human and material devastation, found a solution in the signing of a non-aggression pact in July 1953, with borders that were not changed much.
What is certain is that the Korean War had major repercussions on American political life, in that it called into question the foreign policy position of the United States, that it was a first mission under the UN flag, but also that it strengthened presidential candidate Eisenhower, who even went so far as to propose going to Korea himself to put an end to this conflict in which American troops had been overwhelmed.
The Korean War not only influenced American political life, but also represented a certain trauma for the American population, and this was explicitly mentioned in the decision to impose a death sentence on the Rosenbergs, on the grounds that by“putting the A-bomb in the hands of the Russians” the Rosenbergs had “undoubtedly altered the course of history to the detriment of the United States.
The Rosenberg case: from espionage to their execution
It was thus during his activity within the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories that Julius Rosenberg began spying for the USSR. He was recruited through the Communist Party in the United States (CPUSA). The KGB gave him the code name “Antenna” (then “Liberal”). Julius Rosenberg himself had recruited several spies for the Soviet Union, including David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Greenglass whom he married. When the United States discovered the role of a German refugee named Klaus Fuchs in the transmission to the Soviet Union of essential documents related to nuclear research, the FBI gradually traced him to David Greenglass, who confessed after eight hours of interrogation to having become a spy through the influence of his sister and Julius Rosenberg.
Arrests and trial
Julius Rosenberg was arrested on July 17, 1950, as well as Ethel Rosenberg on August 11 of the same year. In the meantime, the latter had had time to call the press and denounce the brutality of the FBI, while posing modestly in her kitchen, temporarily putting public opinion on her side.
For the American authorities, the major problem that arose during the trial of the Rosenbergs was that they could not reveal the evidence they possessed thanks to their Venona counter-espionage project, which consisted of trying to decrypt intercepted Soviet messages, and which had been initiated while the Soviet Union was still an ally of the United States against the Nazis. It is indeed this same project that brought the proof that Julius had spied on behalf of the USSR, and showed the effective contribution of Ethel Rosenberg, notably in the recruitment of her brother. Without the elements brought by the Venona Project, which had to remain secret in order not to be compromised, the evidence remained weak, especially concerning Ethel, fueling a worldwide scandal. At the time, the world was unaware of these elements and questioned the sentence proclaimed on April 5, 1951, after the Rosenbergs had been found guilty of espionage on March 29: the death penalty, in accordance with Section 2 of theEspionage Act of 1917.
The execution of the Rosenbergs despite divided national and world opinion
The press published numerous articles questioning the sentence imposed on the Rosenbergs, in the United States of course, notably after the investigations of the National Guardian, but also abroad, as in France when the newspaper Le Monde expressed its great skepticism on December 11, 1952: the “atmosphere” of the trial, the possible anti-Semitism, the strange family relations, the secrets passed on to the Soviets, the real effect of the information divulged by these espionage activities were all mentioned.
The introduction to this article, however, correctly reminds us that the die has already been cast despite a fragmented popular opinion:
“Unless a final measure of clemency is granted by President Truman, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg will go up on January 12 [it will finally be June 19, 1953, editor’s note] to the electric chair in Sing-Sing prison, leaving two orphans. For some, the Rosenbergs, atomic spies, will have suffered the just punishment for the crime of which they were accused: having set up a spy network for the benefit of the USSR in 1944 and having transmitted the secrets of the atomic bomb to that power. [For the others, the Rosenbergs are the innocent victims of an appalling police machination set up by the FBI and the American government in order to intimidate the progressive movementHenri Pierre, December 11, 1952, Archives du Monde
Many personalities around the world called for clemency, such as the painter Pablo Picasso who described the execution as a “crime against humanity”, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Pope Pius XII who appealed to President Eisenhower.
It was finally on June 19, 1953 that the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair in New York State.