“I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim. The immediate family is brought to grief and when justice is meted out the chapter is closed. But in your case, 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 50,000 and who knows but that millions of more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.”
Fuchs – Greenglass – Rosenberg
So concluded Federal Judge Irving Kaufman in sentencing Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel to death for the charge of espionage on today’s date, April 5, in 1951. The highly publicized case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on a charge of espionage – specifically the passing to the Soviet Union of scientific information that enabled them to produce an atomic bomb – began with the arrest of one Klaus Fuchs in 1950. Mr. Fuchs had worked at the headquarters of atomic development in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Following his conviction for passing classified information to the Soviets, the U.S. government began a full investigation of the Los Alamos operation which lead them to David Greenglass, a Fuchs accomplice. The arrest of Greenglass in turn brought about the arrest of Julius Rosenberg, and his wife Ethel, who was the sister of Mr. Greenglass. Julius Rosenberg had been an electrical engineer for the army during World War II, and had worked in atomic development during those years.
Greenglass: Stool Pigeon or Just a Liar?
Both Julius and Ethel were members of the American Communist Party, and thus were viewed with suspicion, especially at this time in history, when the Korean War was in it’s bloodiest phase,
and Cold War animosities were at their highest point. But beyond this, Mr. Greenglass had confessed, and had implicated the Rosenbergs as having recruited them to join their circle of spies. Both Julius and Ethel acknowledged their Communist party ties, but denied having engaged in any acts of espionage. They accused Greenglass (pictured, above) of having fabricated his story of their involvement in order to gain a lesser penalty for himself. The government prosecutors who had announced that they were were seeking the death penalty for the couple offered them a more lenient punishment if they would change their plea. But the Rosenbergs refused. The trial that followed resulted in the conviction of Greenglass, the Rosenbergs, and two other conspirators. Greenglass and the others were sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. But the Rosenbergs were sentenced to the electric chair. Subsequent appeals were denied, and pleas for executive clemency were denied by President Eisenhower.
Julius & Ethel Are Executed
Many critics claimed that in the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia prevalent in the country, a fair trial for the Rosenbergs would be impossible to arrange. And further, many felt that a case based so heavily on the testimony of Greenglass was too weak to be believable. Nevertheless, the verdict stood, and remains controversial to this day. While many historians doubt the charge of espionage, others believe that the couple did indeed pass along information to the Soviets, but that the death penalty was too harsh, especially for Ethel whom they believe had a far smaller involvement than her husband. And letters make it clear that President Eisenhower was uncomfortable with the idea of executing a woman. Since the execution, with the opening up of some of the old Soviet records, decoded Soviet cables, code-named VENONA, have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but there are still doubts remaining about the level of Ethel’s involvement. Julius and Ethel themselves maintained their plea of innocence to the end. In a final letter to their children (who were adopted by another couple and have fought ever since to clear their parent’s name), the Rosenbergs urged them to look to the future:
“Your lives must teach you that good cannot flourish in the midst of evil; that freedom and all the and all the things that make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometime be purchased very dearly. Be comforted then that we were serene with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life; and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.”
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“Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America” by John Earl Haynes