In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted ofpassing information to the Union of Soviet SocialistRepublics (USSR) concerning the construction of nuclearweapons. In 1953, the United States Government executedthem. Some say, the Rosenbergs received their justpunishment. Many historians feel that the trial was unfair,and that international claims for clemency were wronglyignored. These historians claim that the Rosenbergs wereassassinated by the US government.
This report will be ananalysis of the trial, the events which led up to it, and itsaftermath. What Led to the Arrest? The first clue Americahad that a Russian spy ring existed in the US was thediscovery of a KGB codebook on the Finnish battlefieldduring World War II. When compared with Germany’smachine-scrambled codes, the code appeared to berelatively primitive; a certain set of numbers correspondedto a word, letter, or essential phrase. There was a littlecatch though; the codebook was to be read with acorresponding page that every KGB officer was given.Because the American ciphers did not have thecorresponding page, there were an infinite number ofpossibilities that could have corresponded to the book,making deciphering it impossible.
(Milton 7) Klaus FuchsIn 1944, the FBI raided the New York offices of theSoviet Government Purchasing Commission, a known frontfor the KGB industrial espionage operations. When theFBI began to go through what they had taken, they foundthat many KGB officers did not adhere to their ordersdiligently. They were told to dispose of all their”corresponding sheets.” Many memos and other letterswere carelessly stored away, instead of being destroyedafter their use.
After much studying of all the confiscatedletters of the KGB, including the new sheets, the cipherswere now able to elucidate some of the codebook they hadfound earlier. In 1949, a report by Klaus Fuchs wasdeciphered. This was America’s first solid evidence thatthere was a spy ring operating within the US. borders. TheAmerican authorities had some doubts, however.
It waspossible that Fuchs was not a spy and somehow the KGBhad obtained his report. After much investigation, the FBIarrested Fuchs. Along with other evidence, a letterdeciphered by the FBI had a reference to a British atomicspy, whose sister was attending an American University.Fuchs sister, Kristel, had been a student at SwarthmoreCollege at that time. The FBI appointed James Skardon toconfront Fuchs.
Skardon was a renowned spy-catcher,who had obtained confessions from many, including thetraitor William Joyce. On December 21 1949, Skardonwent to talk with Fuchs in his laboratory at the HarwellAtomic Research Establishment. To Skardon’s surprise,Fuchs was eager to talk.
Apparently, Fuchs wanted to talkbecause he was very upset with the Soviet Union’s postwarpolicy in Eastern Europe. He did not say everything, but itwas a start. After many meetings, Skardon was able to getFuchs to disclose even more.
Fuchs thought that if heowned up to his past, it would be forgotten, or at leastforgiven. He was wrong. Fuchs said, “At first I thought thatall I would do was inform the Russian authorities that workon the atomic bomb was going on I did what I considerthe worst that I could have done, namely to giveinformation about the principle of the design of theplutonium bomb.” The FBI later found out from Fuchs thathis contact was “Raymond.
” They had only met a handful oftimes and Fuchs did not know much about him. On March1, 1950, Fuchs was put on trial. After a trial that lastedonly an hour and a half, he was convicted of four accountsof espionage and sentenced to 14 years in jail. The reasonhe was not killed was that he gave secrets to an ally. If hehad given the same information to an enemy, he would havebeen condemned to death. (This contrasts with the currentUS treatment of Jonathan Pollard – another spy on behalfof a US ally, Israel.
) The FBI now had the first link in thechain; the next step was finding Raymond. (Eisenhower223) Fuchs, in 1945, had been transferred to thetheoretical division of the main Manhattan Projectinstallation at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Fuchs then left,without telling his Soviet control that he was leaving. AfterFuchs missed two meetings, Raymond grew very troubled,so he went to his Soviet chief, Anatoli Yakovlev, at theSoviet consulate staff in New York. Yakovlev wentthrough Fuchs’ portfolio and found his sister’s address.
Hethen told Raymond to go visit Fuchs sister, Kristal, inCambridge, Massachusetts. Raymond acting as an oldfriend of Fuchs inquired as to his well being. Upon hertelling him that he had moved “somewhere down south,” heleft his telephone number. When Fuchs came home for avacation with his sister, she called Raymond. Raymondimmediately resumed their secret meetings.
When the FBIwas searching for “Raymond”, they asked Fuchs andKristal for descriptions. The FBI, with their twodescriptions from the Fuchs, researched into their own filesand produced a suspect: Joseph Arnold Robbins, aleft-wing chemical engineer who graduated from CCNY in1941. After a background search on him, the FBI rejectedhim as a witness. After more intense investigation, twoother suspects were suggested, Abraham Brothmon andHarry Gold. The FBI thought Gold was a stronger suspectfor multiple reasons, so, on May 9, Hoover ordered amanhunt to find Gold. On May 23 1950, Gold wasarrested in Philadelphia.
The importance the FBI attachedto the capture of Fuch’s accomplice was indicated by J.Edgar Hoover, “In all the history of the FBI there neverwas a more important problem than this one, never anothercase where we felt under such pressure. The unknown mansimply had to be found.” The pressure that Hoover wasreferring to is unknown, but months just prior to Gold’sarrest the FBI was criticized for allegedly bunglinginvestigations in the Redin, Amerasia, Eisler, and Coploncases. (Milton 38) Harry Gold In 1915, Tom Black, an oldfriend, offered Gold a job in the Manufacturing Company inNew Jersey. Gold immediately took the job.
After workingthere for a little while, Black began to take Gold toCommunist meetings. Gradually, Gold became a committedSoviet and when Black asked him (in 1935) to help theSoviets and give them some information, Gold eagerlyagreed. Although, Gold was not pro-Communist, he waspro-Soviet.
The reason Gold liked the Soviets so muchwas because he thought they were benevolent towards theJews. Sam Semenov, Gold’s Soviet contact, suggested thathe make his own contacts that had access to moreinformation than he did. After working for the Soviets foreight years, Semenov told Gold to break all ties with hisformer contacts. Gold was given new contacts, “a group ofAmerican scientists in New York.” This was considered apromotion, for Gold was assigned a contact who hadaccess to a lot more information. This new person wasKlaus Fuchs. After four years of working with Fuchs, Goldstopped working for the Soviets and began to lead anormal life, cutting all ties he had with his contacts and theSoviets.
A couple of months later, one of Gold’s contacts,Abraham Brothmon called Gold franticly saying the FBIquestioned him and they were onto them. Days later, theFBI interrogated Gold. At first, Gold claimed the samestory as Brothmon, but after extremely long interrogationsGold was worn down, and accidentally slipped, and theFBI began to catch the inconsistencies in Gold’s story.
Thenext week, they searched his house. In the middle of thesearch, Gold admitted to being the man to whom KlausFuchs passed the information on atomic energy. DespiteGold’s attempts, after an exhausting week of interrogation,Gold slipped and mentioned old contact’s and friend’snames, including his friend Tom Black and DavidGreenglass. (Allen 41) David & Ethel Greenglass DavidGreenglass was an American solider assigned as atechnician at Los Alamos. For $500 he gave Gold sketchesof the system used to focus high explosive pressure wavesthat drove together packets of uranium and produced thechain the chain reaction of nuclear fission-the explosion ofthe atomic bomb. David Greenglass’ sister was EthelGreenglass, later to be Ethel Rosenberg. The Greenglass’sgrew up in New York’s Lower East Side, in a smallcramped apartment.
Ethel was brilliant. She graduated atage 15 from Seward Park High School. Even in the pooreconomy of that period, when there was an extremedemand for jobs, she was able to find work within a monthof receiving her diploma, at age 15. She was fired fouryears later when she organized a strike of 150 women wholay down in the street blocking all the company’s deliverytrucks. Ethel then filed a complaint with the National LaborRelations Board, which she won. She succeeded at findinga better job, for twice the pay of her previous one. Ethelwas known as a “go-getter”; she did not stop until she wassatisfied.
With some training, Ethel started to sing in choirsand act in plays in the evenings. One evening, before Ethelwent on stage, she met the one and only love of her life,Julius Rosenberg. (Milton 50) Julius Rosenberg Julius’background was similar to Ehtel’s; he grew up on NewYork’s East Side. He went to the same schools as Ethel,Talmud Torah for middle school, and Seward Park for highschool.
Julius never had to worry about money, and hisfather wanted him to further his religious leanings andbecome a rabbi. In Julius’ senior year, he grew moreinterested in politics and less interested in religion. AfterJulius graduated from Seward, he went to the City Collegeof New York, where he majored in electrical engineering.This major was favored by politically aware studentsbecause it entitled them to membership in the Federation ofArchitects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT),a militant union for white collar professionals with apro-Communist leadership. Julius soon became a memberin the Steinmentz Club, a branch of the Young CommunistLeague, or YCL. Soon Julius became so involved inpolitics that his graduation was in jeopardy.
At this time,Julius and Ethel were becoming very serious about eachother and Ethel made Julius come over to her house tostudy so that he would eventually receive his diploma.Because Julius spent so much time in Ethel’s house, David(Ethel’s brother) became very friendly with Julius. Juliuskindled David’s interest in politics, convincing him to jointhe YCL.
(Allen 45) Julius and Ethel were married in 1939.After struggling for a few years with no substantial job,Julius was hired as a civilian employee of the U.S. ArmySignal Corps in the fall of 1942. In 1942, David marriedRuth Printz. In 1943, the Greenglasses joined the YCL,and the Rosenbergs were full members of the CommunistParty. Julius was chairperson of Branch 16B of the PartyIndustrial Division and often held meetings in his house.
Party members were encouraging everybody to doeverything they could to support the wartime effort. WhenDavid was admitted to the American army, he lookedforward to helping the Communist cause in any way hecould. Julius, however, was physically unfit for the army, sohe looked for other ways to help his party. (Milton 70)According to Ruth Greenglass’ testimony, Julius and Etheldropped out of the Communist party in 1943 to take theirown “initiative” in helping their party.
She claims that Juliustold her that he began to form contacts to help him enter anew kind of activity. David later claimed that Juliusapproached him about the subject of espionage. Evenwithout David Greenglass’ testimony, one can understandwhy the Rosenbergs dropped out of the party. Ethel hadher first child in early 1943, and Julius was working for thegovernment, so he was afraid he would lose his job if hisCommunist affiliations were discovered. (Eisenhower 224)In the beginning of 1945, Julius was dismissed from his job.
Sometime before this, the FBI had sent to the U.S. ArmyIntelligence a copy of a Communist Party membership cardshowing that in 1939, Julius had been involved in the Party.The Army felt this was not sufficient evidence to dismissJulius because there was no reason for them to assume itwas the same Julius Rosenberg who was their Signal Corpsemployee. In the fall of 1944, the FBI sent the Army moreinformation on Rosenberg, including his address. This timethe evidence sufficed and Julius was dismissed.
(Milton 83)On July 17, 1950, David told the FBI that Julius wastalking freely about his “secret work” in order to makeDavid more comfortable helping him. Julius confided inDavid that the first move he made in espionage was whilehe was working as a signal corps inspector. Julius toldDavid that he knew that soviet radios and electronics werefloundering (David realized that Julius was talking abouttheir radar technology) and had tried to help the Soviets bypicking up copies of tube manuals. David said that Juliusbragged to him many times about the network of contactshe had built in Cleveland, Ohio, and upstate New York,and about information about certain top secret weapons.(Milton 84) On July 16, 1950, two uniformed policeofficers, William Norton and John Harrington, came toJulius’ apartment and took him down for questioning. Juliusremained very calm while being interrogated but refused toallow his apartment to be checked without a warrant.When Julius was taken to the base, Harrington asked him,”What would you say if we told you that yourbrother-in-law said you asked him to supply information tothe Russians?” Julius responded sharply, “Bring him here,and I will call him a liar to his face.
” (Sharlitt 3) Soon afterbeing taken to the station, Julius asked to call his lawyer.When Victor Rabinowitz answered the telephone, his firstquestion was, was he under arrest. When they told Juliusthat he had not been arrested, he immediately stood up andwalked out of the station. When Julius left the station, hesaw the newspapers screaming that Greenglass had beenarrested that day and was being held on $100,000 bond.From the station, Julius went straight to Rabinowitz.
Rosenberg wanted the FAECT counsel to represent him,but because Rabinowitz had recently defended the allegedspy Judith Coplon, he felt his involvement would bedetrimental for Rosenberg’s case, so he gave Rosenberganother lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. Bloch was a veryeminent lawyer; he was a member in National Lawyer’sGuild and the Civil Rights Congress. He served on thedefense team of Willie McGee and was also serving as oneof the three CRC attorneys assigned to the case of theTrenton Six. Bloch was also well known for hisrepresentation of Steve Nelson, a leader of the CommunistParty in Pittsburgh. The real reason though, that Rabinowitzappointed Bloch, was that Bloch was a good friend of O.John Rogge and shared an office building with him. Roggewas Greenglass’ attorney and Rabinowitz wanted to staywell informed of Greenglass’ situation, and if possible,prevent him from becoming a government witness.
(Sharlitt6) The first time Bloch met Rosenberg he thought thiswould be a simple open and shut case. He thought that ifRosenberg would respond to all questions with the FifthAmendment, then the prosecution’s case would become alot weaker. He missed some obvious hints though, thatwould have led him to think otherwise.
For example,Greenglass was nicknamed by the media as the”atom-spy.” (Sharlitt 6) After being released, Juliuscontinued his normal routine while the FBI conducted whatthey call a “discreet surveillance.” Agents Norton andHarrington were permanently assigned to Rosenberg’scase. Without David Greenglass expanding on hisaccusations from June 15-16, they could not justifyarresting him. There are different theories as to why Juliusdid not seize the chance to flee the FBI. One theory is thathe did not think that David would break down so far as tomention even his own family.
Another theory is that itwould have taken weeks to alert some of his contactswithout leading the FBI to them. (Meerpool 37) On July12, Greenglass, with the urging of his lawyers, had hissecond extradition hearing. This led the media to think thatGreenglass was leaning towards pleading guilty.
Accordingto Ruth, David’s wife, Ethel visited her to find out whatDavid’s plans were and if he was going to indict herhusband, Julius. (Meerpool 42) The FBI, after Greenglassmade his statements, went to James McInerney of theJustice Department, who agreed there was now enoughevidence to charge Julius Rosenberg with conspiracy tocommit espionage. When Richard Whelan, assistant specialagent in charge of the New York office, heard McInerney’sruling, he sent Norton to file a complaint before federaljudge John F. X. McGohey.
Immediately after J. EdgarHoover heard that Whelan tried to delay the arrest, hegrew infuriated. He suspected the reason for the delay wasin order to tip off the press so that the story would becovered in the next day’s papers. Hoover feared that whenthe press found out, Rosenberg might be tipped-off andflee at the last second. (Milton 92) On Tuesday, July 17,1950, when Rosenberg was arrested, it was in full view ofhis aghast family; his two sons standing agape, watchingtheir father dragged out by two officers. Julius and Etheluntil the bitter end maintained their innocence. They neverpleaded guilty nor even considered it.
The FBI, aftersearching Julius’ house, had evidence that the espionagering that Greenglass talked about was true. In order toforce Rosenberg to disclose names of other spies, Hooversuggetsed that Ethel be arrested, and be used as leverageto force Julius to talk. (Mitlon 93) Ethel Rosenberg OnAugust 11, Ethel Rosenberg was arrested and bail was setat $100,000-the same huge amount as her husband. Ethel’slawyer was Bloch’s father, Alexander Bloch.
The reasonfor this was that when she was arrested, Manny Bloch wasnot in the office, but his father was, so he rushed down tothe station to help Ethel and then later took her case. TheRosenberg children were sent to Tessie Greenglass, whovery soon complained to the court she could not controlthem and more importantly, could not afford them. Thecourt sent them to the Hebrew Children’s Home in theBronx. Most believe that the FBI arrested Ethel in order toforce her husband into confessing. Others disagree and saythat Greenglass’ accusations proved true, and it is possiblethat Ethel was a full partner in her husband’s doings and shewas arrested purely on her misdeeds. (Sharlitt 42) TheTrial On March 6, 1951, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s trialbegan. Their case attracted so much attention because thiswas the most publicized spy hunt of all time.
Anotherreason this case received so much attention was that itcontained all the elements of a high drama trial. The casehad a family feud already familiar to the public, because theJewish Daily Forward had published a series of articles onthe Greenglasses. The trial also involved defendants whofirmly claimed their innocence, and the possibility ofeminent atomic scientists testifying. (Milton 98) USAttorney Irving Saypool was prosecuting the case.
Saypoolhad made a very good reputation for himself when heprosecuted Communists, including Alger Hiss and theeleven Smith Act defendants. From the onset of the trial,Saypool treated the defendants without the accustomedcourt propriety. Irving R. Kaufman, the judge, chose thejurors himself in a day and a half. Kaufman read a list ofmany parties, organizations, and clubs and anybodyaffiliated with any of them were excused.
Then they wereasked if they were opposed to the death penalty, the use ofatomic-weapons in war, or felt that any informationconcerning the development of atomic energy should berevealed to any Russian satellite country. If they were, theywere excused. (Burkholz 73) In Saypool’s opening words,he stated, “The loyalty and the allegiance of the Rosenbergswere not to the country but to Communism, Communism inthis country and throughout the world.” Emanuel Blochimmediately objected that Saypool’s allusion to communismwas irrelevant because communism was not on trial.Kaufman said that communism would be allowed in the trialbecause it established motive. Saypool also said that theyconvinced David Greenglass to become a traitor to hiscountry, “a modern Benedict Arnorld.
” After Saypool’svery powerful opening statement, the public began to talkabout capital punishment. (Burkholz 75) It is nearlyimpossible to convict someone of treason. It was such aserious crime that the standards of proof are very strict. Onthe other hand, it is easy to get a conviction for conspiracy;it is even sometimes refereed to as the “prosecutor’sfriend.” Hearsay testimony is admissible in trial, and oncethe existence of conspiracy is established every conspiratormay be held liable for the acts of the others, even if he doesnot have any knowledge of them.
In addition, in order to beconvicted, only the conspiracy had to be proven.(Meerpool 176) The prosecution brought several verydamaging witnesses against the defense: Julius Rosenberg’sbrother-in-law, David Greenglass, and his wife Ruth PrintzGreenglass. Greenglass testified that he passed to his sisterand brother-in-law sketches of the implosion lens, a vitalcomponent of the plutonium bomb. David Greenglass’sstory was corroborated by his wife and another spy, HarryGold. Gold testified that he received information fromDavid Greenglass, and that he passed them on to theRosenbergs.
These testimonies showed clearly that therewas a plan to spy and to pass secrets. (Milton 103) MaxElicher testified about a second spy ring which JuliusRosenberg headed. The second ring was formed todisclose to the Soviets naval secrets pertaining tocommunications instruments. He testified that JuliusRosenberg recruited him to spy. Nobody knew about thetwo conspiracies except for Rosenberg; he was the onlyconnection between the two.
Although Elicher did not saywhat information he gave to Rosenberg, it connected JuliusRosenberg to two spy rings. None of Elicher’s testimonywas refuted except by Rosenberg’s denials. (Milton 104)After a fourteen day trial, there was no evidence provingthe Rosenberg’s innocence so the jury decided to believeDavid Greenglass’, Harry Gold’s, and Max Elicher’stestimonies. The prosecutors asked the Rosenbergs manyquestions about their involvement in the Communist Party inorder to establish motive.
They answered most of thequestions with the Fifth Amendment so that their answerswould not incriminate them. This led many people, includingthe jurors, to feel very strongly about their guilt. Manyargue that the Rosenbergs were framed and that they werethe perfect people to be framed because of theirinvolvement in the Communist Party.
There are a fewquestions as to why Emanuel Bloch did certain things in thetrial. For example, he did not cross-examine Harry Gold.(Sharlitt 17) For cooperating with the prosecution,Greenglass’ sentence was for fifteen years of imprisonment,Gold’s for thirty and Fuch’s for only fourteen.
TheRosenbergs pled not guilty. In March 1951, they becamethe first Americans to be sentenced to death on a charge ofespionage in peacetime. (Milton 103) Doubts on the TrialSome historians say that the government framed theRosenbergs, and was aiming for capital punishment. First,they were not charged with espionage, rather they werecharged and convicted of conspiracy to spy. This was tothe government’s advantage because, as explainedpreviously, much less proof is necessary for a convictionfor conspiracy. A second reason that historians think thatthe government was out to kill the Rosenbergs wasbecause Saypool, Lane, Cohn, and Kilsheimer were allassigned to the case. This showed the government’s strongand special interest in the case.
In summary, the chargeagainst the Rosenbergs, the powerful prosecution, thewell-known anti-Communist prosecutors and the judge, allsupport that the government’s objective was to kill theRosenbergs. (Sharlitt 23) The reason many people call theRosenberg’s executions a legal and fatal error is simple. OnJune 19, 1953, the federal government executed theRosenbergs. The Rosenbergs were charged, tried, andconvicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. In 1946, theAtomic Energy Act was passed.
It required that spies whopassed atomic secrets be executed only after a jury’srecommendations. From the day the Rosenbergs wereindicted to three days before their execution, this act wasignored. Astonishingly, nobody realized, including theprosecutors, defendants, or any judges, that this was beingignored. A lawyer from the West Coast raised the issuethat suggested to somebody that the Rosenbergs werebeing wrongly executed. Even after the issue was raised,the Supreme Court ignored it and the Rosenbergs wereexecuted anyway. Still today, there is an ongoing and bittercontroversy as to why the Rosenbergs were put to death.(Sharlitt 27) Bibliography Allen, Thomas, and NormanPolmar.
Merchants of Treason. New York: DelacortePress, 1988. Burkholz, Herbert, and Clifford Irving. SpyThe Story of Modern Espionage. New York: MacmillanPublishing Company, 1969. Eisenhower, Dwight. MandateFor Change. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,1963. Milton, Joyce, and Ronald Rodash. The RosenbergFile. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Meeropol,Michael, and Robert Meeropol. We Are Your Sons.Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975. Sharlitt,Joseph. Fatal Error. New York: Macmillan PublishingCompany, 1989.Category: History