The Guardian June 18, 2003

The murder of the Rosenbergs

by Fred Gaboury

Think back to the political climate of the early 1950s: Senator Joseph 
McCarthy on the prowl. Alger Hiss convicted of "losing China." Eleven 
leaders of the Communist Party convicted of "conspiracy to teach and 
advocate the violent overthrow of the United States." A US attack on North 
Korea. And, to top it off, the successful test of an atomic weapon by the 
Soviet Union. As one contemporary writer put it, "It was a tough time to be 
an accused spy, especially one accused of spying for the Soviet Union."

Such was the fate of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested in the summer of 
1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. After a month-long 
trial in March 1951 and a single day of deliberation, a jury of 11 men and 
one woman found the pair guilty. On April 5, Federal Judge Irving Kaufman 
sentenced the Rosenbergs to death. Their co-defendant, Morton Sobell, (also 
charged with conspiracy) was sentenced to a 30-year prison term. Kaufman 
set the execution date for the week of June 21, 1951.

Because the charge was conspiracy, prosecutors were not required to provide 
tangible evidence that the Rosenbergs had stolen anything or given anything 
to anybody. The government fought to have the case tried in a federal court 
where a conspiracy charge could be proven by the non-corroborated testimony 
of a single witness. Most states, including New York, would have required 
testimony from at least two witnesses not involved in the alleged 
conspiracy, to obtain a conviction.

In the Rosenberg case it was enough that other members of the alleged 
conspiracy in this case David Greenglass (brother of Ethel) and his wife, 
Ruth testify that the Rosenbergs were co-conspirators. In return for her 
husband's cooperation in framing the Rosenbergs, Ruth Greenglass (who swore 
she helped steal what the prosecution called "the most important scientific 
secret ever known to mankind") was never even indicted. David Greenglass 
was given 15 years. In a statement justifying his decision to impose the 
death sentence on the Rosenbergs, Kaufman said, "I consider your crime 
worse than murder. . 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 more of innocent people may pay the price of your 
treason. . [Y]ou are hereby sentenced to the punishment of death."

Despite Kaufman's claim echoed by President Eisenhower when he denied 
clemency no atomic scientist ever said the Soviets had perfected their bomb 
more quickly than expected. In fact a chorus of scientists, including Nobel 
Prize winner Harold Urey and J Robert Oppenheimer, repeatedly said there 
was no "secret" to the atomic bomb.

Emanuel Bloch, the Rosenbergs' attorney, had mistakenly moved to have 
Greenglass' rude sketches of the atomic bomb sealed, thus making it 
impossible for scientists to view them until years after the Rosenbergs had 
been killed. Once they did however, they agreed with a colleague's 
assessment that the drawings were "too incomplete, ambiguous and even 
incorrect to be of any service or value to the Soviets in shortening the 
time required to develop their nuclear bombs."

In addition, the Soviet Union (a recent ally of the U.S. in World War II) 
had received 30,000 copies of the "Official Report of the United States 
Government on Atomic Energy Development for Military Purposes" that was 
issued in 1945. It is said that professionally trained scientists could 
clearly understand the structure of the bomb merely from studying this 

The death sentence against the Rosenbergs, however, remained in place.

The following two years saw the development of a worldwide campaign 
demanding mercy. In the last days before the execution of the Rosenbergs, 
the Eisenhower administration ignored clemency pleas from leading 
personalities from around the world, including Pope Pius XI; Vincent 
Auriol, president of France; Albert Einstein and several Nobel Laureates.

A week of frenzied and desperate activity began on June 13, 1953, when the 
Supreme Court refused to hear the Rosenbergs' appeal. Then came appearances 
before Judge Kaufman and before Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas, 
requesting a stay of execution. A petition for clemency was also sent to 
the White House.

Prior to recessing for the summer, the justices made a "gentlemen's 
agreement" that no justice would issue a stay on his own and that the full 
court would be reconvened should the agreement be broken. On Tuesday, June 
16, Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Attorney General Herbert Brownell agreed 
that if Douglas granted a stay of execution, Vinson would immediately 
convene a special session of the court to overturn the stay.

Furthermore, at Brownell's suggestion, Vinson agreed to meet privately with 
Douglas in an effort to convince him not to decide the merits of the new 
motion himself, but to submit the motion for consideration in conference.

But Justice Douglas granted a stay on June 17, basing his decision on the 
fact that "one of the requisites for imposing the death penalty under the 
1946 Atomic Energy Act is that it can only be imposed if the jury 
recommends it," something the jury hadn't done.

Vinson then swung into action, and for only the third time in its history 
the Supreme Court was reconvened after it had already adjourned for 
vacation. (Neither the defence attorneys nor Justice Douglas were notified 
that this meeting was to take place.) And for the first time in its 
history, a stay by one of the judges was vacated by the other members of 
the court. The vote was 6 to 3.

Among the Supreme Court Justices willing to stay the executions, Hugo Black 
wrote: "It is not amiss to point out that this court has never received 
this record and has never affirmed the fairness of the trial. Without 
[that] ... there may always be questions as to whether these executions 
were legally and rightfully carried out."

When a group of lawyers petitioned Attorney General Brownell to postpone 
the executions for 24 hours so that they not take place on the Jewish 
Sabbath, Brownell assured them there would be "no executions carried out 
through the Sabbath."

Defence lawyers surmised this meant the executions would not take place 
before Saturday night, June 20. But Brownell had other plans. He called 
Wilfred Denno, warden of Sing Sing prison and changed the date, not to 
after the Sabbath on  June 20, but to before the Sabbath at 8:00 p.m., June 

That the executions were carried out on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath is 
indicative of how absolutely determined the federal government was to first 
frame, and then execute, the Rosenbergs.

Although he twice refused to grant a stay of execution, President 
Eisenhower kept a telephone line with the warden at Sing Sing Prison open 
in the minutes before 8:00 p.m. on June 19, hoping that either Ethel or 
Julius would reconsider their refusal to plead guilty to a crime they had 
not committed when faced with imminent death.

Authorities had long hoped that they could play Julius and Ethel against 
one another in order to force a confession from Julius and then use that 
confession to prosecute an ever-widening number of "spies."

Soon after Julius' arrest, J Edgar Hoover said there was "no question" 
that, if "Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his . espionage 
activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. 
[P]roceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter." The 
government's cynicism was boundless.

The dreadful hour drew near. Vigils demanding clemency were held in over 50 
cities worldwide. Once again the White House refused to intervene. The 
Rosenbergs were executed shortly after 8:00 p.m., with Julius being the 
first. They were buried on June 21.

On Sept. 22, 1953, Emanuel Bloch released the following statement made 
earlier by his client, Julius Rosenberg:

"This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a 
Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria 
in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There 
had to be a hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get 
increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of 
the left to tell them that we are no longer gonna give five years for a 
Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we're gonna 
kill ya!"

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The author can be reached at Visit http://www.pww.orgfor related story, Robert Meeropol: We celebrate resistance involving the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg. People's Weekly World

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