Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Why were they executed? Would it happen today?

by: Debbie Lord, Cox Media Group National Content Desk Updated:

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by a jury. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Library of Congress

In the 1930s and ’40s, Julius Rosenberg worked as an electrical engineer. His wife, Ethel, was a clerk for a shipping company. The two met on Dec. 31, 1938, as Edith Greenglass was waiting to go on stage to sing at a New Year’s Eve benefit.

Rosenberg was smitten by Greenglass, by many accounts, and the two married in the summer of 1939.

The couple seemed to live a typical American life, rearing two sons in New York. But their lives were anything but typical as the second World War began.

The Rosenbergs were loyal members of the Communist Party – so loyal, that they spied for the Soviet Union, turning over secrets to the most devastating weapon the world has ever seen – the atomic bomb.

Sixty-four years ago Monday, on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed in New York’s Sing Sing prison, the first American civilians put to death for selling government secrets during wartime.

Here’s a look at their story.

What did they do?

In short, the couple sold top-secret plans for building a nuclear weapon. At the time, the United States was the only country that had plans for a working atomic bomb.

How did they do that?

As teenagers and young adults both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had Communist leanings, and by the time they met in the late 1930s, they had become full-fledged members of the party.

In 1940, after World War II had started in Europe, Julius Rosenberg became an engineer-inspector stationed at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. According to many accounts, he was recruited by the Soviet Secret Police in 1942 and asked to steal research and plans for such things as guided missile controls, a system that was being worked on at Fort Monmouth.

According to a book by the man who recruited Julius Rosenberg, he provided the Soviet Union was thousands of classified reports until he was fired in 1945 when the U.S. Army discovered his ties with the Communist Party. 

What else did they do?

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were part of a spy ring that included Ethel’s Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass. Greenglass was a machinist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The lab was where most of the planning, design, and experiments for the first nuclear bomb took place. 

Greenglass would take information from the lab and turn it over to Julius Rosenberg who, in turn, turned it over to Harry Gold, a Soviet spy. Gold would give the information to Anatoly Yatskow, the Soviet General Counsel in New York City.

The information they took from Los Alamos was particularly damaging. It was the plan and the research on the world’s first nuclear weapon.

How were they caught?

Gold was arrested after he was implicated by a spy named Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was arrested on charges he spied for the Soviet Union, and confessed to stealing secrets about the Manhattan project, the project to build the atomic bomb.

Fuchs implicated Gold, who soon after turned on Greenglass. Greenglass was arrested and while he was being interrogated told authorities that his sister and brother-in-law were part of the ring, too.

Julius Rosenberg was arrested on July 17, 1950. Ruth was arrested in a few weeks later in August.

What happened at trial?

The couple's trial began on March 6, 1951. The prosecution’s star witness was Greenglass. He told the court that Julius had been a long-time spy, including during the war years, and that Ethel helped by typing up information that Julius had received. The couple was convicted on March 29.

Soon after, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death.

What about appeals?

The couple filed seven appeals. Each one failed.

They asked two presidents for clemency –-- Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower –-- and were turned down both times.

The execution

After a little more than two years on death row in Sing Sing, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953. 

Julius, 35, was brought into the chamber first, around 7:50 p.m. He was strapped into the electric chair, and after three shocks, he was declared dead at 8 p.m.

Ethel, 37, was led into the death chamber after her husband was removed from the room. Before she sat down in the electric chair, according to reports, she kissed the prison matron goodbye. Ethel Rosenberg received five shocks before she was declared dead at 8:16 p.m.

The two did not speak to each other in the moments before they were executed.

Prior to the execution Albert Einstein, the man who discovered most of the science that allowed researchers to produce a nuclear weapon, asked for clemency for the pair.

What about the others?

None of the other members of the spy ring were executed for their crimes.

Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, was convicted of spying and served a 15-year term. He died in 2014.

Harry Gold was sentenced to 30 years in prison and paroled after 14 years. He died in 1972.

Morton Sobell who became part of the spy ring along with the Rosenbergs was arrest and convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was released after 18 years. He turned 100 on April 11 of this year.

Controversy?

For years, supporters of the Rosenbergs claimed they were innocent and had been railroaded at trial. During the years since the Rosenbergs were executed, there have been many documentaries, books and scholarly articles that claim the couple and the others in the ring were innocent.

However, Sobell, first in 2008 then again after that, admitted that he was a Soviet spy as was Gold, Greenglass and the Rosenbergs.

Sources: The Guardian; History.com; Biography.com; famoustrials.com