The Rosenbergs: Did they deserve the death penalty?

By Gideon

It was called “The crime of the century”. They were executed for it. However, the more we know about the case, the more we wonder whether they deserved to die for it.

Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s names remain familiar to most Americans. Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to commit treason, the Rosenbergs were at the center of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century.

Five months after Sen. Joseph McCarthy entered the national spotlight, an event took place in New York City that shook American Jewry to the core. On Monday, 17 July, 1950, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Julius Rosenberg and charged him with transmitting classified information re­garding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Rosenberg’s arrest had been preceded by the arrest of Harry Gold and David Greenglass, Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, and was to be followed three and a half weeks later by the arrest of his wife, Ethel.

A the same time, Stalin was in the midst of his murderous campaign to destroy Jewish culture behind the Iron Curtain, the so-called black years of Soviet Jewry.

For Jews, the most important aspect of the Rosenberg case was the Jewish background of all four of the major defendants. All had obviously Jewish names. American Jews feared the Rosenberg trial would be a godsend to anti-Semites. What better proof could there be of the Communist sympathies of Jews and their support for the Soviet motherland? Never in American history was the hoary anti-Semitic association of Jews with Communism more believable than in the early 1950s.

The Jewish establishment  feared that the Rosenberg case would exacerbate Antisemitism, and was careful to distance itself from the Jewish Left and to make sure that Jewish communal leadership rested safely in the hands of staunch anti-Communists. The American Jewish Committee assigned a full-time staff member to investigate Communist infiltration into Jewish communal life. The Jewish Welfare Board strongly urged Jewish community centers not to allow radical speakers to use their facilities. Mainstream Jewish organizations refused to help the Rosenbergs.

Even Jewish periodicals that opposed the Rosenbergs’ death sentences emphasized that they had no quarrel with the jury’s decision. The Recon­structionist as well as the Daily Forward and the Day, two Yiddish dailies, agreed that the Rosenbergs were guilty but maintained that the death sentence was too harsh, particularly in view of the jail terms received by the Non-Jews atomic spies Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May.

Antisemitism, their supporters charged, was behind the government’s prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs’ defenders wondered why the New York City jury that convicted the Rosenbergs did not contain one Jew, even though the city’s population was 30 percent Jewish. They also noted that, even if the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, their crime had been committed during World War II, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy of the United States. At the worst, the Rosenbergs had provided information to an ally, and this did not warrant the death penalty.

Leftist organizations protested the verdict, Jewish organizations were conspicuously absent in the Rosenbergs’ defense. Public condemnation of the Rosenbergs, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and the shadow of McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.

The Rosenberg case neither resulted from nor increased anti-Semitism. Both Irving Saypol, the federal attorney who prosecuted the government’s case, and Irving R. Kaufman, who presided at the trial, were Jews. (The maiden name of Kaufman’s wife was Rosenberg.)


Julius Rosenberg (born 1918) and Ethel Greenglass (born 1915) both grew up in New York, and were married in 1939 after meeting at a union fund-raising party. Long passionate about politics, Julius had joined the Young Communist League while studying at City College, where he earned an engineering degree. In 1940, he began working as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories, at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey. Ethel had been an aspiring actress, but settled for a job as a secretary with a shipping company after they wed.

Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies for most of World War II, the Americans did not share information about the Manhattan Project with the Russians. So when the Soviet Union conducted its first test of a nuclear bomb, on August 29, 1949, the Americans were alarmed. The January 1950 arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a refugee who had worked on the Manhattan Project, on suspicion of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, started the chain reaction that led to the Rosenbergs’ arrest.

Fuchs’ courier had been Harry Gold, a Jewish chemist from Philadelphia. Gold in turn identified David Greenglass, a former U.S. Army machinist, and the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who had worked at the Los Alamos labs where the bomb was developed, as a source. Greenglass claimed that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law and had turned over the material he had stolen to him. He said that Ethel too was involved in the plot. This last point was critical, because it was the only testimony directly linking Ethel to the espionage.

FBI agents arrested Julius Rosenberg on July 17, 1950, and Ethel a month later. It later became clear that Ethel’s arrest was intended to pressure her husband to name names of others involved in the spy ring. But Julius Rosenberg didn’t crack: He never admitted his own role in the espionage and never gave up any accomplices. Ethel also refused to cooperate with the authorities, even when she found herself charged as a full-fledged conspirator.

Ethel Rosenberg was not a lifelong political activist. Ethel hoped for a career in theater or music. At work, Ethel Rosenberg was introduced for the first time to union organizers and Communist Party members. Exploring radical political philosophy through music and theater as well as evening discussions, she came to agree with many of the Communist Party’s goals, such as fighting fascism and racism and supporting unions. When the workers in her union called a strike in 1935, she was one of four members of the strike committee. She continued to sing, however, and it was at a performance at a Seaman’s Union benefit that she met Julius Rosenberg. They were married in 1939. After their marriage, Julius remained active in the Communist Party, but Ethel left both politics and music behind to focus on raising their two sons.

The Rosenbergs  were turned in by Ethel’s youngest brother, David Greenglass, apparently to protect his own wife from prosecution. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information.

On March 6, 1951, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg began, in New York Southern District federal court, in Manhattan. The Jewish couple had been indicted the preceding August on charges of conspiring to commit espionage against the United States by delivering military secrets — including information connected to the development of the atomic bomb — to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs vigorously protested their innocence.

The prosecution’s primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that Ethel, working as a “probationer,” had typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets, and these were later turned over to Harry Gold, who would then turn them over to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet vice consul in New York City. Both Rosenbergs asserted their right under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate themselves whenever asked about their involvement in the Communist Party of with its members. After a brief trial, the couple was convicted. On April 5, 1951, a judge sentenced them to death and the pair was taken to Sing Sing to await execution.

In 2001, Greenglass admitted in a television interview that he had fabricated an account about Ethel typing up Julius’ notes for the Soviets. He said that he implicated his sister to protect himself and his pregnant wife. Greenglass spent 10 years in prison for his part in the conspiracy.

Julius Rosenberg was the first to be executed, at about 8 p.m. on June 19, 1953. Just a few minutes after his body was removed from the chamber containing the electric chair, Ethel Rosenberg was led in and strapped to the chair. She was pronounced dead at 8:16 p.m. Both refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence right up to the time of their deaths. Two sons, Michael and Robert, survived them.

Ethel was only the second woman ever to be executed by the federal government. Documents recently unsealed in both the U.S. and Russia show that although Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty, Ethel’s role in any conspiracy was tiny at most.

In September 2008, Morton Sobell, the co-defendant in the famous espionage trial, admitted that he and his friend, Julius, Were both been Soviet agents.

There are no proofs that Ethel played a significant enough role in this spy ring to be executed for it. Sixty-three years later, it seems that charges were brought against her to pressure her husband to cooperate. There is no doubt that Julius Rosenberg was the ringleader. However, form what we know today, there’s no proof that he transferred significant nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

At the time, some people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anti-communist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Many Americans, however, believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly. They agreed with President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he issued a statement declining to invoke executive clemency for the pair. He stated, “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”

Resources:, Jewish Women Archive, My Jewish Learning,