Before FX premiered their show The Americans, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before espionage was a word heard on TV shows, there was Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Julius Rosenberg was born in 1918 in New York City. He became a leader of the Young Communist League USA and there he met Ethel Greenglass. Ethel was born in 1915 in New York City. She was an aspiring actress and singer but eventually took a secretarial job. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League and met Julius in 1936. They married in 1939 and had two sons, Robert and Michael.
Because of his membership and association with the Communist party, Julius lost his position with the US Army Signal Corps in Fort Monmouth NJ. Important research on electronics, communications, radar, and guided missile controls were undertaken at this location during WWII. Rosenberg provided thousands of classified reports to his handlers in the KGB.
Alexander Feklisov was Julius’ contact in the KGB, and it was to him that he provided this top secret information. It was also his direction that Julius recruited his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, who worked on the Manhattan Project, into provided further information for the Soviet Union. Julius also recruited a second Manhattan Project worker, an engineer named Russell McNutt who was able to provide access to secrets about processes for manufacturing weapons-grade uranium. For this acquisition, Julius earned $100.
Even though they were allies during WWII, America and the Soviet Union did not share information with each other about the Manhattan Project. So they were surprised with the speed that the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test.
In 1950, the US discovered that key documents were being shared with the Soviets during the war. Starting in May, Harry Gold was arrested. He had been the courier for several contacts, including David Greenglass.
In June, David Greenglass himself was arrested for espionage and soon confessed. He also claimed that his sister Ethel’s husband Julius, had convinced David’s wife, Ruth, to recruit him. David further stated that Julius had also passed secrets to another contact, Anatoli Yakovlev. This connection would be necessary as evidence if there was to be a conviction of espionage of the Rosenbergs.
July 1950, Julius was arrested on suspicion of espionage, solely based on David Greenglass’s confession. In August Ethel too was arrested after giving testimony to a grand jury.
Twenty senior government officials met secretly in February, 1950, to discuss the Rosenberg case. Gordon Dean said: “It looks as though Rosenberg is the kingpin of a very large ring, and if there is any way of breaking him by having the shadow of a death penalty over him, we want to do it.” Another member stated the case on Ethel was “not too strong”, but that it was “very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence.” J. Edgar Hoover had stated to use Ethel to make Julius talk.
Their case against Ethel Rosenberg was resolved 10 days before the start of the trial, when David and Ruth Greenglass were interviewed a second time. They were persuaded to change their original stories. David originally had said that he had passed the atomic data he had collected to Julius on a New York street corner. After being interviewed this second time, he said that he had given this information to Julius in the living room of the Rosenberg’s New York apartment. Ethel, at Julius’s request, had taken his notes and typed them up. In her re-interview, Ruth Greenglass expanded on her husband’s version:
Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it and when he came out he called Ethel and told her she had to type this information immediately … Ethel then sat down at the typewriter which she placed on a bridge table in the living room and proceeded to type the information that David had given to Julius.
As a result of this new testimony, all charges against Ruth Greenglass were dropped.
On August 11, Ethel Rosenberg testified before a grand jury. For all questions, she asserted her right to not answer as provided by the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. FBI agents took her into custody as she left the courthouse. A week later the grand jury returned an indictment for both Julius and Ethel as well as David Greenglass.
The Rosenberg’s trial began in March, 1951. The prosecutions primary witness was David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother. At the end of March the Rosenberg’s were convicted of espionage. They were sentenced to death according to the Espionage Act of 1917.
On June 19, 1953, Julius died after the first electric shock. Ethel received the normal course of three shocks, and she was determined to be still alive. She was given two more shocks and afterwards she was dead. Smoke was reported to be rising from her head.
On the death of Julius and Ethel, their son’s Robert and Michael were orphaned. Unfortunately their many aunts and uncles didn’t take them in, they went between their grandmother’s and in a children’s home. Eventually they were adopted by a high school teacher and his wife. They have since assumed that surname. They continue to work to exonerate their mother who they claim was entirely innocent of the espionage charges.
In 2001, David Greenglass, recanted his earlier statements, stating that his wife was more important than his sister. He stated “I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember.” He said he gave false testimony to protect himself and his wife, Ruth, and that he was encouraged by the prosecution to do so. “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, OK? And she was the mother of my children.”
He refused to express remorse for his decision to betray his sister, saying only that he did not realize that the prosecution would push for the death penalty. He stated, “I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister.”
I’m not sure about this case. Ethel may not have been guilty, but then why did she plead the Fifth during the Grand Jury testimony? But based on her brother’s statements, she may not have been guilty at all. I’m just glad that I don’t have a brother like hers.
Stay curious my friends!