Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the only American citizens ever to be executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. In retrospect it seems an extremely harsh sentence, but the political landscape of the 1950s McCarthy era created hysteria which saw the ‘Red Menace’ of Communist domination everywhere, and their execution was widely supported by the public at the time.
Ethel Greenglass was born on 25 September 1915, in New York, and grew up in a working class Jewish ghetto in the Bronx, along with her brothers David and Bernard. An aspiring singer and actress from an early age, her family’s financial state meant that she was forced to take a secretarial job at a shipping company, putting paid to her hopes of a career on the stage.
As a teenager she suffered the hardships of the Great Depression that swept the United States and, clearly unhappy with her working class life, she became involved with labour disputes, joining the Young Communist League, where she first met her husband-to-be, Julius Rosenberg, in 1936.
Although Julius Rosenberg’s upbringing was not quite as deprived as that of Ethel, his family also endured financial hardship. He too was born in New York, on 12 May 1918, and his devout religious convictions convinced his parents that he would train to be a rabbi. Rosenberg decided on a career in engineering instead, taking a degree at CCNY, where he too joined the Young Communist League, advancing through the ranks to become a committed communist. Here, at the age of eighteen, he met 21-year-old Ethel Greenglass, and they were married in 1939, when he graduated from CCNY. After the wedding, Rosenberg obtained a position as a junior engineer with the Army Signal Corps, where he worked for the next five years. They had two sons together; Michael in 1943, and Robert in 1947.
Following the end of the Second World War, attitudes towards Communism hardened considerably, and Rosenberg lost his engineering job, in a ‘loyalty investigation’, when his membership of the Communist Party came to light. The Rosenbergs endured severe hardship as a result.