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.
Arrested: 17 July 1950 - Julius Rosenberg 11 August 1950 - Ethel RosenbergTrial: 6 March 1951Convicted: 29 March 1951Sentenced: 5 April 1951Executed: 19 June 1953
Between the detonation of the first Soviet atomic device, in 1949, and the trial of the Rosenbergs, which began on 6 March 1951, there was a pervading fear of communist domination in the United States. This fear was escalated further by the anti-Communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy, which was launched in February 1950, and steadily gained momentum prior to the Rosenberg trial. By the start of the Rosenberg trial the Korean War had raged for 10 months, and the threat of spies saturated the media.Unsurprisingly, the case enjoyed a high media profile from the outset. The case against the Rosenbergs was based principally on the testimony of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who claimed that Julius had induced him to join the Communist Party. Greenglass also claimed that Rosenberg had urged his wife, Ruth, to encourage him to steal atomic bomb secrets. Greenglass implicated his sister Ethel as well, stating that she had typed documents from his notes, containing the atomic bomb information, which were then transferred up the spy chain to Moscow. Ruth Greenglass affirmed his testimony; both had agreed to co-operate with the prosecution in exchange for leniency. Nevertheless, Greenglass appeared to take particular pleasure in implicating his sister and brother-in-law.When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg took the stand in their own defence, they did little to endear themselves to the jury, choosing to invoke the Fifth Amendment, against the advice of their defence team, rather than implicate any of their comrades. Cross examination by the prosecution seemed to focus on making them invoke this right as many times as possible, to reinforce the certainty, in the jury’s minds, that both of the Rosenbergs were hardened Communist spies.On 29 March 1951, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage and, a week later, on 5 April 1951 the judge sentenced both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death by electrocution.
Greenglass took no time in implicating his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. As a result, Julius was arrested on 17 July 1950, and Ethel was arrested three weeks later, on 11 August 1950. Neither could post the $100,000 bail set at their initial hearings and they were incarcerated at the New York House of Detention, pending further investigations.Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with the crime of conspiracy to commit espionage and tried under the Espionage Act of 1917. It was claimed that, as a direct result of the Rosenberg Spy Ring, the Soviets had gained the expertise to manufacture atomic bombs years earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
The harshness of the sentence was unprecedented. David Greenglass, who was the actual source of the atomic secrets, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He had been led to expect a sentence of five years when he initially agreed to co-operate with the prosecution. Given the severity of the Rosenberg sentence, however, it was felt that a five-year term would be seen as too lenient.The date of execution was stayed until the appeals process could run its course. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, on 10 January 1952, and the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in September 1953.The Communist Party of the United States formed the ‘National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case’, and the Rosenbergs pinned their hopes on a reversal, in the face of widespread public support, but they were disappointed. Their execution date was set for 17 June 1953, and the Supreme Court refused a petition for a stay of execution. President Eisenhower was petitioned for clemency but he too refused to intervene.On 16 June, just a day before the execution was due to take place, a legal motion was filed, claiming that the Rosenbergs should have been tried under the Atomic Secrets Act 1946, which superseded the Espionage Act of 1917. The 1946 Act stipulated that a jury should pass the sentence, not the judge, as had occurred with the Rosenbergs. This legal challenge should have provided them a further stay of sentence of at least six months, while the case was heard, but the Chief Justice decided to hear the case immediately, and the court ruled that, as both laws were still in force, the use of the 1917 was legally permissible, and the stay of execution was lifted.The Rosenbergs were scheduled to be executed at 11 pm on Friday 19 June 1953. Yet again, a plea for presidential clemency was refused. In a last desperate effort, their defence lawyer asked that the sentence again be delayed, as sunset marked the start of the Jewish Sabbath. To his horror, instead of delaying the execution, the schedule was moved forward to 8 pm, to avoid the Sabbath, and the last hope of delay was finally extinguished.Julius Rosenberg was electrocuted first, at 8 pm, Ethel Rosenberg followed, and was still alive after the first attempt. As a result of her small stature, the electrodes fitted poorly, in a chair designed for larger male occupants, and she required two further charges of electricity to kill her.There seems little doubt that Julius Rosenberg did engage in the transfer of secrets from the US to the Communists, but the true role of Ethel Rosenberg in the affair has always been questioned.In 2000, David Greenglass claimed he had committed perjury, falsely implicating his sister in order to satisfy the authorities, who wanted Ethel implicated so that she could be used as an emotional lever against Julius, to induce him to confess and name his conspirators. There appears little doubt that the authorities manipulated the evidence against Ethel to coerce Julius to confess, a plan that failed abjectly, both during and after the trial, since neither Julius nor Ethel implicated anyone else.The irony of their case is that the information they acquired and passed on was of little real use in the development of atomic weapons. The Rosenbergs were, to a certain extent, victims of the political climate that pervaded the United States at the time.Other spies tried since, on far more serious charges of treason and espionage, have generally received far more lenient sentences.
The post-War period, in which Rosenberg lost his job, was typified by an unprecedented build up of Cold War intelligence agencies in the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union, and there was a great deal of political capital to be gained from knowing anything that the other side did not.The first link in the chain of evidence, which led directly to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was an encoded KGB report on the Manhattan Project, America’s codename for the project to build an atomic bomb, which was intercepted by the FBI. Its contents led both the FBI and MI5 to suspect that a naturalised British scientist, Klaus Fuchs, could have been feeding details of the Manhattan Project to communist agents. An MI5 interrogation of Fuchs, then living in the UK, led, in turn, to the identification of his courier contact, known to him only as ‘Raymond’.Whilst these complex investigations were underway, the threat of Communism was crystallised, in the first detonation of an atomic device by the Soviets, in August 1949. This made US intelligence services even more determined to trace the source of the leaking of the ‘Manhattan Project’ documents.‘Raymond’ was eventually confirmed as a Jewish chemist, named Harry Gold who, in turn, gave up his own contact within the communist spy ring; a Los Alamos-based US soldier, whose identity was confirmed by investigators as David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother.