On this day in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed by electrocution under the Espionage Act of 1917 for sharing U.S. atomic warfare secrets with the Soviet Union. Having been granted a brief reprieve by Justice William O. Douglas, the stay was lifted by the Supreme Court, with the execution scheduled for the customary hour of 11 p.m. at Sing Sing. When the Rosenbergs’ attorney attempted a further delay on the religious grounds that the timing would violate the Sabbath, the scheduling was pushed forward to 8 p.m.
At a time when the U.S. was the world’s only nuclear power, the Rosenberg’s were found to have provided top-secret information about radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines to the Soviets, and worse still, handing over nuclear weapon designs. Other co-conspirators who ratted out the couple were imprisoned, including Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents from Los Alamos to Julius and served 10 years; Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass and served 15 years; and Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist working in Los Alamos who provided vastly more important information to the Soviets. Fuchs himself was convicted in Great Britain and served nine years and four months in prison.
Julius Rosenberg was born in 1918, in New York City to a family of Jewish immigrants; his parents worked in the shops of the Lower East Side, as Julius attended Seward Park High School. Julius became a leader in the Young Communist League USA while at City College of New York (CCNY), and in 1939, he graduated from CCNY with a degree in electrical engineering. Two years after graduation, Rosenberg was serving in the Army Signal Corps when recruited by the NKVD; he actually provided the technical weapons information that would one day help the Russians shoot down U-2 pilot Gary Powers.
Ethel Rosenberg, nee Greenglass, was born in 1915 in Manhattan, New York City. Originally an aspiring actress and singer, she eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company and became involved in labor disputes, joining the Young Communist League. There she met Julius in 1936, and they married in 1939. It was in fact Ethel’s brother David whose involvement in the Manhattan Project made their entire spy ring so valuable to the “frenemy” Soviets during WW2.
After the war and the American advent of the A-bomb, the West was soon shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test, “Joe 1”, on August 29, 1949. Quickly the U.S. pinched Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs fingered his courier as Harry Gold, Gold in turn confessed and finked on David Greenglass as an additional source, and Greenglass rolled on his sister and brother in law, who were the recruiters and handlers of the operation.
For decades, the Rosenbergs’ sons Michael and Robert Meeropol and many other defenders maintained Julius and Ethel were innocent of spying on their country and victims of Cold War paranoia. However, after the fall of the Soviets, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables, code-named VENONA, which detailed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets and Ethel’s role as an accessory. Whilst the sons have begrudgingly blunted their defense, they maintain their father did not deserve the death penalty and that their mother was wrongly convicted, and continue to campaign for Ethel to be posthumously and legally exonerated.
In handing down the Rosenbergs’ death sentence, presiding Judge Irving Kaufman stated “I consider your crime worse than murder . . . I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.”
All manner of sympathizers, including Albert Einstein, Dashiell Hammett, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre campaigned for the couple’s clemency, and Pope Pious XII himself personally appealed to President Eisenhower. Rebuffing the request, the folksy IKE remarked “I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenberg’s 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.”
And with that, our tale of Old Sparky and the best and worst of intentions endeth.