Skip to content Skip to footer
The True Crime of the Rosenberg Execution
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen, as they leave the US courthouse after being found guilty by a jury. (Photo: Roger Higgins / Wikimedia)

The True Crime of the Rosenberg Execution

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen, as they leave the US courthouse after being found guilty by a jury. (Photo: Roger Higgins / Wikimedia)

Federal District Judge Irving R. Kaufman was a pious man. He visited his synagogue to commune with whatever god he believed in before making up his mind to condemn Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to die in the electric chair, making orphans of their two young boys. That, however, was not the full reach of his piety. Under pressure from the Justice Department to end the Rosenberg case quickly, after two years of delays in the courts, Kaufman set their death for a Friday. This created an unanticipated complication, as Sam Roberts recounts in his grisly description of the execution in “The Brother“: New York State traditionally carried out its executions at 11:00 PM. But this would mean the Rosenbergs would burn several hours into the Sabbath – the Jewish holy day. What to do? Kaufman sought the advice of a rabbi to ascertain the exact time when the Sabbath began, then ordered the executions moved up to a more comfortable hour.

The judge must have gotten satisfactory advice, for there were no complaints from organized Jewry in America. Julius died from the traditional three jolts of electricity; Ethel required an additional two jolts, perhaps the only shred of evidence that she was really the tougher member of the spying duo.

And, while the evidence remains much disputed, the preponderance suggests that spies they were. Eventually, even the Rosenberg's journalistic cheerleaders, Walter and Miriam Schneir, acknowledged that Julius Rosenberg was ringmaster of a busy espionage collective that was passing electronic and aeronautical intelligence to the Soviets during the Second World War. Julius himself – unlike the nerd depicted in photographs – was a brazen cowboy who scored a daring espionage coup by stealing the proximity fuse from its plant of manufacture piece by piece: this device uses an electromagnetic wave guide to identify a nearby aircraft, vastly increasing the efficacy of anti-aircraft batteries.

Schneir acknowledged that Julius was a spy – but not an atomic spy. And, so, the case has dragged on to this very day, and two important questions remain unanswered:

  • Were the Rosenbergs framed to break up their spy ring in a distinctly conclusive manner (and, relatedly, what was Ethel's role in the ring)?
  • If the death penalty is ever appropriate, was it called for in this case?

One way of plowing through the voluminous writings on the Rosenberg case is a kind of literary triage, singling out the few key books that can be considered “game changers” – titles that defined, or altered, the terms of debate. The first such book is Walter and Miriam Schneir's “Invitation to an Inquest,” first published in 1965 and seldom, if ever, out of print, which makes two postulates that undoubtedly were very much in keeping with the McCarthy-induced paranoia of the early 1960s:

David Greenglass, the Los Alamos machinist and brother of Ethel, whose testimony sent Ethel to the chair, was not a spy, but a psychopathic liar who was used by the government.

The Feds faked any remaining forensic evidence to tighten the straps that would hold Julius and Ethel in the chair.

This was heady, heavy stuff, but many people on the left – perhaps most – had so little trust in the American government that they probably believed the Schneirs were right. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the Schneirs' hypotheses were the dominant theory of the case, at least on the left, for some 20 years.

The next game changer, which stood the Schneirs' theory on its head, was the first edition of Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton's “The Rosenberg File.” Based on impressive scholarship, Radosh and Milton drew the relatively modest conclusions that 1) atomic spying was a relatively insignificant activity of the Rosenberg ring only, and 2) Ethel's role in the enterprise was severely limited. Radosh and Milton comment that the first edition was – with the exception of that segment of the “Old Left” that was identified with the Communist Party – well received both on the left and right. At that time (1984), the Schneirs howled the loudest.

Still, the files that Radosh and Milton succeeded in cracking open were not as conclusive as the most critical student of the case might wish. It took a second game changer, again from Radosh and Milton, to establish the guilt of the Rosenbergs beyond a reasonable doubt – or so it would seem. The second edition of “The Rosenberg File” came out in 1997, by which time two seminal events had occurred:

The government had finally released the Venona Decrypts – cable traffic during World War II that the Russians thought was secure, but which, in fact, was deciphered by US Army cryptographers. The Venona decrypts included traffic between American-based spies and Moscow Centre, the heart of the KGB. These decrypts unambiguously identified Julius, code name LIBERAL, as a loyal friend of the Red Star and seemed to implicate Ethel.

For a brief period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a narrow window of openness, often greased by money, in which now-unemployed KGB agents talked to Western scholars and journalists about key cases, including that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When weighed alongside the Venona decrypts, the tales of the aging spies are consistent and convincing.

At roughly the same time the second edition of “The Rosenberg File” came out, historians of the cold war and espionage buffs were treated to one of the most extraordinary books in the literature of investigative journalism, Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel's 1997 “Bombshell” – and what a bombshell it is: the husband-and-wife team of seasoned Moscow reporters, with the private wealth to hire six research assistants and to travel wherever their leads steered them, unveiled a heretofore unknown physicist named Ted Hall, based at Los Alamos and engaged in research that put him at the heart of the bomb project, who passed on drawn-to-scale plans of the bomb to the Soviets. His own diagrams backed up those of another Los Alamos physicist, Klaus Fuchs, and served as the basis of the Russian atomic bomb.

Get Truthout in your inbox every day! Click here to sign up for free updates.

What, then, about the contributions of Ethel's machinist brother, David Greenglass?

What Greenglass passed along – and pass along he did, in the tough-minded interrogations of Sam Roberts, that reduce to ashes the Schneirs' claim that Greenglass was a psychopathic liar – were “lens molds.” These are blast reflectors that cause the outer shell of the plutonium bomb to cave inward quickly and uniformly, setting off a nuclear chain reaction. Greenglass was so inept that he got the number and shape of the lens molds wrong and a KGB memo expressed contempt for the poor quality of his work. One thing for sure: Greenglass did not steal what prosecutors and judge would call the “secret” of the atomic bomb; had the Soviets followed Greenglass' sketch, which was not even drawn to scale, their bomb would have fizzled. This is borne out by expert testimony, such as that of physicist Philip Morrison, the man who armed the Hiroshima bomb:

“It is not possible in any technologically useful way to condense the results of a two-billion-dollar development effort into a diagram, drawn by a high school graduate machinist on a single sheet of paper.” [“Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case,” p 26.]

“Bombshell” would play another, more ambiguous role in the Rosenberg case. The Rosenberg's son, Michael Meerpool, came upon a puzzling bibliographic citation in “Bombshell,” which he conveyed to Walter Schneir, who picked up an investigation that had consumed a substantial chunk of his life's work. The issue was reference to a KGB file – not the contents of the file itself, but only a reference – that raised anew the question whether Greenglass ever passed his inept sketch on to Julius and, furthermore, whether Ethel ever typed up the accompanying notes from his moronic handwriting, the only crime for which she was tried and convicted as a conspirator. Meerpool's query led Schneir to an aptly titled book, “The Haunted Wood,” by two men, Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, the former an ex-college professor with deep ties to the American intelligence community, and the latter a former KGB agent living in London. “The Haunted Wood” paraphrases a KGK memorandum dated February 16, 1945, ordering Rosenberg to turn over his network to other handlers and instructing his own KGB handler to cease meeting with him. Schneir could have done a less sloppy job of scholarship by referencing the relevant pages in “Bombshell” and “The Haunted Wood,” but confusing as it is, the bottom line is clear enough: If Rosenberg and his handler obeyed orders and if the KGB did not subsequently override those orders, there was no September 1945 meeting at the Rosenberg apartment where Greenglass passed along his sketch and his scribbles and where Ethel typed up the latter. Which brings us to the last game changer, Walter Schneir's brief, posthumous little book, “Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case,” with a preface and conclusion by his wife Miriam (who rather naively anticipates that Obama will open up the case).

It is understandable that Schneir would hitch his wagon to this star, because everything – or almost everything – else in the case had crumbled around him. But the reader should take care not to put too much faith in this discrepancy in dates, for the KGB was notorious for changing orders by 180 degrees in a matter of days. If Schneir is right, then the Rosenbergs were framed beyond any shadow of a doubt. But if so, why? A possible explanation is that the government used the execrable Greenglass as the instrument to remove Rosenberg and his network. Conceivably. the government hoped that the threat of death would inspire Julius – or Ethel – to finger the other members of the ring. If that is what the government intended, the Rosenbergs had too much courage for them.

A reasonable theory of the case is that the government indeed used Greenglass to try to shut down the Rosenberg ring – which they probably accomplished. It would hardly be surprising if prosecutors of the likes of Roy Cohn didn't “massage” Greenglass' testimony, using the threat of the electric chair and the indictment of his wife to ensure his complicity.

But when everything seems to be tied up in a neat package, Schneir has a quote from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and one-time death penalty battler turned post-9/11 advocate of torture, citing a conversation with Rosenberg prosecutor and mob lawyer Roy Cohn:

“Roy Cohn … proudly told me shortly before his death [in 1986] that the government had 'manufactured 'evidence against the Rosenbergs, because they knew Julius was the head of a spy ring. They had learned this from bugging a foreign embassy, but they could not disclose any information learned from the bug, so they made up some evidence in order to prove what they already knew. In the process, they also made up the case against Ethel Rosenberg.” [“America on Trial” (NY: Warner Books,2004.p/323)]

In right-wing quarters, especially those where “kike” and “yid” are words of currency, the Rosenberg case is still considered the crime of the century, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Schneir has come a long way from “Invitation to an Inquest” – so far as to suggest that an appropriate penalty for Julius might have been the same that Klaus Fuchs got for a much graver act of espionage, followed by an exchange for one or more of our own spooks. Even 15 years seems excessive, for not only was the Soviet Union an ally, but she was suffering almost unimaginable casualties; and Lend-Lease notwithstanding, the Soviet Union was not getting our best weaponry. If the Rosenbergs failed to appreciate how the war in Europe and Asia would so quickly turn into the cold war, they were in the company of some of our shrewdest statesmen and FDR himself.

So, while the Rosenbergs probably did break a law that was passed amid the hysteria of an earlier world war by passing non-atomic intelligence on to the Russians, the statesmen committed a monumental blunder in underestimating the Soviet Union's imperialistic intentions. The Rosenberg's crime was probably to break the 1917 Espionage Act; by far the greater crime was to kill husband and wife on June 19, 58 years ago. The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is the true crime of the century – an abomination that casts an ineradicable black mark on the American criminal justice system and on the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose own crime was a failure to grant mercy.