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The execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

June 20, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

JUNE 19 marks 50 years since the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg--a cold-blooded murder committed by the U.S. government in the name of national security and the Cold War fight against communism. Even though the charge was never raised in the formal indictment, the Rosenbergs went to trial accused of stealing the "secret" of the atomic bomb and delivering it to the former USSR.

While the McCarthyite witch-hunters who led the prosecution never presented any evidence that proved the couple were "atomic spies," they did show one thing. The U.S. was willing to go to any length--even killing two innocent people--to destroy communists and their supporters. ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks back on the frame-up of the Rosenbergs and the international movement to save them.

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"THIS DEATH sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we're gonna kill ya!"
--Julius Rosenberg in a letter to their lawyer Manny Bloch

FBI DIRECTOR J. Edgar Hoover called it the "crime of the century." But the true criminals in the case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg--sent to the electric chair on June 19, 1953, for allegedly conspiring to commit espionage--were the law enforcement agents, prosecutors, judges and all the government officials who helped to frame and execute them.

The Rosenberg case took place in the early 1950s, when the anticommunist witch-hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy had reached a fever pitch. The targets of this "Red Scare" were thousands of Communist Party members and their sympathizers, along with numerous labor, civil rights or antiwar activists.

Washington's discovery in 1949 that the USSR had tested atomic weapons only heightened the hysteria. The government claimed that Russia could never have acquired the "secret" of the atomic bomb without the help of spies in the U.S. With the U.S. government's entry into the Korean War--which was sold as a war to stop Communist aggression--the political climate was perfect for the prosecution of Rosenbergs.

The Rosenbergs were the perfect case in so many ways. They were ordinary people--the son and daughter of Jewish immigrants, who grew up in working-class families in New York City, the father and mother of two children. If this couple could be atomic spies, anyone could be.

Throughout the two-week trial, prosecutor Irving Saypol--described by Time magazine at the time as "the nation's number one legal hunter of top Communists"--grilled Julius and Ethel on their political affiliations. In fact, at a young age, Ethel and Julius had taken up radical causes. When she was 19, Ethel was fired after leading a walkout at her workplace. Julius was radicalized by the struggles of the time--including the cases of Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys.

Like many people who threw themselves into left-wing politics in response to the poverty of the Great Depression and later the rise of fascism, Ethel and Julius joined the Communist Party (CP). By 1943, the couple was no longer active in the party. But when they were accused and taken into custody in 1950, the Rosenbergs pleaded the Fifth Amendment in court--the common response of those who were targeted by the witch-hunters.

In order to prove that the couple was a key link in a shadowy spy network, prosecutors called a parade of self-proclaimed former spies and FBI informers to the witness stand. They included Elizabeth Bentley--a former CP member turned professional anticommunist, who claimed she had spied for the Russian government. Harry Gold, a proven liar who had been connected months earlier to British spy Klaus Fuchs, eagerly shaped his testimony to meet the needs of the Justice Department.

But the prosecution's secret weapon against the Rosenbergs was the testimony of David Greenglass, Ethel's own brother. Greenglass had been fingered by Gold, who claimed that Greenglass had given him secret plans from the Los Alamos Atomic Project, where he was stationed as an army machinist during the Second World War, when the atomic secrets were supposedly stolen.

On the stand, Greenglass fingered Julius as the ringleader and said Ethel typed up the notes. In 2001, Greenglass, who is now living in hiding under a pseudonym, confessed that he cut a deal with the FBI to win a lighter sentence and protect his wife. No physical evidence was presented at trial--unless you count the childlike reproduction of the atom bomb drawing that Greenglass supposedly provided the Russians.

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"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."
--Judge Irving Kaufman in his sentencing speech

BY SENTENCING the Rosenbergs to death, Judge Irving Kaufman was setting an example. If you're a communist, then you're spy--and you will pay the price.

Even though the formal indictment against the Rosenbergs was "conspiracy to commit espionage"--a charge that doesn't carry a death sentence--Kaufman accused them of atomic spying during sentencing. Similarly, he condemned them for "treason," which is usually defined as aiding the enemy during wartime. But Russia was an ally of the U.S. during the Second World War when the Rosenbergs supposedly helped to steal atomic secrets.

But the government had a more sinister reason for giving Ethel a death sentence. After all, the only crime she was accused of committing was typing notes. Before the trial, Assistant U. S. Attorney Myles Lane, one of the prosecutors handling the Rosenberg case, told a secret session of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, "[T]he only thing that will break this man Rosenberg is the prospect of a death penalty or getting the chair--plus that if we can convict his wife, too, and give her a sentence of 25 or 30 years, that combination may serve to make this fellow disgorge."

In 1995, the CIA released the Venona documents--an archive of decrypted telegrams, supposedly between USSR officials and their U.S. spies. The Venona documents allegedly prove that Julius may have had some small role in espionage. But they say nothing at all about Ethel. Ethel was simply the lever to get Julius to confess and, in turn, finger others.

That was the logic of the McCarthyism--save yourself, turn in a friend and keep the ball rolling. But the Rosenbergs wouldn't play. Even though they sat trapped behind the walls of Sing Sing prison--separated from each other, and from their two young sons, Michael and Robert--they refused to compromise.

As they responded to the U.S. attorney general's final offer to spare their lives in return for a confession: "Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder. If we are executed, it will be the murder of innocent people and the shame will be upon the government of the United States. History will record, whether we live or not, that we were the victims of the most monstrous frame-up in the history of the country."

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"THE HEMMED-in solitude that surrounds us, and the oppressive nature of this somber tomb must not succeed in removing our strong ties to the...outside world. We caged here can only protest our innocence and stand up firmly, but it is the task of the American people to stay the executioner's hand and see that justice is done."
--Julius in a letter to Ethel

THE CAMPAIGN to save the Rosenbergs eventually inspired millions of people to protest around the world. In London, Paris and Rome, communists and other left-wing activists organized mass demonstrations. Well-known scholars, writers and artists took up the campaign--including Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

In the U.S., the campaign was slow to start. But it took off when the first article in a seven-part series titled "The Rosenberg conviction: Is this the Dreyfus case of the Cold-War America?" by journalist William Reuben, appeared in the left-wing National Guardian newspaper in August 1951. When his article received overwhelming interest, Reuben helped to start the Committee to Secure Justice for the Rosenbergs.

The Rosenbergs received little support from well-known liberals--who typically responded to McCarthyism with their own milder brand of anti-communism. But in the initial stages, the Communist Party--leery of being connected with espionage for the USSR and unwilling to take any action that might cause more problems for the leaders of the USSR in Moscow--refused to lead the fight.

Nonetheless, committees sprang up, producing their own literature that explained all the injustices in the case. The struggle picked up steam, with several large demonstrations in New York City. In December 1952, 1,000 people came to Ossining, N.Y., to bring messages of support to the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing. When police refused to let them leave the station, they sang songs to the Rosenbergs in the rain.

Supporters made last-minute attempts to save their lives, with almost 10,000 turning out for a vigil on the day their execution was scheduled to take place. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Despite nine appeals to the Supreme Court, clemency requests to Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, and a last-minute stay by Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953--their 14th wedding anniversary.

Even so, their unwavering commitment to expose the terrible injustices committed by the U.S. government and their belief that a better world is possible live on today. As Ethel wrote in the couple's last appeal to the president: "We are not martyrs or heroes, nor do we wish to be. We do not want to die. We are young, too young, for death. We long to see our two young sons, Michael and Robert, grown to full manhood...We desire some day to be restored to a society where we can contribute our energies toward building a world where all shall have peace, bread and roses. Yes, we wish to live, but in the simple dignity that clothes only those who have been honest with themselves and their fellow men."

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