Executed to send a message

September 30, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte examines what the new revelations in the case of the Rosenbergs actually tell us.

A NEW spotlight has been thrown on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 as so-called "atomic spies" for the ex-USSR, after the release of grand-jury testimony from the time, plus an admission by the Rosenbergs' co-defendant Morton Sobell that he had spied for the Soviet Union.

A few people couldn't be happier to heap new condemnations on the Rosenbergs following the New York Times interview in which Sobell--who until now has maintained his innocence--said he'd spied.

Take Ronald Radosh, who has made an academic career out of justifying the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. Radosh wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

[A]fter Sobell's confession of guilt, all other conspiracy theories about the Rosenberg case should come to an end. A pillar of the left-wing culture of grievance has been finally shattered. The Rosenbergs were actual and dangerous Soviet spies. It is time the ranks of the left acknowledge that the United States had (and has) real enemies, and that finding and prosecuting them is not evidence of repression.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after leaving the New York City courthouse where they were found guilty of espionage
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after leaving the New York City courthouse where they were found guilty of espionage (Roger Higgins)

But the facts are more complicated than Radosh admits. In Sobell's Times interview about spying ("Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that," he said. "I never thought of it as that, in those terms."), he said he gave military secrets to the Soviet Union--but during the Second World War, when the U.S. was supposedly an ally fighting Nazi Germany, and not "atomic secrets," but information about radar and artillery devices.

Sobell, a former classmate of Julius Rosenberg at the City College of New York, was tried in 1951 alongside the Rosenbergs and refused to incriminate himself or the Rosenbergs. He was sentenced to 30 years behind bars, and served 18 years, in Alcatraz and other federal prisons.

While the media were quick to re-prosecute Sobell and the Rosenbergs, Sobell wrote in a letter to the Times afterward: "As for me, I helped an ally (admittedly illegally) during World War II. I chose not to cooperate with the government in 1950. The issues are now with the historians."

For their part, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, repeated in a statement what they said in 1975, when they first began to request that the government release information about their parents' case:

What else to read

The Rosenberg Fund for Children provides for the educational and emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists, and youth who are targeted activists themselves.

For more background about the Rosenberg case, read Elizabeth Schulte's "The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg," in the International Socialist Review, marking the 50th anniversary of their execution. Bill Keach's "Rehabilitating McCarthyism" discusses the history of the witch-hunts and the Bush administration's attempt to revive that atmosphere.

For books on the Rosenbergs, look for Invitation to an Inquest, by
Walter and Miriam Schneir, and Robert Meeropol's An Execution in the Family: One Son's Journey.


"The truth is more important than our personal political position." We meant it. Though we believed then that this material would prove our parents' and Morton's innocence, we have always been willing to accept whatever the record showed...

Morton's statement...moves us to acknowledge that Julius did, in fact, participate with others in passing along military information. But at the same time, we believe the still-evolving record makes it even clearer that Julius did not "steal" or transmit the "secret of the Atomic Bomb," the crime for which he was executed.


MEANWHILE, THE National Security Archive, an independent research group at George Washington University, gained the release of testimony of all but three of the 46 witnesses who appeared before the grand jury in the Rosenberg case from August 1950 through March 1951.

The transcripts are a chilling addition to the "trial of the century," in which the Rosenbergs were railroaded through coerced or patently false testimony.

Most importantly, the grand-jury testimony shows that Ruth Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's sister-in-law, falsely incriminated Ethel to win a lighter sentence for her husband David.

During the trial, David Greenglass claimed that he gave the Rosenbergs secrets--including a sketch of the atomic bomb--that he stole from his job as an Army machinist at the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory. During her 1951 trial testimony, Ruth claimed that Ethel typed David's notes on the atomic bomb. But her recently released grand-jury testimony from 1950 doesn't say anything about Ethel typing notes. In fact, Ruth originally claimed that she herself handwrote the so-called atomic notes.

During the trial, David also implicated his own sister Ethel--which played a key role in convicting Ethel and getting her a death sentence. Decades later, David admitted to Sam Roberts for his 2001 book The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case that he had lied about Ethel. "I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember," Greenglass said.

"You know, I seldom use the word 'sister' anymore; I've just wiped it out of my mind," Greenglass said, adding, "My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife."

Greenglass has blocked the release of his own grand-jury testimony.

As the Meeropols pointed out in their recent statement,

Obtaining the full record is essential, because both David and Ruth testified about the typing at the trial. In fact, in his summation to the jury, the prosecutor drove home the case against our mother by referencing Ethel's alleged typing when he declared, "Just so had she on countless other occasions sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets."

Ultimately, the government used the threat of executing Ethel--even though there was no evidence implicating her--to try to coerce Julius into a confession. "They created a case for my mother," Michael Meeropol told the Washington Post. "They put a gun to her head and said to my father, 'Talk, or we kill her.'"


JULIUS AND Ethel were executed for giving away the so-called "atomic secret"--what the prosecution portrayed as the one piece of information that made it possible for the USSR to develop the bomb.

This is ludicrous, since there was no "atomic secret."

As a 1949 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy stated, "The basic knowledge underlying the explosive release of atomic energy--and it would fill a library--never has been the property of one nation...The Soviet Union, for its part, possesses some of the world's most gifted scientists...men with the abilities and whose understanding of the fundamental physics behind the bomb only the unrealistic were prone to underestimate."

And if there was a secret, David Greenglass couldn't have relayed it in the garbled drawing that he passed off as evidence to prosecutors.

But the point of the trial--and the executions--wasn't just about alleged atomic spying. The U.S. government had a message it wanted heard--if you oppose our policies, we will execute you. If you are a Communist, you are a suspect.

The fact that the Rosenbergs were an average couple in many ways made them the perfect target. They came from working-class Jewish immigrant families in New York's Lower East Side and, radicalized by the poverty of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, joined the Communist Party like many others did. They took part in the struggle to save the Scottsboro Boys and collected funds for the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. By 1943, they were no longer active in the party.

Their trial was dominated by fierce anti-Semitism and hysterical talk about the so-called Communist threat to the "American way of life." What the federal government showed with its highly publicized trial was that if the Rosenbergs could be sent to the electric chair for their political affiliations, then no one was free from suspicion, and no one was safe.

Whether or not there was spying, what is crystal clear is that the government's prosecutors didn't let anything get in the way of orchestrating a trial and executing the Rosenbergs to send a chill through the left.

As Julius wrote in a letter to their lawyer Manny Block:

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!"

Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archive drew an analogy with the "war on terror" today. "The Rosenberg case illustrates the excesses that can occur when we're afraid," she said. "In the 1950s, we were afraid of communism; today, we're afraid of terrorism. We don't want to make the same mistakes we made 50 years ago."

As the Meeropols wrote: "All that we have learned in the last two weeks, coupled with all that we have gleaned from the information already available, reinforced the biggest lesson of our parents' case: The U.S. government abused its power in truly dangerous ways that are still very relevant today."

It isn't the Rosenbergs who should be, once again, on trial--55 years after their murder--but the federal government, which still persists in whipping up fear and hysteria.

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