The Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Trial

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On June 19, 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted on their fourteenth wedding anniversary. The couple from New York City’s Lower East Side and the progeny of immigrants, were found guilty of conspiracy by the United States government. The specific charge was they ran a spy ring. The case created quite a stir in this nation at the time of the trial and its aftermath, as the Rosenbergs even appealed to the Supreme Court on nine occasions. They were also granted a stay of execution that was eventually denied and were given the option to have their sentence altered if they would admit their guilt. Neither one ever did. The case also was an international sensation with demonstrations being held in European nations. Ethel herself released a statement shortly after her incarceration to the leftist newspaper the National Guardian saying, “We are victims of the grossest type of political frame-up ever known in American history. In our own way, we will try to establish our innocence. But we ask the people of America to realize the political significant of our case and come to our aid” (Shulte, 2003). After reviewing the evidence, the testimony and the political climate in the United States during the course of the two week trial in 1951, it appears that Ethel was speaking the absolute truth.

When the Rosenbergs were brought to trial the government declared they had more than 100 witnesses that could prove their guilt but only 23 actually made it to the stand. Granted the Rosenbergs had been affiliated with the Communist Party previously and did demonstrate against Fascism, but at the time of their arrests they were no longer politically active within the party. Also, the witnesses they called such as Elizabeth Bentley, who was a former American Communist Party member and now a vehement anticommunist, were dubious at best. Bentley claimed she was a former spy for the Soviet Union and during that time she heard of some contact within the ring being referred to as Julius. Harry Gold was another witness that was called who claimed to be a Russian spy, but historians claim Gold was really making stories up as he went along for the FBI. For example, “As described by Gold, the (FBI) agents frequently briefed him with information and implied the direction in which they were interested in having his story move” (Neville, 1995). The witness that did the most damage to the Rosenbergs was Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who stated that he had seen Ethel typing up her spy notes. After the fact, he even admitted that testimony was utterly fabricated (Pyle, 2001).

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As far as the physical evidence presented at the trial, that was also scant. There was a picture of table Ruth Greenglass, David’s wife contended the Soviets gave the Rosenbergs that had a secret compartment where a lamp that could be used to take pictures of spy notes was housed. This was later proven to be a false contention on the part of Greenglass (Schulte, 2003). There was also a drawing of a Jello box that Julius supposedly broke in half for David Greenglass and Harry Gold to identify one another (Schulte, 2003). For such a stiff sentence and conviction, however, the physical evidence certainly did not prove the Rosenbergs guilt beyond a shadow a doubt and was filled with conjecture.

So why would the Rosenbergs be framed? At the time of their trial and execution, the nation was firmly in the grasp of McCarthyism. We are familiar with the stories of Hollywood actors and executives, politicians, etc. that were accused of being communist, conspiring with communist nations and the like.

People were imbued with an intense fear of being accused of communist activities. It was like a witch hunt and in this case the Rosenbergs were the sacrificial lambs to assuage the rising fervor that someone had to be guilty of selling secrets to the Russians. What better scapegoat than two poor children of immigrants from New York City with previous communist associations? Their deaths and/or convictions would slake the intense thirst of Senator Joseph McCarthy to find communists in this country. In fact, after the furor the Rosenberg case caused nationally and internationally, McCarthyism came to a screeching halt and the Senator was censured. Reviewing the testimony, facts of the case and evidence the Rosenbergs should never have been convicted because their guilt was not proven with authority.

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