March 29 2021 — On this day in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage for their role in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets during and after World War II. On Friday June 19, 1953 at 8 pm, Julius Rosenberg was strapped into the electric chair and died after the first jolt. Ethel proved a bit harder to kill. Her heart was still beating after three shocks. Two more needed to be applied to finally end her life. At that point, witnesses saw a puff of smoke escape from her skull.
Ethel became the first woman executed by the U.S. government since Mary Surratt was hanged in 1865 for her alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Declassified documents cast doubt on whether Ethel was guilty as charged. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today
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The trial began on March 6, and the jury had convicted both of conspiracy to commit espionage by March 29.
The Rosenbergs were not helped by a defense that many at the time, and since, have labeled incompetent.
The conviction relied mostly on the testimony of David Greenglass and Harry Gold.
After his arrest, Greenglass readily confessed and later accused his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, of being the spies who controlled the entire operation.
Greenglass declared that Julius Rosenberg had set up a meeting during which he [Greenglass] passed the plans for the atomic bomb to Gold.
Harry Gold — a courier for the Soviet agents to whom Spy Klaus Fuchs passed along his information — supported Greenglass’s accusation and admitted that he then passed the plans along to a Soviet agent.
This testimony sealed Julius’s fate, and although there was little evidence directly tying Ethel to the crime, prosecutors claimed that she was the brain behind the whole scheme.
President Eisenhower rejected a final appeal for clemency shortly after the Supreme Court had set aside the stay of execution granted by Justice Douglas, one of its own members.
The President’s decision was announced in the following statement from the White House:
“Since the original review of proceedings in the Rosenberg case by the Supreme Court of the United States, the courts have considered numerous further proceedings challenging the Rosenbergs conviction and the sentencing involved. Within the last two days, the Supreme Court convened in a special session and reviewed a further point which one of the justices felt the Rosenbergs should have an opportunity to present. This morning the Supreme Court ruled that there was no substance to this point.
I am convinced that the only conclusion to be drawn from the history of this case is that the Rosenbergs have received the benefits of every safeguard which American justice can provide. There is no question in my mind that their original trial and the long series of appeals constitute the fullest measure of justice and due process of law. Throughout the innumerable complications and technicalities of this case no Judge has ever expressed any doubt that they committed most serious acts of espionage.
Accordingly, only most extraordinary circumstances would warrant Executive intervention in the case. I am not unmindful of the fact that this case has aroused grave concern both here and abroad in the minds of serious people aside from the considerations of law. In this connection I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs 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 millions of dead, whose death may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.
When democracy’s enemies have been judged guilty of a crime as horrible as that of which the Rosenbergs were convicted: when the legal processes of democracy have been marshalled to their maximum strength to protect the lives of convicted spies: when in their most solemn judgement the tribunals of the United States has adjudged them guilty and the sentence just. I will not intervene in this matter.”
Bob Dylan – Julius And Ethel
The Bob Dylan song “Julius & Ethel” is an outtake that was recorded during Dylan’s Infidels (1983) sessions with Dire Straits’s Mark Knopfler.
The song recounts the story of the Rosenbergs, capturing the persecution atmosphere of the times.
For example, the line “Senator Joe was king” refers to Sen. Joe McCarthy, who led a witch hunt for communists.
Dylan, not surprisingly, takes the position that a societal injustice occurred, putting the case in the context of its time period:
“Someone says the fifties was the age of great romance / I say that’s just a lie, it was when fear had you in a trance.”
Thus, he concludes that the Rosenbergs were not given a fair trial.
The Rosenbergs: Atom Spies | Great Crimes & Trials
The Rosenbergs were charged with espionage and brought to trial on March 6, 1951; Greenglass was the chief witness for the prosecution. On March 29 they were found guilty, and on April 5 the couple was sentenced to death. (Sobell and Gold received 30-year prison terms, and Greenglass, who was tried separately, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)
For two years the Rosenberg case was appealed through the courts and before world opinion. The constitutionality and applicability of the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs were tried, as well as the impartiality of the trial judge, Irving R. Kaufman—who in pronouncing sentence had accused them of a crime “worse than murder”—were key issues during the appeals process.
Seven different appeals reached the Supreme Court of the United States and were denied, and pleas for executive clemency were dismissed by Pres. Harry Truman in 1952 and Pres. Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.
A worldwide campaign for mercy failed, and the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Ethel became the first woman executed by the U.S. government since Mary Surratt was hanged in 1865 for her alleged role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Was Ethel Rosenberg Wrongly Convicted as a Russian Spy?
In July 1950, Julius Rosenberg is arrested for spying, along with his wife Ethel. Decades later, declassified documents would cast doubt on whether Ethel was guilty as charged.
UPDATE (June 19 2020) — BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN, debuting FRIDAY, JUNE 19 (8:00-9:45 p.m. ET/PT), takes an unflinching look at the life and death of infamous attorney Roy Cohn, who first gained prominence by prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in what came to be known as the “atomic spies” case.
The documentary draws on extensive, newly unearthed archival material to present the most revealing examination of Roy Cohn to date.
Director Ivy Meeropol (“Indian Point,” HBO’s “Heir to an Execution”) brings a unique perspective as the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; having spent much of her life feeling both repelled and fascinated by the man who prosecuted her grandparents, obtained their convictions in federal court and then insisted on their executions.
END of UPDATE
Execution of the Rosenbergs — Guardian (June 20 1953)
On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Executed (June 19 1953)
On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Executed (June 19 1953) [New Documentary : BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN]
70 Years Ago — Julius And Ethel Rosenberg Are Convicted of Espionage (March 29 1951)