On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Are Executed (June 19 1953) [New Book: Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy.]

“If the English want a king, it is their business. If the Russians want communism, it is their business. If the Americans want our form of government, it is our business.”

“This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be.”

Julius Rosenberg

A lithograph of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg made and signed by Pablo Piccaso in 1952.

June 19 2019 — 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. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

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“By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the Government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt… Our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity is not for sale. Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder.” Ethel Rosenberg

UPDATE (June 19 2021) — Anna Sebba has authored a new biography: Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy.

In the conclusion, she writes:

“There is no way of knowing the extent to which Ethel knew what her husband was doing as a spy-ring recruiter sending information to the Soviet Union because no one was party to their pillow talk.”

Adam Sisman of the Literary Review wrote:

“In Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg has found the ideal biographer, sympathetic without being blind to her faults and with a sure understanding of the period … Her portrayal is compelling”

In a Times review, Oliver Kamm fully disagrees with the book’s thesis.

“Not everything Sebba says is wrong. The trial was tainted, the main prosecution witness, David Greenglass, perjured himself, there was ex parte communication between the judge and the prosecutor, and the capital sentence was barbarous. And it is probably not true, as the prosecution alleged, that the Rosenbergs’ espionage emboldened Stalin to authorise communist aggression in the Korean War. But a writer who alleges a miscarriage of justice is duty-bound to examine the countervailing evidence. Sebba says she has “thought constantly of Ethel over the last five years”, and her footnotes confirm she has spoken to some interesting people. But thought is not the same as the hard graft of research and Sebba gives scant sign of even knowing the relevant sources exist, let alone of engaging with them.”

“The way to determine Ethel’s complicity is to consult multiple intelligence sources and cross-check them. Sebba’s incuriosity runs through this alternately saccharine and obtuse book, of which nothing good can be said and from which nothing but harm will arise.”

The VENONA cables — declassified and published in the 1990s — unequivocally identified Julius as a spy. [And yes, one of these cables indicates that Ethel was a willing accomplice.]

Sebba does not ignore this fact but she argues that “in ‘stealing secrets’ from [the atomic bomb programme at] Los Alamos, Julius’s ‘spy ring’ was doing illegally what the director of Los Alamos, Dr Robert Oppenheimer, would soon be advocating publicly, but described as sharing information”.

Obviously, the book will appeal to some readers and it sure will infuriate others. And if you do not like reading biographies, just wait for the movie… Film rights have already been snapped up by Miramax. 

Today, I would like to tell you a story which is not widely known, probably because it is not very flattering for all parties involved…

In his memoir, Nikita Khrushchev said he “heard from both Stalin and Molotov that the Rosenbergs provided very significant help in accelerating the production of our atom bomb”.

One could argue that the exact opposite actually happened…

Dr Robert Oppenheimer made a monumental mistake right at the start of the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, none of the great physicists working with him pointed the error which had a serious impact on the time needed to complete the first device.

Before the war, Russian physicists had already solved this problem and the correct solution had been published in the open literature!

And yet, Stalin requested that the Russian bomb was to be built exactly according to information collected by the spies.

Espionage without a brain can be very counter-productive. For sure, Stalin got his nukes.

RELATED POST: On This Day — Dr Gus W. Weiss Dies Under Mysterious Circumstances (November 25 2003) [2020]

But…

When Western Intelligence agencies discovered in the 1970s that the KGB — Directorate T / Line X — was tasked with the mission to systematically spy on Western R&D programs, CIA economist Gus W. Weiss suggested to actually supply the material sought by the Russians.

The equipment would be designed to pass initial tests but would eventually fail due to intentionally added flaws.

“Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants.”

Weiss believed that when historians will sort out the reasons for the end of the Cold War, the “Farewell Project” should receive a well deserved “footnote”.

According to Richard V. Allen — President Ronald Reagan’s Former National Security Advisor — the accomplishments of FAREWELL were enormous. It was a “major accelerator to the end of the Cold War”.

In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade receives a good advice. “Be careful what you wish for.” Because you may get it…

END of UPDATE

“It is not within my duty or my power to intervene in this matter.”

Winston Churchill

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

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. “

“Now that they are gone, you know, the truth it can be told. They were sacrificial lambs in the market place sold… They were never proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Bob Dylan — Nobel Prize 2016

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.

REFERENCES

Execution of the Rosenbergs — Guardian (June 20 1953)

On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Executed (June 19 1953) [New Documentary : BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN]

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On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Executed (June 19 1953)

On This Day — Atomic Spies Rosenbergs Are Executed (June 19 1953) [New Book: Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy.]

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