The Spies Next Door: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

By Nicky M. | Arcadia Staff
The Cold War was a tense time for many American citizens – as friction between America and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch, many came to suspect even their closest neighbors as Russian communists or spies. In the midst of this hostility, the arrest, trial, and subsequent execution of husband and wife duo Julius and Ethel Rosenberg seemed confirm many Americans worst fears: that even the most unassuming of people could be insidious criminals. Read on to learn more about the Rosenbergs, and the trial that rocked 1950s America.

Who were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

Born in New York City, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both children of Jewish families from Manhattan, born in 1918 and 1915 respectively. While they did not know each other in childhood, they were brought together in 1936, when Ethel, an actress and secretary, became involved with the Young Communist League. Julius, who had joined the League during college, had risen to become one of its main leaders, and the pair bonded over their shared communist ideology. The pair married in 1939, and distanced themselves from the Communist Party with the advent of World War II.

While the details of how the Rosenbergs began their espionage activities are vague, it’s believed that Julius was first recruited as a spy in 1942, while he was working for the engineering labs for the Army Signal Corps in New Jersey. By this point in the war, the Soviet Union had allied itself with the US against Nazi Germany, but details of scientific projects were not shared between the two countries. Rosenberg’s work, however, required him to handle large amounts of classified information, which he dutifully forwarded to the Soviets. He also worked tirelessly to recruit sympathizers to his cause, bringing in at least 5 separate colleagues.

Although the documents Julius forwarded were confidential, he is perhaps best known for helping leak details of the Manhattan Project. At the end of World War II, the US was the only country worldwide to hold nuclear weapons. However, by 1949, the Soviet Union had also developed and begun testing its own nuclear weapons. Rosenberg, with the help of his brother-in-law David Greenglass, who had worked directly on the Manhattan Project, was able to speed up the Soviets research into nuclear weapons, and aid them in the process of creating their own warheads.

The Rosenbergs while in prison.Julius’ work was supported by his wife, Ethel, who in recent years was revealed to have assisted in serving as a middle-man with Soviet contacts, attended meetings, and even suggested potential recruits for Julius’ spy network.

Their work went largely unnoticed, even after Julius was fired from the Army engineering lab in 1945 due to his prior communist affiliations. However, by 1950, the carefully spun web had begun to fall apart: after several earlier arrests, David Greenglass was arrested in June of 1950 for his involvement in leaking details of the Manhattan Project. He quickly confessed, and named both his sister and brother-in-law as co-conspirators. Only two days after Greenglass’ arrest, Julius Rosenberg was arrested for espionage. His wife was subsequently charged a couple of months later.

Trying the Rosenberg Spies

Once taken into custody, the Rosenbergs were quickly placed on trial for various crimes related to espionage. Throughout their trials, both maintained their innocence, and utilized the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering any questions about their activities. Their defiance helped the prosecution, and they were subsequently convicted on all counts of being Soviet spies only three weeks later. Their conviction came with a death penalty sentence.

Although the case was quickly over in court, it took the authorities many months to sort out their case against the Rosenbergs, specifically Ethel, who there was only weak evidence at best against. To help their cause, the police took revised testimonies from David and Ruth Greenglass, who confessed to espionage to avoid the death penalty. These revised testimonies placed Ethel front and center to the crucial day that David passed off nuclear bomb information to Julius. As a reward for aiding in the investigation against Ethel, all charges against Ruth were dropped.

The Rosenbergs were offered similar leniency if they would name other co-conspirators, but neither had been willing. This type of interrogation and naming was similar to how interviews with the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) would proceed in later years of the Red Scare against communism. Indeed, the prosecution in the case was led by Roy Cohn, who would later become a chief council to HUAC.

David Greenglass.After being sentenced to death, the Rosenbergs were sent to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. They were executed on June 19th, 1953, via the electric chair, making them the only two civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War.

The Rosenbergs Today

Survived by their two children, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did not end in the 1950s. Their sons have continually campaigned that their mother was innocent, and asked for a posthumous exoneration. And in 2001, David Greenglass came forward to recant his testimony against his sister, stating that it was most likely his wife who had been at the meeting between him and Julius. He explained that his testimony was coerced by the prosecution, but that he held little remorse, as he was hoping to save his own life and the mother of his children.

In 2008, many of trial documents were declassified and released to the public. These revealed that the prosecution had not originally intended to execute Ethel – only to push Julius for a full confession that never came. The year also finally saw a confession from Morton Sobell, a conspirator who had served 30 years in prison after being tried. This confession incriminated Julius, but largely absolved Ethel. It was not until 2014, with the release of Soviet documents, that Ethel’s guilt was actually confirmed.

Today, the Rosenbergs remain some of the most mysterious figures of the mid-20th century. Their crimes, though largely unconfirmed until recent years, were some of the worst cases of treason in US history, and have made them some of the most famous American spies. Despite the release of Soviet documents, the Rosenebergs’ children continue to campaign for their mother’s exoneration, but no government official has ever taken any action. Their case lives on infamy, an example of the worst aspects of a 1950s Cold War America.