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Media Coverage and Public Debates
Media coverage of the Rosenberg case was powerfully shaped by the Cold War atmosphere in which the trial took place. Much of the foundation for the public’s perception of the Rosenbergs was laid before most Americans had even heard their names. Newspapers in the years leading up to the Rosenbergs’ arrests reported heavily on the Soviet Union’s efforts to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and its acquisition of the atomic bomb, as well as the arrests and prosecutions of domestic Communists for advocating the overthrow of the United States government. The notion of Communists as spies was also a familiar subject of press coverage, as exemplified by the Alger Hiss perjury case.
When the Soviets conducted their first successful test of the bomb in September 1949, many Americans were shocked to find that the United States had lost its atomic monopoly. A New York Times headline read, “Soviet Achievement Ahead of Predictions by 3 Years,” and the accompanying column warned that the Soviet Union might soon have a stockpile of bombs sufficient “to destroy fifty of our cities with 40,000,000 of our population.” The following day, a headline in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, “Russ Bomb Threat to Life of West.” In February 1950, four months before Julius Rosenberg was arrested, newspapers reported the arrest of atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs for passing information about the bomb to the Soviets. The Times reported that Fuchs had possessed “vital” data about the bomb and that some members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy believed that he was responsible for the Soviets acquiring the bomb earlier than expected. The revelation of atomic espionage following the detonation of a Soviet bomb fueled anxieties over the threat to national security posed by Communist subversion.
In the midst of the Red Scare, with widespread sympathy unlikely for Communists suspected of atomic espionage, the media presented the case to the public in a light favorable to the prosecution and detrimental to the Rosenbergs. Newspaper stories often relied on Department of Justice or FBI press releases for the bulk of their source material, and sensational headlines referring to the Rosenbergs as alleged “atom spies” accused of aiding and abetting a “Soviet ring” helped to foster a public perception that they were dangerous traitors bent on helping a bitter enemy to destroy the United States.
After Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death in April 1951, most mass-circulation newspapers reported the news without editorial comment, and none announced themselves opposed to the sentences. In August, however, the National Guardian, a left-wing New York City paper, began a vigorous campaign to exonerate the Rosenbergs, claiming that they had been the victims of a government frame-up. The Guardian’s advocacy helped to spark an international movement on the Rosenbergs’ behalf, and led to the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. The view of the case presented by the Guardian and the movement it helped to inspire were at first ignored by the mainstream press in the United States.
While the Rosenberg case was on appeal, frequent coverage of the nuclear arms race and its potential impact on national security continued. In late April 1951, for example, the New York Times reported on a statement by the New York City Civil Defense Office asserting that New York City was “considered by competent authorities to be the country’s atomic target No. 1.” In June, the Times printed Governor Thomas Dewey’s urging that preparations be made “as though the atom bomb were expected to fall on us tomorrow.”
In 1952, mainstream American newspapers began to take notice of the growing international movement on behalf of the Rosenbergs, and their coverage equated the movement with Communism and anti-Americanism—the approach taken in a six-part series that ran in the New York Post in December 1952 and another series of equal length written by syndicated columnist Bob Considine in January 1953. In February, a New York Times story headlined, “Rosenbergs Used in ‘Hate U.S.’ Drive” referenced “daily reports of [pro-Rosenberg] rallies in the Communist press.” Even as the movement grew within the United States during 1953, the media continued to portray it as distant and Communist-controlled.
Press coverage of the Rosenbergs in Western Europe had a flavor substantially different from that in the United States. This was especially true in France, where by 1952 newspapers of all ideological stripes opposed the pending executions. Public opinion in France grew so heated that in December 1952, American press attaché Ben Bradlee, later the editor of the Washington Post, was sent from Paris to New York to read the trial transcript and draft a report on the case for distribution to the French media. The report mitigated some of the fiercest hostility to the United States, but deep opposition remained. Some American commentators were critical of the sympathy for the Rosenbergs exhibited by the foreign press; for example, a Washington Post editorial accused Paris daily Le Monde of having been hoaxed into joining an anti-American propaganda campaign.
American newspapers continued to stress the intertwining of the pro-Rosenberg movement with Communism. A New York Times article that ran the day after the Rosenbergs were executed emphasized Communist involvement in the previous day’s protests in England, France, and Italy, and described the efforts of media outlets in Soviet satellite states to publicize the Rosenbergs’ deaths for propaganda purposes. The following day, the paper ran an Associated Press report on the efforts of American officials to counter Communist propaganda. The report asserted that “the Communists have tried unceasingly to make the case a cause célèbre in the cold war” while making only brief references to appeals for clemency that had come from non-Communists.
Throughout the posttrial proceedings, members of Congress carefully monitored coverage of the case, and many senators and representatives read into the Congressional Record editorials from papers in their home states condemning the Rosenbergs and praising the prosecutors and Judge Kaufman. The Chicago Daily News was the only major mainstream American newspaper to advocate clemency for the Rosenbergs, and in the wake of the executions, several papers ran editorials in support of the government’s handling of the case. Ten days after the Rosenbergs’ deaths, defense attorney Emanuel Bloch penned an angry editorial in the National Guardian accusing the press of a “conspiracy of silence” regarding the case. “Our great newspapers,” he wrote, “which during the trial, had seized eagerly upon every propaganda release of the prosecution, closed their pages to all news about the victims. From the Government’s point of view, and the point of view of its ally the press, the Rosenbergs were as good as dead.”
The Rosenberg Trial