History of the Federal Judiciary

History of the Federal Judiciary

  The Rosenberg Trial
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The Rosenberg Trial: A Short Narrative

The 1951 trial of Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell, Communists accused of conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union, drew worldwide attention at a time of heightened American concerns about nuclear warfare, Soviet aggression, and Communist subversion. In the eyes of those who believed the United States to be under siege by Communists, the defendants were powerful symbols of the threat of subversion. For Americans on the left who had participated in radical political and labor movements in the 1930s and 1940s, the case aroused fears of government persecution. The Rosenberg case has remained alive in public memory, generations after its conclusion, as a watershed political and cultural event of the Cold War era.

A confluence of events between 1948 and 1950 convinced many Americans that Communists were working toward global domination and that the Soviet Union posed a threat to the United States. The Cold War intensified in 1948 when the Soviets attempted to expand their influence in Europe by backing a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and blockading portions of Berlin that had been occupied by the United States, Britain, and France since the end of World War II. Developments in Asia stoked fears as well, as Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong took control of the mainland in October 1949 and forced nationalist forces to flee to the island of Taiwan. In June 1950, the Soviet- and Chinese-backed state of North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning a conflict that soon involved American troops in the fight to repel the Communist invaders.

Perhaps most important, in August 1949, the Soviets conducted their first successful test of the atomic bomb, shocking many in the United States who had believed the U.S.S.R. to be several years away from attaining a nuclear weapon. Since the development of its first atomic bomb in July 1945, the United States government had viewed the bomb as a major asset, particularly as a deterrent to Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. News of the test sparked fears of nuclear warfare and raised the possibility of a Soviet first strike on a major U.S. city. The Los Angeles Times asserted that the Soviets’ development of the bomb placed “the very existence of the western world at stake.”

Meanwhile, events within the United States drew attention to the potential for Soviet infiltration of the federal government. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy who had since become a zealous anti-Communist, testified before the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, describing the Communist Party as dedicated to the infiltration and eventual overthrow of the United States government. Chambers identified Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking official of the State Department, as a Communist spy. After denying the charge, Hiss was convicted of perjury in a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1950. Also in 1950, the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee investigated possible Communist influence in Hollywood, and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began his crusade to uncover Communist infiltration in the federal government.

Suspected Soviet influence and domestic subversion prompted a series of federal prosecutions. In 1948, eleven leaders of the Communist Party USA were indicted for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, and in 1951 their convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court in Dennis v. United States. By the time of the Rosenberg trial, federal prosecutors in several high-profile trials had argued successfully that membership in the Communist Party was itself evidence of an active commitment to the overthrow of the U.S. government.

As prosecutors, political leaders, and much of the public believed, the Communist Party USA was actively involved in Soviet espionage in the United States. As would be publicly documented only in the 1990s with the release of intercepted cables and the opening of Soviet archives, hundreds of American Communists and party supporters worked as part of an extensive network of spies in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s, domestic Communists working for the Soviets focused mainly on political organization and on obtaining American foreign policy secrets, particularly with respect to potential threats posed by Germany and Japan. Beginning in 1941, the Soviets placed a greater emphasis on using the Communist Party USA as a source for military and technical secrets, with gathering information about the American atomic bomb program the top priority.

The arrests and indictments

In February 1950, British authorities arrested Klaus Fuchs, a German-born scientist living in England, on suspicion of providing the Soviet Union with classified information regarding the American atomic bomb program in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on which he had worked. Fuchs’ confession led to the arrest in May 1950 of Philadelphia chemist Harry Gold, who served as a courier between Fuchs and Fuchs’ Soviet handler, Anatoli Yakovlev. Gold made a full confession as well, informing the FBI of his June 1945 encounter with a U.S. Army officer who provided him with classified information from Los Alamos, which Gold then turned over to Yakovlev. Gold’s description of the man he met led the authorities to Sergeant David Greenglass, whom authorities arrested in June 1950.

Like Fuchs and Gold, Greenglass quickly confessed, admitting that his wife, Ruth, had been involved in espionage as well. Both David and Ruth Greenglass soon agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation. They blamed David’s sister Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius, who, they claimed, had indoctrinated them with Communist beliefs and recruited them into their espionage ring. Although they made no formal deal with the government, the Greenglasses hoped that their cooperation would secure a lighter sentence for David and spare Ruth from prosecution. U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol and his assistant, Roy Cohn, repeatedly warned the couple that Ruth Greenglass could be charged as well if they did not disclose all they knew, particularly regarding Ethel Rosenberg, about whom little evidence had emerged. As a result of the Greenglasses’ claims, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on July 17. Two days later, confronted by Julius’s refusal to discuss his espionage activities or to reveal the names of other spies, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suggested to Attorney General J. Howard McGrath that to bring about a “change in [Julius’] attitude,” “proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter.” The following month, federal prosecutors began to present the espionage case to a grand jury in New York City, and immediately after testifying before the grand jury, Ethel Rosenberg was arrested as well.

On August 17, 1950, the federal grand jury for the Southern District of New York indicted Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Anatoli Yakovlev, who was no longer in the United States, charging them with conspiracy to spy for the Soviet Union in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. Although the indictment defined the object of the conspiracy broadly as the transmission of information relating to the national defense of the United States, public statements by Hoover made clear that government prosecutors believed that the Rosenbergs conspired to give the Soviet Union secret information regarding the atomic bomb. The charge of conspiracy, rather than espionage, required the prosecution to prove a common plan among the defendants and at least one overt act in furtherance of that plan, but did not require proof that the defendants succeeded in transmitting classified information to the Soviets.

The day after the indictment of the Rosenbergs, the FBI arrested engineer Morton Sobell, Julius Rosenberg’s college classmate and friend, on suspicion that he was a member of the espionage conspiracy. The grand jury soon added as defendants Sobell and David Greenglass, whose earlier indictment in New Mexico had been dismissed so that his case could be combined with those of the New York defendants. David Greenglass was the only defendant to plead guilty. Ruth Greenglass and Harry Gold had been named as co-conspirators in the original indictment but not charged. (Gold had pleaded guilty to espionage in federal court in Philadelphia.)

The trial

The trial of Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell opened on March 6, 1951, before Judge Irving Kaufman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Kaufman, a former federal prosecutor, had been on the bench less than two years, but already had a reputation as a staunch anti-Communist. A few months before the Rosenberg case, Kaufman presided over the trial of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz, Communists accused of conspiring to obstruct justice by convincing Harry Gold to lie to a federal grand jury investigating espionage in 1947. After the defendants were convicted, Kaufman gave them the maximum sentence, castigating them for attempting to “destroy” the United States. U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol, the chief prosecutor on the Brothman case and an assistant prosecutor in the Hiss and Dennis trials, headed up the Rosenberg prosecution. Emanuel Bloch, Julius Rosenberg’s attorney and the head of the defense team, was well known in New York City for working on behalf of a number of leftist causes and had represented Communists in other cases.

The prosecution’s case rested primarily on the testimony of four witnesses—David and Ruth Greenglass, Harry Gold, and Max Elitcher. Elitcher, a classmate of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell at the City College of New York in the late 1930s, was the only witness to name Sobell as a member of the Rosenberg espionage ring. David and Ruth Greenglass provided the only testimony linking the Rosenbergs to espionage. Together they described a series of events that were at the center of the prosecution’s case. According to Ruth, the Rosenbergs in November 1944 asked her to visit David, who was stationed at Los Alamos, and to convince him to steal classified information about the atomic bomb program. Ruth said that she persuaded David to participate in the espionage scheme and that she returned to New York with the requested information. David claimed that he returned to New York City on furlough in January 1945, whereupon he gave Julius sketches he had drawn of high-explosive lens molds used in the atomic bomb, and he described his work at Los Alamos to an unnamed Russian to whom he had been introduced by Julius. The Greenglasses testified that in June 1945, by which time Ruth was living with David in New Mexico, they passed stolen information to a courier who arrived at their home and uttered the predetermined phrase, “I come from Julius.” Julius, they claimed, had set up the meeting in January. Julius had given Ruth half of a torn Jell-O box and promised that the courier would arrive bearing the matching half. Harry Gold, the courier in question, took the witness stand and corroborated the Greenglasses’ testimony.

In the most damaging account, David Greenglass testified that he returned to New York City on another furlough in September 1945 and gave Julius several pages of handwritten notes and sketches regarding the atomic bomb. When the prosecution introduced replicas of the notes and sketches, Bloch asked that the documents be “impounded” and that Judge Kaufman bar spectators and reporters from the courtroom while Greenglass testified about the material. Although Bloch was attempting to impress the jury with his and the defendants’ concern for national security, his request was seen by many observers—including the prosecutors, Sobell’s lawyers, and at least some of the jurors—as a major blunder that lent credibility to the prosecutors’ contention that the material in question did, in fact, contain “the secret of the atomic bomb.”

David and Ruth claimed that Ethel typed a copy of David’s notes for delivery to the Soviets. Without this testimony, the prosecution would have had little evidence of Ethel’s involvement in espionage beyond her supposed role in asking Ruth Greenglass to recruit her husband into the spy ring in November 1944. In his closing argument, Irving Saypol told the jury that Ethel “sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

The testimony that sealed Ethel Rosenberg’s fate was almost certainly false. The Greenglasses made no mention of it in their initial confessions or in their subsequent interviews with the FBI, and Ruth did not bring it up in her testimony before the grand jury. It was not until shortly before trial, when Ruth still feared she would be indicted, that she first implicated Ethel in preparing the notes. David corroborated Ruth’s testimony on this point, but admitted years later that he had done so only to protect his wife.

Upon the conclusion of the prosecution’s case, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg took the stand to testify in their own defense. The Rosenbergs offered rote denials of the government’s allegations, and when they were asked whether they were Communists, they invoked their Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer. Julius, while proclaiming allegiance to the United States and respect for its system of justice, admitted that he admired the accomplishments of the Soviet Union and felt that it was primarily responsible for the defeat of the Nazis. The New York Times described Julius as “glib” and “self-assured” during direct examination but beset by “nervousness” and “hesitation” when cross-examined. Jurors later recalled the Rosenbergs as displaying no signs of emotion in court; one juror called Ethel Rosenberg “a steely, stony, tight-lipped woman.”

The verdicts and sentences

After the three-week trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdicts on March 29, 1951, finding Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell guilty of conspiring to commit espionage for the benefit of the Soviet Union. Judge Kaufman told the jurors, “My own opinion is that your verdict is a correct verdict.”

Prior to sentencing the defendants on April 5, Kaufman announced that because of the gravity of the case, he had not asked the prosecution for a sentencing recommendation, preferring to bear sole responsibility for his decision. Kaufman, however, had privately solicited the views of the prosecution, other judges, and Department of Justice officials. In his sentencing statement, Kaufman explained that the sentence was presented “in a unique framework of history” defined by democracy’s “life and death struggle with a completely different system.” He accused the Rosenbergs of trying to destroy the United States, characterizing their crime as “worse than murder.” He also assigned them at least partial blame for the outbreak of the Korean War, “with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” Kaufman then sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death, as authorized by the Espionage Act of 1917 in cases of wartime spying, and ordered that Morton Sobell spend thirty years in prison, the maximum term allowed under the statute. The following day, Kaufman sentenced David Greenglass to a reduced term of fifteen years in prison, citing his cooperation with the government.

The appeals

For more than two years after the sentencing, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg fought to avoid the electric chair. They appealed their conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then to the Supreme Court of the United States. They returned to the district court to request a rehearing and a reduced sentence, and when those efforts failed they appealed again to the Court of Appeals, and on several occasions to the Supreme Court. They and other lawyers directly petitioned the Supreme Court for writs of habeas corpus and stays of their execution pending arguments on new appeals and new evidence. The Rosenbergs also petitioned President Harry Truman for executive clemency in January 1953. Truman left office later that month without acting on the petition, and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, denied the request in February. Subsequent clemency petitions, one accompanied by a personal letter from Ethel Rosenberg, met with the same denial by Eisenhower.

In their appeals, motions, and petitions, the Rosenbergs and their lawyers argued at one point or another that both newspaper publicity and Judge Kaufman’s hostility toward the defendants had unfairly prejudiced the jurors; that the defendants were essentially being tried for treason without the constitutional protections guaranteed in treason prosecutions; that witnesses, including David Greenglass, committed perjury with the knowledge of the prosecutors; that the lead prosecutor was guilty of misconduct when he held a press conference announcing the indictment of a Rosenberg associate scheduled to give testimony; that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment because associates convicted of similar crimes received lighter sentences; that the prosecutors had violated the rules enforcing the constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses; and, in one of the last appeals, that the Rosenbergs should have been sentenced under a more recent act of Congress that required a jury recommendation for imposing the death penalty on defendants convicted of transmitting atomic secrets to a foreign nation.

The courts ordered several stays of execution to await further appeals or petitions, but none of the courts modified the sentences or ordered a new trial, and the Supreme Court never heard arguments on the Rosenbergs’ conviction. When asked to reduce their sentence to something less than death, Judge Kaufman refused and offered a strident defense of his decision. The Rosenbergs, he declared, “chose the path of traitors” and if ever released would resume their work for the Soviet Union; they maintained “a devotion which has caused them to choose martyrdom and to keep their lips sealed.” “The fact that the acts of the defendants were not characterized as treason” did nothing to mitigate the enormity of their crime, which exposed “millions of their countrymen to danger or death.”

The failed appeals and the vehemence of Judge Kaufman obscured the doubts expressed by other judges and the inner deliberations of the courts. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in his private notes that the published record of the Rosenberg case in the Supreme Court “does not tell the story. Indeed, it distorts the story; it largely falsifies the true course of events.” Similar comments might have been offered about the district court and the court of appeals. In the court of appeals, Jerome Frank, who was among those counseling Kaufman not to impose the death penalty, noted that precedent prohibited the appeals court from revising a sentence, but he suggested that the Supreme Court might want to revisit that rule. Frank privately wrote a prominent law professor that the trial had been fair, but that the sentence was not justified. In response to the alleged misconduct of the prosecutor who had held a press conference to announce perjury charges against a witness, Judge Thomas Swan wrote for the court of appeals that the apparent conduct of the prosecutor was “highly reprehensible” and “cannot be too severely condemned,” but the court denied the defendants’ appeal in part because the defense lawyers had made no motion for a mistrial when the incident occurred in the midst of the trial. Other decisions denying the Rosenbergs’ appeals cited the defense lawyers’ failure to ask for a change of venue or a mistrial or to raise related objections during the trial.

The appeals process played out against the backdrop of continuing public interest in the case and the fate of the defendants. The Rosenberg trial attracted international attention, and the death sentences intensified the fervor surrounding the case. Many on the left, including intellectuals, artists, and writers, protested the death sentences and urged clemency based on the belief that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of anti-Communist hysteria gripping the United States. Communists played a significant role in opposing the executions, but many others, especially clergy, fought for clemency because of religious and moral objections to the death penalty. In 1952, a reporter for the National Guardian, a left-wing New York City newspaper, led the creation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, which sought a new trial or clemency. Its members picketed the White House and emphasized that the Rosenbergs’ two young sons, Michael and Robert, would be orphaned if the death sentences were carried out. The Committee included both Communists and non-Communists, but its leadership maintained distance from the Communist Party USA in order to avoid alienating mainstream liberals.

By late spring of 1953, as opposition to the death sentences grew, many in the mainstream press and a number of government officials warned that the execution of the Rosenbergs might damage the international reputation of the United States in the Cold War battle for public opinion. The editorial writers for the Washington Post, who considered the trial fair and the evidence of the Rosenbergs’ guilt overwhelming, suggested “that the value of this case to the international Communist propaganda would have been far less if the milder penalty had been imposed.” Still, the Post noted, “the unhappy truth is that whether the Rosenbergs live or die, Communist propaganda stands to benefit. “ The U.S. ambassador to France, C. Douglas Dillon, writing through the secretary of state, urged President Eisenhower to appraise the Rosenberg sentence “in terms of higher national interest” and warned of the “long term damage that execution of Rosenbergs would do to foreign opinion of US and of our whole democratic processes.” Even the many French who accepted the guilt of the defendants, Dillon reported, “are overwhelmingly of [the] opinion” that the death penalty was unjustified.

Despite the large number of people who wanted to see the Rosenbergs spared, many Americans strongly favored the executions based on a deep-seated animus toward Communism and the belief that the Rosenbergs had brought the United States closer to nuclear devastation by delivering to the Soviets the key to the atomic bomb. Several members of Congress denounced Julius and Ethel as traitors who deserved the death penalty, and Representative W.M. Wheeler of Georgia sought to impeach Justice William O. Douglas after he granted the Rosenbergs a stay of execution. Douglas’s chambers were also deluged by angry letters and telegrams, some of them from members of the military and their families.

The legal appeals in defense of the Rosenbergs culminated in the Supreme Court. In October 1952, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 3, denied a petition for certiorari in the appeal of the conviction, with Justices Hugo Black, Harold Burton, and Felix Frankfurter in dissent. Over the next eight months, Black consistently voted to hear arguments on the various appeals from the Rosenberg trial, and Frankfurter became convinced that public acceptance of the verdict in this highly publicized trial would depend on the Supreme Court’s full review of the trial and conviction. The Court in November 1952 rejected a petition for a rehearing, and, after several shifts in the justices’ votes in their private conference, the Court rejected another certiorari petition in May 1953. Although five justices had at one point or another agreed, in private conference or in recorded votes, to accept some sort of appeal from the Rosenbergs, at no point were there sufficient votes to accept a particular petition or appeal.

On June 17, 1953, two days before the rescheduled execution of the Rosenbergs and after the Supreme Court had adjourned for the summer, Justice Douglas, who until late May had voted to deny each Rosenberg appeal, granted a stay of execution to allow the lower courts to determine the validity of the new argument that Kaufman should have sentenced the Rosenbergs under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which required a jury recommendation for the death penalty. The evening before, Justice Robert Jackson arranged a meeting between Attorney General Herbert Brownell and Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who promised to call the full Court into session to vacate any stay from Douglas. The justices, some of whom had left for annual vacations, returned to Washington and on June 18 heard arguments on a motion to vacate the stay. On June 19, by a vote of 6 to 3, the Supreme Court lifted the stay, and in a per curiam, or unsigned, opinion announced that “the question is not substantial” and “further proceedings to litigate it are unwarranted.”

Bloch made a final, futile appeal to Kaufman for a stay and to the president for clemency, but the Supreme Court decision to vacate Douglas’s stay cleared the way for the Rosenbergs’ execution, scheduled for that night at 11. In anticipation of the executions, thousands of people, some of them demonstrating in front of American embassies, rallied in support of the Rosenbergs in London, Paris, and other foreign cities as well as in the United States. After defense attorneys asked Judge Kaufman to prevent the executions from occurring on the Jewish Sabbath, which began at sundown, the judge ordered that the time be moved up to 8 p.m. On June 19, 1953, at 8:06 and 8:16 p.m., respectively, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were pronounced dead in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. They were the only American citizens to be put to death for espionage.

In July 1953, the Supreme Court issued signed opinions explaining the decision of June 19. Chief Justice Vinson’s opinion for the Court majority cited no precedent or statutory authority for the unusual decision to vacate a justice’s stay before the lower courts heard related arguments. Frankfurter’s dissent acknowledged the apparent “pathetic futility” of an opinion released after the execution, but noted that “history also has its claims,” and “this case is an incident in the long and unending effort to develop and enforce justice according to the law.” “The fact that Congress and not the whim of the prosecutor fixes sentences,” Frankfurter concluded, demanded that the Supreme Court should have addressed the question of the proper sentencing statute, regardless of how late the question appeared in the appeals. Douglas agreed that “no man or woman should go to death under an unlawful sentence merely because his lawyer failed to raise the point.”

The aftermath and legacy

In the sixty years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair, their case has lived on in public memory as a landmark event in the Cold War. For decades following the trial, the memory of the Rosenberg case served as an ideological battleground for those who decried the criminal prosecutions resulting from the Red Scare and those who insisted that the government had acted appropriately in response to a grave threat to national security.

Numerous books on the Rosenbergs were published between the 1950s and the 1990s, many of which reflected particular views of the Cold War and the impact of anti-Communism on the United States in the 1950s. Among those arguing for the Rosenbergs’ innocence were their sons, Michael and Robert, who took the last name Meeropol after being adopted following their parents’ deaths. In the mid-1970s, the brothers co-authored a book arguing that their parents had been framed, and they successfully sued the federal government for the release of FBI records relating to the case. But the end of the Cold War and public statements of other defendants shifted the terms of the debate to focus on the degree of Julius’s culpability, the strategic value of the information he provided to the Soviets, and the justification for the death penalty.

In 1995, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. National Security Agency released intercepted cables, which, along with declassified documents from the Soviet archives, confirmed that Julius Rosenberg did spy for the Soviets throughout the 1940s and was part of a larger spy ring within the United States. As many suspected given the paucity of the evidence against her, Ethel Rosenberg, while likely an accessory, was almost certainly not a spy. A Soviet cable from 1944 stated that Ethel was “sufficiently well developed politically” and that she knew about her husband’s espionage activities, but noted, “in view of delicate health [she] does not work.”

In 1960, David Greenglass was released from prison and rejoined his wife and children, who were living under assumed names. In 2001, Greenglass publicly admitted committing perjury on the stand in order to save Ruth from prosecution. Morton Sobell was released in 1969 and maintained his innocence until 2008, when he admitted in interviews that he had been a Soviet spy.

The iconic status of the Rosenberg case kept it alive in popular culture as well, through frequent references in music, novels, movies, plays, and television shows. Filmmaker Woody Allen, for example, had his character in the 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors proclaim of a loathed in-law, “I love him like a brother—David Greenglass.” Playwright Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America included scenes in which prosecutor Roy Cohn was haunted on his deathbed by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. In 2003, the fiftieth anniversary of the executions, Robert Meeropol published another book regarding the case, and the following year Michael Meeropol’s daughter, Ivy, premiered her documentary film, Heir to an Execution. While the Meeropols acknowledged Julius’s guilt, they and many other Americans continued to view the case—and Ethel Rosenberg’s death in particular—as evidence of the nation’s overreaction to the Communist threat.


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