Ethel Rosenberg was executed by electric chair for sending the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. America felt justified in view of the impending nuclear holocaust. But that holocaust has not yet happened, and documents and confessions have been declassified in dribbles over the decades, and the story is now very, very different than the one the jury heard.
This is the final episode in the series Women in Espionage.
Gone are the days when I could barely find enough sources to scrape together an episode. There is so much written about the Rosenberg case, it would take years to read it all, and I didn’t. But I read enough to know that the story changes depending on when it was written. The facts have come out in dribbles across the decades as things got declassified. Historians have been writing about it all along, so it’s no surprise that some of what they said turned out not to be true.
To cope with all the misinformation and still tell a coherent story, I have chosen to tell it twice: once as it appeared to the American public. And then again, as it presumably appeared to Ethel, always bearing in mind that there’s probably still information we don’t have.
So first, the official public story:
The United States had a searing experience in World War Two, but not as searing as every other major participant. The success of the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb, brought the war to a halt and gave Americans a heady rush of power, swiftly followed by worrying responsibility and a dawning realization that being the world’s #1 superpower is the same as being the world’s #1 target. It was obviously of the utmost importance that no enemy got their untrustworthy fingers on the bomb. Because if they did, that would be the end of not just the United States, but probably the whole world.
Plenty of Americans were old enough to remember the Red Scare after World War One when all labor unions were (supposedly) preparing to blow up (literally) the American way of life and impose Bolshevik-style Communism. But in the early 1940s, Nazi-style fascism was obviously the greater threat, so when Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact, the American Communists were appalled, while the anti-Communists said: We told you so. Stalin and his people are just evil.
When Hitler violated that pact and invaded the Soviet Union anyway, the Soviets were suddenly transformed into an uneasy ally under the old theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And when the war had neutralized any foreseeable threat from Germany or Japan, there the Soviets were: still Communist, still dangerous.
Thankfully, they were scientifically incompetent. Americans knew they were scientifically incompetent because their leaders told them so. In 1946, a prominent official from the Manhattan Project proudly declared Russians would never make a nuclear bomb. “Why those people can’t even make a jeep,” he said (Sebba, 86).
So it was a huge shock when the Soviet Union tested its first bomb in August of 1949. This disaster was closely followed by the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China. And then the Communist Soviet-allied North Korea invaded the democratic, US-allied South Korea. The world was falling to Communism like dominoes and impending doom hung heavy.
In early 1950, Senator McCarthy gave his famous speech where he shouted “I hold in my hand a list of”—insert the number of your choice—”who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring” (Carmichael, 47). Accounts varied as to just what number McCarthy had said, but it was certainly a hefty number. Very hefty. And note that he linked two things: members of the Communist party and members of a spy ring. As if those were necessarily the same thing.
Around the same time, a theoretical physicist named Klaus Fuchs confessed to British authorities that he had worked on the Manhattan Project and leaked information to the Soviets. He accused fellow conspirator Harry Gold. Who implicated a machinist named David Greenglass. Who pointed the finger at his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg.
The very name Rosenberg was impossibly ethnic, and for many Americans conjured visions of the dirty and devious Jews of Eastern Europe, who were both Communist and anti-Christian.
In August of 1950, Rosenberg’s wife Ethel was also arrested, and the New York Times headline read “Atomic Spy Plot Is Laid to Woman.” This headline gave Ethel a mythic role. The Woman Eve had sinned and knocked humanity out of the garden of Eden at the beginning of time, and here was another woman sinning to usher in humanity’s final destruction (Carmichael, 89).
When it came to trial, this ugly, dumpy woman neither smiled, nor cried, nor showed any remorse at all, but just looked stony-faced. She refused to cooperate in any way and would not name a single other member of the spy ring that led directly to the millions currently dying in Korea.
She did not budge through all the appeals and motions and due process the great American justice system could provide. It was obviously regrettable to be forced to use the death penalty on a mother of two small children. But President Eisenhower spoke for the majority of Americans when he denied a presidential pardon on the grounds that “the nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of taking the life of another citizen” (Press Release, February 11, 1953).
And as if to prove that she was the stronger in the Rosenberg partnership, the very heart of the conspiracy, it took five jolts of electricity to kill her, when her weaker husband had died after only three.
So much for the official story.
But with every subsequent revelation and declassification, the truth has become less and less like that official story. So let’s go back and tell it again.
We begin in 1915, when Ethel Greenglass was born in the desperately poor and overcrowded tenements of New York. Her father was a Jewish immigrant from Minsk, her mother Tessie from Austria. They spoke Yiddish at home and were culturally Jewish, though not very religious.
Tessie never loved her daughter, preferring her youngest child, David. Initially, I was annoyed by this unverified and hard-to-prove assertion because I am a mother, and in general I think we deserve more charity than we get. But in this case, Tessie’s relationship with her kids is important and problematic, as you’ll see.
But Ethel was smart and hardworking, so she did well in school, despite the lack of support at home. She liked drama and when she graduated in 1931, she’s listed in the yearbook as the class actress (Sebba, 21).
Neither college nor an acting career were in the cards for a girl whose family needed her income. So she took a 6-month secretarial course and got a job at a packing company. She joined a choir, took singing lessons, and bought herself a second-hand piano.
The job was low paid, of course. Ethel joined the union and helped organize a strike, for which she was fired.
I think you can see why a girl from her background might well have been attracted to a Communist ideal that promised fairness and equality and a decent standard of living. Capitalism hadn’t brought her any of that. She attended meetings and rallies, and her voice was good enough that rally organizers asked her to perform at them.
So on New Year’s Eve, 1936, she was at a benefit concert, singing an Italian favorite called Ciribiribin.
In the audience was an 18-year-old engineering student who later said “I have loved her ever since that night, and always when I hear her sing it is like the first time and I know that they can never part us—nothing will” (Sebba, 32).
His name was Julius Rosenberg. They were married in 1939.
As an engineer, Julius was reasonably safe from the draft. After some initial difficulty, he found a job. Ethel quit hers (her new one), as was expected of a good American wife. Julius didn’t get paid much. But they were happy and in love.
In 1943, their first son was born. He was difficult. Sick and crying all the time. Ethel didn’t recover her health well either. But she was determined to be a better mother than hers had been. She subscribed to parenting magazines, read up on the latest theories, and got therapy for both herself and eventually her child, which was much more unusual then than it is now. She may have continued to hold Communist opinions, but she was far too busy as a mother to do anything about them.
Meanwhile, her little brother David had grown up too. He was neither as smart nor as hardworking as Ethel. He failed out of his first semester of college, married his high school sweetheart Ruth, got a factory job, and eventually got sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, as a machinist to do repair work. Los Alamos, being of course, the location of the Manhattan Project.
For many years it was possible for Rosenberg sympathizers to claim that Julius was framed, and he was innocent, but this is not the case. Besides the testimony of Harry Gold and David Greenglass, the proof is the encrypted cables that were sent from the Soviet Union to their agents in the US. These were intercepted during the war, decrypted over the next few years, but not declassified until 1995.
Of the 3000 cables in the collection, nineteen mention Julius, whose codename was Liberal. David Greenglass was Caliber. His wife Ruth was Wasp.
Ethel had no code name. There are only two cables that refer to her at all. The first said:
Intelligence on Liberal’s wife. Surname that of her husband. Christian name Ethel 29 years old. Married 5 years. Finished middle school. A fellow countryman in 1938. Sufficiently well-developed politically. She knows about her husband’s work and the role of Meter and Nil. In view of her delicate health does not work.(Sebba, 225; Blum, 161)
Meter and Nil were two other agents, but that’s not important. What this cable specifically says is that Ethel was a sympathizer, but not an agent. Historians have argued whether “does not work” is literal, meaning she did not have paid employment. Or did it mean espionage work? Either way, it says she didn’t do it.
The other cable said: Liberal and his wife recommend [Ruth Greenglass] as an intelligent and clever girl.” This too is open to interpretation. Does this mean Ethel specifically recruited Ruth into an established ring? Or did she merely say to her husband, Ruth’s very clever, don’t you think? And her husband went to his Soviet handler and said My wife and I think Ruth’s very clever. Because those are not the same thing at all (Sebba, 224).
Why would Julius and David give secrets to the Soviets? They were Communist sympathizers, it is true, but it wasn’t only Communists who thought scientific information should be shared. Many wondered how the post-war peace could possibly be settled fairly when one side held such an enormous advantage. Also, the scientific principles behind the bomb were well-known around the world, and what one team can invent, another team can reinvent. Walter Lippmann, the commentator who invented the concept of the Cold War, wrote
If the secret cannot be kept, it is unnecessary to argue whether it ought to be kept. Moreover, it would be in the highest degree dangerous to suppose we were keeping the secret if in fact we were not. . . How then can we best protect mankind against the terrible possibility of this new scientific knowledge? . . . Only by making the knowledge so universal that it would be impossible for any government to perfect in secret some new devilish application of it.(Carmichael, 53)
Some scientists were concerned from a more personal angle. Edward U. Condon, director of the Bureau of Standards had said that “having created an air of suspicion and mistrust, there will be persons among us who think other nations can know nothing except what is learned by espionage. So, when other countries make atom bombs, these persons will cry ‘treason’ at our scientists, for they will find it inconceivable that another country could make a bomb in any other way except by aid from Americans” (Carmichael, 55).
Which is exactly what happened. In September of 1949, just weeks after the Soviet bomb was tested, J. Edgar Hoover told his staff at the FBI, “The bomb has been stolen. Find the thieves” (Carmichael, 62).
So David and Julius could cite a variety of reasons for what they did. It seems unlikely that Ethel didn’t know what they were doing. But in US law, it is not a crime to fail to report a crime.
And initially, the prosecution wasn’t very interested in her. David implicated Julius, not her, and that’s who the feds arrested.
The arrest itself is telling of attitudes though. The agents who arrested him and ransacked the apartment reported that his wife had asked for their warrant, “a typical Communist remonstrance,” (Sebba, 97) they said, as if there was something Communist about her invoking the fourth amendment of the US Constitution.
But unlike David, Julius denied everything. He refused to hand over any names of this supposedly huge spy ring. So the agents needed a new strategy, and the assistant prosecutor laid it out very clearly:
The only thing that will break this man Rosenberg is the prospect of a death penalty or getting the chair, plus if we can convict his wife, too, and give her a stiff sentence of 25 or 30 years, that combination may serve to make this fellow disgorge and give us the information on those other individuals. . . It is about the only thing you can use as a lever on these people . . . the case is not too strong against Mrs. Rosenberg. But for the purpose of acting as a deterrent, I think it is very important that she be convicted too, and given a strong sentence.(Carmichael, 53)
There it was, prosecute Ethel not because she is guilty, but because she’s a lever, an expendable tool. So they arrested Ethel and set the bail so high she could not possibly pay it, not even to make arrangements for her two boys, ages 7 and 3.
And the children were what concerned her the most. They were sent to her mother Tessie at first. But they were miserably unhappy, and Tessie didn’t want them, and why hadn’t Ethel said whatever she needed to say to save David? Yes, Tessie actually asked that. To her, the whole mess was obviously Julius and Ethel’s fault for leading David and Ruth astray. Also, Ethel should get a divorce and leave Julius to his fate (Sebba, 111). Her older brother Sam had similar thoughts, writing to her that “there is not much more disgrace you could bring to your family” (Sebba, 112).
Tessie declared she’d had enough of the boys, so they were sent to a children’s shelter, which was even worse. They. All Ethel could do was write them bright, encouraging letters, assuring them that things would turn out well.
But actually things were not turning out well at all. From the start the Rosenberg defense was hampered. The prosecution had the full resources of the government at hand. The Rosenbergs couldn’t afford much, the Communist party declined to finance it, and a slew of lawyers wouldn’t take the case anyway. In the end, the Rosenbergs had just one father-son attorney team: Alexander and Manny Bloch, who had good intentions but no experience with a case like this (Sebba, 121).
The trial began on March 6, 1951. Julius was confident and dapper. Ethel was striving to appear calm and dignified, but she came across as “cold and unfeeling,” simply “radiating her disdain,” as the newspapers reported it (Sebba, 125).
Probably no one in the courtroom even knew about those two cables that I read you. They were still classified, for fear of revealing to the Soviets the American decryption capabilities. But everyone was assured that the FBI had incontrovertible proof of the Rosenbergs’ guilt, even if they weren’t actually sharing that proof.
The prosecution produced an impressive list of 102 possible witnesses including many very prominent scientists.
Their most important witness was David Greenglass, who had been convicted already, but had not yet been sentenced. So he had every incentive to play the good boy in hopes of a lighter sentence.
In US jurisprudence, a grand jury happens before the trial, and the prosecution presents their evidence to determine if there is probable cause to bring the case to trial. The grand jury proceeding is not open to the public, and the trial jury is a fresh group of people with no knowledge of the grand jury testimony. The grand jury testimony of David Greenglass did not get released until 2015, but in it, he stated that “I never spoke to my sister at all about this. . . I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all” (Sebba, 238).
That is the testimony the defense would have been expecting at the trial. So it was an enormous surprise when David testified that he had now remembered that Ethel had typed up all the reports for Julius, often working late into the night. He said that Ethel had introduced him to a neighbor who might serve as courier. He said Ethel, Julius, and Ruth had cut up a Jello box in a jagged pattern, so the 2 halves fit together and having that box would be identification from any unfamiliar courier (Sebba, 139).
Is it any wonder that Ethel looked stony-faced, as the newspapers claimed? Here was her baby brother, her own flesh and blood, lying about her to save his own skin.
Then Ruth got on the stand. She verified everything David had said and added that Ethel had told her to get David involved. They never would have gone wrong without the Rosenberg influence.
A scientist was called to explain to the jury the significance of the sketches and diagrams David produced (by memory) of the information he had passed on. The originals, of course, were in Soviet hands by now.
Manny Bloch tried to object, but the judge shot him down. The prosecution then rested, having called hardly any of their 102 possible witnesses, but the implication was clear: obviously those scientists would have confirmed that the Rosenbergs had indeed handed over a complete instruction manual on the atomic bomb.
Now for the defense. Julius took the stand and denied or pled the 5th on everything. So did Ethel.
The prosecution badgered them about the questions they hadn’t answered so much that tiny inconsistencies showed up and they came across as slippery and unreliable, exactly what you would expect from a pair of godless Commies.
In his closing remarks, Bloch asked the jury some very good questions. Like why hadn’t Ruth Greenglass been arrested? Both she and David agreed she had been involved. Why was her testimony almost word for word the same as David’s? Obviously, they had been coached. They had rehearsed it together. They were selling out Ethel and Julius as part of a deal for a lighter sentence for David and no prosecution for Ruth.
The prosecution closed with these words: “Rosenberg got from [David] the cross-section sketch of the atom bomb and a twelve-page description of this vital weapon. This description . . . destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she on countless other occasions sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets” (Sebba, 168).
The jury found them guilty.
White-faced, Julius and Ethel left the courtroom. During the brief time they had together, Ethel sang “Un bel di, vedremo,” a Puccini aria where a woman yearns for her husband. Reportedly, a guard said to Julius “You’re a low-down son of a b—, but you’re the luckiest man in the world because no man ever had a woman who loved him that much” (Sebba, 174).
And it was love that motivated Ethel. She loved Julius. She also loved her boys. She had spent all of their short lives trying to be a good mother and create a better family than the one she had grown up with. Yes, she could have told the prosecution everything she knew. She could have embellished it too. She had no shortage of role models for how to backstab your only family members. Her mother, her brother, her sister-in law, all were blatantly willing to sacrifice her. But she wasn’t going to be like them. She was better than that. She wanted to be with her boys, but even more she wanted to show them that love and loyalty matter above all else: You don’t betray your family. Not ever.
There was an appeal of course, but it failed. Ethel was transferred to Sing Sing prison, the Death House wing. As the only female prisoner, she was alone with her thoughts. Manny Bloch found her remarkably calm. “They expect me to break under the strain because I am a woman,” she told him. “They think that in the Death House I will be haunted by images, alone, and without Julie I’ll collapse. But I won’t.” (Sebba, 177).
Outside the prison, there were rumblings. The National Guardian was the first major publication to oppose the verdict. Albert Einstein wrote to the New York Times that he thought the death sentence was out of line. Pro-Rosenberg committees popped up, especially in Europe.
But most of the press was still waxing on about impending Communist threats. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The ACLU wouldn’t help. Eleanor Roosevelt wouldn’t help. J. Edgar Hoover wouldn’t help. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower wouldn’t help.
Even after Julius had been electrocuted, Ethel was asked if she had any names to give. She said she was innocent. They had wanted her as a lever on Julius, but she died having given them nothing. The deputy attorney general said, “She called our bluff” (Sebba, 217).
Tessie didn’t come to the funeral. Five days later she called the FBI to say her daughter was a soldier of Stalin. David was in prison, of course. He had been given 15 years. Ruth was shocked at how harsh his sentence was.
Julius was guilty of passing information, but he wasn’t responsible for the destruction of humanity. The question no one asked at the trial was how a repairman like David, who had flunked every one of his college courses, was capable of drawing a nuclear bomb from memory on a single sheet of paper (Sebba, 87). It’s ludicrous to say that an offsite electrical engineer and a temporarily onsite machinist could possibly have condensed the entire Manhattan Project into a complete manual on Build-Your-Own-Nuclear-Bomb. They simply weren’t that important, and they didn’t know that much.
In the 1990s, a retired KGB colonel came forward to say he had been Julius’s handler. “Julius didn’t understand anything about the atomic bomb,” he said, “and he couldn’t help us.” About Ethel, he said “I think she knew, but for that you don’t kill people” (Stanley).
in 2001, David Greenglass admitted on 60 Minutes that he had lied about Ethel typing. It was a choice between his sister and his wife, he said. He chose his wife (Sebba, 238).
I hate to leave this whole series on a downer, so let me give you what good news there is. Despite their difficult childhood, the Rosenberg boys did very well. A loving couple adopted them, and they grew up to have successful careers and families of their own. Their understanding of their family history has evolved with each new revelation and declassification, but they too have learned about loyalty, just as Ethel wanted them to. They have petitioned the government to exonerate their mother multiple times, most recently in July of 2022.
They also have a nonprofit called the Rosenberg Fund for Children. It awards grants to help the children of parents who have been targeted as activists. I will place a link on the website in case you’d like to check it out.
My major source for today is Anne Sebba’s biography Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. Check out her halfofhistory.com for a transcript, pictures, and more sources. Follow me on Facebook at Her Half of History or on Twitter @her_half. This is it for Women in Espionage, not because there aren’t more women spies, but because I honestly can’t take any more heart break. What with the holidays, Series 9 will not start until January, but there will be a holiday special episode in December, so stay subscribed and leave me lots of 5 star reviews. Thanks!
Blum, Howard. In the Enemy’s House : The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies. New York, Harper Perennial, 2019.
Carmichael, Virginia. Framing History : The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War. Minneapolis, University Of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Eisenhower, Dwight. “Press Release, February 11, 1953.” NSC Staff Papers, 11 Feb. 1953. Available online at https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/julius-and-ethel-rosenberg. Accessed October 19, 2022.
Rosenberg Fund for Children. Rosenberg Fund for Children, 16 July 2019, http://www.rfc.org/. Accessed 16 July 2019.
Sebba, Anne. Ethel Rosenberg. St. Martin’s Press, 8 June 2021.
Stanley, Alessandra. “K.G.B. Agent Plays down Atomic Role of Rosenbergs.” New York Times, 16 Mar. 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/16/world/kgb-agent-plays-down-atomic-role-of-rosenbergs.html?sq=feklisov&scp=3&st=nyt. Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.