This Week in History: 6 March 1951 The Rosenberg Trials

On the 6 of March 1951 in New York the Trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began. The charge? ‘Conspiracy to commit Espionage’. The act? The leaking of atomic weapon plans to the USSR. Though often considered treasonous, the fact that the USA and the USSR were on the same side in the Second World War, prevents this from being the case.

The USA’s efforts to create an atomic bomb were carried out in Los Alamos in New Mexico as part of the Manhattan project, with the best scientists gathering to aid American military hegemony. It soon became clear however, that atomic secrets were being passed to the Russians. This is due to the fact that, when Russia exploded its first bomb, it was an exact replica of the USA’s. It has since been estimated that the information smuggled out of Los Alamos to the USSR enabled them to develop their atomic bomb two years earlier than they otherwise would have done.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the scientists caught smuggling out these secrets. Caught due to the ‘Verona Cables’, deciphered cables between the Soviet consulate and the KGB, their guilt was confirmed by the testimony of David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel.

When questioned, Greenglass claimed to the FBI that he was recruited for espionage by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, his sister and brother-in-law. Due to his cooperation with the authorities, David received a mere 15 years and his wife Ruth, (who was also implicated) was never charged at all. The Rosenberg’s, however, were not so fortunate, both being sentenced to death. During the three-week trial, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg both denied all charges whilst invoking their fifth amendment right, refusing to speak when repeatedly asked about their political affirmations. Many felt that this refusal to speak was proof of their communist sympathies, incriminating them as allies of the USSR.

The death penalty was justified by the judge by saying that, “[he] consider[ed their] crimes worse than murder…Putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb, years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb…caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding fifty thousand, and who knows how many millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” He concluded that the Rosenbergs’ “love for their cause dominated their lives – it [being] greater than their love for their children.” On the 19th of June 1953, two years after the trial and after nine unsuccessful appeals to the U.S Supreme court, the couple were executed on the electric chair.

During their wait on death row, there was an intense national debate as to the justification for their fate. It was strongly felt that justice was being ignored due to the atmosphere of fear surrounding Soviet Russia and communism. Since then much more information has been released regarding the espionage that went on between Los Alamos and the KGB, making it more and more apparent that the roles that the Rosenberg’s played were incredibly minor. Due to this, the trial has often been seen since as a miscarriage of justice and the Rosenbergs as victims of a court system that was weighted against them from the outset.

Illustration: Michael Black

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