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March 6: The Rosenberg Trial

Lawrence Bush
March 6, 2010

200px-Julius_Rosenberg_mugshotThe trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began on this day in 1951. Charged with conspiracy to commit atomic espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, they would become the first civilians executed as spies in U.S. history. Opposition to their sentence became an international cause, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein, Harold Urey, Jean Cocteau, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Picasso, Pope Pius XII and hundreds of other scientists, artists and world leaders weighing in for clemency in the course of the Rosenbergs’ ordeal. Left-wing Jewish families were especially traumatized by the spectacle of “one of theirs” being seemingly plucked out of life and railroaded to the electric chair. Neither the mainstream liberal American Jewish community nor the American Civil Liberties Union would touch the case, however. After conducting a trial rife with legal misconduct, Judge Irving Kaufman declared the Rosenbergs to be responsible for the Korean War and the death of thousands. Investigations by Ronald Radosh (The Rosenberg File, 1983), among others, as well as subsequent disclosures of Soviet-era documents and a recent statement by co-defendant Morton Sobell have led most people to conclude that Julius Rosenberg did participate in espionage with Ethel, at worst, as a witness. Some who were deeply involved in protesting the fate of the Rosenbergs remain unconvinced.

The Rosenbergs’ orphaned sons believe that “whatever atomic bomb information their father passed to the Russians was, at best, superfluous; the case was riddled with prosecutorial and judicial misconduct; their mother was convicted on flimsy evidence to place leverage on her husband; and neither deserved the death penalty.” —New York Times, 9/16/08

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​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.