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The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began on this date 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 -- on June 19, 1953. 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. Leftwing Jewish families were especially traumatized by the spectacle of “one of theirs” seemingly being 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, the release of the case’s grand jury transcripts, and a 2008 admission of guilt 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 to his actions. 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
For archival and more recent material on the Rosenberg trial, read:
- William Reuben’s article “Truth about the Rosenbergs’ Case” [PDF] from the November 1951 issue of Jewish Life
- Aaron Katz’s review of The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton (1983) [PDF], from the November 1983 issue of Jewish Currents
- Carol Jochnowitz’s essay, “The Rosenberg Trial: What is Left to Say,” on two 2010 books about the Rosenbergs -- Exoneration: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell, by Emily Arnow Alman and David Alman; and Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, by Walter Schneir, from the Winter 2010-2011 issue of Jewish Currents