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International Socialist Review Issue 29, May–June 2003

The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

by Elizabeth Schulte

This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we’re gonna kill ya!
–Julius Rosenberg1

THIS YEAR marks 50 years since the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on June 19, 1953–a murder committed by the U.S. government in the name of national security and the Cold War fight against communism. The official crime for which they were tried was conspiracy to commit espionage. In particular–though this was not part of the formal indictment–they were accused of passing "atomic secrets" to the Soviet Union. But as the case waged against them by the government, the courts and the press made clear, their real crime was being communists.

The Rosenbergs were arrested in 1951, at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunt against communists, their sympathizers and anyone Senator Joe McCarthy selected to put on trial for dissent. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) interviewed thousands of individuals, calling on them to turn in their neighbors, coworkers, friends or family members whom they suspected to be communists. Probably the best remembered are the Hollywood writers and actors who were called before HUAC, but thousands of ordinary people–civil rights activists, trade unionists, people who had signed a peace petition or contributed to the anti-fascist cause–lost their jobs and were blacklisted or jailed as a result of the witch-hunt.

The U.S. government’s hunt for communists at home was the necessary corollary to its conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The witch-hunts whipped up a frenzy of terror across American society. Communists, HUAC and its cohorts argued, were everywhere acting as a "fifth column," trying to undermine the U.S. by fomenting revolt or spying to serve the interests of the Soviet Union.

Draconian laws were passed, such as the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, which declared that to be a communist meant that your allegiance was to the Soviet Union and not to the U.S. It stipulated that in an emergency, citizens could be imprisoned on the suspicion that they might engage in criminal activities.

In many ways, it was a much more dangerous and terrifying world to live in. In August 1945, the world saw the horrific results of the atomic age, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. In an instant, with each atomic bomb, hundreds of thousands of people were killed or maimed. What our leaders didn’t tell us was that the U.S. knew that Japan was prepared to surrender, without the use of atomic bombs.

In 1949, President Harry S. Truman announced that the U.S. had discovered evidence that the Soviet Union was conducting atomic tests, and the Cold War fervor increased. Collier’s magazine reported in 1953 that "use of the word panic in the public press had increased 1,447 percent; the use of the word survival has increased by 2,034 percent."2 Couple this hysteria with America’s entry into the Korean War, and the backdrop for the conviction of the Rosenbergs was set.

U.S. officials wrongly believed that Russia was incapable of developing the bomb on its own–the formula for making one, in their minds, must have been stolen from U.S. scientists. According to one sympathetic chronicler, as soon as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover heard about Russia exploding the bomb, he "reach[ed] for the telephone. He gave a series of orders to his key subordinates and soon the vast machinery of the FBI was in high gear. In essence, Hoover’s orders were: ‘The secret of the atomic bomb has been stolen. Find the thieves!’"3

The notion that the Rosenbergs, two ordinary people from New York City, could lead a spy ring and steal the secret to the atomic bomb fed the fears being whipped up by McCarthy and his witch-hunters. A wife, a mother, a husband, a father–anyone could be a Russian spy. In many ways, the Rosenbergs were very ordinary people. Like many people who came of age during the grinding poverty of the Great Depression, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were radicalized and joined the struggles of the time. Both were the children of Jewish immigrant families living on New York’s poor Lower East Side.

Julius’s mother and father, both Russian immigrants, worked in garment sweatshops in New York City. "We were so poor," one of Julius’s sisters recalls, "my mother would hard boil an egg so that she could divide it among us."4 Julius’s father was a shop chairman and an active trade unionist. For this, he was blacklisted. Julius was also radicalized by political causes of the time–the cases of Tom Mooney and then the Scottsboro Boys and later the opposition to fascism in Italy. Julius supported socialist causes, and attended Young Communist Party debates, rallies and parades as a student at City College.

Ethel came from a similar background. Her father, a Russian immigrant, made a meager living operating a sewing machine repair shop. At the age of 19, Ethel was fired from her job as a clerk at a shipping company after leading 150 women workers in a walkout in 1935. The two were married in 1939. Ethel was 23 and Julius was 21 years old. They were both committed to the fight against fascism and for the cause of communism, collected funds for the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and were members of the Communist Party. Beginning in 1940, Julius worked as a civilian inspector of electronic products, visiting defense plants and military installations for the Signal Corps. In 1945, when his past affiliation with the Communist Party–by 1943, the couple were no longer active in the CP–was revealed, Julius was fired. At the time of his arrest, he operated a small machine shop with three employees that was in financial straits.

The case against the Rosenbergs

J. Edgar Hoover dubbed the Rosenbergs’ alleged spying "the crime of the century." But the real crime committed in this case was the trial itself. The U.S. government built its case against them around a sequence of questionable confessions as well as coaxed and coerced testimony. "When…"one examines the actual facts," wrote John Wexley, who wrote one of the first full-scale examinations of the case, "the apparently cohesive sequence becomes but a house of cards. Touch any part, and it all begins to shake."5

In February 1950, Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British scientist, confessed in England to giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Fuchs could not recall the name of the contact he allegedly met in the U.S. and passed information to, and he could provide only a vague description of him.

In May–only three days after Fuchs was interviewed by FBI agents–the FBI claimed to have found their man. A Philadelphia chemist named Harry Gold suddenly told the FBI that he had played the role of courier for Fuchs in 1944—45, after FBI agents searching his house confronted him with evidence that he once visited Santa Fe, New Mexico. The next month, David Greenglass signed a confession that he was an accomplice of Gold’s. On July 6, a federal grand jury indicted him for meeting with Harry Gold in Albuquerque and provided him a sketch of a high explosive lens mold and notes on the Los Alamos project in exchange for $500. During the Second World War, Greenglass was an army machinist stationed at the Los Alamos Atomic Project. He was also Ethel Rosenberg’s brother.

On July 17, Julius Rosenberg was arrested on charges of recruiting Greenglass to a spy ring in 1944. Ethel was arrested about four weeks later on charges of conspiring to commit espionage with her husband, Greenglass and Gold. She was not even allowed to make arrangements for the care of her sons when she was taken away. The Rosenbergs’ children, 3-year-old Robert and 7-year-old Michael, were left with their grandmother. It would take a year for the boys to see their parents again. Later, a former college classmate of Julius’s, Morton Sobell, was arrested by the FBI after being deported to the U.S. from Mexico, and was charged with being part of the same spy ring.

The case against the Rosenbergs was circumstantial at best. At the beginning of the trial, the prosecution announced that it would call more than 100 witnesses, including prominent scientists, who would prove that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were part of a plot to steal secrets for the Soviet Union. In the end, only 23 were actually called forward to testify. On the list of those never called to testify were scientists such as Nobel Prize winner Dr. Harold C. Urey, a man who was in fact opposed to the Rosenbergs’ conviction. There were only a handful of key witnesses for the prosecution, and none of them were credible.

Among them were two self-proclaimed former Soviet spies with dubious credentials–Harry Gold and Elizabeth Bentley. Gold was an inveterate liar who crafted his testimony to meet the needs of the Justice Department. Like Fuchs, the only evidence of Harry Gold’s career as a Russian spy was his own claim. He was a completely cooperative and inventive witness. With each retelling of his crimes, Gold would reshape the facts. According to historians Walter and Miriam Schneir, "As described by Gold, the [FBI] agents frequently briefed him with information and implied the direction in which they were interested in having his story move."6 Gold even admitted in an autobiographical statement that he "spent a great deal of time in the very enjoyable pastime of imagining Harry Gold…always of course in a stern and self-sacrificing role."7

Elizabeth Bentley, a self-proclaimed former American Communist Party member and now professional anticommunist who claimed she had spied for the Soviet government, was put on the stand to demonstrate party members’ commitment to serve Russia, whether it meant propaganda or espionage. In addition, Bentley threw in a tale about a contact of hers who went by the name "Julius."

The most damning testimony in the trial was that of Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, who had a falling out with Julius and would finger his brother-in-law as the ringleader in a diabolical spy ring. Two years ago, Greenglass emerged from hiding and admitted that he had cut a deal with the FBI in order to get a lighter sentence and to shield his wife from prosecution. He now says that the single piece of testimony that was used to convict and execute his sister, that she typed up his "spy" notes, was a lie.8 Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years and was out on parole in 10.

Because the charge against the Rosenbergs was conspiracy, no tangible evidence that they had stolen anything or given it to anybody needed to be presented at the trial. In fact, no such evidence was ever produced. The "physical evidence" presented included a picture of a table that David’s wife, Ruth Greenglass, claimed had been a special gift from the Soviets to the Rosenbergs (a story that was later disproved). The Greenglasses claimed it had a hollowed-out portion underneath that held a lamp that Julius used for taking "pictures on microfilm of typewritten notes." Other "damning" evidence presented at the trial was a cardboard Jello box. The prosecution said the box was similar to the one that Rosenberg had cut in half, giving one piece to Greenglass and the other to Gold so that the two could identify each other.

When facts didn’t support the prosecution’s case, the facts conveniently changed. Prior to Julius’s arrest, Gold had testified that the code phrase he used when meeting the GI in Albuquerque–whom he later was able to identify as David Greenglass with FBI help–was "Benny sent me." After Julius Rosenberg’s arrest, Gold simply changed his story, replacing Benny with Julius.

Prominent in the case against Julius Rosenberg were the sketches David Greenglass allegedly made for Gold of a high explosive lens mold used to make the atom bomb. Greenglass claimed also that he later gave Julius a sketch of a nuclear "implosion bomb" and a 12-page description of it, which he claimed was then typed up by Ethel Rosenberg. Replicas of Greenglass’s drawing of the lens mold and the atom bomb cross-section were presented by prosecuting attorneys Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn at the trial. The drawings, done by Greenglass after he was taken into police custody, were crude and amateurish. This is not surprising, since Greenglass, as a machinist, had no scientific training. That didn’t stop the prosecution from presenting witnesses willing to testify as to the usefulness and accuracy of the drawings. All the so-called physical evidence presented, from the "trick" table to the Jello box to the sketches, were merely illustrations of things that were asserted to have existed–not real evidence of anything.

The only real proof of the Rosenbergs’ guilt that the prosecution presented was their left-wing affiliations. Prosecutor Irving Saypol opened his case: "The evidence will show that the loyalty and allegiance of the Rosenbergs and Sobell were not to our country, but that it was to communism, communism in this country and communism throughout the world."9

As proof of the Rosenbergs’ communist ties, prosecutors presented a can used to collect donations for Republican children in Spain and Communist Party nominating petition Ethel had signed in 1939. They put Ethel and Julius’s political views on trial, grilling them on their views of the Soviet system and whether they had membership in the Communist Party. The Rosenbergs took the tack of most communists of the time and took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer repeated prosecution questions about their political affiliations.


After two weeks of testimony, the jury found Sobell and the Rosenbergs guilty. Sobell was sentenced to 30 years. Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death.

In his speech upon sentencing, Judge Kaufman argued:

I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim…in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country…

Indeed, the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected–all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives–it was even greater than their love for their children.10

Kaufman condemned them for treason, which is usually defined as aiding the enemy during wartime. Even if the Rosenbergs were guilty of giving secrets to Russia, they were supposed to have done this during the Second World War, when Russia was an ally of the U.S. In the eyes of the court, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were not only guilty of being communists and traitors; they were responsible for the Korean War as well. Kaufman’s speech exposes the case against the Rosenbergs for what it was–a political show trial.

Ethel Rosenberg

The Rosenbergs were transferred to Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. Julius went to the Death House, and Ethel was sent to a cell for the condemned, where she was the only woman prisoner, and lived in virtual isolation completely separated from Julius. A date of May 21 was set for their execution, which was stayed pending appeal. The Rosenbergs’ convictions were unanimously upheld in February 1952 by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Throughout the trial, the only conspiracy attributed to Ethel was typing up the information from alleged spy meetings–based solely on the testimony of the Greenglasses. Clearly the death penalty was far too harsh a sentence for the small role that she was supposed to have played. The prosecution believed that it could use Ethel’s death sentence as a lever to force a confession from Julius. Assistant U. S. Attorney Myles Lane, one of the attorneys handling the Rosenberg case, told a secret session of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy before the trial, "[T]he only thing that will break this man Rosenberg is the prospect of a death penalty or getting the chair, plus that if we can convict his wife, too, and give her a sentence of 25 or 30 years, that combination may serve to make this fellow disgorge."11

The government wanted to force Julius to confess to espionage and finger others in the process–and they were willing to gamble with Ethel’s life in order to do so. Clearly they had not anticipated the couple’s unbending determination to prove their innocence.

A month after being transferred to Sing Sing, Ethel released a statement to the press that was quoted in the left-wing weekly newspaper the National Guardian. She told government officials trying to break her, that they were "in for a sad awakening. We are victims of the grossest type of political frame-up ever known in American history. In our own way, we will try to establish our innocence. But we ask the people of America to realize the political significance of our case and come to our aid."12

The defense campaign

A seven-part series in the National Guardian, beginning in August 1951, voiced the first opposition to the ruling in the Rosenberg case. "The Rosenberg conviction: Is this the Dreyfus case of the Cold-War America?" asked the first article in the series written by journalist William Reuben.

That summer, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer Manny Bloch solicited several U.S. newspapers, trying to convince them to print the Rosenbergs’ side of the story–with little result, in the mainstream as well as the left press. Former editor of the CP newspaper, the Daily Worker, John Gates stated in a 1991 interview, "We didn’t want to be associated in any way, shape or form with espionage…In the public mind, the words ‘spy’ and ‘communist’ were synonymous. We were very leery."13

The response to the Guardian series was so great–with readers inquiring how they could help–that the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case was formed in October 1951, with Reuben as the acting chairman.

At first, the campaign drew most of its support from left-wing circles. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union declined to take part, since the case "raised no civil liberties issues."14 Over the next year, the campaign sought to reach an ever-widening audience of people. It produced literature that would put the facts of the case against the Rosenbergs into the hands of the public and expose the injustice that had been done, or at least instill doubts. It also attempted to reach out to those who believed that the death penalty was an unduly severe punishment. It reprinted transcripts of the trial, Reuben’s articles and produced fact sheets that not only exposed the injustice of the case but the role that anti-Semitism as well as the persecution of leftists played in convicting the Rosenbergs.15

In December 1952, 1,000 people came to Ossining, N.Y., to bring messages of support to the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing. When the police refused to let them leave the station, they sang songs to the Rosenbergs there in the rain.

The Rosenbergs understood like few others how critical protests would be in the fight for their lives. Julius wrote to Ethel from prison on May 21, 1951: "The hemmed in solitude that surrounds us, and the oppressive nature of this somber tomb must not succeed in removing our strong ties to the…"outside world. We caged here can only protest our innocence and stand up firmly but it is the task of the American people to stay the executioner’s hand and see that justice is done."16

Internationally, the Rosenberg case captured the hearts and minds of millions internationally. Painter Pablo Picasso sent a message on the front cover of the communist paper L’Humanité: "The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place," below a drawing of the couple sitting hand in hand in electric chairs. Save the Rosenbergs campaigns were begun in Britain, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and many other countries.

Clergy, writers and scientists from all over the world supported the Rosenbergs. Pope Pius XII, a virulent anti-communist, appealed for clemency. Albert Einstein and Nobel-Prize-winning atomic scientist Harold Urey spoke out, as did dozens of writers, musicians and artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In Milan, Paris and London, people protested outside U.S. consulates. In February 1953, a New York Times survey reported the Rosenberg case as the "Top issue in France." By January 1953, dozens of representatives of U.S. trade unions, including the San Francisco Building Trades Council, the all-Black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 and the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union local in Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Francisco, signed an appeal for clemency.17

Final days

The Rosenbergs appealed to the Supreme Court nine times, but the Court refused to review the record. Requests for clemency to President Truman, and later Dwight Eisenhower, fell on deaf ears. About two weeks before the date scheduled for their deaths, the U.S. attorney general made the Rosenbergs a last offer–confess and avoid death. The next day, the Rosenbergs made their answer clear:

We were told that if we cooperated with the government, our lives would be spared. By asking us to repudiate the truth of our innocence, the government admits its own doubts concerning our guilt. We will not help to purify the foul record of fraudulent conviction and a barbaric sentence…our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity are not for sale.

Justice is not some bauble to be sold to the highest bidder. If we are executed, it will be the murder of innocent people and the shame will be upon the government of the United States. History will record, whether we live or not, that we were the victims of the most monstrous frame-up in the history of the country.18

At the last moment, Justice William Douglas granted a stay of execution, but Chief Justice Frederick Vinson sent out jets to bring the vacationing justices back to Washington to cancel Douglas’s stay in time for the Rosenbergs to be executed.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, only 37 and 35 years old, were scheduled to die in the evening in order to "respect" the Jewish sabbath, which started at sundown on Friday. That night, Ethel Rosenberg wrote a brief letter to lawyer Emanuel Bloch:

All my heart I send to all who hold me dear–I am not alone–and I die ‘with honor and with dignity’–knowing my husband and I must be vindicated by history. You will see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies–as you did while we lived so wholeheartedly, so unstintingly–you did everything that could be done–We are the first victims of American fascism.19

Supporters made last-minute attempts to save their lives. On execution day, thousands of people participated in all-day rallies in Paris and London. In Paris, police shot one protester and arrested hundreds as demonstrators clashed with massive police formations. Almost 10,000 attended a vigil in Union Square. When a speaker announced over a loudspeaker that the Rosenbergs’ execution was near, the crowd began weeping, crying and screaming. Police pulled the plug on the loudspeaker because they were afraid of a riot. Hundreds picketed in front of the White House.

The Justice Department in Washington maintained to the end a direct line to Sing Sing just in case the Rosenbergs decided at the last minute to confess. They did not. Writes Wexley:

And was not this their real crime–their refusal to supply the insatiable demand? Klaus Fuchs had provided, perforce, a Harry Gold; Gold, in turn, had consented to point to a David Greenglass; and Greenglass had offered up a brother-in-law and later had added a sister. But they, the Rosenbergs, they had named no one, not even a higher-up or a lower-down. They had stopped the ball rolling, had stopped the endless game…20

The Rosenbergs were electrocuted on June 19, 1953–their 14th wedding anniversary. According to the New York Times, the Rosenbergs went to their deaths "with a composure that astonished witnesses."21 According to witnesses, Ethel Rosenberg, who was brought into the execution chamber shortly after Julius’s body was removed from the chair, gently kissed the matron accompanying her on the cheek moments before she died.

Writer Jean-Paul Sartre sent a message to the U.S. government the day after the executions in the Paris daily, Libération:

Now that we have been made your allies, the fate of the Rosenbergs could be a preview of our own future. You, who claim to be masters of the world, had the opportunity to prove that you were first of all masters of yourselves. But if you gave in to you criminal folly, this very folly might tomorrow throw us headlong into a war of extermination.

By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, auto-da-fés, sacrifices–we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear…you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.22

McCarthyism’s legacy

Over the last decade, in an effort to rehabilitate the McCarthyite era and prove the guilt of the Rosenbergs, right-wing academics and "spy experts"–such as historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr–have made much of the Venona Project transcripts released by the CIA in 1995. This has led even some supporters of the Rosenbergs’ innocence, such as the authors of the excellent book, Invitation to an Inquisition, Miriam and Walter Schneir, to conclude that Julius Rosenberg was a Russian spy.

Venona was a top-secret government operation involving cryptanalysts, linguists and mathematicians who decoded thousands of intercepted Soviet intelligence cables sent to agents in the U.S. Setting aside the questionable validity of the Venona documents, they don’t finger Julius as an atomic spy. Rather, if accurate, they identify him as someone engaged in low-level industrial espionage.

Robert Meeropol, one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, argues that the Venona transcripts cannot be independently verified, and therefore are not reliable. After all,

the agencies in charge of gathering and ultimately disseminating this material had the motive, means and opportunity to fiddle with this material in order to demonstrate that two people were killed for a crime that they committed.23

But more importantly, whether or not Julius Rosenberg was a spy is not the question.

The United States government executed two people for the reason, as the prosecutor said, that they stole the greatest secret known to mankind. The judge said that they committed a crime worse than murder, they caused the Korean war. President Eisenhower in saying "I am denying clemency" said essentially the same thing. All of this was because they stole the secret of the atomic bomb. That’s why they were executed, and the writing on the wall if you believe Venona is that neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg did the crime they were killed for.24

The fact of the matter is that there were no atomic secrets to steal. Moreover, had there been, David Greenglass was not capable of stealing them–as many with the relevant scientific knowledge acknowledge then and since. Not long after the trial, the New York Times reported that Dr. James Beckerley, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission Classification Office was not buying Judge Kaufman’s arguments:

The atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb were not stolen from us by spies, Dr. Beckerley emphasized. Espionage played a minor role in the attainment of successful weapons by the Soviets, he said…

Atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are not matters that can be stolen and transmitted in the form of information, Dr. Beckerley said, in emphasizing the relative unimportance of spying in nuclear physics.25

Dr. Harold Urey testified in a March 3, 1946 congressional hearing that, "Detailed data on the atomic bomb would require 80 or 90 volumes of close print which only a scientist or engineer would be able to read."26

Moreover, David Greenglass did not even possess the scientific knowledge necessary to provide useful scientific or technical knowledge about the atom bomb. Henry Linschitz, who helped assemble the Nagasaki bomb, described Greenglass’s sketches as "garbled" and "highly incomplete." He concluded that it was "not possible in any technologically useful way to condense the results of a $2 billion development effort into a diagram, drawn by a high school graduate machinist on a single sheet of paper."27

Venona, if accurate and truthful, tells us not only that Julius Rosenberg was killed for a crime he did not commit, but that Ethel Rosenberg was not involved in spying at all. In short, they prove that the government used Ethel as a lever against Julius, even though they knew her to be innocent. The salient point is that the Rosenbergs were not tried and executed because they were spies, but because the U.S. government needed a political show trial, and the Rosenbergs fit the bill. Prosecutors were willing to use any and every means to win a conviction, including murdering an innocent woman.

This is also not to argue that there weren’t Americans who spied for the Soviet Union–although certainly far fewer than the likes of McCarthy or Klehr would have us believe. Moreover, the U.S. reciprocated, even hiring former German and Eastern European Nazis associated with the extermination of Jews to spy for them in Eastern Europe.28 Ordinary workers in the U.S. had nothing to gain in supporting the government’s efforts to root out spies, especially since its main purpose was not so much to prevent spying, but to suppress political and trade union opposition at home. The important point is what the government sought to achieve in prosecuting and executing the Rosenbergs: to suppress dissent at home and whip up support for American imperialism abroad.

Their execution case sent a chill through the ranks of the left. "From the point of view of a young person, we all thought that it could be our parents," recounts Arlene Tyner, a longtime activist whose family was involved in the Rosenberg clemency movement. "Everybody felt, especially if you were Jewish, during the witch-hunts that the government could come and take away your parents and execute them. It was a direct threat to your survival."29 McCarthy would later ask one witness, "Do you feel you should be walking the streets free–or have the same fate as the Rosenbergs?"30

But the Rosenbergs’ uncompromising fight for justice and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds inspired a generation of activists–and should inspire another generation today to rebuild the left tradition in the U.S. that McCarthyism decimated.

1 Robert and Michael Meeropol, We Are Your Sons (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975), p. 326.

2 John Wexley, The Judgement of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (New York: Cameron & Kahn, 1955), p. 154. The author of this excellent book released just two years after the Rosenbergs’ execution was a Hollywood screenwriter who worked with Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht before he was blacklisted.

3 Walter and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest: Reopening the Rosenberg "Atom Spy" Case (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 130, 405.

4 Wexley, p. 104.

5 Ibid., p. 20.

6 Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest, p. 410.

7 Ibid., p. 412.

8 Richard Pyle, "Brother of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg admits to lying under oath," Associated Press, December 5, 2001.

9 Schneir, p. 130.

10 Ibid., p. 170.

11 Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), p.178.

12 David Neville, The Press, the Rosenbergs and the Cold War (Westport, Ct.: Praeger Publishers, 1995), p. 55.

13 Neville, p. 56.

14 Schneir, p. 180.

15 Some of these old pamphlets are available online and in pdf form through Michigan State University Library, including William Reuben’s To Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case,, available online at

16 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Death House Letters (New York: Jero Publishing Company, 1953), p. 37. The Rosenbergs gave authorization for their prison letters to be published so that the proceeds would go to a fund for their children.

17 "Unions throughout U.S. joining in plea to save the Rosenbergs," Daily Worker, January 15, 1953.

18 Schneir, p. 195.

19 Ibid., p. 252.

20 Wexley, p. 630.

21 Quoted in Schneir, p. 253.

22 Schneir, p. 254.

23 "Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies," Nova television special, originally broadcast February 5, 2002, transcripts available online at

24 Ibid.

25 Quoted in Schneir, p. 176.

26 Wexley, p. 424.

27 Quoted in Schneir, p. 435.

28 For the full story of this, see Christopher Simpson, Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and its Effects on the Cold War (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988).

29 Interview with Arlene Tyner, a longtime activist whose family was involved in the Rosenberg clemency movement. She is working on a book about the Rosenberg case and helped provide information on the movement for this article.

30 David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 480

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