Cold War Spies: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1940s-50s)


Figure 1.--I am not sure who the boy is here or who took these photographs. They appear to be photographs taken to generate sympathy for the Rosenbergs. The case generated a great deal of publicity and the Rosenbergs case became a cause celebre with the American left.

The most famous spy trial was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. At the time the degree to which the Soviets had penetrated the Manhattan Project was not known. Only later were the Verona Intercepts lead to a fuller understanding of the Soviet spy network. Later evem Robert Oppenheimer came under suspision. The Rosenbergs were not the most hamrful spys. There were others, including Klaus Fuchs who provided much more useful information to the Soviets. There is no doubt, however, Julius Rossenberg was a Soviet spy and was guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. The Rosenbergs and Greenglasses grew up in New York City's Lower Easr Side. Conditions there turned many to radical politics. Both Julius and Ethel became committed Communists. The Rossenbergs like many American Jews had also become despondent in the 1930s over the rise of the NAZIs and persecution of Jews. Many American Communists in the 1950s still viewed the Soviet Union as an utopian state. The Soviet role in World War II had gained them great prestige. The chilling horrors of the Gulag were not yet well known. Most Communists ignored the extent to which the Soviets cooperated with Hitler after the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact and the Soviet aggressions in 1939-41. Ethel had little to do with the spying, but she almost certainly knew about it. The Government hoped to force Julus to talk by threatening to execute her as well. The trial was held in 1951. Concerned that they had no real evidence on Ethel, the Government induced of all people her brother, David Greenglass, to testify falsely against her in exchange for lenient treatment for him and his wife. Greenglass had actually stole the material that Julius passed on to the Soviets. The Government believed incorrectly that Julius headed a major spy ring. [Roberts] While this was not true, he could have led the FBI to Rudolf Abel who did run a major spy ring. In the end, neither Julius or Ethel talked and they were executed, leaving their two boys orphans. Years after the trial, Greenglass resurfaced for a television interview. There was not an ounce of remorse for what he had done to his sister. While the Rosenbergs provided information of only limited value, they proved to be enormously effective in Soviet propaganda to condemn the United States. Many on the left were convinced that the Rosenbergs were innocent. One leftist activist, Ronald Radosh, a Red Diapper baby, wrote a book making a case for Julius' guilt. [Radosh] He was vilified by the Left because of the lingering sympathy for them as martyrs for the cause. Radosh subsequently became a right-wing supporter for the Contras in Nicaragua and apologist for Franco. After the fall of the Soviet Union, information from KGB archieves left little doubt that Julius was guilty. There is still no indication that Ethel was an active conspirator.

Cold War Spies

The most famous spy trial of the Cold War was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. At the time the degree to which the Soviets had penetrated the Manhattan Project was not known. Only later were the Verona Intercepts lead to a fuller understanding of the Soviet spy network. Later evem Robert Oppenheimer came under suspision. The Rosenbergs were not the most hamrful spys. There were others, including Klaus Fuchs who provided much more useful information to the Soviets.

Guilt

There is no doubt, however, Julius Rossenberg was a Soviet spy and was guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Ethel had little to do with the actual spying, but she almost certainly knew about it. One leftist activist, Ronald Radosh, a Red Diapper baby, wrote a book making a case for Julius' guilt. [Radosh] He was vilified by the Left because of the lingering sympathy for them as martyrs for the cause. Radosh subsequently became a right-wing supporter for the Contras in Nicaragua and apologist for Franco. After the fall of the Soviet Union, information from KGB archieves left little doubt that Julius was guilty. There is still no indication that Ethel was an active conspirator.

Family Background

Julius Rosenberg was born in New York City (1918). He attended the Hebrew High School and the City College of New York. He earned a degree in electrical engineering (1939). He married Ethel Greenglass who was a clerical worker and and a devout trade unionist in the same year. The Rosenbergs and Greenglasses grew up in New York City's Lower Easr Side. Conditions there turned many to radical politics.

Motivation

Both Julius and Ethel became committed Communists. The Rossenbergs like many American Jews had also become despondent in the 1930s over the rise of the NAZIs and persecution of Jews. Many American Communists in the 1950s still viewed the Soviet Union as an utopian state. The Soviet role in World War II had gained them great prestige.

Knowlefge of the Soviet Union

The chilling horrors of the Gulag were not yet well known. Most Communists ignored the extent to which the Soviets cooperated with Hitler after the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact and the Soviet aggressions in 1939-41.

Government Interogation

The Government hoped to force Julus to talk by threatening to execute her as well. The Government believed incorrectly that Julius headed a major spy ring. [Roberts] While this was not true, he could have led the FBI to Rudolf Abel who did run a major spy ring. Julius refused to talk. Ethel out of loyalty to her huband and "the cause" also refused to talk.

Trial Background

The Rosenberg trial is often likened to the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. They were tried in the pst-World War I Red Scare. The Rosenbergs were tried during the post-World War II Red Scare. The Anti-Communist Hysteria was fed by a number of events. The most significant was probably the Soviet detonation of an atom bomb. (Which the Rosenbergs and other spies helped bring about.) The Cold War by the time of the trial was a major preocupation of America. The Communists had won in China and taken over Eastern Europe. Communist North Korea has invaded South Korea. America felt under attack by the seemilgly rapid spread of Communism. There was cause for concern. The atmomic bomb had held Stalin in check, but the Soviet acquisition of the bomb, significantly affected the balance of power. Some politicans, most famously Senator Joseph McCarthy fed on the real fears and danger to a with hunt involving many loyal Americans who had toyed with left-0wing politics, often as young people during the Depression. Another spect of this mentality was the anti-Semitism stil prvalent in merica during the 1950s.

Trial

The Rosenberg spy trial was held in 1951. Concerned that they had no real evidence on Ethel, the Government induced of all people her brother, David Greenglass, to testify falsely against her in exchange for lenient treatment for him and his wife. Greenglass had actually stole the material that Julius passed on to the Soviets. The Government because neither Julius or Ethel talked sought the death penalty. Julius told his attorney Emanuel Bloch, "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 a 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!". (September 22, 1953). This was rather much the line taken by the Soviet and leftist symathizers around the world.

Execution

Both Julius and Ethel were found guilty and sentenced to death. They remained on death row for 26 months. The FBI still hoped that they would talk and supply evidence on the Soviet spy network in America. They both refused to the last. They were finally executed June 19, 1953, leaving their two boys orphans.

David Greenglas on Television

Years after the trial, Greenglass resurfaced for a television interview. There was not an ounce of remorse for what he had done to his sister.

Soviet Propaganda Campaign

While the Rosenbergs provided information of only limited value, they proved to be enormously effective in Soviet propaganda to condemn the United States. The execution of a mother with young children made Ethel in particular a very stmpathetic subject. Many on the left were convinced that the Rosenbergs were innocent. The propaganda was not all that effective in America, except with the left-wing. It was much more effective in Europe. Notably Jean-Paul Sartre, a obel prize winner labeled the Rosenberg trial "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation".

The Boys

Unlike the case of most children who parents are accused of heinous crimes, the Rosenerg boys were not shielded from the media and public glare. In fact, there are large numbers of images of the boys. The boys were consrtabntly trotted out for the press and photographs. Pure and simple they served the purpose of Soviet propaganda. They were used as pawns in an effort to elicit public sympathy for their parents. Two innocent boys made far better propaganda fodder than their guilty parents. After the execution of their parents, Robert and Michael, were adopted by Abel and Ann Meeropol. They were a childless couple with left-wing sympathies who believed that their parents were being proceuted because they were Communists and Jews. Both boys took the names of their foster parents in an effort to hide their identity. The Communists made the Rosenberg name a cause celebre in Europe. In America, however, they were seen for what they were--traitors. One might say that they were idealists that misjudged the character of the Soviet Union. That seems to be the case, but there is no doubt that they were spies and traitors. The boys with new names after the execution grew up in relative anonymity. They thrived within a community of progressive activists who were largeky sympathetic to their parents, most believing them to be innocent. [Meeropol] The boys went public in the 1970s, launching an effort to get the government to reopen the case. Robert has founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. The RFC provides assistance for children of progressive activists who alegedly have been targeted for their political activity. (Notice that the RFC took no interest in Soviet citizens, including Soviet Jews, targeted for political activity.) It helped them with money to attend summer camp, take music lessons, and special schools. The Rosenberg trial was attacked on the basis that there was a Government vedetta against leftists and Jews. At the same time the Doctors' Trials (Jewish doctors) took place in Moscow which was ignoredvbyb the lerftist media in the United States. Notice that Robert now focuses on the first aspect. This is because by the 1970s, the press began covering the Refyusniks anbd the extent of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

Sources

Meeropol, Robert. An Execution in the Family: One Sonís Journey.

Radosh, Ronald. The Rosenberg File (1983). Radosh, a committed Communist at the time, began his reserach in the 1970s thinking he could make a case for the Rosenberg's innonsence. He found that Julius was in fact guilty.

Roberts, Sam. The Brother: The Untoldstory of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair (Random House, 2001), 543p.







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Created: 1:34 AM 1/25/2007
Last updated: 7:57 AM 6/12/2011