Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, to a Jewish family in New York City. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, where she met Julius Rosenberg in 1936. They married in 1939.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American citizens executed at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. on June 19, 1953, for treason and conspiracy to commit espionage, relating to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
Other atomic spies who were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed, including Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos and served 10 years of his 15-year sentence; Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass and served 15 years in federal prison asGreenglass’s courier; and a German scientist, Klaus Fuchs, who served 9 years and 4 months. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months of a 30-year sentence. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and stated that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviets, but that Ethel Rosenberg had not.
In 1995, the U.S. government released a series of decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, which confirmed that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but did not provide definitive evidence for Ethel’s involvement.
David Greenglass confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold. Though in his initial grand jury testimony he denied any involvement by his sister, eventually he claimed that she knew of her husband’s dealings and typed some documents for him. The problem of a weak case against Ethel Rosenberg was solved just 10 days before the start of the trial when David and Ruth Greenglass were reinterviewed. In 2001 Greenglass said, “I told them the story and left her out of it, right? But my wife put her in it. So what am I gonna do, call my wife a liar? My wife is more important to me than my sister. And she was the mother of my children.” Ruth had been the actual typist of the classified documents he stole, but the prosecution encouraged him during the trial to implicate his sister. As a result of this new testimony, all charges against Ruth were dropped. In further self-defense Greenglass later claimed that he did not realize the death penalty would be invoked.
The notes allegedly typed by Ethel contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project; some suggest Ethel was indicted along with Julius so that the prosecution could use her to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved.However, neither Julius nor Ethel Rosenberg named anyone else and during testimony each asserted their right under the Fifth Amendment to not incriminate themselves whenever asked about involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. The then Deputy Attorney General of the United States William P. Rogers, when later asked about the failure of the indictment of Ethel to extract a full confession from Julius, reportedly said, “She called our bluff.”
A political frame-up
Commenting on the sentence given to them, Julius Rosenberg claimed the case was a political frame-up:
“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 get five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for contempt of court, but we’re gonna kill ya!”
After the publication of an investigative series in the National Guardian and the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, a growing number of Americans came to believe both Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh a punishment, and a grassroots campaign was started to try to stop the couple’s execution. Between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-Semitism, which were widely believed abroad, but not among the vast majority in the U.S., where the Rosenbergs received no support from mainstream Jewish organizations nor from the American Civil Liberties Union; the ACLU did not acknowledge any violations of civil liberties.
It has often been noted that all of the principals in the case were Jewish – the judge, the lawyers on both sides, and the defendants. But the prosecution made sure that in New York City, with by far the largest Jewish population in the country, not a single Jew was selected for a jury of the Rosenbergs’ peers. Might the prosecution have feared a hung jury based on its preposterous claims?
The French Nobel Prize-winning existentialist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called the trial “a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation. By killing the Rosenbergs, you have quite simply tried to halt the progress of science by human sacrifice. Magic, witch-hunts, autos-da-fé, sacrifices – we are here getting to the point: Your country is sick with fear…; you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.”
Worldwide outrage over what the French termed “America’s Dreyfus Affair” was unable to halt the execution. The all-black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused, and all other appeals were unsuccessful.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol (who were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol after their parents’ execution), believe that whatever information their father gave the Soviets was minimally useful, and that in any case the trial was legally compromised by open judicial misconduct. Neither of their parents deserved the death penalty.
In a statement published in the New York Times on August 8, 2015, they write, “Our mother was not a spy. The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution. The apparent rationale for such action – that national security demanded it during a time of international crisis – has disturbing implications in post-9/11 America. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice. We call on the government to formally exonerate Ethel Rosenberg.”
In Los Angeles tonight
The Los Angeles Workers Educational Center presents The Ethel Rosenberg Centennia lConcert, hosted by singer-songwriter Ross Altman, with music, poetry and spoken word, including a readers’ theater performance from the prison letters of Ethel and Julius, with a new song trilogy based on the perjured grand jury testimony of her brother David Greenglass,an unreleased song by Bob Dylan,and a commissioned poem by San FranciscoPoet LaureateJack Hirschman.
This event takes place at 1251 S. St. Andrews Pl., Los Angeles, Calif. 90019, on Ethel Rosenberg’s 100th birthday, Mon., Sept. 28, at 7:00 pm. Admission is $5 (no one turned away).
Adapted from Wikipedia, The New York Times, People’s World and other sources.