Most people believe that Ethel Rosenberg was executed in 1953 because she passed vital secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. But she didn’t.
Information released after her death from confessions, KGB and U.S. government files, and grand jury testimony released in 2015, has revealed many truths about Ethel Rosenberg’s trial and execution. The narrative that follows comes entirely from independent, third-party sources, with citations provided.
—Ethel Rosenberg’s husband, Julius, did provide information about military technology to the Soviet Union during World War II, in what he saw as an effort to help the Soviets defeat the Nazis[i]. At that time, the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally[ii]. The Soviets gave their agents code names, but they never gave Ethel one because she was not a spy.[iii]
—Secrets about the U.S. atomic bomb program were passed to the Soviets, but not by Julius Rosenberg. Julius, an electrical engineer, was fired by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in January of 1945.[iv] As a result, he was suspended by his Soviet handlers in February of 1945, and was thus inactive when the Soviets were given drawings about the bomb later that year.[v]
—Ethel Rosenberg’s younger brother, David Greenglass, was a machinist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the U.S. built its atomic bombs. He and his wife, Ruth, were given code names by the Soviets, and did pass atomic-bomb information to them.[vi] Greenglass made crude drawings and notes about the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, which Ruth Greenglass delivered to a KGB agent in December of 1945.[vii] The Soviets and other experts judged Greenglass’s information to be virtually worthless.[viii] The Soviets received most of their useful intelligence about the bomb from a highly skilled German atomic physicist who worked at Los Alamos named Klaus Fuchs.[ix]
—In 1950, during the height of McCarthyism, Greenglass and Fuchs were arrested and confessed to espionage.[x] Julius Rosenberg was also arrested but refused to confess or name names. Government prosecutors, in an effort to pressure him, also arrested and charged Ethel, then caring for their two small children. When the Rosenbergs refused to confess, the government increased the pressure by threatening them with the death penalty. The Rosenbergs still refused to plead guilty. A prosecutor told a Congressional committee that while the case against Ethel was weak, she should nonetheless be convicted and given a “stiff” sentence “as a deterrent.”[xi]
— One government prosecutor at the time said that the case against Ethel for conspiracy to commit espionage contained “insufficient evidence” to convict her, but that she could be used “as a lever against her husband.”[xii] In sworn testimony, David Greeenglass told the grand jury that he never discussed espionage with Ethel.[xiii] Then he was pressured by federal prosecutors and changed his story.[xiv] At the trial Greenglass testified that Ethel had typed up notes about the atomic bomb, thus providing the key evidence against his sister.[xv] Many years later David Greenglass said that he had lied at the trial and that the notes were probably typed by his wife, Ruth.[xvi] In 1986, Roy Cohn, assistant prosecutor at the Rosenberg’s trial, admitted that the government had “manufactured” evidence against the Rosenbergs.[xvii]
—Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on June 19th, 1953. They were the only U.S. citizens ever executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.[xviii] Those who actually passed atomic secrets to the Soviets lived out their lives. Greenglass served less than ten years in prison, and his wife, Ruth, was never charged.[xix] Klaus Fuchs spent nine years in a British prison[xx].
As President Obama said in June of 2016, referring to anti-Muslim hate speech, “We've gone through moments in our history when we acted out of fear—and we came to regret it. We've seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens. And it has been a shameful part of our history.”[xxi] The fear of the McCarthy era led to the unfair conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg.[xxii] The U.S. government has apologized for other shameful incidents, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans[xxiii]. It has never, however, corrected its mistreatment of Ethel Rosenberg.
[i] New York Times, 9/11/2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/12/nyregion/12spy.html
[iii] The Venona Transcripts only list Ethel Rosenberg by her given name, not a code name as with actual agents. While she was an active volunteer and mother, they say about her, “In view of her delicate health does not work.” (Venona transcript, “revised translation of message on Antenna-Liberal’s wife Ethel,” 12 August, 1948). Meredith Gardner, chief NSA decrypter, interpreted this as follows: “The work that Ethel cannot do in view of her delicate health may not be the earning of her bread and butter, but conspiratorial work.” (Comment on “Revised Translation of Message on Antenna-Liberal’s Wife Ethel,” Meredith Garner, August 12th, 1948). FBI files indicate they knew Ethel Rosenberg did not spy. An FBI memo with a series of questions to be asked of Julius Rosenberg if he agreed to cooperate asks just one question about Ethel: “Was your wife cognizant of your activities?” (FBI memorandum from W.A. Branigan to A.H. Belmont, June 17, 1953) Also see Weinstein & Vassiliev, (1999). The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America. Random House.
[v] Schneir, Walter and Schneir, Miriam (2010). Final Verdict. Melville House, page 127
[vi] Ibid, pp. 35, 111, 119, 125
[vii] Ibid, p. 176
[viii] Roberts, Sam (2001). The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. Random House. pp. 425–426, 432. Also Schneir, Final Verdict, page 26, 130. Also notes of KGB files in "Vassiliev Black Notebook," 2009, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Alexander Vassiliev Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112860 p 136, June 26, 1945, file 40594, v. 7, p. 49
[ix] Radosh, Ronald, and Milton, Joyce (1997). The Rosenberg File, Yale University Press, pp. 39–40.
[x] Ibid, pp 39-40.
[xi] File #3201, US Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, 2/8/1951, p 6, AEC Documents.
[xii] Belmont to Ladd, 7/17/1950, JR HQ 188, quoted in Carmichael, Virginia (1993). Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War, University of Minnesota Press, page 73. Also Schneir, Final Verdict, page 88.
[xiii]Greenglass’s grand-jury testimony, revealed after a lawsuit and court order in 2015, available at: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/news/20150714-Rosenberg-spy-case-Greenglass-tes...
[xiv] “60 Minutes II” interview with David Greenglass, 7/14/2003, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-traitor/ ; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/david-greenglass-spy-who-s...
[xv] United States v. Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell, U.S. Court of Appeals, 2d Circuit, October Term, 1951, Docket numbers 22201-22202. Also Schneir, Final Verdict, pg. 63
[xvi] Roberts, The Brother, p. 483, and “Vassiliev Black Notebook,” p. 137
[xvii] Dershowitz, Alan, (2004). America On Trial. Warner Books. Page 323.
[xviii] Serino, Rosemary, (1954). RosemEspionage Prosecutions in the United States, 4 Cath. U. L. Rev. 44. http://scholarship.law.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3086&context=lawr...
[xix] Benjamin, Philip (November 17, 1960). “Greenglass Freed from Prison. Served 9 ½ Years as Atom Spy.” The New York Times.
[xx] Hoffmann, Dieter (December 2009). "Fritz Lange, Klaus Fuchs, and the Remigration of Scientists to East Germany". Physics in Perspective. 11 (4): p. 416. www.nytimes.com/1988/01/29/obituaries/klaus-fuchs-physicist-who-gave-ato...
[xxii] Schneir, Final Verdict, page 158