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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

The first Civilians in American History to be Executed for Treason

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – Americans who were involved in coordinating and recruiting an espionage network that included Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage, since the prosecution seemed to feel that there was not enough evidence to convict on espionage. Treason charges were not applicable, since the United States and the Soviet Union were allies at the time. The Rosenbergs denied all the charges but were convicted in a trial in which the prosecutor Roy Cohn said he was in daily secret contact with the judge, Irving Kaufman. Despite an international movement demanding clemency, and appeals to President Dwight D. Eisenhower by leading European intellectuals and the Pope, the Rosenbergs were executed at the height of the Korean War. President Eisenhower wrote to his son, serving in Korea, that if he spared Ethel (presumably for the sake of her children), then the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women.

Saturday 20th June 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed early this morning at Sing Sing Prison for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to Russia in World War II.

Only a few minutes before, President Eisenhower had rejected a last desperate plea written in her cell by Ethel Rosenberg. Mr Emanuel Bloch, the couple’s lawyer, personally took the note to the White House where guards turned him away.

Neither of the two said anything before they died. The news of their execution was announced at 1.43 a.m. (British time).

New York, June 19

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison tonight. Neither husband nor wife spoke before they died.

Julius Rosenberg, aged 35, was the first to die. They were executed just before the setting sun heralded the Jewish Sabbath. Prison officials had advanced the execution time to spare religious feelings.

Mrs Rosenberg turned just before she was placed in the electric chair, drew Mrs Evans, the prison matron towards her, and they kissed. The matron was visibly affected. She quickly turned and left the chamber. In the corridor outside Rabbi Irving Koslowe could be heard intoning the 23rd Psalm.

The couple were the first civilians in American history to be executed for espionage. They were sentenced to death on April 5, 1951, for passing on atomic secrets to Russia during the Second World War.

Eisenhower‘s statement

The last hope of reprieve for the Rosenbergs vanished early this afternoon when President Eisenhower rejected a final appeal for clemency shortly after the Supreme Court had set aside the stay of execution granted by Justice Douglas, one of its own members on Monday. The President’s decision was announced in the following statement from the White House:

“Since the original review of proceedings in the Rosenberg case by the Supreme Court of the United States, the courts have considered numerous further proceedings challenging the Rosenbergs conviction and the sentencing involved. Within the last two days, the Supreme Court convened in a special session and reviewed a further point which one of the justices felt the Rosenbergs should have an opportunity to present. This morning the Supreme Court ruled that there was no substance to this point.

I am convinced that the only conclusion to be drawn from the history of this case is that the Rosenbergs have received the benefits of every safeguard which American justice can provide. There is no question in my mind that their original trial and the long series of appeals constitute the fullest measure of justice and due process of law. Throughout the innumerable complications and technicalities of this case no Judge has ever expressed any doubt that they committed most serious acts of espionage.

Accordingly, only most extraordinary circumstances would warrant Executive intervention in the case. I am not unmindful of the fact that this case has aroused grave concern both here and abroad in the minds of serious people aside from the considerations of law. In this connection I can only say that, by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world. The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of millions of dead, whose death may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.

?When democracy’s enemies have been judged guilty of a crime as horrible as that of which the Rosenbergs were convicted: when the legal processes of democracy have been marshalled to their maximum strength to protect the lives of convicted spies: when in their most solemn judgement the tribunals of the United States has adjudged them guilty and the sentence just. I will not intervene in this matter. “

At 8:05 p.m. on June 19, 1953, Julius Rosenberg was executed at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York.

At 8:15 p.m. on the same date, Ethel Rosenberg was executed at Sing Sing Prison.



Operation Venona, which broke the Russian spy code in the 1940s and helped the FBI nab A-bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The secret files were made public at CIA headquarters during a huge news conference that would have been unthinkable just a year ago when the agency was more secretive and less cooperative with the media.

The first major batch of historical U.S. intelligence secrets to be declassified under an executive order from President Clinton, the Venona files contain about 2,200 KGB or GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) messages intercepted by American code breakers and analysts during and after World War II, when the Soviet Union was ostensibly a U.S. ally.

In the CIA ceremonies, 49 of the documents were turned over for eventual public display at the new National Cryptologic Museum, outside National Security Agency headquarters at Ft. George Meade, Md. The remaining Venona files will be declassified over the next year.

“This is the stuff of spy novels,” said newly appointed Central Intelligence Director John Deutch, who presided over the declassification ceremony with FBI Director Louis Freeh, NSA Director Vice Adm. J.M. McConnell and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of the President’s Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy.

The secret Venona project was begun in February 1943 under the direction of a young woman named Gene Grabeel, a government Signal Intelligence Service employee who had been a schoolteacher only weeks before.

The original mission of Venona (the name had no apparent significance) was to deal with German and Japanese codes, but it was expanded to include intercepted Soviet messages that had been accumulating since 1939 but could not be decoded.

The Soviets were using an “impossible-to-break” double-encrypted system in which words were converted to numbers and then mixed in with random groups of meaningless numbers called “one-time pads.”

As a cost-cutting measure, the Soviets took to using a shortcut that on one occasion repeated a one-time pad. Working with this, but without computers or calculators, the Venona team was able to crack the number code and discover that the KGB and GRU had about 200 spies in America targeted at the U.S. atom bomb program.

The information gathered was turned over to the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies involved in domestic counterintelligence, and it led to the arrest and conviction of the Rosenbergs and the shutting down of a spy network that included Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, an army sergeant assigned to the Los Alamos A-bomb project, Swiss-born courier Harry Gold and British spy Klaus Fuchs.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a government electrical engineer and Communist Party member, were electrocuted in 1953 at Sing Sing Prison. Sympathizers all over the world protested their execution, claiming the Rosenbergs were railroaded in the anti-Communist hysteria of the time. The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence to the end.

A declassified message intercepted Nov. 17, 1944, enroute from New York to Moscow and addressed to VIKTOR (Soviet Lt. Gen. Pavel Mikhajlovich) states:


“In connection with the plans for the photographing of material by LIBERAL (Julius Rosenberg) and then by LINZA (Soviet spy Michael Didorovich), a shortage of (film) cassettes is making itself felt. We cannot get them without a priority. Please order 100 cassettes for a Leica camera through the COUNTRYSIDE (Mexico) and send them on to us without delay.

(Signed) ANTON (Leonid Romanovich Kvasnikov).”

U.S. Army counterintelligence and the FBI determined the actual identities of the code-named individuals during the time they were sending and receiving messages from the Soviet Union.

National Cryptologic Museum historian David Kahn said he would not voice an opinion on whether the Rosenbergs should have been executed but said the Venona files “should lay to rest forever” any doubts the couple were Russian spies.

“They weren’t going to use that film to take pictures of the Grand Canyon,” he said. But, Kahn noted, government prosecutors did not use the decoded messages at the Rosenbergs’ trial, not wanting the Soviets to know the U.S. had them.

According to Deutch, the Venona operation was compromised in 1946, perhaps by Briton-turned-Soviet spy Kim Philby who was for a period Britain’s liaison to U.S. intelligence, compelling the Russians to change their code.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are shown in this 1951 file photo during their trial for espionage in New York. Photograph: AP.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are shown in this 1951 file photo during their trial for espionage in New York. Photograph: AP.

Information stemming from analysis of decoded Venona material continued to be of use in counterespionage efforts, he said.

Moynihan, who has repeatedly introduced legislation to abolish the CIA since the end of the Cold War, noted that Venona did not prevent the Russians from getting the secrets of the A-bomb or from developing the hydrogen bomb on their own.

The Venona story is significant mostly as an example of the nation’s Cold War obsession with secrets and the “degrading lapse” it suffered during the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), Moynihan said.

But Deutch said that, although Venona did not prevent the Soviets from getting the atomic bomb, it made the U.S. privy to the methods and extent of Soviet espionage operations in the U.S.

“It was invaluable,” he said.

Deutch said the decoders were surprised to find the Soviet spymasters had a sense of humor.

“Washington is referred to as Carthage, San Francisco is referred to by the code name Babylon, and New York is referred to as Tyre-all ancient cities that came to ruin,” he said. In addition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was Kapitan, Winston Churchill was the Boar, and the State Department was The Bank.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on Trial.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on Trial.

The Rosenbergs’ two sons,?Michael Meeropol?and?Robert Meeropol, spent years trying to prove the innocence of their parents. After?Morton Sobell, at age 91, confessed in 2008, they acknowledged their father had been involved in espionage, but not passing secrets of the bomb.

They noted that new evidence cast more doubt on their mother’s guilt and said they considered her an innocent person, set up by the government. The Rosenberg children were orphaned by the executions and no relatives adopted them. They were adopted by the high school teacher, poet, songwriter and social activist?Abel Meeropol?(author of the popular song ‘Strange Fruit’) and his wife Anne, and they assumed the Meeropol surname.

Michael and Robert co-wrote a book about their and their parents’ lives,?We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg?(1975). Robert wrote a later memoir,?An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey?(2003). In 1990, he founded the?Rosenberg Fund for Children, a nonprofit foundation that provides support for children of targeted liberal activists, and youth who are targeted activists.?Michael has recently retired as the Chair and Professor of Economics, School of Arts and Sciences, Economics at Western New England College in?Springfield, Massachusetts. Michael’s daughter,?Ivy Meeropol, directed a 2004 documentary about her grandparents,?Heir to an Execution,?which was featured at the?Sundance Film Festival.

Michael and Robert Meeropol 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.”

Their mother, they concluded, had not been a spy, but rather had been framed by the false testimony of her brother, and should never have been tried, much less executed.

Their date of death happened also to coincide with?their fourteenth?wedding anniversary. Today, Julius and Ethel?Rosenberg remain?the only Americans ever put to death in peacetime for espionage and the only two American civilians executed for espionage-related crimes committed during?the Cold War.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg explained

The Atom Spy Case

Introductory History of VENONA and Guide to the Translations

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on?Trial

Cold War espionage

Venona project explained