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The Rosenberg Trial

As the Cold War congealed in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the United States of America found itself ensnared in an atmosphere of fearful suspicion and paranoia. The Red Scare, which peaked during the roughly seven years between 1947 and 1954, came to dictate the mindset of Americans during the early stages of Cold War. Marked by such unsettling events as the Alger Hiss Trial of 1948, the passage of the McCarren Internal Security Act and the rise of red-seeing Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Red Scare raged across the country, fueled by fear of the harmful doctrines of the rapidly advancing Soviet Union. It was on the pinnacle of this paranoia and distrust that the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came to dominate the American headlines.

Following the first successful nuclear tests by the Soviets in 1949, America quickly began to fear the scientific strides of their eastern-hemisphere rival, and its citizens began to suspiciously eye those around them, believing that Soviet spies must have been responsible for passing the nuclear technology from the United States to Russia. On July 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg, an electrical engineer and employee for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, was arrested for allegedly passing atomic secrets to Russia. One month later, on August 11, Julius’ wife, Ethel, was also arrested, charged with assisting her husband with his illicit activities. The Rosenbergs, former members of the American Communist Party, were implicated by Ethel’s brother-in-law, David Greenglass and a Philadelphia chemist, Harry Gold, who, after admitting to their own espionage activities, served as the primary witnesses in the trial. Despite the existence of only flimsy, circumstantial evidence (which included conflicting stories by Gold and Greenglass, a series of vague sketches that Greenglass presented as being identical to the secrets passed by Julius to the Soviets and government secrecy with its own evidence), Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death under the Espionage Act of 1917. Even after their conviction, the couple continued to assert their innocence from inside Sing-Sing Prison in New York, attempting to appeal to the Supreme Court seven times although failing to receive a hearing each time.

Amid a mounting worldwide campaign for clemency, the Rosenbergs were executed by the electric chair after two years of prison on June 19, 1953. Prior to the execution, both President Truman and President Eisenhower had disregarded cynical public opinion (which overwhelmingly believed that the evidence used to convict the couple was weak and ethereal at best) by refusing to pardon Julius and Ethel. The death of such a sympathetic pair of individuals — many felt an affinity for the pitiable couple and their two young sons — spurred protest through the next decades and marked the beginning of the end of the Red Scare. Although such events as the McCarthy hearings of 1951-1954 would continue for some time, the Red Scare began to lose steam as Americans were jolted with sensibility by the electric shock that killed the Rosenbergs.

However, with the end of the Cold War and the disclosure of Soviet intelligence in the 1990’s, new, stronger information confirming the espionage activities of Julius Rosenberg was released (although the role of his wife still remains dubious). It is now clear that Julius, an avid communist, had for some time been disclosing U.S. military secrets to the U.S.S.R. from his post in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. David Greenglass, who himself had worked on the Manhattan Project, disclosed nuclear secrets to Julius, who in turn passed the information to Harry Gold — a courier for the espionage ring — who in turn passed it to Anatoly Yakovlev — the Soviet vice-consul in New York City. Soon after Gold was arrested in May 1950 for giving U.S. and British atomic secrets to Russia, Greenglass and Rosenberg were detained on the basis of their association with Gold. By cooperating with federal agents in proving the guilt of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Greenglass and Gold were given lighter sentences (Greenglass received 15 years in prison in a separate trial and Gold received 30 years in prison). The courts also made clear that if either of the Rosenbergs would admit to their espionage, they too could avoid execution, but the couple, loyal to their cause and riding a wave of public support, continued to adamantly state their innocence until their death on the day of June 19, 1953.

Research by David Casalaspi
Cosby High School
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum


Parrish, Michael E. “Rosenberg Case.” Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 17 May 2008 .

“Rosenberg, Julius; and Rosenberg, Ethel.” Encyclop?dia Britannica. 2008. Encyclop?dia Britannica Online School Edition. 17 May 2008 .

“Rosenberg Trial.” American History. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 17 May 2008 .

Seaborg, Glenn T. “Atomic Energy Commission.” Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 17 May 2008 .

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