The Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to pass U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York.  See how much you know about one of America's most celebrated spy cases of the Cold War by trying your luck with our trivia questions...

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What Were the Rosenbergs Charged with Doing? # The Rosenbergs died in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, which overlooks the Hudson River at Ossining, New York. Former activists with organizations linked to the U.S. Communist Party, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in July and August 1950, respectively, and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. Specifically, they were said to have worked with others, including David Greenglass, Ethel's brother, to gather and pass along to Soviet agents critical information about the workings of the atomic bomb. In addition to Greenglass, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, others charged in the espionage case included Harry Gold, said to have acted as a courier for Greenglass; German scientist Klaus Fuchs; and engineer Morton Sobell. While all of the other alleged conspirators confessed to their roles in the spy ring, the Rosenbergs went to their deaths proclaiming their innocence.

Why Were the Executions Considered Justified at the Time? # The Rosenbergs' case occurred as anti-communist hysteria was sweeping the nation. Photo credit: Ninian Reid/Flickr. The executions followed a few years of appeals and trials that coincided with the hysteria over Communist infiltration of American society. These were the years ruled by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which put several Hollywood notables through questioning that resulted in the blacklisting of several artists. Fear of the Red Scare was so prevalent that it fed into the desire to punish the Rosenbergs. By 1953, the very idea of helping the Soviets was not one that anyone liked, and the government had little sympathy for the Rosenbergs.

Part of the reason for assigning the death sentence was that prosecutors hoped it would motivate the Rosenbergs to name more names, with a mere prison sentence instead of death as the incentive. However, the Rosenbergs refused, claiming innocence right up until their electrocutions. 

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Who Implicated Ethel in the Espionage Conspiracy? Despite her involvement in radical politics as a young woman, Ethel may have been an innocent victim of her brother's desire to protect his wife, Ruth. Decades after the spy ring was busted, David Greenglass admitted that he had falsely claimed that it was Ethel who had typed up his notes of information to be passed to the Soviets. Years after Ethel had been executed for her alleged complicity in the spy ring, Greenglass told a New York Times reporter, ¨I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember.¨ Greenglass went on to say that he had no regrets and that ¨my wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.?¨

Why Is Ethel Rosenberg's Execution Now Seen as Completely Unjustified? # Evidence released decades after her execution, along with an admission of perjury from her brother, now show Ethel Rosenberg in a much more innocent light. Photo credit: Eleanor Jaekel/Flickr. After revelations of perjury on the part of David Greenglass and revelations that information from the Venona Program, which monitored Soviet spy traffic, cast Ethel's supposed role into doubt, it's generally thought that Julius was a spy and should have gotten a prison sentence, and Ethel should have been released. There are still those who claim Ethel was a spy, but the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Ethel's own mother didn't believe her, warning her to start naming names, and the rabbi overseeing the spiritual rites at the execution actually asked her at the last minute to name names. Ethel simply claimed she had none. What's even worse is that when Ethel was electrocuted, the initial three shocks, which were enough to kill Julius, apparently were not enough to kill her, and she had to undergo two additional massive shocks for a crime, as far as the current evidence shows, she did not commit.

Did Anyone Try to Defend the Rosenbergs? Yes, there was a groundswell of support for them internationally as the execution date drew near. They did have their supporters; for example, The Nation magazine argued in favor of the Rosenbergs' innocence, and there were increasing international calls to stop the execution from going forward. Protestors in London had requested Queen Elizabeth II try to intervene as well. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to push back against the anti-communist environment that was bent on punishing the Rosenbergs.