The guilt of the Rosenbergs, the conduct of their trial and the appropriateness of their sentence have been the subject of continued debate since their arrest and trial. While reliable independent corroboration has been revealed that Julius Rosenberg did pass information to the Soviets, there is little evidence that his wife Ethel, executed with him, participated in espionage. Information released after the Cold War confirmed that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets. However, the other spies that were caught were not executed. Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Klaus Fuchs, who supplied more detailed information to the Soviets on the atomic bomb. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was "in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb."
Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, in New York City, also to a Jewish family. 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, USA, where she met Julius. The Rosenbergs had two sons, Robert and Michael, who were adopted by teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol (and took the Meeropol surname) after their parents' execution.
According to his former NKVD handler, Alexandre Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg was originally recruited by the KGB on Labor Day 1942, by former NKVD spymaster Semyon Semenov. Julius had been introduced to Semenov by Bernard Schuster, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party USA as well as Earl Browder's personal NKVD liaison, and after Semenov was recalled to Moscow in 1944, his duties were taken over by his apprentice, Feklisov.
According to Feklisov, Julius provided thousands of classified reports from Emerson Radio, including a complete proximity fuze, the same design that was used to shoot down Gary Powers's U-2 in 1960. Under Feklisov's administration, Julius Rosenberg is said to have recruited sympathetic individuals to the KGB’s service, including Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, William Perl and Morton Sobell.
According to Feklisov's account, he was supplied by Perl, under Julius Rosenberg’s direction, with thousands of documents from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics including a complete set of design and production drawings for the Lockheed's P-80 Shooting Star. Feklisov says he learned through Julius that his brother-in-law David Greenglass was working on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and used Julius to recruit him.
The USSR and the U.S. became allies during World War II after Nazi Germany's surprise attack on the USSR in 1941, but the U.S. government was highly suspicious of Joseph Stalin's long-term intentions. Therefore the Americans did not share information or seek assistance from the Soviet Union for the Manhattan Project. However, the Soviets were aware of the project as a result of espionage penetration of the U.S. government and made a number of attempts to infiltrate its operations at the University of California, Berkeley. A number of project members—some high-profile, others lower in rank—did voluntarily give secret information to Soviet agents, many because they were sympathetic to Communism (or the Soviet Union's role in the war) and did not feel the U.S. should have a monopoly on atomic weapons.
After the war, the U.S. continued to protect its nuclear secrets, but the Soviet Union was able to produce its own atomic weapons by 1949. The West was shocked by the speed with which the Soviets were able to stage their first nuclear test, "Joe 1." It was then discovered in January 1950 that a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs, had given key documents to the Russians throughout the war. Through Fuchs' confession, U.S. and United Kingdom intelligence agents were able to make a case against his alleged courier, Harry Gold, who was arrested on May 23, 1950. A former machinist at Los Alamos, Sergeant David Greenglass confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Gold as well. Though he initially denied any involvement by his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, he claimed that her husband, Julius, had convinced his wife to recruit him while on a visit to him in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1944 and that Julius had also passed secrets. Another accused conspirator, Morton Sobell, was on vacation in Mexico City when both Rosenbergs were arrested. According to his story published in On Doing Time, he tried to figure out a way to reach Europe without a passport but ultimately abandoned that effort and was back in Mexico City when he was kidnapped by members of the Mexican secret police and driven to the U.S. border where he was arrested. The government claimed he had been deported, but in 1956 the Mexican government officially declared that he had never been deported. Regardless of how he was returned to the U.S., he was arrested and stood trial with the Rosenbergs on one count of conspiracy to commit espionage.
The trial of the Rosenbergs and Sobell began on March 6, 1951. The judge was Irving Kaufman. The attorney for the Rosenbergs was Emanuel Hirsch Bloch. The prosecution's primary witness, David Greenglass, stated that his sister Ethel typed notes containing U.S. nuclear secrets in the Rosenberg apartment in September 1945. He also asserted that a sketch he made of a cross-section of the implosion-type atom bomb (the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, as opposed to the "gun method" triggering device that was in the one dropped on Hiroshima) was also turned over to Julius Rosenberg at that meeting.
From the beginning, the trial attracted a high amount of media attention, like the trial of Alger Hiss. Aside from the Rosenbergs' own defense during the trial, there was not one single public expression of doubt as to their guilt in any of the media (including the left-wing and Communist press) before or during the trial. The first break in the media unanimity would not occur until August 1951, when a series of articles ran in the left-wing newspaper The National Guardian. Only after the publication of those articles was a defense committee formed.
However, between the trial and the executions there were widespread protests and claims of anti-Semitism. For example, Nobel Prize winner Jean-Paul Sartre called the case "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, auto-da-fés, sacrifices — we are here getting to the point: your country is sick with fear... you are afraid of the shadow of your own bomb. Others, including non-Communists such as Albert Einstein (at that time, a socialist) and Nobel-Prize-winning atomic scientist and chemist Harold Urey, as well as Communists or left-leaning artists such as Nelson Algren, Dashiell Hammett, Jean Cocteau, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, protested the position of the American government in what some termed America's Dreyfus Affair. In May 1951, Pablo Picasso wrote for French magazine L’Humanité, "The hours count. The minutes count. Do not let this crime against humanity take place. Pope Pius XII also condemned the execution. The all-black International Longshoremen’s Association Local 968 stopped working for a day in protest. Cinema artists such as Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht registered their protest.
Although the notes allegedly typed by Ethel apparently contained little that was relevant to the Soviet atomic bomb project, this was sufficient evidence for the jury to convict on the conspiracy to commit espionage charge. It was suggested that part of the reason Ethel was indicted along with Julius was so that the prosecution could use her as a 'lever' to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. If that was the case, it did not work. On the witness stand, Julius asserted his right under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment to not incriminate himself whenever asked about his involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Ethel did similarly. Neither defendant was viewed sympathetically by the jury.
The role played by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Cohn, the prosecutor in the case, is controversial. Cohn stated in his autobiography that he influenced the selection of the judge, and pushed him to impose the death penalty on both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General William P. Rogers, when later asked about the failure of the indictment of Ethel to leverage a full confession by Julius, reportedly said, "She called our bluff.
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and on April 5 were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman under Section 2 of the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S. Code 32 (now 18 U.S. Code 794), which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information "relating to the national defense." The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well-documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair.
The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War. In imposing the death penalty, Kaufman noted that he held them responsible not only for espionage but also for the deaths of the Korean War:
I consider your crime worse than murder...I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack.
Their case has been at the center of the controversy over Communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of persecution typical of the "hysteria" of those times (see McCarthyism) and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and medieval Europe (a comparison that provided the inspiration for Arthur Miller's critically acclaimed play, The Crucible). There is also a quotation by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg saying "We are the first victims of American fascism".
After the publication of the series in The National Guardian and the formation of the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, some 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. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but Eisenhower refused on February 11, 1953, and all other appeals were also unsuccessful. On September 12, 2008, co-defendant Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg were guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. He believed Ethel was aware of the espionage, but did not actively participate.
On June 18, the Court was called back into special session to dispose of Douglas' stay rather than let the execution be delayed for months while the appeal that was the basis of the stay wended its way through the lower courts. The Court did not vacate Douglas' stay until noon on June 19. Thus, the execution then was scheduled for later in the evening after the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Desperately playing for more time, their lawyer, Emanuel Hirsch Bloch, filed a complaint that this offended their Jewish heritage - so the execution was scheduled before sunset. Reports of the execution state that Julius died after the first application of electricity, but Ethel did not succumb immediately and was subjected to two more electrical charges before being pronounced dead. The chair was designed for a man of average size, and Ethel Rosenberg was a petite woman; this discrepancy resulted, it is claimed, in the electrodes fitting poorly and making poor electrical contact. Eyewitness testimony (as given by a newsreel report featured in the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Cafe) describes smoke rising from her head.
Michael Meeropol 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."
In September, 2008, hundreds of pages of grand jury transcripts were released. With this release, it was revealed that Ruth Greenglass had irreconcilable differences in her grand jury testimony in August 1950 and the testimony she gave at trial. At the grand jury, Ruth Greenglass was asked, "Didn't you write [the information] down on a piece of paper?" She replied, "Yes, I wrote [the information] down a piece of paper and [Julius Rosenberg] took it with him." But, at the trial she testified that Ethel Rosenberg typed up notes about the atomic bomb.
The other major novel dealing extensively with the case is Robert Coover's The Public Burning. Unlike Doctorow, Coover uses real names for most protagonists of the case, and uses a fictionalized Richard Nixon as his narrator for half of the chapters. This sparked a long delay in the publication of the novel, since publishing houses feared law suits from people appearing as characters in the book. Further fictional treatments of the case are Teema Nason's fictional autobiography Ethel and Millicent Dillon's fictional biography Harry Gold.