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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Spies or Political Dupes?

By Tom Morrow

One of the most controversial episodes in American history was the capture, trial, and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

The couple were American citizens executed on June 19, 1953, for conspiracy to commit espionage. They were accused and convicted of passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. What makes the case controversial is all others convicted to passing secrets, received varying lengths of prison sentences.

The question remains: why were the Rosenbergs executed?

In 1995, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government released a series of decoded Soviet cables confirming that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets. But, the documents were ambiguous about Ethel’s involvement. Other spies connected with the case, who were captured by the FBI, included: David Greenglass, (Ethel’s brother), Harry Gold, and Klaus Fuchs. Greenglass supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos. He served 10 years of a 15-year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Gold, served 15 years as being the courier for Greenglass. Morton Sobell, who was tried along with the Rosenbergs, served a 17 years of a 30-year sentence. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed that Julius, indeed, provided classified atomic information to the Soviets.

Perhaps the most incredible of the sentences went to German scientist Klaus Fuchs, who served only nine years. The German scientist was convicted of passing secrets to the Soviets from the A-bomb research facilities in England.

Julius went to work for the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ engineering research laboratories at Fort Monmouth, N.J., in 1940. He worked as an engineer-inspector until 1945, when he was fired after the Army discovered he was a member of the Communist Party.

Julius Rosenberg was originally recruited by the Soviet secret police in 1942. According to his former handler, Alexandre Feklisov, Julius provided thousands of Top Secret documents including missle plans of which an upgraded model was used in 1960 to shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane.

Among the most damning information in the Soviet cables named Julius Rosenberg as the head of the A-bomb spy ring. While this fact wasn’t proven during the trial, Feklisov’s confirmation a half-century later quells those who said the Rosenbergs were dupes.

According to Feklisov in recent years, Julius was responsible for passing a complete set of design and production drawings for Lockheed’s P-80 “Shooting Star” fighter planes, the first operational jet in the U.S. Air Force.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. The judge held them responsible not only for espionage, but also for the 50,000 U.S. deaths of the Korean War.

The Rosenbergs were held up as example of “scapegoats’ by those against their convictions. The “Red Scare” dominated the next four decades. The federal government did not have an electric chair, so the one at New York state’s Sing-Sing prison was used. Adding to the controversy was the execution itself. Eyewitness testimony said Julius died immediately from three series of electric jolts, but Ethel was still alive, requiring two more jolts.

The Rosenbergs’ two sons spent years trying to prove the innocence of their parents, but after Morton Sobel confessed in 2008, they acknowledged their father had been involved in espionage, but maintained they were not involved in passing A-bomb secrets.


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