Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1951, were put to death in the electric chair on June 19, 1953. Their dual execution marked the dramatic finale of the most controversial espionage case of the Cold War.
Julius was arrested in July 1950, and Ethel in August of that same year, on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage. Specifically, they were accused of heading a spy ring that passed top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
The Rosenbergs vigorously protested their innocence, but after a brief trial in March 1951 they were convicted. On April 5, 1951, a judge sentenced them to death. The pair was taken to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, to await execution.
During the next two years, the couple became the subject of both national and international debate. Many people believed that the Rosenbergs were the victims of a surge of hysterical anticommunist feeling in the United States, and protested that the death sentence handed down was cruel and unusual punishment. Most Americans, however, believed that the Rosenbergs had been dealt with justly.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke for many Americans when he issued a statement declining to invoke executive clemency for the pair.
Eisenhower stated, “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 the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”
Julius Rosenberg was the first to be executed, at about 8 p.m. on June 19, 1953. Just a few minutes after his body was removed from the chamber containing the electric chair, Ethel Rosenberg was led in and strapped to the same chair. She was pronounced dead at 8:16 p.m. Both refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence right up to the time of their deaths. Two sons, Michael and Robert, survived them.
The timing of when their case came to trial arguably played a key role in how justice was served. They were accused of passing top-secret information concerning the design and use of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union during the Cold War between the United States and the communist nation, still headed at the time by the ruthless Joseph Stalin.
These tensions were also being played out in the Korean War, a proxy war between east and west then taking place on the Korean peninsula.
“Most historians would agree that they would not face the death penalty if they were put on trial at any time other than the early 1950s,” noted Lori Clune, PhD, associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, and author of the 2016 book Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World.
“In my book, I argue that if the Supreme Court had delayed the executions until the fall of 1953, there is a chance, with a new chief Supreme Court justice and an armistice in Korea, that at least Ethel’s sentence may have been reduced to 30 years or less. Possibly even Julius’s sentence would have similarly been reduced,” Clune said.
“Sitting in prison for years may have prompted them to talk, and it would have at least kept them off the front pages, whereas waiting on death row kept them in the news for two years and allowed a protest movement to grow around the world. It also would have pleased many of our allies, who saw the death penalty – particularly for Ethel, the mother of two young sons – as extreme and abhorrent.”
This is not to say the crimes with which the Rosenbergs had been accused didn’t merit strong punishment. Indeed, Clune suggests that Julius arguably deserved a death sentence, given that evidence has emerged in the decades since the couple’s trial indicating that he indeed did run a spy ring of roughly a dozen engineers and scientists.
That cohort passed along the design of a prototype fuse for the atomic bomb to Julius who, in turn, passed along the plans to his Soviet handler in 1944, according to Dr. Clune.
It’s also worth noting that the Soviets would later use that same technology to shoot down U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in May 1960.
As Clune explained, by passing the technology to the Soviets, Julius violated the Espionage Act, which stipulates that providing military secrets to any nation – enemy or not – is an act of espionage, punishable by 30 years in prison or death.
“In contrast, it’s very difficult to argue that Ethel Rosenberg deserved the death sentence,” Clune says. “She didn’t have a code name, and engaged in no active spying of her own. Most historians agree that she was cognizant of her husband’s espionage activities, and thus a part of the conspiracy to commit espionage, but that she was arrested and sentenced to death only to pressure Julius to talk and name the members of his spy ring. They called the federal government’s bluff.”