Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on Trial


[Part 2 of 3]

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s conspiracy trial, presided over by Judge Irving Kaufman, began on March 6, 1951.  Representing the United States was attorney Irving Saypol, well-known for his recent successful prosecution of a government official accused of being a Soviet spy and convicted of perjuring himself before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  After the Rosenbergs were ultimately convicted, Saypol was heralded by Time magazine as “the nation’s Number One legal hunter of top Communists.”

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s attorney, Emanuel (Manny) Bloch, was known for defending clients harboring left-wing or communist sympathies.  However, the Rosenbergs were not the only defendants being placed on trial – Morton Sobell, who was represented by Harold Phillips, was also among the accused.

Sobell had been recruited by Julius Rosenberg in the summer of 1944 and was accused of stealing information while working as an engineer at General Electric.  Sobell was advised by his attorney to say as little as possible throughout the trial in order to avoid implicating himself in the Rosenbergs’ activities, and indeed he never took the stand. Later outrage against the treatment of the Rosenbergs and their subsequent sentencing also included protestation of the judicial treatment of Sobell as well.


Although the trial was an item of intense media interest throughout its duration, the closing statements and summations of the case were especially interesting as they served as one final opportunity for the attorneys involved to provide their perspectives to the jury. Emanuel Bloch, the Rosenberg’s lawyer, focused on the Greenglasses as villains who had framed Ethel Rosenberg and broken family bonds by testifying against her. Bloch alleged that the Greenglasses had fooled the FBI and allowed Ruth Greenglass to get off scot free, while Ethel suffered for a crime that she did not commit.

In his summary argument, Bloch did not draw attention to the fact that the case against Ethel was far weaker than that made against Julius, as doing so would strengthen the validity of the conspiracy charge issued against the couple. Instead, Bloch’s primary tactic was to appeal to the emotions of the jurors.

The prosecution, on the other hand, argued that it was not the government’s fault that their key witnesses, the Greenglasses, did not have an unimpeachable reputation.  In his statement, Irving Saypol, the government’s lead attorney, emphasized that the jury also had ample and damning material evidence on which to rely.  He likewise reminded the jury that, although communism was not on trial, it was communism and a devotion to the Soviet Union which brought the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell to commit the crime of which they were accused.

Heading into their deliberations, all twelve jurors were leaning towards convicting Julius, with one juror arguing against convicting Ethel. This remained a sticking point throughout discussions that night and into the next morning, but at 11:00 A.M. the group reached complete unanimity.  On March 29, 1951, the jury delivered a guilty verdict against Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

The sentencing that ensued also provided a unique look at how the trial was received in America.  At the sentencing hearing held the next week, on April 5, both Bloch and Phillips did what they could to try and lessen the severity of the punishments being considered.  Bloch in particular argued that the Rosenbergs did not wish to change the fate of the United States with their actions during World War II, nor did they even have the power to do so.  Rather, they were aiding an ally of the United States at the time of the alleged crime. Bloch further argued that, had they been tried at the time of their alleged crimes – circa 1944 – the levels of tension and fear surrounding the US’s relationship with the Soviet Union would have been far lower, and the courts would have been much more likely to show leniency.

Bloch also read a statement from the Yale Law Journal which explained that the information given to the Soviets through the atom spies was not as crucial to the development of Soviet nuclear weapons as was commonly believed.  The defense attorney concluded that it would be unfair to hand down death sentences to the Rosenbergs, as other notorious traitors including Iva Toguri D’Aquino – more commonly known as “Tokyo Rose” – and Mildred Gillars, aka “Axis Sally,” had received lesser sentences for their treasonous activities during the war. Many of these issues broached by Bloch at the sentencing hearing continue to be points of contention for scholars and commentators when they consider the Rosenberg trial today.


A statement issued by Judge Irving Kaufman prior to sentencing made it pretty clear that the court was not in a forgiving mood. In his remarks, Kaufman assigned partial blame for the onset of the Korean War to the Rosenbergs, as he believed that the information they leaked had led the Soviets to develop an atomic bomb sooner than expected, thus enabling Moscow to encourage Communist aggression in Korea.  In the judge’s estimation, this rendered the Rosenbergs’ crime “worse than murder.”

Kaufman also emphasized the role that Ethel had played in the ordeal by encouraging and assisting her husband, thus making her a “full-fledged partner” in the espionage, and for this reason he believed that she should not be shown any mercy.

Without question, Judge Kaufman’s statement was imbued with the sentiments that attorney Bloch had feared would cloud the decisions made at the trial – namely, the crisis mentality that so often defined the Cold War era. As Kaufman put it

The issue of punishment in this case is presented in a unique framework of history.  It is so difficult to make people realize that this country is engaged in a life or death struggle with a completely different system.  This struggle is not only manifested externally between these two forces but this case indicates quite clearly that it also involved the employment by the enemy of secret as well as overt outspoken forces among our own people.

After reading his statement, Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death, while Morton Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in jail.  The death sentence was to be carried out during the week of May 21, 1951, less than two months after the hearing had taken place. In this, the judge emphasized his desire to expedite the execution process, a continuing theme throughout the Rosenbergs’ later appeals.

Interestingly, the sentences issued by Judge Kaufman were not in accordance with Justice Department guidelines and went beyond what the government thought was advisable given the situation. Just as in the deliberations of the jury, the main sticking point was Ethel’s fate and the question of whether or not she should receive the death penalty alongside her husband.  And although Kaufman recommended that Morton Sobell be forced to complete his full thirty-year sentence without parole, he was in fact released in 1969 after seventeen years and nine months in prison.

On April 6, the day after the Rosenbergs hearing, David Greenglass was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, a judgement that, according to Kaufman, was “neither a light sentence nor a heavy sentence, but just a sentence.” Though this was also the sentence that prosecution attorney Saypol had suggested, it ran counter to assumptions made by Greenglass and his lawyer, O. John Rogge, who understood there to be an informal agreement with the government, wherein Greenglass would get off lightly – no more than five years imprisonment – due to his cooperation.  However, the death sentences handed down to Greenglass’ sister and brother-in-law rendered his own slap on the wrist an unlikely presumption.  Greenglass would eventually be released in 1960 after spending nine and a half years in prison.


Despite Kaufman’s directive that the Rosenbergs be put to death promptly, the couple managed to appeal their verdicts over the next two years.  However, their final appeal was thrown out on June 19, 1953, and the Rosenbergs were executed that day after a stay of execution was voided.  Although their attorneys had asked that the executions be delayed until a later date due to the start of the Jewish Sabbath, their executions were actually moved up from the standard time of midnight in order to complete them before the Sabbath began. Their date of death happened also to coincide with their fourteenth wedding anniversary.

Today, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the only Americans ever put to death in peacetime for espionage and the only two American civilians executed for espionage-related crimes committed during the Cold War.

The Rosenberg Trial: Setting the Stage

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, December 1950.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, December 1950.

[Ed. Note: September 28, 2015 will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg’s birth. Over the next three weeks, the Pauling Blog will explore the famous Rosenberg trial and discuss Linus Pauling’s involvement in the public debate that it engendered.]

The trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was a source of very vocal public debate in the U.S. and around the world in the early 1950s.  Charged with conspiracy to commit espionage and accused of stealing atomic bomb secrets from the Manhattan Project to give to the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs’ trial highlighted widespread American fears that the Soviets were quickly catching with the United States in terms of technological prowess, and that these gains might be attributed, at least in part, to the assistance of unloyal Americans.

The trial also bore many of the hallmarks of a sensational media event. It included defendants who maintained their innocence no matter how hard they were pressed, the public airing of a family feud, and potential court appearances from celebrated atomic scientists and a “Red Spy Queen.”

The Rosenberg trial might now be viewed as both a piece of a larger quest to uncover Soviet spies in the wake of World War II and an outgrowth of the fear of communism that so characterized the Cold War.  What is certain is that event sparked outrage nationally and internationally, inciting involvement and protest from a wide range of actors, including Linus Pauling.


David Greenglass.

The Rosenberg trial was actually just one high-profile event among several others that came about as the U.S. security apparatus sought to identify “atom spies” in its midst.  One such individual, Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British physicist, was convicted on March 1, 1950 after willingly granting interviews detailing his involvement.  His testimony prompted a larger investigation into potential spies at the Manhattan Project, as his statements suggested that someone else in the project had been supplying information to the Soviets before Fuchs did around 1942.

Fuchs’ testimony led to the discovery of Harry Gold, a key witness in the trials against David Greenglass, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  Gold was identified as the courier for information supplied by Greenglass at Los Alamos, which he then passed on to Julius Rosenberg.  Gold served fifteen years in prison for espionage, while Fuchs was charged with four counts of supplying secrets to an allied country during war.  (Importantly, this distinction of the Soviet Union as an ally was made in England, where he was tried.)  Fuchs was ultimately sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment, of which he ended up serving nine years and four months.

Greenglass, a machinist working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, was arrested on June 15, 1950.  His arrest prompted Julius’ initial interview and the surveillance that followed.  Julius was arrested on July 17, 1950 after being interviewed on June 16.  Ethel was arrested one month later, based largely on new testimony given by her brother on August 11.  In this August statement, Greenglass specifically pointed out that his sister, Ethel, had typed the notes that were delivered to the Soviets, and not his wife Ruth, who had been identified in Greenglass’ original interview.

Greenglass and his testimony served as the foundation for the prosecution’s case.  It was Greenglass’ claim that Ethel had typed the notes that he made from knowledge gleaned at Los Alamos.  These notes were then given to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet vice consul in New York City, through the courier Harry Gold.  Many years later however, Greenglass confided to author Sam Roberts – who was researching his book The Brother – that indeed it was most likely Ruth who had done the typing and not Ethel. In 1950 Greenglass had implicated Ethel to spare the life of the mother of his children, choosing to sacrifice his sister in the process.

Greenglass’ decision to change his testimony and accuse his sister Ethel rather than his wife Ruth came as a welcome turn of events for government prosecutors, who believed that they could use Ethel as a lever against Julius and force him to give up more names by charging her equally with him.  However, this tactic did not work as planned, as Ethel committed to stand by her husband and refused to incriminate herself or anyone else.  During their sessions in court, both of the Rosenbergs upheld their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to divulge other names or admit to Communist Party ties in the past.

Greenglass's sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon, ca. September 1945.

Greenglass’s sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon, ca. September 1945.

The specific information that was alleged to have been relayed to the Soviets, per Greenglass’ testimony, can be divided into four categories:

  1. General information about the layout of the labs at Los Alamos and potential recruits working on the Manhattan Project.
  2. Description and a sketch of the lens molds that were used in experiments of the implosion-type bomb.
  3. Description of what Greenglass referred to as a naval-type bomb, which was the type dropped on Nagasaki.
  4. Description and a sketch of an experiment to determine a reduction in the amount of plutonium or uranium needed to construct an atomic bomb.

The evaluations required in arguing and adjudicating the Rosenberg trial were complicated by a wide variety of factors; even discussing certain allegations in an open court proved problematic, as much of the information under review was classified.

Most importantly, because the Rosenbergs had been charged with conspiracy, there did not need to be any concrete evidence against them to arrive at a verdict of guilty. And indeed, over the course of the trial, no evidence was ever produced that showed that the couple had successfully passed information on to the Soviets.

While treason is one of the hardest crimes to prosecute, conspiracy is among the easiest.  Hearsay testimony can be admissible in a conspiracy case, and once a conspiracy has been proven to exist, all members involved can be held accountable for the actions of the others regardless of their knowledge of others’ acts. In addition, the success of a conspiracy does not have to be proven, only that those involved conspired towards an agreed upon goal.

The lack of concrete evidence presented in the trial combined with the media frenzy surrounding the proceedings to incite strong feelings among the public. As the trial moved forward and sentences were issues, many would come to believe that the punishments handed down were excessive, regardless of innocence or guilt, and that the process used to arrive at a verdict was deeply flawed.