Execution of Ethel Rosenberg
Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's names remain familiar to most Americans. Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to commit treason, the Rosenbergs were at the center of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century. Fifty-four years after her death, Ethel Rosenberg's role remains one of the most contested aspects of the whole affair.
Despite her sensational death, Ethel Rosenberg was not a lifelong political activist. Born to Russian immigrants on New York's Lower East Side in 1915, the young Ethel hoped for a career in theater or music. Although she went to work instead of to college after her 1931 graduation from high school, she studied experimental theatre at the Clark Settlement House and also studied music. She joined the Schola Cantorum, a vocal group that performed at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Even as she maintained the dream of a musical career, her work in a shipping company was leading her in a new direction.
At work, Ethel Rosenberg was introduced for the first time to union organizers and Communist Party members. Exploring radical political philosophy through music and theatre as well as evening discussions, she came to agree with many of the Communist Party's goals, such as fighting fascism and racism and supporting unions. When the workers in her union called a strike in 1935, she was one of four members of the strike committee. She continued to sing, however, and it was at a performance at a Seaman's Union benefit that she met Julius Rosenberg. They were married in 1939. After their marriage, Julius remained active in the Communist Party, but Ethel left both politics and music behind to focus on raising their two sons.
Following the arrest of a German-born physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the U.S. atomic bomb, a series of revelations led, in June 1950, to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg as an atomic spy. Ethel's arrest followed in July. The pair were turned in by Ethel's youngest brother, David Greenglass, apparently to protect his own wife from prosecution. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information.
On March 29, 1951, following a high-profile trial, the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason, in the form of passing atomic secrets to Russia. Ethel's refusal to fulfill a stereotypical feminine role by breaking into tears during the trial was thought to show that she was unwomanly and more attached to Communism than to her children. Her stoicism may have helped to turn the jury of 11 men and one woman against her.
The global political context was also a clear factor. In pronouncing their death sentence, Judge Irving Kaufman described the Rosenbergs' crime as "worse than murder ... causing the communist aggression in Korea," thus blaming them for the Korean War. The conviction and sentence were followed by a lengthy series of appeals.
Although a number of leftist organizations protested the verdict, Jewish organizations were conspicuously absent in the Rosenbergs' defense. Public condemnation of the Rosenbergs, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and the shadow of McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.
Following failed pleas for clemency to President Truman and then to President Eisenhower, the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel was only the second woman ever to be executed by the federal government. To the end, both Rosenbergs insisted on their innocence. Documents recently unsealed in both the U.S. and Russia show that although Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty, Ethel's role in any conspiracy was tiny at most.
While scholarly debate over the Rosenberg case continues, their names remain a touchstone for many. Playwright Tony Kushner, for instance, offered a powerful portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg's strength and humanity in his landmark production Angels in America. Heir to an Execution (2004), a recent documentary by the Rosenbergs' granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, presents a particularly moving portrayal of how Ethel confronted her arrest, trial and execution.
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1174-1176; Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds., Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America (New York, 1995); Ilene Philipson, Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myth (New York, 1988); Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (New York, 1983); Joseph Sharlitt, Fatal Error: The Miscarriage of Justice that Sealed the Rosenbergs' Fate (New York, 1989); Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1951; New York Times, April 6, 1951, June 20, 1953; Chicago Daily Tribune, October 14, 1952, June 20, 1953.