The Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Atomic Spies

The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has become one of the most controversial issues referring to espionage during the Cold War. After being sentenced to death in 1951, this couple became the center of national and worldwide attention. A lot of people considered that the death penalty was an extremely severe and uncommon way of punishment. The Rosenbergs were often treated as the victims of the mass anticommunist movement in the United States. On the other hand, many Americans were convinced that the couple deserved such kind of judgment. Consequently, the variety of opinions found its representation in the national media. To understand the public attitude towards the Rosenbergs, one should review the publications of the two counterpoised newspapers, such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

The analysis of the case can start from the publications in The New York Times. In his article “Secret Grand Jury Testimony from Ethel Rosenberg’s Brother Is Released”, Sam Roberts notes the disagreement between the grand jury and the trial testimony in this case. It is commonly known that Ethel Rosenberg was convicted and consequently executed on the basis of the trial testimony of her younger brother, David Greenglass. In the court, Mrs. Rosenberg’s brother, the former Army machinist in New Mexico, gave evidence concerning his disclosure of bomb secrets to Mr. Rosenberg in their apartment (Roberts). At the same time, his sister typed this information to deliver it to the Russians. However, the transcript of the grand jury testimony, which took place before the trial, did not reveal any notification of the typing and the appointment with the Rosenbergs (Roberts). Moreover, Mr. Greenglass asserted the grand jury that he had never spoken about espionage with his sister. This fact has served as another evidence of Mrs. Rosenberg’s innocence and the intent of her brother to save his wife, an accepted courier and mediator, from possible incrimination. Obviously, the testimony used to sentence Ethel Rosenberg was made up directly before the trial. Therefore, the author cast some doubt on the involvement of Mrs. Rosenberg into the conspiracy and espionage.


Robert McFadden’s article “David Greenglass, the Brother Who Doomed Ethel Rosenberg, Dies at 92” is dedicated to the lifetime and personality of Mr. Greenglass. A man whose name associates with betrayal was imprisoned for almost ten years and lived in a nursing home under the changed name until 92 years old (McFadden). In more than 50 years after the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, David Greenglass confessed that he had given testimony he was not sure about to protect his wife from being charged. As a result, his sister and his brother-in-law were sentenced to death through the electric chair (McFadden). The author tells about the Marxist background of Greenglass and his strong belief in the principles of Communism. Having access to military documents, safes, and file cabinets, David assisted Julius Rosenberg in making a sketch and a 12-page report on the technical features of the bomb (McFadden). Many years after these events, he explained the fact of giving false testimony by claiming that his wife was more important to him than anyone else, so he had done everything possible to protect her. All in all, this case will always remain a reminder of the uncertain historical period marked by Cold War with the Soviets, the war against fascism, and the belief in the utopian communism.

The two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Michael and Robert Meeropol, support the opinion that their mother was not a spy, and her conviction and execution were not rightful.  In their article “The Meeropol Brothers: Exonerate Our Mother, Ethel Rosenberg”, they try to persuade the government to admit the fact that Ethel did not deserve to be called a spy and sentenced to death. The authors do not deny the fact that their father, Julius Rosenberg, was rightfully charged with the conspiracy (“The Meeropol Brothers”). However, they state that he has never been an atomic spy, so he and his wife did not deserve the death penalty. On the basis of the released grand jury testimony transcript and other records, Michael and Robert Meeropol concluded that their mother was prosecuted mainly for rejecting to turn on her husband. Therefore, the brothers ask President Obama to admit that Ethel Rosenberg was convicted and executed by a horrible mistake and to exonerate her posthumously (“The Meeropol Brothers”). Although the woman was generally aware of her husband’s misdeeds, there is no evidence of her active role in the conspiracy. Thus, the men have analyzed all the available data to prove the innocence of their mother.

The letter posted by Ronald Radosh and Steven T. Usdin under the title “What the K.G.B. Files Show about Ethel Rosenberg” refutes the public belief in the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg. Without taking into account the contents of the grand jury testimony, this letter is based on the Soviet K.G.B. documents. These sources display that Mrs. Rosenberg was deeply involved in the Soviet network by being a participant of the assemblies with Soviet reconnaissance officers and American secret agents for the Soviet Union (Radosh and Usdin). The authors indicate that the 1944 K.G.B. document stresses the role of Ethel Rosenberg in the preservation of the conspiracy’s anonymity. In contrast to the widespread conviction of the betrayal of David Greenglass, Radosh and Usdin consider that he was trying to protect his sister by denying her presence when Julius got the sketch of the bomb’s cross-section. As a conclusion, the authors state that although Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should not have been sentenced to death, there is no doubt concerning their guiltiness.

For comparison, the same events and issues are revealed by another local newspaper, Los Angeles Times. The article “Testimony from Rosenberg Brother Released in Famous Spy Case” informs the reader about the unsealing of grand jury testimony of David Greenglass. The main emphasis is placed on the identification of Julius Rosenberg as the central figure in the famous spy ring involving code names, shady operatives and a secret signal needed to identify the Russian couriers (Associated Press). According to the Associated Press, Greenglass testified the grand jury that Mr. Rosenberg forced him to reveal the secrets and spoke with him about the constructional and detonative features of the atomic bomb. In spite of the assumption that Ethel Rosenberg was informed about her husband’s actions, the government had no substantial evidence to sentence her. Unlike the similar article in The New York Times, this report does not stress the innocence of Mrs. Rosenberg and her false imprisonment. In return, this article only slightly mentions that the new findings may increase public suspicion concerning the wrong conviction of Ethel Rosenberg in one of the most famous espionage cases and further execution. Therefore, both articles represent the same information in a slightly different manner.

The Los Angeles Times article “David Greenglass Dies at 92; ’40s A-Bomb Spy Who Betrayed His Sister” by Elaine Woo reveals the details of life and political activity of Mr. Greenglass. In this report, the author pays more attention to his role in espionage indicating his Soviet code name and the secret information he had passed on to the Soviet Union. Woo mentions that it was not difficult for David Greenglass to spy as he could get any needed data through eavesdropping and informal talks with scientists. The distinguishing feature of this article from The New York Times posthumous report lies in the representation of Mr. Greenglass as a hero and a person who will forever remain in history (Woo). The author explains this point of view by the fact that he admitted the fault lying with him and saved his life. As a result, David Greenglass inspired the protagonist of E.L. Doctorow’s novel “The Book of Daniel”, was mentioned in the episode of the film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and became the leading character of Sam Roberts’ book “The Brother” (Woo). Thus, from this point of view, his betrayal is considered to be a manifestation of heroism and self-preservation rather than an inhumane act against his relatives.

Another publication connected with the Rosenbergs’ case was posted by their sons Robert and Michael Meeropol in Los Angeles Times. The article under the title “The Essential Lessons of the Rosenberg Case” discloses the position of the authors concerning their parents’ prosecution and conviction. After the years of believing in their innocence, Robert and Michael discovered the new details that cast some doubt on that belief. The authors admit the possible engagement of their father in the non-atomic espionage (“The Essential Lessons”). However, they question the existence of reasonable proofs of his participation in receiving and passing on this secret information. Rosenbergs’ sons claim that the most important aspect of this case lies in the dangerous ways of the government’s abuse of power. The facts of manufacturing testimony and evidence and the arrest of their mother with the purpose of making her husband cooperate undermine the belief in justice and equality. In this article, the authors accuse the government in the death of their parents and labeling them as spies and betrayers.

The article “A Kinship with Bradley Manning” posted by Robert Meeropol in Los Angeles Times also reveals some assumptions concerning the Rosenbergs’ case. As a son of the couple convicted of espionage, Robert Meeropol supports the US Army soldier Bradley Manning, who is sentenced to imprisonment for the violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. The author considers that Manning was guided by the intention to disclose the real motifs of the government’s actions to the American nation and the world. In addition to this, Robert Meeropol tells about his own investigation of the Rosenbergs’ case conducted with his brother. Although 38 years of research have uncovered many controversial details of the Rosenbergs’ life, the author does not regret that he has started it. This investigation has led to the promulgation of thousands of secret files and the understanding of the necessity to be aware of the government’s policy (Meeropol). Thus, the discussions over such kind of cases are necessary for the political awareness of the nation.

To sum up, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has become one of the most debatable issues since the period of the Cold War. While many people treat the Rosenbergs as the victims of the political opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union, there are still those who proclaim the rightfulness of their accusation. After the review of the articles in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, one can compare the differences in the description of the events and the attitude to the executed couple. The New York Times’ representation of the case concentrates mostly on the injustice to the Rosenbergs and their innocence. In return, Los Angeles Times provides a detailed description of the process of spying and does not express any sympathy for this couple. Anyway, this issue still remains one of the greatest historical mysteries that can hardly be uncovered.

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