Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were United States citizens who were executed on June 19, 1953 after being convicted of committing espionage for the Soviet Union. They were accused of transmitting nuclear weapon designs to the Soviet Union; at that time the United States was the only country with nuclear weapons. They also provided top-secret information about radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines to the USSR.
Other convicted co-conspirators were imprisoned, including Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents from Los Alamos to Julius and who served 10 years of his 15-year sentence; Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass and served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Greenglass. Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist working in Los Alamos and handled by Gold, provided vastly more important information. He served nine years and four months, convicted in Great Britain.
For decades, many defenders of the Rosenbergs, including their sons Michael and Robert Meeropol, maintained that Julius and Ethel were innocent and victims of Cold Warparanoia. After the fall of the USSR, much information concerning them was declassified, including a trove of decoded Soviet cables, code-named VENONA, which detailed Julius’s role as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets and Ethel’s role as an accessory. Their sons’ current position is that Julius was legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, though not of atomic spying, while Ethel was only generally aware of his activities. They believe that he did not deserve the death penalty and that she was wrongly convicted. They continue to campaign for Ethel to be legally exonerated.
In 2014, five historians who had published on the Rosenberg case wrote that Soviet documents show that “Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, provided her personal evaluation of individuals Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his sources. They also demonstrate that Julius reported to the KGB that Ethel persuaded Ruth Greenglass to travel to New Mexico to recruit David as a spy.”
There is a consensus among historians that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, but their trial was marred by clear judicial and legal improprieties and they should not have been executed.Distilling this consensus, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote that the Rosenbergs were “guilty – and framed.”