June 19, 1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Spies for the Soviet Union, Executed
Little focused the public’s mind in the early 1950s like the atom bomb and the potential for vast death and destruction in the event of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Who can forget the classroom drills where students dropped to the floor and hid under their desks ostensibly to reduce exposure to an exploding atomic bomb? It was a prevailing subject of discussion amongst average people as well as elites in government, media and the arts.
The Soviet Union had attained “the bomb” in 1949, four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the atom bomb at their disposal, the leadership of the Soviet Union was likely emboldened to accelerate its deeply felt ideological imperative to spread communism opportunistically. Getting an A-bomb led to a military equality with the United States that far reduced the threat of nuclear retaliation against their superior land armies in the event of an East-West military confrontation. The blatant invasion of South Korea, supported by the U.S. by communist North Korea in 1950 with total Soviet political and logistical commitment and indeed, encouragement, was likely an outcome of the Soviets possessing the atomic bomb.
In January of 1950, British intelligence, on information provided by the FBI, arrested East Germany-born and a British-educated and citizen, atomic scientist, Klaus Fuchs, who was spying for the Soviet Union. Fuchs had worked at the very highest level at Los Alamos on the American project to develop an atom bomb and was passing secrets to American Communist Party members who were also spying for the Soviet Union. He admitted his espionage and provided names of his American collaborators at Los Alamos. Those connections led to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg in June of 1950 on suspicion of espionage and two months later, his wife Ethel on the same charge.
Julius Rosenberg, an electrical engineer, and his wife Ethel were dedicated members of the Communist Party USA and had been working for years for Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) delivering secret American work on advanced weaponry such as radar detection, jet engines and guided missiles. In hindsight, that information probably exceeded the value of atomic secrets given to the Soviet Union although consensus is that the Rosenbergs’ bomb design information confirmed the direction of Soviet bomb development. Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass was working at Los Alamos and evidence brought to light over the years strongly suggest that Ethel was the one who recruited her brother to provide atom bomb design secrets to her husband and worked hand-in-glove with him in his espionage activities.
The Rosenbergs, never admitting their crimes, were tried and convicted on the charge of “conspiracy to commit espionage.” The Death Penalty was their sentence. They professed their innocence until the very end when in June 1953, they were electrocuted at Sing Sing prison.
Politically, there was another narrative unfolding. The political Left in the United States and worldwide strongly supported the Rosenbergs’ innocence, reminiscent of their support for former State Department official Alger Hiss who was tried in 1949 and convicted in 1950 of perjury and not espionage as the Statute of Limitations on espionage had expired. The world-renowned Marxist intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre called the Rosenberg trial a “legal lynching.” On execution day, there was a demonstration of several hundred outside Sing Sing paying their last respects. For decades to follow, the Rosenbergs’ innocence became a rallying cry of the political Left.
Leaders on the political and intellectual Left blamed anti-communist fervor drummed up by McCarthyism for the federal government’s pursuit of the Rosenbergs and others accused of spying for the Soviet Union. At the time, there was great sympathy on the Left with the ideals of communism and America’s former communist ally, the Soviet Union, which had experienced great loss in WW II in defeating hated Nazi fascism. They fervently believed the Rosenbergs’ plea of innocence.
When the Venona Project, secret records of intercepted Soviet messages, were made public in the mid-1990s, with unequivocal information pointing to the Rosenbergs’ guilt, the political Left’s fervor for the Rosenbergs was greatly diminished. Likewise, with material copied from Soviet KGB archives (the Vassillyev Notebooks) in 2009. However, some said, (paraphrasing) “OK, they did it but U.S. government Cold War mentality and McCarthyism were even greater threats” (e. g. the Nation magazine, popular revisionist Historian Howard Zinn).
Since then, the Left and not only the Left, led by the surviving sons of the Rosenbergs, have focused on the unfairness of the sentence, particularly Ethel Rosenberg’s, and that she should have not received the death penalty. Federal prosecutors likely hoped that such a charge would get the accused to talk, implicate others and provide insights into Soviet espionage operations. It did not. The Rosenbergs became martyrs to the Left and likely as martyrs, continued to better serve the Soviet communist cause than serving a prison sentence. Perhaps that was even their reason for professing innocence.
Debate continues to this day. But these days it’s over the severity of the sentence as just about all agree the Rosenbergs were spies for the Soviet Union. In today’s climate, there would be no death sentence but at the height of the Cold War…
However, there is absolutely no doubt that they betrayed America by spying for the Soviet Union at a time of great peril to America and world.
Don Ritter is President and CEO Emeritus (after serving eight years in that role) of the Afghan American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) and a 15-year founding member of the Board of Directors. Since 9-11, 2001, he has worked full time on Afghanistan and has been back to the country more than 40 times. He has a 38-year history in Afghanistan.
Ritter holds a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering from Lehigh University and a Masters and Doctorate from MIT in physical-mechanical metallurgy. After MIT, where his hobby was Russian language and culture, he was a NAS-Soviet Academy of Sciences Exchange Fellow in the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era for one year doing research at the Baikov Institute for Physical Metallurgy on high temperature materials. He speaks fluent Russian (and French), is a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science and recipient of numerous awards from scientific and technical societies and human rights organizations.
After returning from Russia in 1968, he spent a year teaching at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he was also a contract consultant to General Dynamics in their solid-state physics department. He then returned, as a member of the faculty and administration, to his alma-mater, Lehigh University. At Lehigh, in addition to his teaching, research and industry consulting, Dr. Ritter was instrumental in creating a university-wide program linking disciplines of science and engineering to the social sciences and humanities with the hope of furthering understanding of the role of technology in society.
After10 years at Lehigh, Dr. Ritter represented Pennsylvania’s 15th district, the “Lehigh Valley” from 1979 to 1993 in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served on the Science and Technology and Energy and Commerce Committees. Ritter’s main mission as a ‘scientist congressman’ was to work closely with the science, engineering and related industry communities to bring a greater science-based perspective to the legislative, regulatory and political processes.
In Congress, as ranking member on the Congressional Helsinki Commission, he fought for liberty and human rights in the former Soviet Union. The Commission was Ritter’s platform to gather congressional support to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion and occupation during the 1980s. Ritter was author of the “Material Assistance” legislation and founder and House-side Chairman of the “Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan.”
Dr. Ritter continued his effort in the 1990’s after Congress as founder and Chairman of the Washington, DC-based Afghanistan Foundation. In 2003, as creator of a six million-dollar USAID-funded initiative, he served as Senior Advisor to AACC in the creation of the first independent, free-market oriented Chamber of Commerce in the history of the country. Dr. Ritter presently is part of AACC’s seminal role in assisting the development of the Afghan market economy to bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan. He is also a businessman and investor in Afghanistan.
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