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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Death: Were They Really Spies?

June 18, 2020
4 min read

HBO’s ‘Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn,’ is in several ways an in-depth look into one of the most controversial figures in American history- Roy Cohn. His success as both a lawyer and a fixer, being involved with several prominent figures, led to much of his fame and public scrutiny.

In any case, while his ethical side of work is the scope of much discussion, even know, many don’t contest the fact that he was a force to be reckoned with. He became exceptionally famous for the role he played in the conviction and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s Conviction and Death

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both convicted of spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, by providing them with top-secret information like nuclear weapon designs, along with designs of radar and sonar engines. The complexity of the case arises from the fact that only the US had nuclear weapons at the time. Julius Rosenberg was part of the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories in New Jersey, however, he was fired when the US Army learned about his membership in the Communist Party. Much later, in 1950, when David Greenglass was arrested by the FBI for espionage, he confessed that Julius Rosenberg had convinced his wife to recruit him. He also stated that Julius had passed secrets, which linked him to the Soviet contact agent named Anatoli Yakovlev. This confession was instrumental in the conviction of the Rosenbergs.

In February 1950, twenty senior government officials met to discuss the case. Subsequently, at the trial, the two were asked to state the names of others involved in the spy ring. During the course of the trial in 1951, they evoked their Fifth Amendment rights. It was at this time that Roy Cohn entered the scene as a prosecutor for the trial. Cohn later also claimed that his influence primarily led to Kaufman and Saypol to be appointed to the case. It was allegedly based on his recommendation that Kaufman imposed the death penalty for the two.

After their conviction, based on the publication of an investigative series in the National Guardian, there was a campaign by several Americans to prevent their execution. It was also alleged that it was an antisemitic move. Several prominent figures too came to the forefront to voice what they believed was a mistake if the two were to be executed. However, the two were executed on 19 June 1953 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Julius was executed first with electric shock, and for Ethel, it allegedly took five electric shocks before she was declared dead as her heart was reported to be beating even after the administration of three electric shocks. The two were then laid to rest in Wellwood Cemetery in New York. Their case stands out because they were the only two Americans to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. At the time of their death, they were survived by their two children, Michael and Robert Meeropol.

Were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Really Spies?

During the course of the trial and even in its aftermath, there has been ample evidence to prove Julius’ guilt but that has not been the case when it comes to Ethel. The couple’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have heavily contested the death penalty that eventually led to their parents’ execution. They believe that while Julius was guilty of the conspiracy charge, he was not guilty of atomic spying. Also, Dr. Arne Kislenko, professor of history at Ryerson University, said, “ Needless to say, it was also a bit of pander to the increasingly vitriolic anti-communism of the period.”

Furthermore, when it comes to statements made by both Meeropols and other scholars, there is a sufficient amount of evidence to question Ethel’s involvement. This subsequently led to a proclamation in 2015 about how Ethel Rosenberg had been wrongfully executed. In 2017, before former President, Barack Obama left office, Senator Elizabeth Warren even sent a letter requesting Ethel Rosenberg’s pardon. Thus, it still remains a contested claim that has not been publically acknowledged yet. (Featured Image Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Read More: How Did Roy Cohn Die?

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