Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were United States citizens who were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. They were instrumental in the transmission of information about top-secret military technology and prototypes of mechanisms related to the atomic bomb, which were of value to the Soviet nuclear weapons program and also provided top-secret radar, sonar, and jet propulsion engines to the Soviet Union.
Other 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 war paranoia. 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".
Early lives and education
Julius Rosenberg was born to a family of Jewish immigrants in New York City on May 12, 1918. The family moved to the Lower East Side by the time Julius was 11. His parents worked in the shops of the Lower East Side, as Julius attended Seward Park High School. Julius became a leader in the Young Communist League USA while at City College of New York (CCNY). In 1939, he graduated from CCNY with a degree in electrical engineering.
Ethel Greenglass was born on September 28, 1915, to a Jewish family in Manhattan, New York City. She originally was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretarial job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, where she met Julius in 1936. They married in 1939. Together they had two sons, Michael and Robert, born in 1943 and 1947 respectively.