"We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you. Your Daddy who is with me in the last momentous hours, sends his heart and all the love that is in it for his dearest boys. Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience."
- Letter from Ethel Rosenberg to her sons, 19 June 1953
Halfway through the twentieth Century was a rougher time than normal for any U.S. citizen to be labelled as hailing from east of green on the political spectrum, and as it transpired a shockingly poor moment to be accused of spying for the Soviet cause. Riding gung-ho on an artificial frenzy of paranoia and deep-rooted hostility against east-coast W.A.S.P. and Jewish intellectuals, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy’s political twilight was, from 1950 until he was utterly and mercifully discredited in 1954, famously spent instigating oft ill-founded witch-hunts against anyone suspected of harbouring even the faintest predilection towards socialism. Thus, when husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were brought to trial in 1951, accused of atomic espionage, their fate, to be executed six minutes apart by the oh-so humane electric chair method on 19 June 1953 was perhaps politically sealed.
Julius Rosenberg was, by all accounts, a decent boy and a model student. Quiet, serious and with a bent for Hebrew, his father had aspirations for rabbi-hood. But in his youth, Julius was a political animal and perhaps sowed the seeds of his fate when at age 16, he joined New York City College's Young Communist League. In 1939, aged 21, he both graduated as an Electrical Engineer and, shortly thereafter, married Ethel Greenglass.
By quirk of fate, Ethel’s brother, David became an employee at the Los Alamos atomic project in New Mexico, where the United States was developing its A-bomb capability. Then, on 15 June 1950, having been caught somewhat red-handedly pilfering the family silverware, David Greenglass told FBI agents that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law, Julius, to steal atomic secrets from Los Alamos, and that this information was being passed on to the Soviets. The net immediately closed on Julius Rosenberg and he was arrested.
Here the plot thickens, or rather congeals. The FBI felt that Julius was "... just the next in a row of falling dominos ...”. However Julius maintained his innocence, and in doing so perhaps inadvertently implicated his wife. Fanatical red-baiter and despotic director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover was himself aggressively pursuing a conviction: "There is no question ..." but that "... if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities, it would be possible to proceed against other individuals ... proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter”. As a result, on 11 August 1950, Ethel was arrested on the flimsiest of evidence and charged with espionage along with her husband. Julius, however, never cracked, and the F.B.I. had no choice but to maintain the charade of their trumped up charges against Ethel.
The trial lasted three weeks in March 1951, during which David Greenglass now claims to have perjured himself under pressure from the Roy Cohn-led prosecution, and at the conclusion of which the pair were found guilty of violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. In passing sentence on 5 April 1951, hard-line Judge Irving R. Kaufman proclaimed, "... With your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country ...", in retrospect evidently bunkum.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spent the next twenty-six months on death-row, all the while maintaining their innocence, and during which time an appeal failed and a stay of execution was first granted and then vacated. Despite vehement street protests, they were executed by sensation double electrocution at New York’s Sing Sing prison on 19 June 1953, leaving behind an America torn asunder by emotion and acrimony.