5 minute read

Rosenbergs Trial

The Controversy Continues

Why Bloch made these mistakes is a question that remains unanswered. Although some historians claim that he was simply a bumbling attorney, Bloch had defended a number of defendants who had been accused of espionage, and had developed a reputation as a competent litigator. Other historians have suggested that Bloch purposely botched the trial in an effort to make martyrs of the Rosenbergs as part of a larger socialist agenda. In any event, Bloch later expressed regret for his mistakes, attributing them, in part, to the politically charged legal climate of the times.

Indeed, during the early 1950s, hysteria over COMMUNISM pervaded almost every aspect of life in the United States. As a result, criminal defendants who were associated with communist influences often received less-than-impartial hearings from judges and jurors. This paranoid fear of communism began to manifest itself shortly after World War II.

Several events contributed to the concern about communism. In 1948 Greece, Turkey, and Czechoslovakia were under siege by communists. China came under communist control in the spring of 1949. On January 21, 1950, ALGER HISS, a former member of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's administration, was convicted of perjury for statements he had made in response to espionage charges that had been lodged against him. A few weeks after the Hiss conviction, a senator from Wisconsin, named JOSEPH R. MCCARTHY startled the nation by brandishing a list of 205 communists who, he asserted, were employed by the federal government. In June 1950, the KOREAN WAR erupted, and the Rosenbergs were arrested.

This series of events affected the FBI's investigation of the Rosenberg conspiracy. J. EDGAR HOOVER, the director of the FBI, had become concerned about public perception of his organization. Some officials had begun to question whether Hoover and the FBI were acting with sufficient vigilance to extinguish the internal communist threat. With each new revelation about communist spies in the U.S. government, Hoover took more severe measures to shore up what some perceived as national security breaches. The Rosenberg case was an example of the most extreme measures taken by the FBI.

Government files demonstrate that the FBI had expressed little interest in prosecuting Ethel Rosenberg until her husband refused to confess and implicate others in his spy ring. "There is no doubt," Hoover wrote to attorney general J. HOWARD MCGRATH, that "it would be possible to proceed against other individuals" if "Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities." "Proceeding against his wife," Hoover emphasized, "might serve as a lever in this matter." Shortly after this letter was written, Ethel was arrested and charged with the same crime as her husband.

When Julius refused to cooperate with the FBI, the government informed the defendants that the death penalty would be sought in the event of their conviction. The FBI never relented from its use of Ethel as a "lever" against Julius, ultimately executing Ethel for her role as an ACCESSORY to the crime committed by her husband and brother. Declassified documents show that the entire testimony relating to Ethel's role as a typist for her husband's espionage ring, which was the only evidence offered to implicate her in the conspiracy, had been concocted by the FBI and the Greenglasses just eight days before the trial began.

Historians have raised other suspicions with regard to the FBI's investigation of the Rosenbergs. On May 22, 1950, Gold submitted an initial, written confession to the FBI. The confession made a passing reference to Albuquerque but made no assertion that he had been sent by "Julius" to see a man named "Greenglass" from whom he had acquired secret information about the atomic bomb. Nor did the confession allude to irregularly shaped pieces of a Jell-O box or a Soviet agent named Yakovlev.

After a number of subsequent interviews with the FBI, some of which had been conducted in the presence of David Greenglass, Gold said that he was able to remember each of the missing details that he had earlier "forgotten." Walter and Miriam Schneir, authors of Invitation to an Inquest, have argued that these allegedly "forgotten" details were supplied to Gold by the FBI so that his story would corroborate the Greenglasses' testimony. The FBI has steadfastly maintained that it did nothing improper, unethical, or illegal to jog Gold's memory, and declassified government files from the case have offered no "smoking gun."

Many supporters of the Rosenbergs who have long suspected that the FBI manufactured evidence to strengthen its case do not deny that Julius was involved in some form of espionage for the Soviet Union. In 1995, the U.S. government released 49 decoded Soviet intelligence messages that it had intercepted during World War II. These messages offer proof that Julius, whose code name was "Liberal," was the ring-leader of an espionage network of young U.S. communists who provided the Soviets with documents relating to classified radar and aircraft information.

The intercepted messages imply that Julius might have been involved in efforts to obtain information from the Manhattan Project but reveal nothing specific. Nikita Khruschev, the former Soviet premier, noted in his memoirs, however, that the Rosenbergs "provided very significant help in accelerating the production of the atomic bomb." As the federal government declassifies and releases more documents from the Rosenberg files, a clearer picture of the Rosenberg espionage network will emerge. The most recently released files suggest that Ethel did not participate in her husband's espionage efforts, due to her health.

In light of the murky questions that still surround the Rosenberg case, the jury's guilty verdict and the judge's death sentence remain a source of controversy. Supporters of the verdict and sentence point out that U.S. Supreme Court justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS granted a temporary stay of the Rosenbergs' execution so that the Court could consider whether to hear the case on appeal. After reviewing the Rosenbergs' petitions to determine whether they presented any legal issues that were appropriate for appellate review, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Justice HUGO L. BLACK was the lone dissenter. On June 19, 1953, the day after their twenty-second wedding anniversary, the Rosenbergs were put to death in the electric chair.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateRosenbergs Trial - The Prosecution's Case, The Defense, The Controversy Continues, Further Readings