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Rosenbergs Trial

The Prosecution's Case, The Defense, The Controversy Continues, Further Readings

In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit ESPIONAGE for helping the Soviet Union acquire the secrets to the atomic bomb from the United States during WORLD WAR II. Judge Irving R. Kaufman, who presided at the trial, sentenced the Rosenbergs to death after concluding that their "betrayal … undoubtedly … altered the course of history to the disadvantage of [the United States]." The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence from the time of their arrest until they were executed. Their two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have spent much of their adult lives attempting to clear their parents' names.

Morton Sobell (born April 11, 1917), a former employee of the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, was also indicted for conspiracy to commit espionage with the Rosenbergs and was named as a codefendant. During June 1950, Sobell fled to Mexico with his wife under an assumed name. After being apprehended and extradited back to the United States, Sobell was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was paroled in January 1969.

Both of the Rosenbergs were members of the American Communist Party. Julius had come from an impoverished background. He had received a degree in electrical engineering from City College of New York but had had trouble obtaining and keeping employment. At the time of his arrest, he was struggling to run a small machine shop with Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. Like her husband, Ethel had come from a poor family.

The Rosenbergs' trial has been the subject of legal, political, and historical controversy for nearly half a century. Some view the Rosenbergs as martyred victims of the communist hysteria that menaced the political landscape in the United States during the 1950s. Others see them as criminals who were singularly responsible for ending the United States' nuclear monopoly and compromising the security of millions of people. The picture painted by historians has always been incomplete because many documents concerning the Rosenbergs remain classified.

The U.S. government did not indict the Rosenbergs for TREASON and might have encountered constitutional difficulties if it had pursued such an indictment. Article III, Section 3, of the Constitution defines treason as giving "aid and comfort" to the enemies of the United States. During World War II, the Soviet Union was an ally, not an enemy, of the United States. Further, the Constitution requires that every "overt act of treason" be witnessed by two persons. Yet, as the trial revealed, many of the conspiratorial acts committed by the Rosenbergs were witnessed by only one person.

The Rosenbergs' trial began on March 6, 1951, at the federal courthouse in New York City. Spectators and members of the press packed the gallery, the hallways, and the courthouse steps in an effort to catch a glimpse of the so-called atom spies in what some observers called the "trial of the century." Judge Kaufman conducted the VOIR DIRE and impaneled a jury in less than two days. Irving Saypol was the chief prosecuting attorney and was assisted by ROY COHN and James Kilsheimer. Julius Rosenberg was represented by Emanuel Bloch, while Emanuel's father, Alexander Bloch, represented Ethel.


Cold War; Red Scare.

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