The outcome of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial for espionage in 1951 and their subsequent execution in 1953 was directly related to the political climate at that time. The governments evidence against the Rosenbergs was not overwhelming, but due to a combination of fear and political pressure, the guilty verdict was inevitable. Even though Julius did not deliver the secrets of the atomic bomb to Moscow, nor did they cause the Korean War, as Judge Kaufman claimed, the pair were sentenced to death. Their death confirmed their guilt because America would never kill innocent people. Their execution also reinforced the heinous nature of their crime and other soviet spys crimes as well. The fear of communism and the cold war sealed the fate for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The cold war was the general term for the post-1945 political, ideological, strategic and military conflict between the western allies led by the United States and the Soviet Union and other communist countries. 1 This global confrontation was fuel by mutual fear and distrust. Both camps defaulted on postwar agreements which, led to further alienation.2 The end of WWII saw Europe economically devastated and in political turmoil. 3 The defeat of Germany left the European continent vulnerable to outside influence. In addition to the economic strength shown by the western allies, the United States not only had nuclear capabilities, but also without hesitation used the power twice. 4
The Soviet Union, in an effort to contract the economic and military might of the United States and its allies, set about tightening its grasp on the east European countries it had occupied during WWII. 5 In the years between 1945 and 1948 the Soviet Union gained control of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union hoped that by adding these separate governments and militaries, it could offset the United States nuclear capabilities and provide its western boarder with a buffer zone. 6 Though the Soviet Union was actively developing its own nuclear capabilities, the communist power realized that the U.S. had used its atomic bomb with devastating results. 7
Although the United States was putting much fear into the hearts of many Soviets, the post WWII conflict was affecting the United States in much the same way. The United States was worried about the leader of the Soviet Union and his power over many countries. 5 The United States would come to realize that this would not be an easy fight to win.
The leader of the Soviet Union at that time was a man named Joseph Stalin. He had much control over peoples ideas and beliefs and he used that to his advantage. 8 The United States feared his leadership because of his power and his dishonesty. Stalin went back on his word to create a more democratic government inside the Soviet Union, and took total control of Poland when he said he would not at the Yalta conference in 1945. 5
Iran became the starting point of East-West confrontation. The United States and the Soviet Union had occupied parts of Iran during WWII in order to protect allied oil supplies. Both countries agreed to withdraw at wars end. But in 1945 the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its troops. The conflict ended in 1946 when the USSR pulled out its troops in return for oil rights in Iran. 9 Later in 1946, Stalin gave a speech declaring ideological war against the West. 10 To counter Stalins aggressive actions in 1947, the president proposed the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine was designed to give military aid to Greece in its battle against communist-backed rebel forces. 11 It also gave economic aid to Turkey, whose economy was being stressed by the need to maintain a large army in order to resist the USSR and its demand for a naval base within its boundaries. President Trumans pitch to Congress was meant to scare the American people into action. It succeeded in getting the Greek-Turkish aid bill passed and it also set the tone for the cold war. Less than a year later the United States pressured Iran to take back the previously granted oil rights to the USSR, thus creating more suspicion between the two superpowers.
After seeing favorable results from the Truman Doctrine, the United States implemented the Marshall Plan. This $13 billion program was a second part of the overall containment policy. By restoring Europe’s economy, it would make communism less appealing and also give the United States strong trading partners. Angered by this program, Stalin extended his control over Eastern Europe. This in turn created possible threats for the West’s position in Germany, and forced Truman to create a military alliance in order restore confidence in the European countries that were allying with the United States. 12 In an effort to counter the integration of the Western zones of Germany into a Western block, the Soviets blockaded access to Berlin by the West. This blockade not only failed in its attempt to drive the United States, Britain and France from Berlin but it also strengthened the cooperation among western allies. This strengthened unity among western allies led to the formation of a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The fight against communism was not only occurring overseas, but in the United States itself. People started to view communism as the downfall of human civilization thanks in big part to a senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy. Joseph McCarthy made communism a household word and being communist a sin. By using convincing speeches, and intimidating and threatening accusations, he lit the spark that ignited a series of witch hunts and caused America to question its own loyalty.
McCarthy made his debut on February 9, 1950, when he announced to a women’s Republican club in West Virginia that he had a list of the names of 205 communists in the State Department. 13 This was the birth of McCarthyism. 14 He continued to travel through out the West on his campaign for the Republican Party, but when asked about the list his specifics changed from state to state. 15 He began to change the number of names on his list when questioned by reporters, telling some it was 57 and then the next day somewhere else it was 81. 16 His allegations would come to evolve as well from full-fledged communist to loyalty risks or people with connections to the communist party. 17
Even though McCarthy was the most influential Senator to speak out about communism, he was not the first. 18 Many Republicans had spoken out in past years. 19 In fact, most of McCarthy’s accusations were made by previous Republicans. Even his speeches were not original. One reported time, one of McCarthy’s speeches contained several paragraphs taken almost word for word from a speech Nixon made a few days before. 20
Although many of his charges were false or had no evidence, McCarthyism changed the way a lot of people inside and outside of the government thought about communism. He made a lot of people scared with his redbaiting and blacklisting. The members of the Truman administration were constantly trying to defend themselves from the accusations from McCarthy that they were soft on communism and that they had communists working for their party. 21 These charges led to the governments loyalty and security programs that would show just how scared this country was of communism.
Congress was putting pressure on the Truman administration to implement some type of security program to fight against treason in our government. Truman then implemented the Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty. This program was designed to evaluate a government employee’s feelings on communism. The Truman administration got mixed reactions to this program. Many civil rights activists felt that it was taking away peoples rights and throwing away due process. On the other hand, many Republicans thought that this program was still not enough and that more steps needed to be taken to rid the government of communists. 22
These types of loyalty oaths did not just affect jobs in the government, but others all over the United States. Many job applications had some type of loyalty oath that had to be signed. Because of these types of procedures many people were turned down for jobs and many others who had jobs lost them. 23 An example of this was the Hollywood Ten. The Hollywood Ten was a group of actors and writers in Hollywood who lost their job and were eventually jailed for their connections to communism. 24
Another way the government tried to control the subversive activity that was happening in the United States was the HUAC. The HUAC stood for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The main job of the House was to investigate activity that could endanger American life. It was often criticized for using thoughtless and harmful tactics to arouse controversy and ideas of treason. Although the Committee did serve its purpose, it also caused many hardships for people caught up in this massive witch-hunt. Many people who had been blacklisted either lost their jobs, money, and respect and became homeless or they killed themselves. 27
A big break came for the HUAC when in 1948 the committee started to investigate Alger Hiss. Alger Hiss was former State Department official who was accused of giving top secret documents to the Soviet Union in the past. 26 Because he had committed these acts more than 20 years before, he could not be charged for spying, but was charged for lying under oath about his involvement with the Soviet Union. 27 Alger Hiss was the first of many spies who either confessed or were caught by the government in a domino effect that eventually led to the capture and final execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Twelve days after the Hiss conviction a physicist from England who worked first-hand with the Manhattan Project confessed to spying for the Soviet Union. 28 The physicist was Klaus Fuchs and the Manhattan project was America’s name for its nuclear experimenting project. 29 Klaus Fuchs was working for the British on a type of war-related project that he later found out to be atomic-bomb research. During his research with the British, Fuchs traveled many times to the United States to work with American scientists on the problem of the fission bomb. 30 During his travels to the U.S. he was instructed to meet with an American courier for whom he was supposed to give information about his work and the status of the United States nuclear power. 31
Only after about four meetings with the secret courier he knew only as Raymond, Fuchs was transferred to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. 32 He did not inform Raymond or his Soviet leaders of this change and left without a trace. 33 He started working on the Manhattan Project in 1944 and for a nearly a year he worked with other scientists and physicists on developing the atomic bomb, not once thinking of his previously assigned duties to the Soviet Union. Not until 1945, when Fuchs came to visit his sister in Massachusetts, did he talk to Raymond again. 34
When they met together, Fuchs outlined the new developments that were taking place and what information he had on the bomb. 35 He told Raymond as much as he could and that he would keep him informed. Later that year he reported on the test of the bomb and exact specifications and size of the bomb. 36 He gave the Soviets our most precious secret at that time to some of the most dangerous people in the world.
Now that Fuchs was under arrest the FBI wanted to know the identity of the secret American courier known only as Raymond. Unfortunately Fuchs had no idea what Raymond’s real name was and could only provide a vague description. 37 Through various background checks, the FBI came up with the name Harry Gold. 38 Harry Gold was later questioned and soon after confessed to being Raymond. 39
He confessed to passing the information he received from Fuchs about the atomic bomb and other information concerning the activities that had taken place while Fuchs worked there. He confessed to giving it to the Soviet Union. 40 In one of his confessions he named David Greenglass as one of contacts. He confessed that he met with David Greenglass in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he received information from David concerning the atomic bomb and other vital information. 41
David was then brought in for questioning not less than a week later. He was told that Gold had already confessed and that he should do the same. He said that he would as long as his wife was left out of it. He confessed to talking to Gold in New Mexico about his job. He confessed to having talked to Julius Rosenberg about his job at Los Alamos. They talked about the progress that was being made specific information on how that bomb worked and several drawings and sketches of the bomb itself. 42
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were very active in the communist party. 43 They became members of the Young Communist League as teenagers and grew up in the party ever since. 44 They read the newspapers that were printed for the communist party and held meetings for their party’s branch in their own living room. 45
On July 17, 1950, Julius Rosenberg was arrested for conspiracy to commit espionage and 25 days later Ethel Rosenberg was also arrested for the same charge. They were brought to the attention of the FBI after David Greenglass accused Julius in his statement to the FBI. They were both taken down to jail and were placed at 100,000 dollars bail. There they waited for half a year before they got their day in court.
Prior to the opening of the trial a jury had to be selected. The judge presiding over this case was Judge Irving R. Kaufman. He made it a point to decide who was on the jury and who was not. Judge Kaufman had a long list of requirements each person had to meet in order to stay on the jury. Some of his questions dealt with being familiar with any organizations on the attorney general’s list, having any personal contacts with the FBI or HUAC, and finally if they were against capital punishment. If any of the perspective jurors answered unsatisfactory to any of these questions they were dismissed.
On March 6, 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were put on trial. Morton Sobell was a friend of Julius who was employed by the Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance. The opening statement by Saypol, the prosecuting attorney, was aimed at putting the Rosenbergs and Sobell’s loyalty toward the United States at question and communism on trial. Even though their participation in the communist party was not of concern in this trial, Saypol insisted that the fact that they were active in the communist party show motivation for what they were accused of.
In order to charge a person with conspiracy to commit anything, very little hard evidence is needed. Hearsay and rumors constitute enough evidence for a conviction. Because the prosecuting team did not have enough hard evidence to convict the Rosenbergs of treason they decided to try for a conviction of conspiracy to commit espionage, something for which they could easily gather enough evidence, seeing as how they only needed one strong witness.