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The Crime of the Century:

The Rosenberg Espionage Case

In 1950, the husband and wife, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were on trial for committing "The Crime of the Century". Later they would be put to death by what many believed to be a prejudice court. The controversy surrounding this case is still in existence today. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were born and raised in the Lower East Side of New York City. They were married in 1939. Julius joined the United States Army Signal Corps as a civilian junior engineer in 1940. The Army dismissed him five years later, accusing him for being a Communist. After leaving the Army, he worked with the brother of his wife, David Greenglass in a small self-owned machine shop in New York City. Prior to running the shop, Greenglass had worked at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico as a machinist for the United States government on a project to make an atomic bomb. The government arrested Greenglass in 1950, charging him for spying for the Soviet Union when he worked at Los Alamos. In a plead bargain for a lesser sentence for himself, Greenglass confessed and told the federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he was recruited to get information by Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were arrested as a result and were accused of providing important information about the atomic bomb to Soviet agents in 1944 and 1945 during the time of World War II.

At the time of this incident, the bloodiest stage of the Korean War was taking place. Americans were thinking anti-Communist and the Soviet Union had just built it's first atomic bomb. These events will make it very unlikely for the Rosenbergs to get a fair trial. Although they were members of the American Communist Party, the Rosenbergs proclaimed their innocence and denied any participation in an atomic spy ring. They accused Greenglass of making up the whole story up to protect himself. Federal prosecutors and the FBI were seeking the death penalty for the husband and wife but offered a more lenient punishment to them if they reversed their plead. The Rosenbergs oppose the notion and stood by their claims. If they are found to be guilty of the charges, they will be the first couple to be put to death, and the first to be executed for espionage in the United States. In 1951, a jury found the Rosenbergs guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage during wartime. They were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

The Judge presiding this case was Federal Judge Irving Kaufman. Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to be executed in the form of electrocution. Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison and two other co-conspirators were given 15-30 years. Critics of the verdict felt that the Rosenbergs was caught up in a period of time when being a Communist suspected of committing a crime, meant the Justice System will reverse the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Federal prosecutors have little evidence to prove to the court and some of those evidence seemed to have questionable authenticity. Some supporters charged that the government had tampered with the evidence. The main evidence they have against the Rosenbergs was Greenglass' testimony in court. And the court accepted his claims even though the court was aware that Greenglass told the FBI conflicting stories after his arrest. The Rosenbergs sought clemency after their conviction.

Support came from all over the world. Most supporters were either civil libertarians, humanitarians or communists. However, some famous people were also giving the Rosenbergs support. Albert Einstein, who helped developed the atom bomb and Pope Pius XII urged leniency for the couple. Numerous demonstrations took place. One of them was held the night before the Rosenbergs' execution where an estimated 5,000 people gathered in New York's Union Square to hold a vigil. It didn't do any good. Three separate appeals to Judge Kaufman and two separate appeals to two Federal Circuit Court judges to grant an extended stay were all rejected. President Eisenhower twice denied executive clemency for the Rosenbergs saying: "I can only say that by immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenbergs may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world... The execution of two human beings is a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done." and "When in their most solemn judgment the tribunals of the United States have adjudged them guilty and the sentence just, I will not intervene in this matter." (Huston, New York Times)

On June 19th 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Prison in Upstate New York. They became the first husband and wife to be executed in America. Julius Rosenberg was 35 years old and Ethel Rosenberg who was 37 left behind their 2 sons, Robert and Michael. The sons were later adopted by the Meeropol family and would write a book presenting convincing evidence and arguments of their parent's innocence. Since their deaths, historians have always questioned whether or not the Rosenbergs were actually Soviet spies. They think the Rosenbergs were probably guilty of giving information to the Soviets yet they believed, the punishment did not fit the crime and that Ethel was far less involved than her husband.



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