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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American Communists who captured and maintained world attention after being accused and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

The couple were the only two American civilians to be executed for the crime of espionage during the Cold War.

Their case has been at the center of the controversy over communism in the United States ever since, with supporters steadfastly maintaining that their conviction was an egregious example of persecution typical of the "hysteria" of those times (see Red Scare, McCarthyism) and likening it to the witch hunts that marred Salem and medieval Europe.

They denied all charges and insisted they were innocent, but they were executed in New York's Sing Sing in 1953, despite protests in the United States and abroad.

Julius Rosenberg was born on May 12, 1918 in New York. He graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in electrical engineering in 1939 and joined the Army Signal Corps where he worked on radar equipment. He became a leader in the Young Communist League, where he met Ethel in 1936, before marrying Ethel three years later.

Ethel Rosenberg was born on September 28, 1915 in New York. She was an aspiring actress and singer, but eventually took a secretary job at a shipping company. She became involved in labor disputes and joined the Young Communist League, where she first met Julius. The Rosenbergs had two sons.

Trial and conviction

They were convicted of conspiring to steal US atomic secrets for the Soviet Union, yet supporters regarded the prosecution's case as flimsy as it rested mainly on the testimony of David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's younger brother and himself a convicted spy. Greenglass, who worked on the atomic bomb at the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos during World War II, had been convicted of giving the Soviets information about nuclear research. He was spared execution in exchange for his testimony. He spent 10 years in prison and was released in 1960.

At the widely publicized trial which started on March 6, 1951, Greenglass stated that his sister Ethel had typed notes containing US nuclear secrets, and these were later turned over to the KGB. As the notes apparently contained little that was new to the Soviets, supporters felt that a capital charge of treason was not only far too severe, but scarcely could be considered evidence of wrong-doing at all; but for the prosecution this was sufficient evidence to convict Ethel Rosenberg.

It is believed that part of the reason Ethel was indicted in addition to Julius, was so that the prosecution could use her as a 'lever' to pressure Julius into giving up the names of others who were involved. If that was the case, it didn't work. On the witness stand Julius asserted his right under the Fifth Amendment to not incriminate himself whenever asked about his involvement in the Communist Party or with its members. Ethel did similarly. Neither defendant was viewed sympathetically by the jury.

Investigations into the couple's history revealed conflicting evidence that Julius Rosenberg may have had some dealings with a KGB agent. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian government has released documentation that shows Julius Rosenberg was providing information to the NKVD and later to the KGB. Julius Rosenberg's main KGB contact was Alexander Feklisov, who met Julius on over 50 occasions over a three year period beginning in 1943. Mr. Feklisov when contacted by the press said that he never received any atomic information from the Rosenbergs.

Before he died, Ted Hall, who moved to the UK from the US partly because of an FBI investigation of him in the 1950's, admitted that it was he, a scientist working at Los Alamos, who gave atomic information to the USSR, not anyone else such as Ethel Rosenberg, a housewife living in a poor (the Lower East Side) New York neighborhood.

The Rosenbergs' conviction on March 29, 1951 and death sentence on April 5, helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade against "anti-American activities" by US citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well documented, they denied the spying charges even as they faced the electric chair. Their defenders said they never stood the chance of a fair trial given the anti-Communist Red Scare that pervaded the United States in the 1950s.

Decades later in the late 2001, Greenglass admitted that he had committed perjury and involved his sister Ethel, who had apparently been innocent of all charges. Greenglass said he chose to turn in his sister in order to protect his wife.

Some Americans believed the Rosenbergs were innocent or received too harsh of a punishment, and an emotional grass-roots campaign was waged to try to stop the couple's execution. Other Americans felt that the couple got what they deserved. Pope Pius XII appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to spare the couple, but he refused on February 11, 1953 and all other appeals were also unsuccessful. The couple was executed on June 19, 1953, with the instrument of their execution being the electric chair. Reports of the execution state that Julius died after the first application of electricity, but Ethel did not succumb immediately and was subjected to two electrical charges before being pronounced dead.

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