April 19 - The Anniversary of the Execution of the Rosenbergs

By S. Leon Felkins
April 18, 2002

This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be a hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we're gonna kill ya!

-- Julius Rosenberg, as quoted by his attorney, Emanuel Bloch, September 22, 1953.


The evidence (including confession) upon which certain women were convicted of witchcraft and executed was without a flaw; it is still unimpeachable. The judges' decisions based on it were sound in logic and in law. Nothing in any existing court was ever more thoroughly proved than the charges of witchcraft and sorcery for which so many suffered death. If there were no witches, human testimony and human reason are alike destitute of value.

-- Ambrose Bierce


Shortly after 8 PM on April 19, 1953, a young couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by use of the electric chair in the "Sing Sing" federal prison. They had been duly convicted in a jury trial on the charge of "conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union" and given the death sentence by Judge Irving Kaufman. Their lawyers had made numerous appeals to the Second Circuit Appeals Court as well as the U. S. Supreme Court including pleas for clemency to two U.S. Presidents. All to no avail. The country was in a state of hysteria over various world disasters -- real, imagined, are potential -- and was in no mood for charity. They left two small children.

What evil deeds had the Rosenbergs done that could bring such a harsh punishment, the severity of which was last seen in the executions that followed President Lincoln's assassination and has not been seen since? Had they sold our secrets to the Soviets for the lust of money and expensive gifts? Had they betrayed our own spies in Russia? Of course not -- they were not the Aldrich Ames type who now is enjoying TV Soap Operas in some federal prison after collecting $3 million for his efforts. No the Rosenbergs were driven by naive idealism.

And that smacks of a "hate crime", as we call it today. For reasons not clear to me, a hit-man murdering someone for money is in a lot less trouble with our "justice system" than someone who is driven to murder by the passion of hate or jealousy. Apparently this peculiar twist of justice also applies to spies who do it for money versus those who do it for idealism (see "Disloyalty as a principle" by Maurice Isserman).

The Rosenberg case has been extensively studied and written about in the last 50 years. What I hope to do in this article is provide a directory of resources for your convenience in understanding this complex case. And if you still can't make up your mind, I refer you to the great Ambrose Bierce's quote at the beginning of this essay in which he reaffirms that we are truly a "nation of laws" and "due process" is surely always followed.

Backgrounds and Summaries

There are several web sites devoted entirely to this case, one of the best being "The Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case". There you can proceed from a general summary to considerable detail, as you chose. You can also make a contribution to their cause if you like.

A well written article by the Ronald Radosh, who says the Rosenbergs are guilty and got what they deserve, "Another Look at the Rosenberg Case" was published in Frontpage Magazine.

"The Rosenbergs: Victims of Cold War Hysteria", is a nice summary with more links to other sites.

Links to Testimony, Biographies and Transcripts

Doug Linder in his essay, "THE TRIAL OF THE ROSENBERGS: AN ACCOUNT", provides not only a nice summary of the complete case but also links to testimony, etc. of the key players.

The highly secret Venona Project, the codename used for the U.S. Signals Intelligence effort to collect and decrypt the text of Soviet KGB and GRU messages from the 1940's, is now described on the internet, courtesy of the NSA. The text of many of the messages are now online. The government claimed that these secret documents implicated the Rosenbergs and their cohort, Morton Sobell. However, a son of the Rosenbergs, Robert Meeropol, in his article, "Rosenberg Case", points out that since only the spy's codenames are mentioned on the tapes, they hardly prove anything. The government's response? "Trust us". Watch for Robert's memoir now in work with the working title, Revenge, due out in June, 2003.

A page of pictures and biographies of the major players is online at "Espionage on the Manhattan Project".

Background Law

"TRAITORS AND TURNCOATS: THE LAW OF TREASON" by Jennifer J. Hagan, Esq., is a nice summary of the whole mess involving treason and espionage.

"Treason Cases and Doctrine, 1945-1970" discusses several court cases involving treason.

The transcript of "UNITED STATES v. ROSENBERG et al. -- UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS SECOND CIRCUIT, 195 F.2d 583 -- January 10, 1952, Argued; February 25, 1952, Decided" is online at the University of Missouri site.

"ROSENBERG ET AL. v. UNITED STATES -- 1953 SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, 346 U.S. 273" is also online at the University of Missouri site and at Findlaw.

Could it Happen today?

The Rosenbergs were convicted of "conspiring" to commit espionage -- not espionage or treason as well explained by the article, "The Committee". I quote: "When the trial began the public was under the impression that the defendants were being tried for atomic espionage and treason, a capital offense. However, neither of these crimes was charged at the trial. The indictment was only for conspiring to commit espionage, not for passing any classified material. And definitely not for treason."

"Conspiracy" is a favorite charge of modern prosecutors, especially after the passage of the RICO act.

The conviction was primarily based on informants who snitched on Julius and Ethel to save their own hides. In fact a key prosecution witness was David Greenglass, Ethel's brother!

Testimony by paid informants is by far the most popular method of conviction used by today's prosecuting attorneys!

The trial was also characterized by much secrecy and "ex parte" hearings because of the concern for "national security". Surely you have heard plenty about that form of justice lately!

Links to Books, TV Shows, and Etc.

The Man Behind the Rosenbergs by Alexander Feklisov, a celebrated Russian spy, is described at Enigma Books.

NOVA online provides the transcript of the show, "Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies", which includes interviews of several knowledgeable persons in this case, including the Rosenberg son, Michael Meeropol.

There's extensive information at the "Bombshell Atomic Espionage Website -- A resource for research and commentary that has evolved over a half a decade out of the publication of Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown American Spy Conspiracy By Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel (Random House/Times Books, 1997)." The book is discussed and other links provided.

A novel, The Public Burning, by Robert Coover, based on the Rosenbergs and other characters of that time is reviewed by Jerry Bushnell.

THE ROSENBERG FILE: A Search for the Truth, by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, is reviewed at the NYTimes web site.

A video, The Rosenberg Case: Case Closed, is available at the Discovery.com site.

S. Leon Felkins, Major, US Army (Ret)




Mr. Felkins is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R., the forfeiture reform advocacy group. In addition, he maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, "A Rational Life" and another on the history of politics, "The Political Almanac". Email is welcome.