Rosenberg Case

Rosenberg Case, in U.S. history, a lengthy and controversial espionage case. In 1950, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Julius Rosenberg (1918–53), an electrical engineer who had worked (1940–45) for the U.S. army signal corps, and his wife Ethel (1916–53); they were indicted for conspiracy to transmit classified military information to the Soviet Union. In the trial that followed (Mar., 1951), the government charged that in 1944 and 1945 the Rosenbergs had persuaded Ethel's brother, David Greenglass—an employee at the Los Alamos atomic bomb project—to provide them and a third person, Harry Gold, with top-secret data on nuclear weapons. The chief evidence against the Rosenbergs came from Greenglass and his wife, Ruth.

Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found guilty (1951) and received the death sentence; Morton Sobell, a codefendant, received a 30-year prison term, as did Harry Gold; and David Greenglass was later sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Despite many court appeals and pleas for executive clemency, the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953. They became the first U.S. civilians to suffer the death penalty in an espionage trial.

The case aroused much controversy. Many claimed that the political climate made a fair trial impossible and that the only seriously incriminating evidence had come from a confessed spy; others questioned the value of the information transmitted to the Soviet Union and argued that the death penalty was too severe. Communists in the United States and abroad organized a campaign to save the Rosenbergs and received the support of many liberals and religious leaders.

See L. Nizer, The Implosion Conspiracy (1973); R. Radosh and J. Milton, The Rosenberg File (1984); R. and M. Meeropol, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (2d ed. 1986); S. Roberts, The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair (2001); W. Schneir, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case (2010); A. M. Hornblum, The Invisible Harry Gold (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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