Rosenbergs Are Executed for Peacetime Espionage

With the Cold War deepening, a recent war in Korea against Communist forces, and an escalating nuclear arms race, the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for treason and conspiracy to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union was a first for the United States: the execution for espionage during peacetime. Their deaths opened a long period of continuing controversy about the guilt or innocence of the accused.

Summary of Event

The arrest and confession in 1950 of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born physicist who had been educated at the University of Edinburgh and who had subsequently worked on the Manhattan Project Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, led the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to his spy courier, known to Fuchs only as “Raymond.” Raymond was, in fact, Harry Gold, who, in 1950, confessed to his part in a spy ring that involved a technician at Los Alamos named David Greenglass. Once Greenglass was arrested, he implicated his wife, Ruth Greenglass, Ruth ; his sister, Ethel Rosenberg; and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. Ruth was never arrested, but Julius was arrested in May and Ethel was arrested in August. Executions;Julius and Ethel Rosenberg[Rosenberg]
Treason;United States
Crime of the Century
Capital punishment
[kw]Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage (June 19, 1953)
[kw]Espionage, Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime (June 19, 1953)
Executions;Julius and Ethel Rosenberg[Rosenberg]
Treason;United States
Crime of the Century
Capital punishment
[g]North America;June 19, 1953: Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage[04170]
[g]United States;June 19, 1953: Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage[04170]
[c]Crime and scandal;June 19, 1953: Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage[04170]
[c]Cold War;June 19, 1953: Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage[04170]
[c]Government and politics;June 19, 1953: Rosenbergs are Executed for Peacetime Espionage[04170]
Rosenberg, Julius
Rosenberg, Ethel
Sobell, Morton
Fuchs, Klaus
Gold, Harry
Greenglass, David
Feklisov, Alexander

David Greenglass confessed his involvement in a spy ring, stating that he had been persuaded by Julius to pass information through a courier named “Raymond” to the Soviet Union. Greenglass had drawn an illustration of the explosive device used to detonate the atomic bomb while he was working at Los Alamos. He also testified that Ethel typed his handwritten notes about the atomic bomb, providing the crucial evidence that was to convict her.

Morton Sobell, who allegedly tried to recruit Max Elitcher into the Rosenberg spy ring, stood trial with the Rosenbergs. He refused to testify by repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment. Greenglass received a fifteen-year prison sentence but was released after only ten years. Sobell received a thirty-year sentence and served eighteen years. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, however, received the death penalty. In his sentencing statement, Judge Irving Kaufman Kaufman, Irving stated that while Julius was the prime mover in the conspiracy, Ethel was also guilty, “a full-fledged partner” in crime. He also blamed the Rosenbergs for “the Communist aggression in Korea,” adding that they were responsible not only for the more than fifty thousand casualties in that arena but also for the “millions more innocent people [who] may pay the price of your treason.”

Despite numerous attempts to win a stay of execution, even to delay the Rosenberg’s execution beyond its scheduled Sabbath date, the Rosenberg’s execution took place on June 19, 1953. To avoid executing the two on the Sabbath, the execution time was moved forward to 8 p.m. When the Rosenbergs were informed that not only would they not receive a stay but that their execution had been moved forward, they refused a last meal and chose to spend their remaining hours talking together. Three newspaper reporters were stationed in the death house and were to be the only “outside” witnesses to their execution. FBI agents had been posted in the death house for an extended stay in case either of the Rosenbergs “broke” and confessed.

A few minutes before 8:00 p.m., Julius, facing electrocution first, entered the execution chamber. Shaved patches covered his legs and head, areas where electrodes would attach more effectively to his body. Although he squinted at the bright lights and his knees may have buckled as he approached the electric chair, he was quite calm and said nothing. A leather helmet was placed over his head so that witnesses would not see the severe facial contortions and ruptured eyes that would accompany his electrocution. He received the standard amount of electric shock and was pronounced dead at 8:06 p.m.

After the smell of Julius’s urine and burned flesh was masked by a strong solution of ammonia, Ethel was led to the chamber. She was also very calm, and stopped to kiss one of her female guards on the cheek and then shake hands with another. She walked to the chair without aid and then looked directly at the three outside witnesses. Once her straps and helmet were secured, she received the same amount of electric shock given her husband, one short and two long shocks. The attending doctor checked for a heartbeat and was surprised when her heart was still beating: She was still alive. She was administered more shocks and died after being electrocuted for four minutes and fifty seconds.

The execution of the Rosenbergs produced different reactions at home and abroad. There were mass demonstrations against their deaths in France and Italy and other places, but demonstrations in the United States were mixed, as many Americans celebrated the executions. As many as eight thousand people attended the funeral of the Rosenbergs the following Sunday, June 21. Their two sons were placed with a foster family, and despite attempts to move them, they remained in the home of Abel and Anne Meeropol until they reached adulthood.

Over the next five decades a sometimes fierce debate raged over the Rosenbergs’ guilt or innocence. Their two sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, maintain that their parents were framed by the government and that they were innocent. While J. Edgar Hoover called their actions “the crime of the century,” many historians and scientists doubt that the information provided by David Greenglass could have enabled Soviet scientists to build an atomic bomb. Much of the information in his confession was incorrect. The information provided by Fuchs during World War II was much more sophisticated and may have been the basis for Soviet nuclear development.


To some extent, the execution of the Rosenbergs still haunts the American psyche. In 1995, the CIA released the first of its double-encrypted Soviet files, the Venona files Venona files (government documents) , revealing new evidence in the case. Not even these files have laid the case to rest, however. Historian Robert Radosh believes that the government pushed the limits of U.S. law in seeking the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, leading to a “grave miscarriage of justice.” The FBI hoped that one or both of them would break and provide the names of a U.S. spy ring. Also, many argue that the government also may have used the Rosenbergs as an example of the fate of spies.

One of the most shocking of the documents provided by the FBI included an interrogation plan with the following question to be addressed to Julius: “Was your wife cognizant of your activities?” Alexander Feklisov, the Russian behind Julius Rosenberg, has stated that while Julius was involved in passing electronic secrets to the Soviets, he was a minor figure in the atomic espionage, and that Ethel knew little or nothing of the spy ring. Finally, in 2002, Greenglass, in a 60 Minutes episode, stated that he had lied about Ethel’s involvement to save his own family and to lessen his own sentence. Executions;Julius and Ethel Rosenberg[Rosenberg]
Treason;United States
Crime of the Century
Capital punishment

Further Reading

  • Feklisov, Alexander. The Man Behind the Rosenbergs. New York: Enigma Books, 2001. Feklisov was Julius Rosenberg’s Russian contact and friend. He describes Rosenberg as a volunteer spy who did not want money but worked toward a Soviet future.
  • Meeropol, Robert. An Execution in the Family. St. Martin’s Press, 2003. A moving memoir by the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, recounting his search for truth and his conclusion that his parents did not receive a fair trial.
  • Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Julius Rosenberg reportedly spied for the Soviet Union, but Radosh argues that neither he nor Ethel deserved to die. He also demonstrates that the evidence against Ethel was weak at best.
  • Roberts, Sam. The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. New York: Random House, 2003. In an interview with the author, David Greenglass confesses that he does not remember if Ethel Rosenberg actually typed the atomic bomb notes. The author agrees with others that the evidence against Ethel was too weak to secure a conviction.

United States Develops the First Nuclear Weapon

First Nuclear Bomb Is Detonated

Soviet Union Completes Its First Nuclear Power Plant