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The Crime of the Century: the Rosenberg Espionage Case


In 1950, the husband and wife of 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 will later be 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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