In the early 1950s, the cold war brought to the limelight what appeared to be the vilest case of national espionage. At the center of this whirlwind was a middle-age Jewish couple, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Both Ethel and Julius were the children of Jewish immigrants who were born and raised in New York City. Julius, an early believer in Communism, became a leader in the Young Communist League while studying electrical engineering at City College. Ethel, an aspiring actress and singer, joined the same organization while working in a secretarial position in a shipping company. They married in 1939.

Julius’ unlawful support of the Soviet Union began while he was still an employee of the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories (a position he lost in 1945 when his Communist ties were discovered by the U.S. Army). In 1942, Julius was recruited as a spy for the Soviet Union. Eventually, he became the head of his cell.

In 1950, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested by the F.B.I. for engaging in espionage and charged with revealing classified information about the US nuclear program to the Soviet Union. Although admittedly involved in passing information, many observers (in hindsight) do not believe that his information was significant. Nevertheless, they were charged with conspiracy to transmit classified military information to the Soviet Union. Most of the evidence used to convict the Rosenbergs came from Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, and his wife Ruth, who received a lighter sentence in return for helping the government.

While many contended that the trial was biased by the political climate, there is strong evidence (subsequently made public, long after the trial) that supports the governments case. American Jews watched the trial with baited breath, fearful that the fact that all those involved were Jews would be turned into accusations of general disloyalty among the American-Jewish community.

The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and executed by electric chair in June 1953.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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