Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette
This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.
Find the past “On This Day in History” here.
March 29 is the 88th day of the year (89th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 277 days remaining until the end of the year.
On this day in 1951, the Rosenbergs are convicted of espionage.
In one of the most sensational trials in American history, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted of espionage for their role in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets during and after World War II. The husband and wife were later sentenced to death and were executed in 1953.
The conviction of the Rosenbergs was the climax of a fast-paced series of events that were set in motion with the arrest of British physicist Klaus Fuchs in Great Britain in February 1950. British authorities, with assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, gathered evidence that Fuchs, who worked on developing the atomic bomb both in England and the United States during World War II, had passed top-secret information to the Soviet Union. Fuchs almost immediately confessed his role and began a series of accusations.
Fuchs confessed that American Harry Gold had served as a courier for the Soviet agents to whom Fuchs passed along his information. American authorities captured Gold, who thereupon pointed the finger at David Greenglass, a young man who worked at the laboratory where the atomic bomb had been developed. Gold claimed Greenglass was even more heavily involved in spying than Fuchs. Upon his arrest, Greenglass readily confessed and then accused his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, of being the spies who controlled the entire operation. Both Ethel and Julius had strong leftist leanings and had been heavily involved in labor and political issues in the United States during the late-1930s and 1940s. Julius was arrested in July and Ethel in August 1950.
By present-day standards, the trial was remarkably fast. It began on March 6, and the jury had convicted both of conspiracy to commit espionage by March 29. The Rosenbergs were not helped by a defense that many at the time, and since, have labeled incompetent. More harmful, however, was the testimony of Greenglass and Gold. Greenglass declared that Julius Rosenberg had set up a meeting during which Greenglass passed the plans for the atomic bomb to Gold. Gold supported Greenglass’s accusation and admitted that he then passed the plans along to a Soviet agent. This testimony sealed Julius’s fate, and although there was little evidence directly tying Ethel to the crime, prosecutors claimed that she was the brain behind the whole scheme. The jury found both guilty. A few days later, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. They were executed on June 19, 1953 in Sing Sing Prison in New York. Both maintained their innocence to the end.
Since the execution, decoded Soviet cables, codenamed VENONA, have supported courtroom testimony that Julius acted as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, but doubts remain about the level of Ethel’s involvement. The decision to execute the Rosenbergs was, and still is, controversial. The New York Times, in an editorial on the 50th anniversary of the execution (June 19, 2003) wrote, “The Rosenbergs case still haunts American history, reminding us of the injustice that can be done when a nation gets caught up in hysteria.” This hysteria had both an immediate and a lasting effect; many innocent scientists, including some who were virulently anti-communist, were investigated simply for having the last name “Rosenberg.” The other atomic spies who were caught by the FBI offered confessions and were not executed. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who supplied documents to Julius from Los Alamos, served 10 years of his 15 year sentence. Harry Gold, who identified Greenglass, served 15 years in Federal prison as the courier for Greenglass and the British scientist, Klaus Fuchs. Morton Sobell, who was tried with the Rosenbergs, served 17 years and 9 months. In 2008, Sobell admitted he was a spy and confirmed Julius Rosenberg was “in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.”