The trial was highly publicized and took place during the so-called Red Scare, when many in the United States felt their way of life was threatened by the Soviet Union and by the expansion of communism in general. For this and other reasons, including anti-Semitism, many believe that the Rosenbergs did not get a fair trial and that Ethel Rosenberg in particular was not guilty of the charges.
Julius Rosenberg was born in New York City and attended religious and public schools and City College, from which he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He was active in the Steinmetz Club, a branch of the Young Communists League, and later joined the American Communist Party. Rosenberg was a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1940 to 1945.
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg also attended public and religious schools in New York City and went to work for a shipping firm after graduation from high school. She was active as a union organizer and joined the Young Communist League and later the American Communist Party. The Rosenbergs were married in 1939 and had two sons, Michael and Robert.
The Rosenberg trial can only be understood in the context of the development of atomic weaponry and the cold war. The United States is the only nation ever to have used atomic weapons: Atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II.
Information regarding the production of such weapons was closely guarded, and the United States believed it was the only country with the scientific knowledge to produce an atomic bomb. When the USSR tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, people were shocked at how rapidly they had developed atomic weapons capability.
The explanation was simple: The Soviets had access to some of the information the United States believed had been kept secret. In 1950 the German/British scientist Klaus Fuchs, who had worked in the United States on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, confessed to having passed essential information to the Soviet Union.
The investigation resulting from this confession led FBI agents to David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, who confessed his own involvement in a spy ring that he said also included his wife, Ruth, and his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg.
The "Venona Cables" were a key source of evidence in the investigation of Soviet spy operations in the United States in the 1940s. These cables carried encrypted messages to and from the Soviet Union and revealed the extent of Soviet espionage activity in the United States during that time.
The Venona Cables presented clear evidence that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of espionage and implicated David and Ruth Greenglass as well. They did not provide similar evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, who was convicted largely on the testimony of her brother, David Greenglass.
He later admitted that at least some of his testimony against the Rosenbergs was false and that he lied in order to protect his wife, who was granted immunity from prosecution.
Many people around the world were shocked by the Rosenbergs’ execution, particularly when more important spies received lighter sentences. For instance, Klaus Fuchs, who provided the Soviet Union with information essential to building an atomic weapon, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and served nine.
The execution of Ethel Rosenberg in particular shocked many people, since there was little evidence against her and it was presumed that the threat of execution was meant to coerce her to testify against her husband or him to testify against others.
Both Rosenbergs refused to confess or to name others, a decision that may have led to their deaths. There were many protests worldwide against their convictions and appeals stop the execution, including one from Pope Pius XII.
Public interest in the Rosenberg trial remained strong, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg assumed a place as characters and symbols in popular culture.