The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

50 years after their execution:
The courage and integrity of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg still shines through

Jun 23, 2003

Half a century ago, on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in Sing Sing Prison's electric chair for supposedly giving the key secret information to the Soviet Union that enabled it to build the atomic bomb.

The government case against the Rosenbergs, members of the Communist Party, hinged entirely on the testimony of a couple of witnesses with zero credibility.

The key witness against the Rosenbergs was Ethel's younger brother, David Greenglass. During World War II, Greenglass had been a machinist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was developed. In order to get Greenglass to testify against Julius and Ethel, the government threatened to level charges of espionage against both Greenglass and his wife, and send them to prison forever. The Greenglasses gave in to government pressure and agreed to cooperate.

The story that Greenglass testified to defied all logic. According to Greenglass, Julius Rosenberg had asked him to get information on the design of the atomic bomb so that he could turn it over to the Russians. Greenglass said that he made sketches from memory on how the bomb was designed to detonate. Of course, Greenglass, who did not work on the bomb, would not have known anything about this work since the first atomic bombs were produced under the utmost secrecy. But even if he had somehow found information, in order to make those sketches from memory, Greenglass would have needed an advanced understanding of the physics, chemistry and mathematics of the atomic bomb. That is, Greenglass would have needed to be a highly trained scientist – which he was not.

The other witness against the Rosenbergs, Harry Gold, was even more shady. Gold was already serving a sentence of 30 years for espionage, when the government approached him with an offer to reduce his sentence if he testified to some ridiculous story about how Julius Rosenberg supposedly had him secretly pass on the sketches done by Greenglass of the atomic bomb's detonation device to the Russians. It took FBI agents over 400 hours to coach Gold about what he should say in the Rosenberg trial.

This travesty took place in the middle of the McCarthy period witch hunts. An atmosphere of hysteria and fear whipped up by the government permeated the entire society. This hysteria was used to justify the big attacks that the ruling class and its government carried out against the working class here in this country, first of all by purging it of most of the militants who had helped lead the big strikes and movements of the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time, the orchestrated hysteria was used to get the U.S. population to agree to pay for and sacrifice for all the U.S. wars, invasions and occupations that it was conducting against peoples over the four corners of the world: from Korea to the Caribbean Islands and Central America in this period.

To build on this hysteria, U.S. prosecutors had planned to make the Rosenberg trial the first in a series of spectacular espionage show trials. To do this, though, they needed the Rosenbergs' cooperation, that is, their agreement to help the government to frame up the top leaders of the U.S. Communist Party on the same kinds of trumped-up espionage cases that the Rosenbergs faced. Government prosecutors offered to spare the Rosenbergs their lives if they agreed to become stool pigeons. And the government kept this offer open up until the very moment that the executioner pulled the switch on the electric chair.

The Rosenbergs did not give in to this terrible blackmail. Instead, their resolute refusal to go along with it helped spark a mobilization against the McCarthy period attacks. Ethel and Julius paid the ultimate price – their own lives – to oppose government injustice and repression.