State Power and the Execution of the Rosenbergs


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first and only American civilians to be executed for espionage, electrocuted at the Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY, 62 years ago, on June 19, 1953.  The couple was, according to the New York Times, “stoic and tight-lipped to the end … .”  They “went to their deaths with a composure that astonished the witnesses.”

We should take a moment on the 19th to remember the Rosenbergs.  Their murders should be remembered as much for the lives lost as for what their state-sanctioned killings reveal about how far the U.S. government will go to destroy those persecuted as national-security threats.

The Rosenbergs were ostensibly executed for being spies for the Soviet Union (SU).  Julius was a low-level Soviet operative, a currier of non-threatening U.S. atomic-energy information.  Ethel was a former Communist Party member, Brooklyn housewife and mother of their two boys; she was sympathetic to her husband’s activities but likely played no role in them.

They were victims of Cold War hysteria, spectacles in the exercise of power.  They were executed for refusing to participate in the public ritual of contrition, of bowing in loyal subjugation.  They were killed for refusing to name names, identifying other alleged communists.  The Times reported, “Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, however, maintained they were completely innocent and had nothing to confess.”

The Cold War is long over and the worst of the post-9/11 terrorist hysteria is dissipating.  Two recent developments are illustrative of this changing political climate: (i) the defeat the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and (ii) the widespread popular opposition to recommitting a large number of U.S. ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State.  A new anti-imperialism, anti-interventionism promoted by the libertarian right and the progressive left seems to be growing among Americans.

The U.S. government has limited domestic security threats to two types of cases: (i) jihadists (e.g., Tsarnaev brothers) and (iii) whistleblowers (e.g., Edward Snowden).  With the exception of Chelsea Manning, who received 35 years, those convicted for being national-security threats received moderate federal penitentiary time.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s recent death-penalty verdict in the Boston Marathon attacks demonstrates how far the U.S. government will go in its war against a domestic national-security threat.

Political trials in the U.S., like those of the old SU and China today, are public spectacles.  The government uses the courtroom, along with the accompanying punishment, to further a political agenda, enforcing an ideological message that re-enforces the power of the state.  Tyranny is exercised through the rituals of trial and punishment, promote as mass distraction by the corporate media   No example of the exercise of such power is more gruesomely expressed then in the executions of the Rosenbergs.

* * *

The Rosenbergs’ executions took place on their 14th wedding anniversary.  Earlier that day, the couple was informed that both the Supreme Court and Pres. Dwight Eisenhower had rejected the final appeals to spare their lives.  Their meals for that day were simple: for breakfast, cereal (with milk and sugar) and coffee; for lunch, frankfurters with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes; and for dinner, meat with tomato sauce, mashed potato, bread with apple butter and iced tea.

They were permitted to spend two 90-minute sessions together, in the afternoon and early evening, but separated by a wire fence.  At 7:30 pm, they were returned to their respective cells and prepared for execution.  The Times reported, “Because of the rapid developments in the case they did not get the special dinner normally granted to prisoners about to die.”

Julius was the first to face execution.  He entered what’s been described as the “white-walled death chamber” wearing white trousers, a brown T-shirt and leather slippers, his familiar mustache shaved off and glasses removed.  The prison chaplain, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, accompanied him, chanting the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  A leather mask was hung over his face and he was placed in the oak electric chair.   At 8:04 pm, he received the first of three jolts of 2,000 volts of electricity; at 8:06 pm, Dr. H. W. Kipp pronounced Julius Rosenberg dead.

Shortly following the removal of Julius’ body from the death chamber, Ethel was brought in.  The Times notes that she “wore a dark green dress with polka dots and …. Her hair was close-cropped on top to permit contact with an electrode.”  Days earlier, Ethel’s mother, Tessie Greenglass, visited her at the death house and, allegedly, suggested she divorce her husband and name names. “You’ll burn,” Mrs. Greenglass reputedly warned.

Two women accompanied Ethel to the death chamber, Mrs. Helen Evans, a prison matron, and Mrs. Lucy Many, a prison telephone operator and former matron.  Most moving, Rosenberg grasped Evans’ hand and “drew her close and kissed her lightly on the cheek.”  According to the Times, Evans “choked up at the final farewell and left the room quickly.”  Ethel shook Mrs. Many’s hand, a final farewell, and departed.  Rabbi Koslowe intoned the 15th and 31st Psalms.  He turned to Ethel and asked, “Julius is gone.  Do you have any names?”; she insisted she had none.  Sitting placidly in the electric chair, guards placed a leather mask over her face and, at 8:11 pm, she received three successive jolts of electricity.  However, the initial three 2,000-volt shocks failed to kill her and she required two additional jolts before, at 8:16 pm, Ethel Rosenberg was pronounced dead.

Federal agents arrested Julius three year earlier, on June 17, 1950, on suspicion of conspiracy of espionage.  The bust took place after his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, a former machinist at the Los Alamos atomic-bomb development site, named him as passing secret information — including a crude sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design — to the Soviet Union (SU) through a courier, Harry Gold.  Two months later, on August 11, 1950, Ethel was seized.

The Rosenbergs’ espionage trial — along with their co-defendant, Morton Sobell – commenced on March 6, 1951, at the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square, now renamed after Justice Thurgood Marshall.  The defendants were found guilt March 29th and on April 5th Judge Irving Kaufman imposed the death sentence on the couple and a 30-year prison sentence on Sobell.  Two-years later, the Rosenbergs were executed.  Ethel spent a total of 801 days on death row at Sing Sing, while Julius spent 767 days; the Justice Department reported that the costs for the imprisonment, trial and executions of the Rosenbers totaled $150,000; $1.3 million in 2015 dollars.

In 1995, the U.S. government released what are known as the Venona documents, four decades after the Rosenbergs were executed.  The files reveal a 50-year-long program run by the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency monitoring Soviet telegram traffic.  Sam Roberts, writing in the New York Times, reported that Venona “incriminated Julius. … Ethel’s role in the entire affair remains less certain.”  The files revealed that an estimated 350 Americans worked for the SU.

Roberts’ notes that Sobell said, “the true reasons for Ethel’s arrest are at least partly accurate, as the prosecutors had hoped that threatening her with a death sentence would eventually pressure Julius to confess.”  Most disturbing, during the Rosenbergs trial, the federal government failed to provide the judge, the prosecution or the defense with the Verona records.  The failure to reveal such critical information profoundly comprised the case, contributing to the execution of two American citizens.  In all likelihood, the information would have spared both Rosenbergs, with Julius serving a prison term and Ethel released.  In 2008, Greenglass, who served 10 years of a 15-year sentence, recanted his trial testimony, claiming he perjured himself.

* * *

The Rosenbergs case was a Cold War melodrama.  In February 1950, a senior atomic bomb scientist, Klaus Fuchs, was arrested in London and charged with espionage.  He named names, particularly the secret-information courier, Gold.  In May ‘50, the FBI arrested Gold who, in tern, named Greenglass who was picked up in June.  A month later, Julius was arrested and, in August, his wife was seized.  Neither Rosenberg named names.

The case played out against a background of deepening anticommunism at home and abroad.  At home, Congressional hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and by Senators Joseph McCarthy and Estes Kefauver made all Americans possible national-security threats.  Internationally, three pivotal events marked the postwar era: (i) the SU detonated its first atomic bomb on September 23, 1949; (ii) a week later, on October 1st, Mao’s communist forces took power in China, finally victorious in a civil war against the Kuomintang-led government that began in 1927; and (iii) the Korean War started in June 1950.  U.S. postwar global hegemony was being challenged, setting the stage for the next half-century’s Cold War.  Someone had to pay.

The Rosenbergs trial was a classic, all-too-noir political morality tale.  Every one accused of espionage named names – except the Rosenbergs.  During the trial, they held fast to their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; they refused to name names, even in the face of death.  Reflecting on his conviction and sentence, Julius warned:

This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we’re gonna kill ya!

The Rosenbergs went to their death proclaiming their innocence, refusing to name names.  They also, as reported by the New York Herald Tribune, “died paupers,” leaving their children only some books and painful memories.

Now, 62 years after the Rosenbergs executions, the U.S. is poised for a new political crisis.  Economically, restructuring is underway; the U.S. remains dominant but stagnant as the world economy is shifting east.  Politically, the 1 percent is consolidating control over the nation-state, particularly at the state level.  Militarily, innumerable failed confrontations, while restricted to the periphery of the empire, serve as distractions to the mounting domestic crisis.  And the security-intelligence apparatus is monitoring everyone, turning “privacy” into a fond memory, like the horse-drawn carriage.

The military-political-corporate system needs an enemy.  Establishment media needs someone to deflect from focusing on the bitter truths gripping a growing number of Americans.  Today’s sad story is visible to all who choose to see.  It’s a bleak truth: U.S. military engagements have repeatedly failed since WW-II; wages have stagnated since the 1970s; and citizen participation in elections has declined as the rich gained more financial control over the electoral process.

Those who challenge these – and others – developments risk a great deal both personally and professional.  One should never forget the Rosenbergs’ moral courage in the face a death.  One can only wonder who among us would have the courage to resist such tyranny if faced with it today?

David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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