At the end of a highly publicized espionage case, death sentences are imposed against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, one week after the couple were found guilty of conspiring to transmit atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
The Rosenberg case began with the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, a German-born and U.S.-employed scientist who confessed to passing classified information about the U.S. atomic program to the Soviets. Following his 1950 conviction, U.S. authorities began an extensive investigation of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the top secret U.S. atomic development headquarters where Fuchs worked during the war. Harry Gold, a Philadelphia chemist, was arrested as a Fuchs accomplice, followed by David Greenglass, who had been stationed near the Los Alamos atomic testing site during the war. In July 1950, Ethel Rosenberg, the sister of Greenglass, was arrested along with her husband, Julius, an electrical engineer who had worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the war. Alleged to have communist leanings, the couple was accused of convincing Greenglass to provide Harry Gold with atomic secrets.
During their trial, the Rosenbergs maintained their innocence, though Greenglass, who had pleaded guilty, agreed to testify against them. At the trial’s end in the spring of 1951, David Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Harry Gold was sentenced to 30 years, and the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. Despite court appeals and pleas for executive clemency, the Rosenbergs, the first U.S. civilians to be given the death penalty in an espionage trial, were executed by electrocution on June 19, 1953.
The trial occurred at the height of the “red scare” in the early 1950s, and critics of the case argued that the political climate of the time made a fair trial impossible. Others questioned whether the Rosenbergs deserved execution, especially as the only seriously incriminating evidence came from a confessed spy who was given a reduced sentence to testify against them. In one of her last letters before being executed, Ethel Rosenberg wrote, “My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American Fascism.”