On this day: Ethel Rosenberg is born

September 27 1998: Communist, wife, mother: the first woman executed for spying in peacetime America


From a New York Jewish family, Ethel Greenglass was one of only two people in American history to be executed for spying during peacetime. The other was her husband, Julius.

After a lengthy trial, the Rosenbergs were found guilty of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Red Scare and Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt. Americans were consumed with rooting out those people who were not true “patriots”.

As a young woman, Ethel had hoped to pursue her dream of being an actress, but when the Depression hit she found a secretarial job. Around that time, she joined the Young Communist League, where she met a young Jewish engineer named Julius.

The couple married in 1939. Four years later, Julius’ brother, also a committed communist, took a job with America’s atomic bomb programme; the Manhattan Project. Julius persuaded him to pass information to the Russians, and when the plot was revealed in 1950 Ethel was also implicated. The Rosenbergs were arrested and put on trial in 1951.

They were executed by electric chair at Sing Sing prison on June 19 1953. Their two sons, ten and six at the time, were adopted by a family friend. Before she died, Ethel wrote to them: “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.”

In 2008, Morton Sobell, a friend of the Rosenbergs who was also convicted of espionage, admitted he and Julius had been Soviet spies. Of Ethel, he said: “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”

What the JC said: Amid widespread suggestions of “dual loyalty” and angry criticism of particular Jewish support for Communism, Jews in America felt vulnerable. Many went out of their way to demonstrate their patriotism...The trial became an arena for articulating differing conceptions of Jewishness, notably what bearing it had on the pointed alternative of loyalty to the United States or to a foreign power...Although antisemitism did not noticeably increase as a result of the trial, nor could the trial itself be said to have been antisemitic, the conduct of many Jews raised questions.

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    Last updated: 2:41pm, November 2 2010