General Question

JackAdams's avatar

Speaking of the death penalty, were the executions of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 "justified," considering that they had never killed anyone?

Asked by JackAdams (6536points) September 13th, 2008

The Rosenbergs allegedly committed an act of espionage against the USA, and supposedly received a fair trial, were judged guilty and eventually executed for their crime on June 19, 1953, amid much controversy and public protest.

To this day, surviving relatives of theirs continue a fight to clear their names and have them retroactively exonerated.

In the 21st Century, they probably would not be executed for such a crime, as no actual murder was committed by them. So, my question is, considering the time period and the threat to Americans of living with the prospect of a Nuclear War with the USSR constantly hanging over their heads, was their execution a “justifiable act” for that time period, or an act of desperation on the part of the USA, to try to prevent future acts of espionage.

FBI Director John Edgar Hoover termed their act, “The crime of the Century.”

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18 Answers

wildflower's avatar

That was a clear case of confusing criminal justice and national security – in my opinion, killing the offender is not a reasonable corrective action in either.

sarapnsc's avatar

I watched a documentary on that…no, I do not think executing them was justified.

JackAdams's avatar

I tend to agree that it wasn’t right to kill them, and that it was probably a knee-jerk reaction by the US Government, many of whom were in it, were of the Joseph McCarthy mentality.

By the way, if he was still alive, he’d be 100 years old, this November 14th.

Thank Gawd he’s gone. Sure wish he and Rush Limbaugh were currently “roommates.”

galileogirl's avatar

On the one hand Limbaugh’s crap is easily flushed away because of the number of people ready to push the handle, on the other hand we can’t vote him off the air.

As an historian, I am convinced the Rosenbergs were guilty of espionage and the death penalty was one of the legal penalties. The threat of the death penalty was originally meant to get the Rosenbergs to give up information. There was a question of whether they couldn’t or wouldn’t. It was obvious they could have lived if they gave up their immediate contacts. David Greenglass got a fairly light sentence after giving them up and his part in the case was much more important. So it comes down to a game of chicken with the government and it seems that the Rosenbergs were naive or had a martyr complex because they played it. Either they thought the government would back down or they thought they would be considered heros of the revolution, they were wrong. Today they are a minor footnote in the history of the Cold War and in another 50 years, the Cold War will just be a secondary topic in US history classes.

JackAdams's avatar

Thank you for contributing to this discussion.

Your comments are most lucid and erudite, and worthy of a Great Answer vote.

sarapnsc's avatar

Well hell, I’m not answering anymore of your questions, I thought my answer was a good answer too…I didn’t know we had to elaborate!

JackAdams's avatar

Elaboration certainly isn’t required, of course, but sometimes, it aids in the intelligent discourse of a subject, especially if that subject is of a controversial nature, as this one was/is.

sarapnsc's avatar

Well blow me down, now I know.

JackAdams's avatar

The introduction of sex is not needed… LOL

srmorgan's avatar

Did I not read just this week that Morton Sobell, who was involved in the case, had changed his prior positions and actually confessed to his involvement, and that of Julius Rosenberg, in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets?

Jeez, it was in yesterday’s New York Times.
Here is an excerpt from articles (New York Times , September 12, 2008) and I hope this does not violate any copyright issues.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.

Pretty conclusive statement, no? And this really is upsetting becaue I grew up in a household where I heard about the innocence of the Rosenbergs and the anit-semitic aspects of the case. I heard this for years and I wonder what my late mother would think of this statement by Sobell. I was 4 when they were executed in 1953.

There is a big question whether Ethel Rosenberg’s sentence was justified and it is still a point of contention when you read commentary about the case.


galileogirl's avatar

No doubt anti-Semitism was involved but it was not a factor in their guilt rather it was more the acceptance of the stereotype of many Communists being Jews that brought support for the death penalty, It was well established that David Greenglass sent secrets to his sister and the Rosenbergs passed them on. What wasn’t made public at the time was that the Greenglass-Rosenberg connection was only a small part of the conspiracy. There were several insiders passing secrets about the bomb.

Of course your mother wouldn’t want to believe it. There was plenty of scapegoating and the Holocaust was a recent memory.

JackAdams's avatar

Being an alleged Communist sympathizer was something that plagued the late actor Sam Jaffe for most of his career, even though he had no such leanings. His so-called political views got him temporarily blacklisted in Hollywood, and he was almost rejected for his Einstein -like role in the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

There were many celebrities of that time period who were victims of the Red Scare hysteria that was sweeping the nation, and a movie was made about it, called, Guilty By Suspicion.

One of the most celebrated victims of such false allegations was humorist/storyteller John Henry Faulk, who sued his detractors, and, according to his biography, “when the trial finally concluded in a New York courtroom, the jury had determined that Faulk should receive more compensation than he sought in his original petition. On June 28, 1962, the jury awarded him the largest libel judgment in history to that date — $3.5 million. An appeals court later lowered the amount to $500,000. Legal fees and accumulated debts erased the balance of the award.” But, the end result was that he had been proven right, and was publicly exonerated.

His story was made into a move, Fear on Trial.

galileogirl's avatar

Jack: The Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism are not the topic under discussion, although it would be a fascinating topic to explore. The Rosenbergs were not alleged Communist sympathizers, they were Communists who were a part of a group that turned American military secrets over to the Soviet Union, thereby breaking the law. They had the opportunity to lesson the effect of their crime. They refused. They paid for it. The question is was the punishment “fair”.

JackAdams's avatar

You brought the discussion in that direction when you wrote, quote, “many Communists being Jews,” because it was only alleged that the Rosenbergs were Communists, or at the least, Communist sympathizers, and I’ve seen no proof to substantiate either claim, even though I have been privileged to pore over several documents related to that case.

There are those who claim that Julius Rosenberg was, in fact, a Communist, while others claimed that he was only sympathetic to the cause of Communism. I’ll defer to others more learned than I on that issue, but again, I have seen no documentation (yet) that offers irrefutable proof of his sympathies. And, I do think that a discussion of Jews and membership in the Communist Party may be germane to this discussion, but you are certainly welcome to discontinue your participation in this thread (which I created, by the posting of the question), if you are somehow “offended” by my remarks in my previous post, because, Gawd knows, I definitely don’t wish to offend anyone; I just wish to have a polite and rational discussion about the subject matter at hand, and I won’t attempt to suppress anyone’s views on whatever they wish to say on this subject, or in which direction they wish to take it, because, as I have stated before (and with much pride), free speech should be respected everywhere in the United States of America, including on these boards and within the various threads, as long as the public comments don’t deal with things that are deliberately desgned to enflame and provoke people into doing things that they may later regret (upon their conviction by a jury of their peers).

Now, if you are going to take the stance that, “He [Julius] could not have done what he did, without being a Communist, or a Communist Sympathizer,” then my response to that would be something along the lines of, “There were folks who were white, who sold whiskey and guns to Native Americans in the 1800s, and they did it only for things of value, and that didn’t make them Native Americans, did it?”

Also, there was a black attorney with the ACLU, who once defended a KKK member, and no one accused the black attorney of being a member (or sympathizer) of that organization, just because he was defending the right of the Klansman to speak freely in public. In fact, if you can believe this, the Klansman publicly thanked the attorney for representing his free speech rights, and told him he thought he had done an “excellent” job.

Also, the discussion of McCarthyism is also relevant to this topic/thread, because much of the fear and hysteria that permeated the late 1940s and early 1950s, was promulgated by those who shared the beliefs of “the Gentleman from Wisconsin,” who would loudly proclaim to anyone who would listen, that “There’s a Communist under every rock!”

Lastly, please take note of the fact that I will drink poison, before I will enter a thread that you have initiated, and tell you what is “OK” to discuss, and what is not.

Only a Communist would dare to do that, right?

Thanks again for your thoughts. Please continue to share them with me, anytime you feel the need.

galileogirl's avatar

After leaving college, Julius did freelance work until the fall of 1940 when he was hired as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Julius was promoted in 1942 to the position of inspector. The new position allowed the Rosenbergs to move to a new three bedroom apartment. Around this same time, Julius and Ethel became full members in the American Communist Party. Julius was the chairman of Branch 16B of the Party’s Industrial Division and held its meetings at the Rosenbergs’ apartment. By 1943, however, the Rosenberg’s dropped out of the Communist Party to pursue his espionage activities.

Early in 1945 Rosenberg was fired from his job with the Signal Corps when his past membership in the Communist Party came to light. Julius took a job with the Emerson Radio Corporation for a while and then in 1946 formed G & R Engineering Company with David Greenglass, Bernard Greenglass, and Isadore Goldstein. But this small machine shop was never a success

(5) After the execution of the Rosenburgs, their two sons were adopted by Abel Meeropol, the writer of the anti-lynching song, Strange Fruit. Robert Meeropol was interviewed by the Revolutionary Worker magazine on 19th September, 1999.

Q: Your parents were executed for their political beliefs. Could you tell our readers how this happened?

A: My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were members of the American Communist Party and they were arrested in the summer of 1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. More particularly, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb and give it to the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2

ROSENBERG: I would like to state, on any answer I made on this questions, I don’t intend to waive any part of my right of self-incrimination, and if Mr. Saypol is referring to the Young Communist League or the Communist Party, I will not answer any question on it.

COURT: You mean, you assert your constitutional privilege against self-incrimination?

ROSENBERG: That’s right….

SAYPOL: It is not a fact that on that occasion you were told you were being removed from Government service because of the fact that information had been received that you were a member of the Communist Party?

ROSENBERG: I can’t recall the date exactly.

SAYPOL: Can you recall the fact of being advised that that information that you were a member of the Communist Party was imparted to you?

ROSENBERG: I was down at Captain Henderson’s office on one occasion.

SAYPOL: Is it not a fact that on that occasion you were told you were being removed from Government service because of the fact that information had been received that you were a member of the Communist Party?

E. H. BLOCH: If Mr. Saypol wants a concession I will concede right now that this witness was removed from Government service upon charges that he was a member of the Communist Party.

A Communist Couple
Julius Rosenberg met his future wife, Ethel Greenglass, at a 1936 New Year’s Eve benefit for the International Seamen’s Union. Ethel was a strong union sympathizer, and she found that she and Julius held many political views in common. Julius, a student in electrical engineering at City College of New York, had joined the Young Communist League in 1934. After he graduated college in 1939, the couple married and moved into a small Brooklyn apartment. Soon Julius found work as an engineer inspector for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. For a while the Rosenbergs were active participants in the Communist party. They brought Ethel’s younger brother David into the party and, later, David’s wife Ruth.–3468301948.html

etc, etc, etc

JackAdams's avatar

Thanks much for bringing the above information to my attention, because I had not seen it, previously, as much of what I read (up to now) was from newspaper microfilm files, obtained by inter-library loan.

To illustrate very clearly that membership in the Communist Party does not necessarily make you a Communist, I’ll just menton one person who was a member of the Communist Party and made it very high up within the ranks of the Communist Party of the USA, but was never a Communist.

His name was Herbert A. Philbrick, who wrote a book about his exploits called, I LED 3 LIVES.

galileogirl's avatar

Been there seen that, still no question about the Rosenbergs

JackAdams's avatar

I’ll accept your word on that, of course.

You’ve NEVER lied to me…

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