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This week in history: Julius and Ethel Rosenburg

ByRosanna Marshall

Mar 28, 2016

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a couple caught up in the post-war flares of anticommunism at the beginning of the 1950s. Their conviction for espionage on 29 March 1951 was the ultimate climax of a crossfire of accusations stemming from Britain to the United States. The Cold War’s focus on atomic power and the rise of Communism encouraged fear within the Western powers. This resulted in extreme reactions to events that were seen as a threat to the equilibrium. The trial of the Rosenbergs is a perfect example of the fear exacerbated by the stigma of Soviet Communism.

During the age of McCarthyism, where citizens were unfairly accused and imprisoned with the aim to keep Communism at bay, much of the evidence for the trials was fabricated. This case provides an early example of how ‘pointing the finger’ could escalate to capital punishment during this time.

The trail of accusation began with Emil Fuchs, a British atomic scientist who was arrested in 1950. Depending on which account you read, Fuchs either revealed the identity of an American contact, to whom he passed on atomic secrets, or he kept silent and the FBI discovered the further information themselves. Either way, the identification of the US scientist Harry Gold and the soldier David Greenglass, as participants in exchanging espionage material, brought the authorities one step closer to the Rosenbergs.

The extent of the fear and chaos of the time can be shown by the actions of desperate individuals to protect themselves. Ethel Rosenberg was the sister of David Greenglass. Greenglass provided evidence in his testimony to indicate his sister’s guilt in initiating the trajectory of espionage. He and his wife, Ruth, claimed that Ethel typed notes containing US secrets which would then be passed onto Harry Gold and onwards into Soviet hands. Due to Ethel and her husband Julius’s past involvement in Communist activity and their Russian parentage, evidence allowed the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953, leaving behind their two sons, aged 6 and 10. This example displays the weight of the choices that had to be made within families during the Cold War.



IMAGE: Roger Higgins


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