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19 June 2009

On this day in history: Rosenbergs executed, 1953

In 1936 Julius Rosenberg met Ethel Greenglass through the Youth Communist League. They both lived in New York and came from working-class Jewish families. Three years after their first meeting they were married. That same year Julius gained a degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York.

Following the United States' entrance into the Second World War, Julius joined the Army Signal Corps and worked on radar equipment. A year later, in 1943, the Rosenbergs stopped publicly endorsing communism and cancelled their subscription to the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. Nevertheless, the pair were still in contact with leading American communists through whom they made the acquaintance of Alexandre Feklisov, a Soviet spy.

By chance, in 1944 Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, started working on the United States' nuclear weapon programme, the Manhattan Project. Towards the end of that year, the Rosenbergs allegedly persuaded him to pass technical details of the programme to the Soviets to help them also develop a nuclear weapon. According to Feklisov, Julius also recruited a number of other people with access to information on top secret projects to spy for the Russians.

In early 1950, British Intelligence arrested Klaus Fuchs, another scientist working on the Manhattan Project, on charges of espionage. Eventually, the trail of spies and couriers led back to David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs, all of whom were arrested. In January 1951, the US Grand Jury indicted the three of them and the trial of the Rosenbergs began in March that year. Following a guilty verdict on the charge of conspiring to commit espionage, the presiding Judge, Irving Kaufman, sentenced them both to death. Greenglass, who testified against his sister and brother-in-law, received a fifteen year sentence, of which he served ten years.

On 19th June 1953, a special session of the US Supreme Court finally dismissed requests for a stay of execution. So, that evening, first Julius and then Ethel were executed by electrocution at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility at Ossining, New York. They left behind two orphaned sons, Robert and Michael, who were finally adopted by the songwriter Abel Meerpol - famous for writing the Billie Holliday song 'Strange Fruit' - and his wife Anne. Controversy still surrounds the Rosenberg's (particularly Ethel's) role in the spy ring, as well as their trial and execution.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law host a complete transcript of the Rosenberg Trial on their website.

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