Editors Note: We're blogging through We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
During the Cold War, America’s fear of Communism was huge. Anything related to Communism was shunned, people were fired simply for being suspected of being communists, and people in the entertainment business were blacklisted for not cooperating with investigations into communism in America. This paranoia led to the Joseph McCarthy attacks - which didn’t prove much, if anything - and investigation into anything related to Communist spying.
Julius Rosenburg began courting Ethel Greenglass around 1932. The Greenglass family had Communist literature in the apartment where Ethel and her brothers lived, and both Julius and Ethel became strong Communists between 1932 and 1935. They then convinced Ethel’s younger brother, David, to join them.
David was assigned to the Manhattan project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. During a furlough, Julius asked him for any information he knew on the bomb. David wrote it up and gave it to Julius. This exchange happened at least twice. All of this information was passed to Henry Gold, who passed it farther up, until it reached Russia.
On June 16, 1950, the US Criminal Division of the Justice Department began the prosecution process against David. On July 17, 1950, Julius was arrested at his home in New York; Ethel was arrested a little less than a month later. The trials continued until March 29, 1951, when the jury came to a verdict of guilty for both Julius and Ethel. They were then sentenced to death.
The Communist party then began to protest the verdict. They called the trial “legal murder” and a “monstrous frame-up”. They sent pre-written letters to members of the party in America, which the members could simply sign and send to the President. They created a 24-hour picket line at the White House. At one point, more than 2,000 protesters picketed the White House. Demonstrations were even held around the world, with a French teenager shot in the police’s attempt to stop the demonstration.
The legal team for the Rosenburgs filed appeal after appeal in order to delay the execution. They created a petition for executive clemency for President Eisenhower, which he declined. On June 17, 1953, a stay of execution was granted to reexamine the case. Two days later, the stay was revoked.
On June 19, the Rosenburgs were executed at Sing Sing prison in New York. 55 years later, coconspirator Morton Sorbell finally admitted that both he and Julius were Soviet spies; however, he never mentioned Ethel. It is believed that Ethel was arrested and sentenced to death in order to get Julius to admit his guilt. When that didn’t work, they executed her as well. We might never know the extent of her involvement, but it seems no evidence presented yet is strong enough to warrant the death penalty she received.