Julius Rosenberg was an American Communist and Soviet espionage agent who was executed in 1953, along with his wife, for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. At the time, the trial and sentence were controversial, as some people argue that the Rosenbergs did not get a fair trial. However, since the Venona disclosures, all pretense of innocence on the part of the Rosenbergs has been dispelled.
For years the Rosenbergs’ defenders demanded that the government reveal its secrets about the case. When the Moynihan Secrecy Commission forced the disclosure of documents, the secrets revealed the government’s case was even stronger. “Over the years,” said Ronald Radosh, “the Rosenbergs’ defenders have loudly demanded the release of government documents on the case, only to deny the documents’ significance once they are made public.”
On September 7, 1942, NKVD officer Semen Semenov recruited Julius Rosenberg to spy for the Soviet Union at a Labor Day rally in New York City. Rosenberg formed his own underground cell, and recruited several people, including his wife Ethel, Joel Barr, Alfred Sarant, Russell McNutt, and his wife Ethel’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass.
Two weeks after Rosenberg was recruited, an encrypted cable from the NKVD’s New York station to Moscow Center implicated him and his wife Ethel in “talent-spotting” for the NKVD. This cable stated that “Ruth GREENGLASS” had been “recommended” to the NKVD by her husband’s sister, and by that sister’s husband:
|“||LIBERAL recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS…. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TURNITsA] since 1942…. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her…. [Ruth] learned that her husband … is now working at the ENORMOUS [ENORMOZ] plant in SANTA FE, New Mexico.||”|
Notes by U.S. Signals Intelligence Service cryptographers (who partially decrypted this cable in the Venona project) identify the code-names LIBERAL as “Julius ROSENBERG,” GOROZhANKA as “American Citizen,” FIZKUL’TURNITsA as “Probably a Member of the Young Communist League,” and ENORMOZ as “Atomic Energy Project.”
The following month, according Ruth Greenglass’s 1950 grand jury testimony, made public in 2008, Julius Rosenberg recruited her, and urged her to recruit her husband (Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass), into a conspiracy to engage in atomic espionage for the Soviet Union:
|“||[H]e proceeded to tell me that he knew that David was working on the atomic bomb…. that he felt there was not a direct exchange of scientific information among the Allies, and that it would be only fair for Russia to have the information, too… and he wanted to make that possible. He asked me if I would relate this to David and ask him to pass on information through Julius.||”|
She added that Ethel participated in this effort, urging her to comply:
|“||His wife said that I should at least relay the message, that she felt that David might be interested, he would want to do this…. [S]he urged me to talk to David. She felt that even if I was against it, I should at least discuss it with him and hear what he had to say.||”|
Shortly thereafter, on November 4, 1944, David Greenlass wrote to his wife from Los Alamos, “I most certainly will be glad to be part of the community project that Julius and his friends have in mind.”
On August 17, 1950, the grand jury returned an indictment alleging 11 overt acts. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted, as were David Greenglass and Anatoli Yakovlev.
Two days after the grand jury testimony was unsealed, the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant Morton Sobell—After more than half a century of denial — “dramatically reversed himself,” admitting “for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.” He also implicated Rosenberg in a conspiracy to deliver classified information to the Soviets. Five days later, even the Rosenbergs’ sons “admitted to a painful conclusion: that their father was a spy.”
The New York Times was able to hold out for another two years, but finally confronted with overwhelming evidence, in 2010 even it had to throw in the towel, commenting, “Today, with the number of Rosenberg defenders steadily shrinking, let’s stipulate: Julius was a Soviet spy.”