Introduction

During World War II, the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency undertook an ambitious project, called Venona, to decipher the code the Soviet Union used to protect its diplomatic cables (messages transmitted by radio). Detection of a slight recurrence of code enabled cryptanalysts to eventually crack through several layers of cipher. The top-secret project revealed the names and activities of numerous Soviet spies, including British physicist Klaus Fuchs. In 1950, British authorities arrested Fuchs, who admitted he had passed on valuable information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union during World War II. Fuchs’s confession led to the identification of more spies, many of them Americans. One, Julius Rosenberg, was arrested by the FBI in June 1950. Rosenberg denied the charges of espionage. In January 1951, a federal grand jury indicted him and his wife, Ethel. Federal prosecutors announced their intent to seek the death penalty for the couple in hopes that Ethel, who did not directly take part in her husband’s spy work, would offer evidence against Julius. Both Rosenbergs, however, held firm in their assertion of innocence.

The Rosenbergs’ trial opened in March 1951 with Judge Irving Kaufman presiding. Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who had also been charged with espionage, offered substantial testimony regarding Julius’s spy work and his sister’s knowledge of it. Prosecutors did not use the Venona cables because the U.S. government did not want the Soviets to learn that the United States had decrypted their wartime transmissions. Instead, prosecutors relied on Greenglass’s testimony, as well as that of another former spy, Elizabeth Bentley. Based on this evidence, the jury handed down a guilty verdict on March 29, 1951.

A few days later, Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death. In this sentencing statement, Kaufman condemned the couple for betraying the United States.

Numerous appeals failed to overturn the verdict and sentence, which were controversial and prompted protests. The Rosenbergs had many defenders, who accused the federal government of framing the couple. President Dwight D. Eisenhower denied a last-minute appeal for a pardon, and on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed. Neither ever admitted their guilt, but Soviet records have since confirmed that Julius spied for the Soviet Union and that his wife knew about this espionage.1 Their deaths orphaned their two sons and added to the tensions in the United States brought by the fear of communism.


Source: A copy of the sentencing statement can be found in Jake Kobrick, “The Rosenberg Trial,” Federal Judicial Center, Federal Judicial History Office, 2013, 50-1. Available at https://goo.gl/fG2QG1.


Citizens of this country who betray their fellow-countrymen can be under none of the delusions about the benignity of Soviet power that they might have been prior to World War II. The nature of Russian terrorism is now self-evident. Idealism as a rationale dissolves. . . .

I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim. The immediate family is brought to grief and when justice is meted out the chapter is closed. But in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb [atomic bomb] years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day – for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack. . . .

In the light of the circumstances, I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will determine with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease. . . .

Study Questions

A. Why does Kaufman believe the Rosenbergs are guilty of a crime worse than murder? What problems have resulted because of the help given to the Soviet Union? Do you think the couple’s death sentence is too harsh? Why or why not?

B. How do Documents 5 and 7 make similar statements about the danger of espionage? Do Kaufman, McCarthy, and Smith exaggerate the threat of spies?

Footnotes

  1. For examples of this evidence, see National Security Agency, Venona Documents, 1944, especially the documents dated November 27, 1944 and December 16, 1944. Available at https://goo.gl/QT8Grq and https://goo.gl/XRSdfc.