The rehabilitation of Ethel Rosenberg is nearly complete following NYC honors

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

On June 19, 1953, at New York state's notorious Sing Sing prison, Ethel Rosenberg was executed by electric chair for treason by the United States government, minutes after her husband Julius was executed for the same crime. The convicted Soviet conspirators were dead and the Red Scare had itself a body count.


In the book Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond The Myths, eyewitness reports state that Mrs. Rosenberg was only declared dead after being administered five separate electric shocks.

On September 28, 2015, the New York City Council honored Rosenberg on what would have been her 100th birthday. The council cited her "great bravery" in leading a strike against New York Packing and Supply Co. in 1935, and declared it "Ethel Rosenberg Day of Justice in the Borough of Manhattan."


It is yet another step, over 60 years after Rosenberg's execution, in the full recovery of her reputation in American history after what many view as her wrongful death in the electric chair.

To refresh your memory from your American history classes: The Rosenbergs were arrested in 1951, following a chain of events involving Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was caught by American authorities; in order to save himself, he named names, including Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass. Greenglass had been turned by a Soviet agent years before: Julius Rosenberg, his brother-in-law, and Ethel's husband. To save his wife Ruth, Greenglass rolled on Julius and lied about Ethel's involvement in the spy ring, perjuring himself, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

On the condition that he be paid for his story, David Greenglass agreed to give New York Times reporter Sam Roberts an interview for what would become Roberts' 2001 book, "The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair." During the course of their sessions, Greenglass admitted to Roberts "he had lied on the witness stand about the single most incriminating evidence against his sister - that she typed his handwritten notes for delivery to the Soviets. Without that testimony, Ethel Rosenberg might well have never been convicted, much less executed."

As Raw Story notes, the Rosenbergs were tried and convicted of "conspiracy to commit espionage." This is not a capital offense, and Ethel was mostly charged as a way to force Julius to play ball with federal prosecutors.

The ploy didn't work. "She called our bluff," William P. Rogers, deputy attorney general of the United States at the time, told Roberts.


Julius' connection with the Soviet Union was clear; Ethel's was non-existent, and yet she was executed for a non-capital crime on the basis of testimony (for which Greenglass was given immunity, but actually recieved a ten-year sentence) that appears to be false.

At their trial, judge Irving Kaufman accused the Rosenbergs of atomic spying, in hyperbolic rhetoric that is very much of the time. From Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War:

I consider your crime worse than murder…I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-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.


Many Americans celebrated the execution:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Slowly, in part because of Greenglass admitting that he lied to save his wife and in part due to unsealed court transcripts being seen by the public, Ethel Rosenberg has become a tragic figure of the Cold War. She's gone from an emblem of the Red Menace to a victim of McCarthy-era hysteria.

Earlier this summer, the couple's two children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, took to the opinion pages of The New York Times to call on President Obama to formally exonerate their mother.

Our mother was not a spy. The government held her life hostage to coerce our father to talk, and when that failed, it extracted false statements to secure her wrongful execution. The apparent rationale for such action — that national security demanded it during a time of international crisis — has disturbing implications in post-9/11 America. It is never too late to correct an egregious injustice.


Historically conservative-leaning outlets haven't been as quick to take up the orphans' cause though. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal maintains Rosenberg's guilt. Even a USA Today article on the issue refers to Ethel Rosenberg as a 'Soviet spy.' A more reasonable editorial on George Mason's History News Network (which later appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times) said that while Ethel may not have been as innocent as her children claim, legally she should not have been executed—especially since the executions hurt the U.S.' image abroad:

Allies across the globe – even those who accepted the couple’s guilt – saw the executions as senseless violence motivated by paranoid anti-Communism.

Protesters accused U.S. government officials of allowing those real fears to cloud their judgment regarding the Rosenbergs.

Cold War terror and paranoia drove federal officials to prosecute the only spies they could get their hands on.


Committing espionage is a capital offense in the United States. Conspiracy to commit espionage, what the Rosenbergs were charged with, is not.

President Obama will be leaving office in less than a year and a half and will be called upon by many advocates to pardon certain individuals. He might do well to listen to the case for Ethel Rosenberg.


[H/T Raw Story]

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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