Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about the Rosenberg/Sobell Case. If you have any, send us an email.
After all these years, why are questions about the verdicts and sentences in the 1951 Rosenberg-Sobell trial still considered important?
The government has made the Rosenberg-Sobell trial important to the 21st century by “legalizing”, over the past seven decades, trials that repeat and expand the deceptions and misconduct practiced at the flawed 1951 trial.
At the time of the Rosenberg-Sobell trial in 1951, punishment for “treason” became more important than whether the punished were actually guilty of the crime, and became the justification for overriding the Constitution in the conduct of trials involving loyalty. Congress and the White House found the Constitutional definition of treason – giving aid to an enemy in time of war – insufficiently useful to fit their need for equating criticism of our foreign policy with treason.1 So committed were Republican Party leaders in those years to branding even moderation as treason that they publicly labeled the Democratic voters “Commiecrats”.
Today, ”terrorism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” have replaced “Communism” and the Soviet Union as justification for disregarding the Constitutional requirement that due process be afforded, without exception, to all persons tried in American courts. At the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, for example, the defendants were indicted for giving classified information to an ally, but were wrongly prosecuted for treason on behalf of an enemy. Under the so-called Patriot Act and similar legislation and Presidential Orders, 21st century defendants may never learn exactly what they have been accused of, or of what they have been found guilty. At the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, the defendants were wrongly denied an opportunity to discover the background and criminal history, if any, of a key witness. Today, as a matter of law, prosecution witnesses may not be investigated for their pasts and, in some cases, may not even be identified to the defense. Indeed, trials may be held in total secrecy.
So far has justice been separated from the Constitution that the preceding President, and President Obama as well, both assert that American Presidents have the right to execute “suspects”, including American citizens, who have not been tried in any court whatsoever, simply on an assertion by the President that the suspect is a menace to the United States.
Ultimately, the public pays a heavy price for the “new” fashion in justice. Following the Rosenberg-Sobell trial, the verbatim trial record was published by a committee seeking a new trial for the defendants, and became the basis for public support on the defendants’ behalf. Today, publishing the verbatim record of a similar trial may be declared a felony approaching treason, making citizens who publish and distribute the trial record liable for prosecution and severe punishment.
These 21st century “legalized” extensions of the misconduct at the Rosenberg-Sobell trial and the executions that followed it, must be repealed and annulled. The 1951 defendants, wrongfully convicted of treason and put to death or sentenced to inappropriate long prison terms, must be exonerated of verdicts obtained through perjuries and deceits. The Executive, Congress and the Judiciary must be compelled to understand that continuation into the 21st century of the illegalities and wrongful executions committed in the 20th century undermines the Constitution and the orderly system of justice it guarantees to everyone.
Didn’t the Venona releases prove the Rosenbergs were guilty?
The Venona releases confirmed that Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell passed non-atomic information to the Soviet Union during World War II, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were military allies against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy.
The Venona releases are World War II Russian encoded cables between Soviet espionage officials in the Soviet Union and in the United States, partly decoded and translated by the Venona Project in the U.S. Approximately 20 of the 3000 cables reference the Rosenbergs. None of them even infer that Ethel Rosenberg was involved in gathering or passing information to anyone. The only defendants for whom an implication of atomic espionage was made in the Venona releases were David Greenglass and his wife, Ruth,2 both of whom testified for the prosecution, in return for which Ruth Greenglass was not tried, and her husband was spared the death penalty.
Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were guilty of the crime described in the indictment, which did not claim either atomic espionage or an intent to harm the United States.3 In the courtroom, however, the Rosenbergs and Sobell were accused by the prosecution of having committed treason by passing information about the atom bomb to the Soviet Union, which the prosecution and the judge described to the jurors as an enemy nation with which we were at war. This false premise, according to jurors who were interviewed years later, was the basis for the guilty verdicts. It was also, according to the judge at the trial, the premise for the Rosenbergs’ death sentences. Obviously, the prosecution and judge knew they were misleading the jurors and the public, since the Soviet Union, at the time it was receiving classified information from Rosenberg and Sobell, was our strongest military ally. But during the McCarthy era, when the trial was held, such falsifications were regarded by the government as justifiable and patriotic.
Didn’t their co-defendant, Morton Sobell, admit that he and Julius Rosenberg were spies?
Morton Sobell confirmed in a statement to a New York Times reporter in September 2008 that he and Julius participated in espionage but said the information they transmitted was strictly about defensive weaponry, and that he knew nothing about whether Julius was involved in atomic espionage.
You say that anti-Semitism was a factor in the Rosenberg-Sobell case, and yet the lead prosecutor and the judge were Jewish.
The anti-Semitism at the trial was evidenced by the composition of the defendants: every defendant was Jewish. In the 20th century trials in Berlin and Moscow involving all-Jewish defendants charged with espionage and treason, everyone understood the anti-Semitism behind the trials. The designated enemy at those trials was the United States, and the message from Berlin and Moscow was that only Jews were capable of such crimes. (Within a decade, the Soviet government acknowledged that the Moscow trials had been rigged, and the defendants, most of whom had been executed, were exonerated.)
The 1951 trial in New York City of an all-Jewish cast of defendants for espionage and treason was born out of the same malignant prejudice that marked the Moscow and Berlin trials. It was not until the 1980’s, three decades after the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, that the Department of Justice began a series of more than a dozen trials for espionage and treason in which, for the first time in American history, non-Jews were tried for spying for the Soviet Union. All were found guilty. None were sentenced to death.
How had the 1941 all-Jewish trial in New York City come about? The answer lies in the outlook of J. Edgar Hoover, our key law enforcement officer as Director of the FBI for half a century, and a practicing anti-Semite until his death in 1972. During his lifetime, FBI Director Hoover did not submit the name of so much as one triable non-Jewish Soviet espionage suspect to the Department of Justice (although one of the non-Jewish spies discovered after Hoover’s death was himself an FBI agent).
When Hoover began his career in federal law enforcement, he was already in the grip of anti-Semitic beliefs. Among his first acts as a law enforcement official was to send away for 12 copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for himself and for circulation among his colleagues.2 The Protocols had by that time become the “bible” of international anti-Semitism, and remains so to this day.
Hoover’s anti-Semitism determined the hiring policy he created for the FBI. One of his closest advisors for 30 years once pleaded with him to relax his anti-Jewish hiring policy, writing him, “In over 8000 agents, how many are Jewish? Very few.”
In a book he published in 1956, Hoover devoted a whole chapter to what he believed was the Jews’ attraction to Communism, and he warned that they were failing to rid themselves of what he called ‘Communists.’ Hoover did not address any other group in the nation with such warnings.
Hoover also considered criticisms of his leadership of the FBI to have Jewish origins. When a Justice official tried to assert the Department’s authority over the FBI, Hoover referred to his critic as a “Lebanese Jew”.
Hoover’s outlook was shared by many of his colleagues. In December 1951, 9 months after the trial, federal law enforcement officials told the media that spies would rarely be found among persons of “pure Anglo-Saxon stock.”
The presence of Jewish prosecutors and a Jewish judge in the case appears to have been an attempt by the Department of Justice to mask the underlying anti-Semitism. But Justice officials took no chances: in New York City, with Jews constituting 30 percent of the population, not one Jewish person was seated on the jury.
The Rosenberg-Sobell case was, of course, very complex, and it cannot be fully understood simply by calling attention to its anti-Semitic markers.
How could Ethel Rosenberg remain silent and orphan her children? Was she that sold on Communism and the Soviet Union that she would deprive her sons of their mother?
The choice Ethel Rosenberg faced on the day of her execution was not whether out of a commitment to Communism or the Soviet Union, she should orphan her sons by remaining silent or to abandon such a commitment and assure her young sons that at some time in the future she would be reunited with them.
The actual choice she and Julius Rosenberg faced was: should they consent to the prosecution’s demands for confessions to treason, and agree to support the confessions with the names of others who would be arrested and confronted with the same choice – face death sentences or confess to treason and support their confessions with names, a nearly ad infinitum process in which a cascade of confessions to treason and names of traitors would enable Justice officials to validate their report to Congress that there were 20,000 traitors awaiting indictment.
The Rosenbergs were being asked to confess to a crime they could not have committed, and with which they were not even charged in the indictment, which accused them of passing classified information to the Soviet Union, an active ally in World War II. In the courtroom, however, the crime was described to the jurors as treason on behalf of an enemy government.2
The prosecution’s demand for confessions to treason was compounded by its demand for names of other “traitors”. But the Rosenbergs knew no traitors. What they did know, however, was that if they named persons who had also passed information to the ally, such persons would also face death sentences. At some point, someone would refuse to add to the numbers of the condemned. And that person, or persons, would be placed in the electric chair in place of the Rosenbergs.
The Rosenbergs were unwilling or unable to take this step, possibly because another couple, David and Ruth Greenglass (David was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother) had avoided being sentenced to death by naming the Rosenbergs who, they assumed, would follow their example and name others to avoid their own executions. (In return for naming the Rosenbergs, David was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and Ruth was never tried.) In 2001, at a televised interview on CBS with David Greenglass, he was asked why the Rosenbergs had chosen to die rather than do as the Greenglass’ had. Greenglass replied: “One word — stupid.” The interviewer asked, “And you’re sitting here today — a man with a clear conscience?” Greenglass replied, “Absolutely. I sleep very well.”
What confronted both Rosenbergs, then, was a choice of much greater importance than their political philosophy or admiration for an ally. They had to choose between certain death for themselves or certain death for others who were as innocent of treason as they were. It was an excruciating choice, especially because of their young sons.
It is important to recognize that the choices confronting the Rosenbergs came at a time when new revelations about the Holocaust were making daily headlines. The Rosenbergs may have seen a parallel between their situation and the one that had faced many millions of European Jews between the German Nazi’s ascent to power in 1933 and their defeat in 1945. In those years a very small number of Jews chose to survive by identifying other Jews to be taken to the crematoria.
Among the last statements by Ethel Rosenberg was this one, addressed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower:
…our accusers torture us, in the face of death, with the guarantee of life for the price of a confession of guilt. Close upon the execution date — as though to draw upon the last full measure of dread of death and love of life — their high negotiator came bearing this tainted proffer of life. We refuse this iniquitous bargain, even as perhaps the last few days of our young lives are slipping away. We cannot besmirch our names by bearing false witness to save ourselves. Do not dishonor America, Mr. President, by considering as a condition of our right to survive, the delivery of a confession of guilt of a crime we did not commit.
What does the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case hope to accomplish?
Since 1787, when the Constitution became the basic law of the United States, committees like ours have sought to undo miscarriages of justice that have made end runs around the Constitution and wrongly taken the lives and freedoms of Americans. We are committed to a basic premise that has been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court: The innocence or guilt of defendants cannot be legally determined at trials in which the Constitution is ignored. Public passions, feverish prosecutorial oratory and deceptions in the name of patriotism, are obstructions, not pathways, to justice. Verdicts and sentences based on virtuoso performances by irresponsible prosecutors or judges must, one day, be reversed. If they are not, they will be repeated with tragic consequences to the Constitution and defendants.
The Rosenberg-Sobell trial was conducted at a time of great social stress. There was widespread fear of catastrophic devastation via an atomic war, a fear that was repeatedly aired in the courtroom by both the prosecution and the judge. Times of such stress – like the one we are undergoing now in respect to terrorism – are the most frequent periods during which reckless super-patriotic prosecutors and judges turn away from the Constitution and fall back on slogans like “the Constitution is not a suicide pact”.
Our committee believes that the verdicts and sentences at the 1951 Rosenberg-Sobell trial should have been set aside by the Supreme Court, which, in that very stressful time, repeatedly refused to review the trial. At this time there is a veritable mountain of government documentation that points unmistakably to the prosecution’s and judge’s misconduct.
We are asking the Department of Justice to conduct an objective review of the case, based on the trial record and the cumulative government documents that reveal the deliberate misconduct and deceptions practiced by the prosecution and the judge. We believe that such a review will lead to an acknowledgment that the trial was deeply flawed and that the verdicts were the consequence of a misled jury, and that the sentences were the result of judicial bias and error. The defendants would then be exonerated of the wrongful verdicts and, although executions are not reversible, the Rosenberg;s’ exoneration would send a warning message to judges, and make less likely the imposition of wrongful death sentences in similar cases in the future.
Some commentators on the case have cited documents indicating that even if Ethel Rosenberg didn’t participate in the espionage, she knew about it. If that’s so, doesn’t that mean she was guilty too?
Actually, there is nothing that ties her to the conspiracy except a KGB document that first appeared in “The Haunted Wood,” a book by Allen Weinstein and Alexandr Vassiliev that was based on KGB documents provided to the authors by a group of retired Soviet intelligence agents after they were paid a large fee by Random House. The document, or even its existence, like most of those produced in the book, has never been independently verified, and in the past Weinstein’s accuracy and objectivity has been called into question. According to the authors, Julius drafted a document that gave an account a meeting that supposedly took place in late 1945 between Julius and Ethel and Ruth Greenglass, where Ruth was allegedly asked if David would help join the espionage conspiracy.
The authors say that at that meeting, in which obtaining “technical information” was discussed, Ethel “interposed the need for the utmost care” in informing David of the work that Julius was engaged in. In 2001, David Greenglass told an interviewer on 60 MInutes II that the testimony he and his wife gave about Ethel — that when David was giving Julius information about the atom bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico (where he worked in a low-level position) Ethel typed up the notes — was false. Recently released grand jury testimony indicates that when he acknowledged the lie in 2001, he was finally telling the truth.