Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray


A network of spies, gleaning secrets of the atom bomb, a host of couriers and traitors, led by an insignificant man, assisted by a loyal wife, caught by the testimony of the wife's brother, culminating in the unprecedented executions of both husband and wife this is the setting for the most sensational espionage case of World War Two and its aftermath: The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (AP/WWP)
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (AP/WWP)

This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be a hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we're gonna kill ya!

Julius Rosenberg, as quoted by his attorney, Emanuel Bloch, September 22, 1953.

Any consideration of the Rosenberg atom bomb spy case has to acknowledge several uncomfortable facts. First, almost all of the participants, including the accused, the accusers, the prosecution, and the defense often appear to be unattractive, unsympathetic, and sad people. Some, particularly those who used Ethel as a pawn in a futile attempt to force Julius to confess, behaved dishonorably, cruelly, and without pity. Still others display passions that are difficult to understand. With a few exceptions, the long cast of characters in this case do not inspire admiration.

Second, as in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenberg trial took place in a Great Red Scare, but this time the paranoia was increased by the detonation of an atom bomb by Russia, the invasion of South Korea by the Communist North Koreans and Chinese, the numerous revelations and confessions of former communists and professed spies, and the intensity of the McCarthy mentality of the times. Layered on the political hysteria was the abhorrent circumstance of virulent anti-Semitism, intensified by the fact that virtually all of those concerned with this drama were Jewish.

Third, the case is inescapably an accelerating tragedy. As it proceeds to its end, one is left with the feeling that it begins in hindsight inconsequentially and ends with an unnecessary and problematic pair of executions. If the central participants had been kings or queens or gods, it would be the stuff of Greek tragedy. As it was, it is a love story of two average people, caught in their time by their own misguided loyalties and inability to fully understand their peril, brought to a sad end by a cast of less than admirable associates.

It may not be classic tragedy, but it is nonetheless high drama.


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