The Government's Hostage: The Conviction and Execution of Ethel Rosenberg
26 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2016
Date Written: December 22, 2016
Whether or not Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of the offense for which she was tried, convicted, and executed, there is little doubt that the evidence upon which the conviction was based was threadbare. Indeed, even the government itself thought so. The government’s prosecution of Ethel relied exclusively on the testimony of David and Ruth Greenglass, Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law. A July 17, 1950 internal FBI memo declared there was not enough evidence to arrest Ethel Rosenberg. The government did not discover any new evidence against Ethel between the release of that memo and Ethel’s arrest on August 11, 1950. Furthermore, no new evidence was discovered in the time between her arrest and her indictment on January 31, 1951, shortly before her trial in March. And it was in that brief period that both the Greenglasses’ stories dramatically evolved as to the extent of Ethel’s supposed connections with the alleged conspiracy.
Her conviction and execution rested on three claims: (1) Ethel asked Ruth to convey Julius’ espionage recruitment offer to David; (2) Ethel typed up notes containing nuclear secrets in order to transmit them to the Soviets; and (3) Ethel and Julius received a mahogany table and other gifts from the Soviets as a reward for their commitment to the cause. Of the three, the only evidence present at the time Ethel was indicted was Ruth’s statement that Ethel asked Ruth to convey Julius’ recruitment offer to David. Despite giving several statements, over the course of eight months, neither Ruth nor David Greenglass mentioned Ethel typing up the notes until two weeks before trial. The indictment and pretrial documents also fail to report that Ethel received gifts from the Russians. This accusation was first introduced into the trial documents during the Greenglasses’ trial testimony.
The conclusion in the July 17, 1950 FBI memo, stating that the evidence against Ethel was insufficient to warrant prosecution, remained true throughout her arrest, prosecution, conviction, and execution.
The reason for her prosecution seems clear: Ethel was executed because she refused to cooperate with the Government to help convict her husband, Julius. Ethel was merely a pawn used for leverage in the government’s attempt to build a case against Julius Rosenberg.
Keywords: Ethel Rosenberg, Julius Rosenberg, David Greenglass, Ruth Greenglass, McCarthyism, The Atomic Bomb, Espionage, Execution, Prosecutorial Abuse
JEL Classification: K10, K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation