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10 Surprising Things about the Atom Spy Case Revealed by the FBI

by Mikel Tadeje
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

The Atom Spy Case, or the Rosenbergs Case, is one of the most controversial yet fascinating cases in American history. From its beginning as a domestic issue to a global issue to its eventual end, the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg has captivated people for over 70 years.

Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs were accused of leaking atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the Second World War in an effort to help their home country win the war. As a result, they were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison in the State of New York in 1953.

Many believe that they were innocent, and others believe they were guilty. However, regardless of your opinion on this matter, there are many facts about the case that you probably might not know—some of which involve famous people such as Marilyn Monroe and the pope!

Here are ten things you might not know about this infamous case.

Related: Top 10 Crazy Spy Stories

10 A Member of the Manhattan Project Started It All

The Man Who Stole the Atomic Bomb – WW2 Documentary Special

The Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, which shocked the U.S. government. They suspected that someone, a spy, was handing over classified documents to the Soviet Union. Theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs was the man they were looking for.

Fuchs, a pivotal figure in the Manhattan Project, significantly contributed to developing the atomic bomb during World War II. His expertise in theoretical physics was instrumental in advancing crucial aspects of the project, such as the implosion method used in the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb. However, Fuchs’s allegiance was divided. Driven by communist ideology, he clandestinely passed classified information to the Soviet Union, including details of the bomb’s design and production methods.

Fuchs’s espionage activities remained undetected until 1950 when he was arrested by British authorities. Upon interrogation, he confessed to his actions and was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom. Fuchs received a 14-year prison sentence, later reduced to 9 years due to his cooperation. After serving his term, he was released in 1959 but was stripped of his British citizenship. Choosing to move to East Germany, Fuchs continued his career as a physicist and received accolades for his contributions to the Soviet nuclear program. He lived in East Germany until his death in 1988.

Fuchs started the chain of accusations, which eventually led to the arrest and execution of the Rosenbergs.[1]

9 Julius’s Smuggling in the U.S. Army

Rosenberg Spy Affair – How the USSR got Nuclear Weapons – COLD WAR

During World War II, Julius Rosenberg worked as a U.S. Army engineer in the engineering lab at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. This was where the army’s best engineers worked on sensitive and highly classified technologies for the government, like radar and guided missile control.

During his time there, it was found that he managed to smuggle classified information to the Soviet Union through various covert means. They utilized clandestine meetings, dead drops, and encrypted communications to pass on sensitive documents and details about military technology and atomic research. He also recruited several agents to his spy ring.

Julius recruited individuals for his spy ring through his connections with communist sympathizers and members of the American Communist Party. He targeted individuals who had access to classified information or held positions of influence in government or military institutions. Julius exploited ideological allegiances and personal grievances to enlist collaborators willing to betray their country for the cause of communism.

Additionally, Julius’s recruitment efforts were facilitated by his ability to blend into leftist circles and gain the trust of potential recruits. He exploited the political climate of the time, characterized by anti-capitalist sentiments and suspicions of government oppression, to find individuals sympathetic to the Soviet cause.

Julius was eventually fired in 1945 after he was found out to be a member of the American Communist Party.[2]

8 The Rosenbergs Arrested on the Word of Family and for Communist Ties

Spy Saga of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg – Decades TV Network

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were members of the American Communist Party during a period of heightened political tension known as the Red Scare. They were part of leftist circles that advocated socialist and communist ideals, influenced by the political climate of the Great Depression and the rise of communism as an alternative to capitalism. Julius had friends who were also members, including Harry Gold and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, both of whom were convicted as spies in other cases.

David Greenglass handed evidence against them under duress and later recanted his testimony, claiming coercion by law enforcement officials. He also testified that Julius had provided him with sketches of jet aircraft and atomic bomb components.

David’s statement involved his wife, Ruth Greenglass, recruiting him to a soviet spy network. He then told investigators that his wife was recruited by David’s brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg.[3]

7 David Greenglass’s Involvement with the Arrest

David Greenglass interview – 60 Minutes II (July 16, 2003)

David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, played a critical role in the arrest of the Rosenbergs. Greenglass was a machinist at the Manhattan Project, where he had access to classified information related to the development of the atomic bomb. In 1950, he was arrested for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

During his interrogation, Greenglass provided incriminating testimony against his sister and brother-in-law, claiming that Julius had recruited him to spy for the Soviet Union. Greenglass alleged that Ethel had typed up notes containing classified information, implicating both of them in espionage activities.

Based on Greenglass’s testimony and other evidence, the U.S. government pursued charges against the Rosenbergs for conspiracy to commit espionage. Their trial became a highly publicized event, fueled by Cold War paranoia and anti-communist sentiment. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and sentenced to death, largely due to Greenglass’s testimony and cooperation with the prosecution.[4]

6 Rosenbergs Convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Espionage

Was Ethel Rosenberg Wrongly Convicted as a Russian Spy?

The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage after a very lengthy trial, not atomic spying or being a member of a Soviet spy network. They were accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia. Still, it was not clear whether this information actually helped the Soviet Union build its own bombs.

The trial, held amid the fervor of the Cold War, was highly politicized, with the prosecution presenting evidence of the Rosenbergs’ alleged involvement in passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Although Julius was the primary target of the investigation, Ethel was also arrested and tried alongside him. Despite limited evidence directly linking her to the espionage activities, the prosecution portrayed Ethel as an accomplice who aided her husband’s efforts.

Activists used this fact against the U.S. Government for the wrongful arrest, trial, conviction of espionage, and execution of the Rosenbergs. Especially for Ethel, who they believe had little to no part in the spy ring that her brother and husband were a part of.[5]

5 An Infamous Attorney Pushed for the Death Penalty of the Rosenbergs

Robert Meeropol on Trump Mentor Roy Cohn’s Role in Prosecution of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg

During the lengthy trial of the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel maintained their innocence. Claiming that they were being framed, but a certain lawyer thought otherwise.

The Rosenberg trial, presided over by Judge Irving Kaufman, was a highly charged event amid Cold War tensions. Roy Cohn, then a young prosecutor and later infamous for his role in the McCarthy hearings, played a key role in the case against the Rosenbergs. Joseph McCarthy was a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin, known for alleging that many communists and Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. federal government, universities, and other institutions.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass. Allegations of witness tampering arose during the trial, with accusations that the prosecution pressured Greenglass to provide damning testimony against his sister and brother-in-law. Furthermore, Judge Kaufman’s handling of the trial drew criticism, as he exhibited bias toward the prosecution and restricted the defense’s ability to present evidence and witnesses.

These factors fueled doubts about the fairness of the trial, leading many to view the Rosenbergs’ conviction and subsequent execution as a miscarriage of justice. The trial of the Rosenbergs remains a stark reminder of the dangers of political paranoia and the erosion of civil liberties during times of national security hysteria.[6]

4 Public Backlash Against the U.S. Government

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both Jewish immigrants with Russian roots coming from their parents. Julius’s parents were Russian, and Ethel’s were Russian and Austrian.

The public outcry, mostly from the activists that came after their conviction and death penalty verdict, used the fact that the U.S. government was dabbling in anti-semitism by arresting and convicting a Jewish couple of espionage with no concrete evidence against them. One surprising voice of support was the pope. According to an Italian newspaper, Pope Pius XII appealed to the United States government for clemency in the Rosenberg case.

Many believed in the couple’s innocence and demanded a retrial or at least rescinding of the death penalty verdict. Still, the prosecution, judge, and jury that attended the Rosenbergs’ case and trial only pushed back the date of the execution a mere few days.[7]

3 Celebrities Joined in on the Public Outcry

The Rosenbergs | Great Crimes and Trials of the Twentieth Century (TV)

The case, trial, and conviction of the Rosenbergs not only garnered massive public outcry, but celebrities joined in on the cause as well. At the time, top celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, and even Pablo Picasso joined the public in supporting the Rosenbergs’ innocence and demanding a retrial or rescinding the death penalty.

The conviction and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sparked intense public backlash both domestically and internationally. While some viewed the Rosenbergs as traitors who had endangered national security by passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, others saw them as martyrs, victims of Cold War paranoia and a flawed justice system. However, despite this amount of press coverage and support for their innocence, on the 19th of June, 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed by electric chair in Sing Sing Prison in the state of New York, leaving behind their two sons, Robert and Michael.[8]

2 The Venona Project

Venona Project: How The US Cracked Top Secret Soviet Codes

In 1995, a World War II counterintelligence program called the Venona Project was declassified and released to the public by the U.S. government.

The Venona Project was a top-secret American project that began in 1943 to decrypt Soviet communications. This project uncovered information about the Rosenbergs’ case and many other spies and agents working on behalf of the Soviet Union, including several Americans who were later convicted or confessed to their crimes.

Michael and Robert, the Rosenbergs’ sons, got hold of the Venona Project and thoroughly studied the documents that would settle the issue of whether or not their parents were wrongly convicted of espionage and sentenced to death. The documents revealed Julius Rosenberg’s full involvement in the spy ring, but Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement was little to none.[9]

1 The Rosenbergs’ Sons Admit their Father’s Involvement

Sons of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg Ask Obama to Exonerate Their Mother in Nuclear Spy Case

After getting their hands on the documents of the Venona Project, Robert and Michael Meeropol—the Rosenbergs’ children’s new name—admitted that their father, Julius Rosenberg, was actually a spy. His involvement was at the very center of the spy ring, handling the smuggling of classified documents and information to the Soviet Union and hiring new spies and agents for the ring.

However, Robert and Michael’s mother, Ethel Rosenberg, had little to no involvement in the matter. Now, the brothers are fighting to get their mother posthumously pardoned of the espionage conviction against her. Former President Obama acknowledged Robert and Michael’s efforts but never gave the pardon.

Even now, the Rosenbergs’ sons are still fighting for Ethel’s innocence.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen