Why the Rosenbergs Were Executed

 
 

On April 5th, 1951, Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death. He called them traitors who put “into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb.”

The jury had convicted them of conspiracy to commit espionage. In June of 1953, after nearly two years of appeals, the couple were electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison.

The Truman administration was certain that the Rosenbergs needed to die. The government stated that the Rosenbergs had passed secret information on the atomic bomb, and this allowed the Soviets to develop their own nuclear weapons.

David Greenglass' sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design, illustrating what he allegedly gave the Rosenbergs to pass on to the Soviet Union.

David Greenglass’ sketch of an implosion-type nuclear weapon design, illustrating what he allegedly gave the Rosenbergs to pass on to the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, newly empowered with the atomic bomb, had encouraged the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950. The U.S. and UN militaries stood in opposition to the invasion. The American government wanted to show that they would not tolerate any Soviet espionage, and the Rosenbergs were to be made an example of.

The American people believed their leaders and the charges against the Rosenbergs. Judge Kaufman used the administration’s charges to justify the death sentence.

In the courtroom, Judge Kaufman rationalized the sentence by arguing that espionage was “sordid, dirty work” which included “the betrayal of one’s country” and thus deserved the maximum sentence. The penalty for espionage was up to 30 years in prison or death if the crime occurred during wartime.

Police booking photograph of Ethel Rosenberg.

Police booking photograph of Ethel Rosenberg.

Since the conspiracy began during World War II, Judge Kauffman argued that the executions were justified. He intended the sentence to be a deterrent to anyone else considering betraying their country. Leniency towards the Rosenbergs would be interpreted as weakness by overseas enemies, in his opinion.

The judge admitted that though sentencing a young mother to death seemed harsh (the Rosenbergs had two young sons, Michael, and Robert), it was necessary in this case. While Julius “was the prime mover in this conspiracy,” Kaufman explained, “let no mistake be made about the role [of] his wife, Ethel Rosenberg. Instead of deterring him from pursuing his ignoble cause, she encouraged and assisted the cause.”