At the beginning of the Cold War, British and American spy agencies became aware of extensive Soviet infiltration of some of their top secret facilities during World War II, when the Soviet Union was a supposed to be working with the allies against Nazi Germany.
In January 1950, Klaus Fuchs confessed to British investigators that he had been spying for the Soviet Union. He provided information that the Soviets had acquired an agent in Berkeley, California. This agent informed the Soviet Union about electromagnetic separation research of uranium-235 in 1942. At this point Fuchs was interviewed by both British and American intelligence agencies. Fuchs told investigators he had given key documents to the Soviet Union during the war while he worked in America. Fuchs, a theoretical physicist who escaped Nazi Germany and was recruited by the British, had been sent to the U.S. as part of the British mission to the Manhattan Project.
Fuchs’ information implicated a U.S. citizen, Harry Gold, who became a key witness in the following trials of co-conspirators of what was to be known as the Rosenberg spy ring in the United States. Gold was arrested on 23rd May 1950 and confessed, at the same time identifying David Greenglass as a co-conspirator.
On 15th June 1950 Greenglass was arrested by the FBI and charged with espionage. It wasn’t long before he confessed to having passed secret information on to the USSR through Harry Gold. Greenglass then claimed that his sister Ethel, wife of Julius Rosenberg, had been instrumental in recruiting him as a spy for the U.S.S.R. and provided testimony that helped convict his sister and brother-in-law. Greenglass was convicted of spying and served just over nine years in prison.
Morton Sobell was an American engineer who was spying for the Soviet Union when it was an ally of the United States during late World War II. He was part of the Rosenberg spy ring and recruited as a spy in the summer of 1944. Sobell worked on government military contracts in the 1940s. After the arrest of David Greenglass, Morton Sobell fled with his family to Mexico City, but couldn’t leave Mexico to travel to Europe as he didn’t have a passport. Sobell was eventually arrested by Mexican police for an attempted bank robbery. He was turned over to U.S. law officers and arrested. In 1951 Sobell was tried and convicted of espionage. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months in prison, Sobell, at the age of 91, was interviewed about the case whereupon he admitted for the first time that he had given military secrets to the Soviets during World War II.
Sobell died at the age of 101 on December 26th 2018 and was the last-surviving member of the Rosenberg spy ring.
Julius & Ethel Rosenberg
On 29th March 1951, husband and wife Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. A week later they were sentenced to death.
Julius Rosenberg was born to Russian immigrants on 12th May 1918 in New York City. In 1940 he joined the Army Signal Corps Engineering Labs at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey where he worked as an engineer-inspector. Important electronics, communications, radar and guided missile control research was undertaken at Fort Monmouth during World War II. Rosenberg was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union on Labor Day 1942 by Soviet spymaster Semyon Semyonov.
On 17th June 1950 Julius Rosenberg was arrested and accused of espionage. In the following August Rosenberg’s wife, Ethel, was also arrested.
The case of the Rosenbergs was seen at the time as clear-cut and it has been said that U.S. prosecutors were determined to send a message to the Soviet Union and the execution of the Rosenbergs was an unequivocal ‘don’t mess with us’ message to anyone caught spying against the United States.
Ethel Rosenberg in particular has lately been seen as a tragic figure caught up in the lies, deceit and treasonous activities of her husband, Julius. Even now there have been calls for Ethel Rosenberg to be posthumously pardoned.
Never the less, both Rosenbergs were found guilty and sentenced to death. But in an interesting footnote to the case of the Rosenberg conspiracy, Roy Marcus Cohn was a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which concluded with the Rosenbergs’ executions in 1953. Cohn became Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel in the period commonly known for the purging of suspected communists from all walks of American life. These days McCarthyism is known more as a witch hunt. Cohn became closely associated with McCarthyism and its downfall and later in life Cohn represented one Donald J. Trump in his early business career and became Trump’s personal lawyer.
After their trial and conviction, the Rosenbergs were transferred to New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. On the 19th June 1953 Julius Rosenberg’s execution by electric shock was carried out without a hitch.
Ethel Rosenberg was not to be so lucky. After the normal course of three electric shocks doctors determined Ethel’s heart was still beating. A further two electric shocks were applied and witnesses reported seeing smoke rising from Ethel’s head. She was declared dead after five electric shocks had been applied.
The Rosenbergs were survived by two very young sons.
Copyright © Tom Kane 2020
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