Observing the Sabbath: Killing the Rosenbergs

Note: See also Part 2 and Part 3 of this trilogy.

As early as I can remember I was placed in front of the radio (we had no television). I was exposed to music, advertisements, dramas, and news. At age three I tried to read newspapers. I simply wanted to read about what I’d heard.  By the age of five I was reading the “briefs” in the back pages because they were easier for me, but they also could lead me to bigger stories. In particular I remember reading briefs about spies.

I was eight years old in 1950 when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested on an eventual charge of—not espionage—but rather conspiracy to commit espionage. Their co-conspirator Morton Sobell also was arrested (while in Mexico during which time Julius was arrested).1 Julius had been implicated by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who said at trial that in September 1945 he’d given Julius a nuclear bomb diagram as well as verbal scientific secrets, typed up by Ethel,2 which presumably were transferred to the Soviet Union.

What upset me at first was my concern for the Rosenbergs’ sons. Michael was seven and Robert was three. Ethel had been arrested two weeks before my ninth birthday, at 1:15 on the afternoon of August 11, 1950, after appearing before a grand jury. Arraigned at 4:00, she was denied parole over the weekend to make arrangements for her boys—despite the Jewish Sabbath, which began four hours later, at sunset.3 Ethel’s brother David was the star witness at trial. She and Julius pled the Fifth, refusing to name names, and were convicted by a jury and sentenced to death by the judge, Irving Kaufman, who gave Sobell thirty years and David fifteen.

Spies Optional

I distinctly remember reading that the scientific information the Rosenbergs supposedly obtained was common knowledge and had appeared in textbooks—in Russian! I can’t confirm that now, but at their April 5, 1951 sentence hearing their attorney Emanuel Bloch “read excerpts from a Yale Law Journal article that held that the Soviet Union would have perfected atomic weapons in due course, with or without the help of spies […],” according to historians Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton.4 The following passage gives a sense of the article’s substance:

While it may be possible to safeguard information against coming into the possession of foreign scientists and thus reduce leaks to countries which may be our enemies in future wars, this cannot be achieved without restricting the free exchange of ideas among our own scientists. Is there, then, a middle way which science and national security can travel together without seriously impeding each other? Many of our leading scientists believe not.5

This was published in 1947.

All-Points Bulletin

A four-page bulletin in support of the Rosenbergs (pictured below), which I hadn’t seen until today, confirms my recollection about the availability of the science. It states that “the government time and time again announced that the ‘secret’ of the A-bomb was no secret,” and that “the plans Greenglass made proved [to be] ‘downright unworkable,’ and ‘made little scientific sense,’ according to Life and Time magazines.”6 I found both those articles today. They’re dated March 26, 1951—just before the Rosenbergs’ conviction on the 29th.

Rosenbergs Circular image

In the Life article, titled “Spy’s Version of the A-Bomb: This is what Sergeant Greenglass had given the Russians in 1945,” the writer states, “At first glance Greenglass’s implosion bomb appears illogical, if not downright unworkable. There seem to be two things wrong with it.”7 Time’s article—“The Greenglass Mechanism”—states that “Greenglass is no scientist (at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute he flunked eight courses out of eight), and some of his testimony made little scientific sense.”8 (The next month, Life published another article, “The Case of the World’s Greatest Secret,” which contends that “even without Greenglass, Russia had more expert and highly placed sources within the international group of physicists working on the bomb.”9)

Finally, the Rosenbergs bulletin quotes the “Smyth Report”—a document commissioned by the Manhattan Project—which was released publicly on August 12, 1945, just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki:

13.2. A weapon has been developed that is potentially destructive beyond the wildest nightmares of the imagination; a weapon so ideally suited to sudden unannounced attack that a country’s major cities might be destroyed overnight by an ostensibly friendly power. This weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius but by the arduous labor of thousands of normal men and women working for the safety of their country. Many of the principles that have been used were well known to the international scientific world in 1940.10

The Big One

On July 21, 1952, just before 5 a.m., I was awakened abruptly. “Why are you shaking the bed?” my sister asked. “I’m not,” I replied. “Look outside!” Bright red and blue flashes lit up the sky. “The Russians are bombing us,” I thought to myself. “It’s an earthquake!” our parents yelled. “Run into the hallway.” But I didn’t believe it. I did as I’d been trained to do: duck and cover. It was pitch black because we’d lost electricity. “Where’s Andrea?” asked my father. “You’re standing on me!” I cried.

That was the Tehachapi earthquake, the strongest in California since San Francisco’s in 1906.

An Open Secret

The Rosenbergs became a cause célèbre after their sentencing, with many luminaries calling for clemency. I especially remember Albert Einstein doing so publicly.11 And I thought it was he who said the nuclear information David Greenglass had given Julius was either well known or worthless.12 But it actually was the chemist Harold Urey, Einstein’s Nobel-winning colleague, who said so in a telegram to President Eisenhower:

Greenglass is supposed to have revealed to the Russians the “secret” of the atomic bomb. Though the information supposed to have been transmitted could have been important, a man of Greenglass’ capacity is wholly incapable of transmitting the physics, chemistry and mathematics of the atomic bomb to anyone.13

That telegram was made public on Friday, June 12, 1953—six days before the Rosenbergs were scheduled to be executed. Although I don’t remember seeing an ad like the one below, which appeared in the L.A. Times on the 16th, I do remember reading about how the sons would be orphaned. I begged my mother to send a telegram to Eisenhower asking him to commute their sentences. (I didn’t know how to do that myself and hadn’t yet started babysitting so I had no extra money.) My mother didn’t even answer me. As I walked away, she just laughed, as if it was a ridiculous thing to ask for. It would have cost about a dollar and sixty cents.14

I went to bed. And I wanted to cry but I didn’t cry about things like that in those days. I pulled the covers over my head and felt sick at heart.

Los Angeles Times Rosenbergs Ad image

This was my coming-of-age moment, at eleven years old. I realized I had to figure out who I was and who I was going to be. I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch people get hurt. I wanted to be better prepared if anything like that happened again.

Observing the Sabbath

The Rosenbergs were killed the next Friday, June 19, 1953. The executions had been stayed a day by the U.S. Supreme Court due to a last-minute appeal by attorney Fyke Farmer. When that appeal failed, the killings were scheduled for 11:00 p.m., but the defense attorneys protested such acts taking place on the Jewish Sabbath. This also worried Judge Kaufman, who moved up the schedule to 8:00, twenty-nine minutes before sunset.

Header image:
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
by Roger Higgins, 1951,
after their sentencing,
altered by David Hughes

Notes
  1. I originally wrote that Sobell was arrested “after fleeing to Mexico.” This is consistent with an overview of Sobell’s memoir, On Doing Time, which states he and his wife went to Mexico because they feared prosecution for perjury for having denied their Communist affiliations while doing defense work (“Sobell, in New Book, Says He and Wife Fled Country to Avoid Perjury,” New York Times, 20 Oct 1974, 45). But an obituary of his then-wife Helen states that the Sobells were vacationing in Mexico to “ponder the future” when their friend Julius was arrested (“Helen Sobell, 84; Activist Fought to Save Lives of Rosenbergs,” Los Angeles Times, 24 Apr 2002, B10). Another obituary states that the Sobells “fled to Mexico […] trying to find passage to Europe but lacking passports” (“Helen L. Sobell, 84, Leader of Effort to Spare Rosenbergs,” New York Times, 27 Apr 2002, A18).
  2. “Atom Bomb Secret Described in Court,” New York Times, 13 Mar 1951, 1.
  3. “Atomic Spy Plot Is Laid To Woman,” New York Times, 12 Aug 1950, 30. At the time, when I was between eight and eleven years old, our family subscribed to the Herald-Examiner, which is not archived online, so I refer to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times did cover the Rosenbergs, but sporadically and not in this detail, which disappoints me. Its article about Ethel’s arrest, despite its title—“Mother of Two Held in Spy Net”—does not mention that her attorney asked at her arraignment that she be paroled in his custody to make arrangements for her two boys (Los Angeles Times, 12 Aug 1950, 1).
  4. Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton. 1983, 1984 [second edition, 1997]. The Rosenberg File, New Haven: Yale University Press, 282.
  5. James R. Newman, Control of Information Relating to Atomic Energy, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 56, No. 5 (May 1947), 772; archived here. In trying to confirm my recollections from nearly seventy years ago I turned to The Rosenberg Letters, edited by son Michael Meeropol who includes the text of his parents’ first petition for executive clemency, which quotes from Newman’s article differently than I do: three paragraphs beginning with the last one on page 773 (The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, New York: Garland Publishing, 1994, lxi–lxii).
  6. “Case is Unprecedented Example of Injustice,” from the bulletin To Secure Justice, n.d. [Truman still was in office], issued by Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, archived by Cornell University.
  7. Life, 26 Mar 1951, 52.
  8. Time, 26 Mar 1951.
  9. Life, 16 Apr 1951, 53, 54.
  10. Henry D. Smyth. 1945. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, Princeton: Princeton University Press, vii, 223; archived here. I quote the entire numbered paragraph, whereas the bulletin reads, “Again, we recall the words of the U.S. government’s Smyth Report on atomic bombs: ‘…the principles that have been used were well known to the international scientific world in 1940.’”
  11. “Einstein Supports Rosenberg Appeal,” New York Times, 13 Jan 1953, 15.
  12. The Rosenbergs’ first petition for executive clemency argues the “lack of value of the information allegedly transmitted” (Meeropol 1994, lx) in greater detail than I do here.
  13. “Urey Asks President To Save Rosenbergs,” New York Times, 13 Jun 1953, 1. “Urey Asks Ike to Hear Him on Rosenberg Case,” Daily Boston Globe (AP), 3. Tellingly, the Times report omits the quotation marks around the word “secret”—and renders it secrets—in Urey’s telegram, altering its meaning so much that I initially omitted that first sentence. Although Urey was teaching at the University of Chicago at the time, the Chicago Tribune ignored the telegram story.
  14. See Prices and Wages by Decade: 1950–1959, University of Missouri Libraries, which points to a Federal Communications Commission report, Western Union Interstate Telegraph Services, adopted 24 Aug 1951. The figure of $1.60 is taken from Table II on page 58.

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