By: Irving Kaufman
Date: April 5, 1951
Source: Kaufman, Irving. Statement Upon Sentencing the Rosenbergs. April 5, 1951. Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/ROS... ; website home page: http://www.law.umkc.edu (accessed June 18, 2003).
About the Author: Irving Kaufman's (1910–1992) judicial career spanned five decades. By the age of twenty, he graduated from Fordham College and Fordham Law School. In 1947, Kaufman had attained a position as a U.S. District Court judge in New York City. In 1951, he presided over his most important and controversial case: United States v. Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, and Morton Sobell. In 1961, Kaufman received an appointment to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served until his retirement in 1987.
In addition to dominating U.S. foreign policy following World War II (1939–1945), the Cold War emphasized the need for vigilant anticommunist activity on the home front. Anticommunists agreed that any Soviet sympathizer must be publicly exposed and punished. Through government hearings and policies designed to reveal the supposed communist menace in the United States, public officials at all levels of government contributed to a growing Red Scare that ultimately destroyed the lives of hundreds of accused "Reds." To dissent against these tribunals often brought the charge of being a communist. In this repressive atmosphere, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of stealing secret engineering information and passing it to the Soviet Union to enable the Soviets to manufacture an atomic bomb.
Julius and Ethel, who were participants in various left-wing groups during the 1930s, met in 1936 and married three years later. Julius worked in the U.S. Army Signal Corps until being expelled in February 1945 on charges that he was a communist. Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who worked on the atomic bomb development project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was interrogated by federal investigators. Shortly thereafter, the investigators developed a conspiracy in which Julius had passed bomb schematics from Greenglass to a Soviet agent in 1944 and 1945.
On July 15, 1950, less than one month after the beginning of the Korean War (1950–1953), Julius was arrested for conspiring with an enemy during wartime. Likely in an attempt to force a confession from Julius, Ethel was arrested on August 11. Within the past year, the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic weapon and Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury concerning his ties to communists during his work at the U.S. State Department. These high-profile events, along with the media's thirst for anticommunist headlines, did not bode well for the Rosenbergs.
The Rosenbergs' trial began on March 6, 1951, to great publicity. Federal prosecutors, including future McCarthy assistant Roy Cohn, focused on the testimony of Greenglass to convince the jury of the defendants' guilt. The Rosenbergs argued their innocence but received little help from their attorney, who provided little examination of possible flaws in the government's case.
One month after the trial's opening, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Judge Irving Kaufman sentenced the pair to death. Kaufman's sentencing statement offers a revealing glimpse into the domestic impact of the Cold War and the extent to which anticommunism influenced the U.S. legal system in the 1950s. He viewed his actions as part of a larger struggle against a Soviet menace, a threat he found no qualms with voicing openly and passionately in court.
Global opposition to the decision, including even some limited protests in the United States, heightened in the months leading up to the execution. Some argued that the Rosenbergs had been tried unfairly, but the bulk of opposition arose over the death sentence imposed for the crime committed. After several appeals failed, Supreme Court justice William Douglas issued a temporary stay of execution on June 17, 1953, one day before the execution date. On June 19, the full Court ended the stay, with three justices dissenting. Nevertheless, later that day, Julius and Ethel were executed via the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison in New York.
Similar to the ongoing debate concerning the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927, historians continue to argue the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The tenuous consensus, if there is one, finds that Julius likely participated in espionage for the Soviet Union, though the full extent of his actions remains the subject of considerable controversy. But, the certainty of Ethel's guilt, who prosecutors argued aided her husband in fairly vague ways, has diminished considerably.
Primary Source: Statement Upon Sentencing the Rosenbergs [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: On April 5, 1951, Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death by electrocution for conspiring to pass secret information concerning the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. As the following document demonstrates, Kaufman explicitly characterizes this death sentence as a measure to defend national security. He concludes by responding directly to arguments that the Rosenbergs should not be executed because of the impact on their two children. He tosses aside this plea and proclaims that the pair's allegiance to communism surpasses their devotion to their family.
Citizens of this country who betray their fellow-countrymen can be under none of the delusions about the benignity of Soviet power that they might have been prior to World War II. The nature of Russian terrorism is now self-evident. Idealism as a rationale dissolves.…I consider your crime worse than murder. Plain deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed. In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim. The immediate family is brought to grief and when justice is meted out the chapter is closed. But in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.
No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day—for the civilian defense activities throughout the nation are aimed at preparing us for an atom bomb attack. Nor can it be said in mitigation of the offense that the power which set the conspiracy in motion and profited from it was not openly hostile to the United States at the time of the conspiracy. If this was your excuse the error of your ways in setting yourselves above our properly constituted authorities and the decision of those authorities not to share the information with Russia must now be obvious.…
In the light of this, I can only conclude that the defendants entered into this most serious conspiracyagainst their country with full realization of its implications.…
The statute of which the defendants at the bar stand convicted is clear. I have previously stated my view that the verdict of guilty was amply justified by the evidence. In the light of the circumstances, I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation's security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.
The evidence indicated quite clearly that Julius Rosenberg was the prime mover in this conspiracy. However, let no mistake be made about the role which his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, played in this conspiracy. Instead of deterring him from pursuing his ignoble cause, she encouraged and assisted the cause. She was a mature woman—almost three years older than her husband and almost seven years older than her younger brother. She was a full-fledged partner in this crime.
Indeed the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected—all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives—it was even greater than their love for their children.
Fried, Richard M. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Oshinsky, David M. A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy. New York: The Free Press, 1983.
Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Markowitz, Norman. "Rosenberg, Ethel, and Julius Rosenberg." American National Biography Online. Available online at http://www.anb.org/articles/07/07–00256.html; website home page: http://www.anb.org/ (accessed June 18, 2003) This website is a subscription-based service that is available for free through most libraries.