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Julius Rosenberg
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Julius Rosenberg

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Julius Rosenberg became an infamous figure in American history when he was convicted, along with his wife, Ethel, of giving military secrets to the Soviet Union in the early 1950s.

Who Was Julius Rosenberg?

Julius Rosenberg became interested in politics at an early age, joining the Young Communist League while in his teens. Rosenberg attended City College, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. During World War II, he worked for the U.S. Signal Corps. It was also around this time that he began working as a spy for the Soviet Union. In 1950, he was arrested along with his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, on conspiracy to commit espionage charges. The Rosenbergs were convicted the following year, and were executed on June 19, 1953.

Early Life

Born on May 12, 1918, in New York City, Julius Rosenberg is best known for being convicted of and later put to death for, passing secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The son of Russian immigrants, Rosenberg attended Seward Park High School—the same school that his future wife, Ethel, would attend. According to some reports, Rosenberg originally considered becoming a rabbi. He apparently became more interested in radical politics than religion, however, eventually joining the Young Communist League.

After graduating from high school in 1934, Rosenberg went to City College to study electrical engineering. There, he met Morton Sobell, who would later become involved with Rosenberg in spying for the Soviets.

In 1939, Rosenberg married Ethel Greenglass. The couple shared an interest in the Communist Party. During World War II, Rosenberg went to work for the U.S. Signal Corps. He was dismissed in 1945, after his past affiliation with the Communist Party was discovered.

Atomic Spy Case

During World War II, Rosenberg began to work as an agent for the Soviet Union. He reportedly convinced his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, to gather information for the Soviets. Greenglass, a member of the U.S. Army, was stationed at a base in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and was assigned to work on the Manhattan Project, which focused on the development of the atomic bomb.

In addition to his work with Greenglass, Rosenberg also procured information on how to make an important weapons part called a proximity fuse. He gave this information to his Soviet handler Alexander Feklisov in late 1944. The proximity fuse was used in a weapon that shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960. Francis Gary Powers, the plane's pilot, was captured by the Soviets.

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

Trial and Execution

After the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, the U.S. government began an extensive hunt to find out who had provided them with the knowledge to make such a weapon. The U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service broke the code used by the Soviets to send messages in the mid-1940s. Some of these decrypted messages revealed that Julius Rosenberg, known by the codename "Liberal," was involved with the Soviets.

It was David Greenglass, however, who was the first to be caught in this spying case. He then told authorities about Julius Rosenberg's activities. According to some reports, David Greenglass had initially failed to mention his sister's involvement in espionage, later stating that she had participated as well. Julius Rosenberg was arrested on July 17, 1950, and his wife was taken into custody a few weeks later.

The Rosenbergs were brought to trial the following March, and both proclaimed their innocence. By this time, the U.S. military was engaged in the Korean War, and strong anti-communist sentiments were held nationwide. Julius and Ethel were both convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, and in early April 1951, the couple was sentenced to death. A series of appeals delayed their execution for more than two years. The couple's supporters also requested clemency for the Rosenbergs from presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who both denied to issue a pardon.

On the night of June 19, 1953, Julius Rosenberg was executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Minutes later, his wife died in the same electric chair. The couple left behind two young sons, Michael and Robert.

Continuing Debate

Even after his execution, Julius Rosenberg remained a subject of much speculation. Many, including their two sons, believed both Julius and Ethel were innocent for years. In the mid-1990s, the Venona messages were released to the public, showing that Julius had some involvement with the Soviets. Not long after, Rosenberg's Soviet spy contact, Alexander Feklisov, acknowledged that he had worked with Julius during the 1940s.

In 2008, Rosenberg's college friend, Morton Sobell, publicly admitted that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union. He also provided more details on Julius Rosenberg's activities. This latest revelation convinced the Rosenbergs' children, now known as Michael and Robert Meeropol, that their father had been a spy, but they remain convinced that their mother was only guilty by association.

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