Trials of the Century: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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NBC Nightly News
Jack Ford
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NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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As part of a series called "Trials Of The Century," NBC looks at the spy case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Russians.



"Trials of the Century: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg." Jack Ford, correspondent. NBC Nightly News. NBCUniversal Media. 25 Apr. 1999. NBC Learn. Web. 21 January 2015.


Ford, J. (Reporter). (1999, April 25). Trials of the Century: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. [Television series episode]. NBC Nightly News. Retrieved from


"Trials of the Century: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" NBC Nightly News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 04/25/1999. Accessed Wed Jan 21 2015 from NBC Learn:


Trials Of The Century: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

JACK FORD, co-host:

This morning we continue our series, TRIALS OF THE CENTURY, with the spy case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Americans enjoyed a period of tremendous growth and optimism in the post World War II years, but it was also a time of great fear of the Soviet Union abroad and of suspected communists at home. And that fear rose, in part, from the ashes of our nation's greatest triumph.

OFF-SCREEN VOICE: (From file footage) Two, one.

FORD: July 16th, 1945. The first atomic bomb is tested in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Manhattan Project director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, later recalled his thoughts at that historic moment.

Mr. J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: (From file footage) I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

FORD: Less than a month later, atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, effectively ending the Second World War.

The United States was now the world's only superpower, sole owner of the ultimate weapon. But not for long. Four years later, on a day The New York Times said the Cold War appeared to be easing, The Russians dramatically raised the stakes when they exploded an atomic bomb. Ronald Radosh is the co-author of "The Rosenberg File."

Mr. RONALD RADOSH ("The Rosenberg File"): Only the United States had this locked-in secret to the greatest military weapon in history that no other power could get it. Especially the Soviet Union. Now, as it turned out, the Soviets got everything directly from their espionage at Los Alamos.

FORD: Los Alamos, home to the thousands of scientists who had developed the bomb, became the focus of an international investigation. It quickly centered on a soldier stationed there, David Greenglass. Greenglass said he had been recruited by his brother-in-law, a man who allegedly headed a New York-based network of spies for the Soviets. His name was Julius Rosenberg. In July, 1950, FBI agents arrested Rosenberg at his New York apartment. His wife, Ethel, was arrested a few weeks later as she left a grand jury hearing. The charge was conspiracy to commit espionage.

The trial began on a cold and gray Tuesday, March 6th, 1951, here, in this very courtroom, at the federal courthouse in Foley Square, New York City. Thirty-two-year-old Julius Rosenberg and his 35-year-old wife, Ethel, stood accused of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb for the Russians. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called it the "Crime of the Century." Morton Sobell, a friend from college, was tried with the Rosenbergs as a co-conspirator. And David Greenglass was one of the first witnesses called for the prosecution.

Mr. RADOSH: Greenglass was arrested. At first, he tried to protect the members of his family. But within a day, he confessed and worked out a deal for himself.

FORD: He agreed to testify against his sister and brother-in-law in exchange for leniency for himself and his wife, Ruth.

Mr. RADOSH: David Greenglass presented sketches from the shop he was working on at Los Alamos--that he redrew from memory of the so-called `lens mold' of the bomb that would describe the process of implosion used to construct the first atomic bomb. Now, the defense argued that these were very primitive sketches. But what we now know, any good physicist looking at those sketches could see right away that this was a process for implosion...

FORD: But the story the press and public seized on sounded like something straight out of a spy novel. Greenglass testified that at dinner one night in 1945, Julius cut a Jell-O box, much like this one, in two, and gave one half to Ruth Greenglass to be used as a sign. Months later in New Mexico, a courier showed up at the Greenglass apartment to pick up some documents. To identify himself, he presented the matching half of the Jell-O box and said, `I come from Julius.'

Mr. RADOSH: When the court heard this, this confirmed the involvement of the Rosenbergs in the conspiracy and confirmed to the jury and to the nation that there was espionage going on.

FORD: Defense attorney Alan Dershowitz says the Rosenbergs' lawyer,

Emanuel Bloch, was completely overmatched.

Mr. ALAN DERSHOWITZ: A labor lawyer who had no experience and no knowledge and was an ideologue, a communist ideologue to defend them. He didn't know the first thing about how to defend a criminal case.

FORD: The case against Ethel Rosenberg was considered weak. David and

Ruth Greenglass testified that she attended meetings, helped to recruit spies. But the most compelling testimony linking her to the conspiracy charge was that she took her brother's handwritten notes detailing top-secret information about the atomic bomb and typed them up for Julius. On March 21st, after just two weeks, prosecutors Irving Saypol and Roy Cohn rested the government's case. The defense called only two witnesses: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Mr. RADOSH: And their testimony was, to say the least, not convincing.

FORD: So, on the witness stand, when they were asked--cert—certain questions they answered, but when they were asked whether they were members of the Communist Party...

Mr. RADOSH: They refused to answer...

FORD: ...refused to answer.

Mr. RADOSH: ...on the grounds of their Fifth Amendment rights. This was a death penalty case. They were being charged with what amounted to treasonous activities against the United States, and here they were not answering questions about their political views.

FORD: The trial took less than three weeks. The jury deliberated for about seven hours. The verdict for all three defendants: guilty of all charges.

One week later, Morton Sobell, who never testified, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Were you surprised when the jury came back and found not only Julius and Ethel Rosenberg guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, but found you guilty also?

Mr. MORTON SOBELL: No, I wasn't. I wasn't.

FORD: Why not?

Mr. SOBELL: Because the government had presented a--a--a--a--a real case. The perjury that was committed in the government's case was convincing.

FORD: Judge Kaufmann, saying the Rosenbergs bore responsibility for the millions who might die in an atomic war, sentenced them to die in the electric chair. Last-minute appeals failed.

Mr. JOHN CAMERON SWAYZE (Camel News Caravan): (From file footage) They will be executed tonight, probably within the next half-hour, the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair.

FORD: The Rosenbergs' sons, six-year-old Robert and 10-year-old Michael, visited their parents shortly before the executions. Robert, who later took the name of his adoptive parents, now heads the Rosenberg fund for children.

Mr. ROBERT MEEROPOL (Rosenbergs' Son): My parents were executed for a crime the government knew they did not commit. The government's justification for executing them was that they stole the secret of the atomic bomb. The evidence is now that they never stole the secret of the atomic bomb. Plus the overwhelming evidence that my mother never did anything.

FORD: Alan Dershowitz agrees, in part.

Mr. DERSHOWITZ: The prosecutors knew for sure that Julius Rosenberg was a spy. They knew for sure because they had, over years, wiretaps to an embassy. This was told to me personally by Roy Cohn, shortly before his death. But they couldn't use that information. So they decided essentially to frame a guilty man for a crime that he did commit.

Mr. DAVID BRINKLEY (NBC News): (From file footage) The president and the attorney general were standing by to the last, in case the Rosenbergs decided at the last minute they wanted to talk.

Mr. DERSHOWITZ: He was given an opportunity to save his life and his wife's by naming names. And he wouldn't do it. And they had to carry through with their threat they thought. And so they murdered his wife.

It was premeditated first-degree murder of an innocent woman.

FORD: June 19th, 1953, beginning at 8:00 PM, first Julius, then Ethel

Rosenberg were executed. In 1995, the release of the so-called "Venona

Transcripts"--the CIA project that broke encoded telegrams between the

Soviets and their Western-based agents--confirmed for many the guilt of

Julius Rosenberg. They included telegrams to a spy, code-named

"Liberal," who was later identified by government officials as Rosenberg.

Mr. MEEROPOL: These same agencies involved in collecting this material were also involved in killing my parents. So they had a motive, and they certainly had the means and opportunity to manipulate this data.

FORD: Do you now believe that Julius Rosenberg was in fact a spy?

Mr. RADOSH: Julius Rosenberg was undoubtedly a Soviet agent.

FORD: Was Ethel Rosenberg a spy?

Mr. RADOSH: No. But what David Greenglass said to me is--he shrugged his shoulders and he said, “It was either my sister or my wife.”

FORD: David Greenglass served 10 years in prison. Morton Sobell ended up serving 18 before his release. And for many, the debate continues.