Without a doubt the Rosenberg case was the wedge issue of the McCarthy years. To this day, people who defend Ethel Rosenberg are called fellow travelers. Nevertheless the issue now does not concern one’s ideological sympathies, or whether the Communist Party in the United States during the early 1950s threatened the American way of life. The issue is whether government used its prosecutorial power properly in the case it made against Ethel Rosenberg.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing in New York on June 19, 1953. The government executed Julius for espionage. The same government executed Ethel under the false claim that she was a full collaborator with her husband.
It does not matter if Ethel knew about her husband’s activities. A spouse is not obligated to turn a partner in. I would never turn my wife over to the government for execution, no matter what. That judgment and moral constraint on my part should not subject me to execution as well.
So the question is not, how much did Ethel Rosenberg know, or how much does her knowledge count as participation in her husband’s activities. The question is whether the government was justified in executing her. For people who oppose the death penalty under any circumstances, as I do, the answer is no. I maintain that even people who favor the death penalty cannot support that sentence in Ethel’s case. To support the death penalty in Ethel’s case, you have to suppose, from the start, that spouses must report their partners’ activities to the law.
That obligation does not hold. It is not written into espionage law, or into any other law. Ethel Rosenberg did in fact call the government’s bluff on this matter. She refused to testify against her husband, and for that she deserves praise from historians and all the rest of us.
Read J. Edgar Hoover’s words to Attorney General Howard McGrath, two days after Julius Rosenberg’s arrest in July 1950:
“There is no question . . . if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities it would be possible to proceed against other individuals . . . proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in this matter.”
When Ethel refused to cooperate, the FBI threatened her brother, David Greenglass and his family. Greenglass folded, and his sister went to the electric chair, along with her husband, in June 1953.