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This Day In History: The Rosenberg Trial Began

March 06, 2017

This day in history, March 6, 1951, the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began in the New York Southern District federal court.

Judge Irving R. Kaufman presided over the espionage prosecution of the couple accused of selling nuclear secrets to the Russians. The Rosenbergs and co-defendant Morton Sobell were defended by the father and son team of Emanuel and Alexander Bloch. The prosecution included the infamous Roy Cohn, best known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

David Greenglass was a machinist at Los Alamos, the same place where the United States developed the atomic bomb. Julius Rosenberg, his brother-in-law, was a member of the American Communist Party and was fired from his government job after they discovered his involvement in the party. According to Greenglass, Rosenberg asked him to pass highly confidential instructions on making atomic weapons to the Soviet Union. These materials were transferred to the Russians by Harry Gold, an acquaintance of Greenglass and the courier of Klaus Fuchs, a German refugee theoretical physicist working for the British mission in the Manhattan Project who had given key documents to the Soviets throughout the war.

The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in September 1949 based on information they had obtained from spies. The only direct evidence of the Rosenberg’s involvement was the confession of Greenglass. The left-wing community believed that the Rosenbergs were prosecuted because of their membership in the Communist Party. Their case became a highly controversial topic.

All of the defendants in the trial were convicted. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death row and Sobell received a 30-year sentence. Greenglass got 15 years for his cooperation. The Rosenbergs were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War.