Today In Labor History: Julius And Ethel Rosenberg Convicted In Cold War Show Trial
On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for passing classified information to the Soviet Union. A few days later they were sentenced to death. This famous case has of course received a tremendous amount of attention; for this series, it’s useful both as a window into the legacy of the New York-based and largely Jewish radicalism that shaped much of the left in the first half of the 20th century, as well as to place them in the context of the broader attack on the left wing of the labor movement during these years.
Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came out of the leftist Jewish tradition extending back into the late 19th century. He was born in New York in 1918, she also in New York in 1915. They both became members of the Young Communist League in the mid-1930s, as was far from uncommon in those days where democracy seemed to be dying and communism looked like the only hope for the left. They married in 1939.
Both had significant union backgrounds. In 1932, Ethel led a strike at a shipping company where she worked, fighting for better wages. In 1935, she led another strike that included the blocking of the entrance to her company’s warehouse by 150 women workers. She was fired, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered she be rehired. All of this helped create the Ladies’ Apparel Shipping Clerks Union.
Julius studied to be an engineer, but came from a staunchly union background. His father was a union representative in the sweatshops and apparel industry of New York. They were committed communists who sought to extend the revolution of workers’ rights under a socialist government to the United States. These were the children of the Clara Lemlich and Triangle Fire generation. They brought that same passion and organizing for workers’ rights to a new generation, one shaped by the rise and success of the Soviet Union.
During World War II, Julius worked at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories until it was revealed he was a communist. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos. Julius ran a spy ring for the Soviet Union, believing that military information needed to be shared to ensure peace after the war. He and his comrades managed to take photographic copies of documents concerning a wide number of major military projects, including a complete set of prints and production designs for the first jet planes. Greenglass provided some information from his position at Los Alamos, though as a machinist, he did not have access to much of the good stuff.
After the war, Julius and Greenglass ran their own machinist shop briefly, but it fell apart, causing some tension between the two men. When Klaus Fuchs got busted for spying for the Soviet Union, he named names to hopefully reduce his sentence. This led the government to David Greenglass. When Greenglass was caught, he then testified that it was Julius Rosenberg who introduced him to the spy ring. Rosenberg was arrested. So was Ethel, although there was no evidence she was involved. The government hoped to use her to pressure Julius into revealing everything. She denied everything on the witness stand, including any knowledge of her husband or brother’s activities. She probably lied about that. But the government didn’t have any evidence to convict her. This did not stop them. After all, the co-prosecuting attorney was one Roy Cohn, who later bragged he was responsible for them getting the death penalty.
The prosecution went full atomic scare, claiming Greenglass had given the Soviets the secret to the atomic bomb, a claim the evidence doesn't support. Atomic scientists said Greenglass’s supposed sketch of an atomic bomb was worthless and Greenglass provided highly inconsistent testimony. The trial was a complete farce, despite their likely guilt. Both Julius and Ethel were convicted and were sentenced to death. They were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel’s execution was botched; the executioners had to keep applying shocks through the electric chair. By the time she was declared dead, smoke was rising from her head.
Despite this famous case, though, the communists in the labor movement were hardly a threat to the United States. Were there communists in the labor movement? Of course there were. They had played critical roles in the CIO’s organizing campaigns. By the late 1940s, the CIO was ready to get rid of these people for a number of reasons. There’s no question now, after decades of leftist historians denying it, that the CP-led unions and their organizers were following Moscow’s dictates, often alienating non-communist workers who could see through their inconsistency and constantly shifting positions to conform with the Soviets like a thin soup. The information coming out of Soviet archives when they became open to western research after the USSR’s demise in 1991 proved it.
There’s also no question that the communist issue also split unions, with non-communist members writing to the House Un-American Activities Committee to request investigations of the communists in their unions. The question of communism in the labor movement during the postwar period is much harder and thornier than either anti-communist zealots or the modern left want to admit. Kicking out the communists was both an anti-democratic and anti-left move — and it was probably necessary for the industrial unions to survive the Cold War. It took away many of the best organizers, but those organizers had often worn out their welcome anyway and I am hesitant of arguments often made that this doomed the labor movement to its staid state of the post-1955 merger of the AFL and CIO. On the other hand, the loss of those good organizers was not replaced with some new generation of hard-core organizers, so organizing fell off considerably after around 1950.
In any case, most of these communists in the labor movement, including the Rosenbergs, genuinely thought they were doing the best thing they could for humanity in a global movement that would bring equality and freedom to the masses. You might argue that after 1939, only someone blind to reality could believe that. And maybe you are right. But I think when looking at people like the Rosenbergs, or the communists in the midcentury left generally, it’s useful to think of them in their own terms. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. But it does mean that the same desire for freedom that led them to create the modern labor movement and the greatest victories in the history of American workers is the same that led them to give secrets to Joseph Stalin. Such were the complexities of the time. We need to recognize those things were by no means inconsistent for leftist activists of the day.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Bert Cochran,Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions
Landon R.Y. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left
Sam Roberts, The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case
Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy
Lori Clune, Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World
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Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).