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The Rosenbergs On Trial for Atomic Espionage: Summations by the Defense and Prosecution
Digital History ID 1167


Annotation: FBI director J.Edgar Hoover accused Julius and Ethel Rosenberg of the “crime of the century.” The judge in their espionage trial called their crime “worse than murder,” and accused them of causing the Korean War. "I believe,” the judge, Irving Kaufman, said, “your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 - and who knows what millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason . . .."

The Rosenbergs were the only civilians in American history put to death for espionage during peacetime. Were they spies who passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union? Or were they innocent victims, who were executed for their political beliefs in an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria?

It appears that Julius Rosenberg was part of Soviet network that was collecting information on the American atomic bomb program during World War II. It seems likely that he persuaded his brother-in-law, Sgt. David Greenglass, a machinist working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to pass sketches and notes of what he saw there to a Swiss scientist and Soviet courier, Harry Gold. Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement is less clear. It seems likely that she was prosecuted in order to pressure her husband to name

Yet it is also clear that Julius Rosenberg’s information was far less important for the Soviet Union than information secured from others, especially the physicist Klaus Fuchs. The information provided by David Greenglass may have collaborated what the Soviets had already learned from other sources.

The trial itself was marred by collusion between the judge, the FBI, and the prosecution. Because the Soviet Union had been an ally of the United States during World War II, the Rosenbergs were not accused to spying, but rather of conspiring to commit espionage.

The story has an especially ugly conclusion. The executions took place at Sing Sing prison. Ethel Rosenberg, the mother of two young children, was given three successive shocks of high voltage electricity, which failed to kill her. She only died after being administrated two more shocks.

Document: Emanual Block for the Defense

The fear that an impartial jury could not be secured was particularly important in this type of case. Now, all of you are New Yorkers or you come from the environs of New York. We are a pretty sophisticated people. People can't put thing over on us very easily. We are fairly wise in the ways of the world and the way s of people and we all know that there is not a person in this world who hasn't some prejudice, and you would be inhuman if you didn't have some prejudice. But we ask you now as we asked you before, please don't decide this case because you may have some bias or some prejudice against some political philosophy.

If you want to convict these defendants because you think that they are Communists and you don't like communism and you don't like any member of the Communist Party, then, ladies and gentlemen, I can sit down now and there is absolutely no use in my talking. There was no use in going through this whole rigmarole of a three weeks' trial. That is not the crime.

But believe me, ladies and gentlemen, I am not here, other defense counsel are not here as attorneys for the Communist Party and we are not here as attorneys for the Soviet Union. I can only speak for myself and my father. We are representing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two American citizens, who come to you as American citizens, charged with a specific crime, and ask you to judge them the way you would want to be judged if you were sitting over there before twelve other jurors....

Now, let us take Dave Greenglass. This didn't come out of my mouth. This came out of his mouth. Is he a self-confessed spy? Is there any doubt in any of your minds that Dave Greenglass is a self-confessed espionage agent? He characterized himself that way. What did this man do? He took an oath when he entered the Army of the United States. He didn't even remember what the oath was. That is how seriously he took it. But, in substance, he swore to support our country. Is there any doubt in your mind that he violated that oath? Is there any doubt in your mind that he disgraced the uniform of every soldier in the United States by his actions? Do you know what that man did? He was assigned to one of the most important secret projects in this country, and by his own statements, by his own admissions, he told you that he stole information out of there and gave it to strangers, and that it was going to the Soviet Government. Now, that is undisputed. I would like Mr. Saypol or anybody who is going to sum upon the part of the Government to refute that. Is there any doubt in your mind about that?

You know, before I summed up, I wanted to go to a dictionary and I wanted to find a word that could describe a Dave Greenglass. I couldn't find it, because I don't think that there is a word in the English vocabulary or in the dictionary of any civilization which can describe a character like Dave Greenglass.

But one thing I think you do know, that any man who will testify against his own blood and flesh, his own sister, is repulsive, is revolting, who violates every code that any civilization has ever lived by. He is the lowest of the lowest animals that I have ever seen, and if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that he is lowest than the lowest animal that you have ever seen.

This is not a man; this is an animal. And how he got up there, and how he got up there. Did you look at him? I know you did; you watched him; all your eyes were fastened on him, just as people are fascinated by horror; and he smirked and he smiled and I asked him a question, so that it would be in the cold printed record, "Are you aware of your smile?" And do you know the answer I got? Do you remember it? "Not very." Listen to that answer, "Not very."

Well, maybe some people enjoy funerals; maybe some people enjoy lynchings, but I wonder whether in anything that you have read or in anything that you have experienced you have ever come across a man, who comes round to bury his own sister and smiles.

Tell me, is this the kind of a man you are going to believe? God Almighty, if ever a witness discredited himself on a stand, he did. What kind of a man can be disbelieve if we are going to believe Dave Greenglass? What is the sense of having witness chairs? What is the sense of having juries subject witnesses' testimony to scrutiny and analysis? Is that the kind of a man that you would believe in your own life or would you punch him in the nose and throw him out and have nothing to do with him because he is a low rebel? Come on, be honest with yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, is that the kind of testimony that you are going to accept?

And he was arrogant; he was arrogant. He felt he had the Government of the United States behind him. He had a right to be arrogant; he had a right to be arrogant, because I want to say right now that the Greenglasses put it all over the FBI and put it all over Mr. Saypol's staff, and I submit that they are smarter than the whole bunch. They sold them a bill of goods. Every man sitting over here is an honest man. The FBI representatives, Mr. Say pol and his staff, every man of them, they are doing their duty, but you know, even the smartest of us can be tricked, and do you want me to show you how they were tricked?....

Ruth Greenglass admitted here that she was in this conspiracy. Is there any doubt about that? Is there any doubt that in the middle of November she came out to Albuquerque and tried to induce her husband to sell secrets? Is there any doubt that she grabbed Gold's money and deposited it in the bank? Is thee any doubt that she gained by the illegal fruits of her husband's venture? Is there any doubt that she knew all about it?

Ruth Greenglass has never been arrested. She has never been indicted. She has never been sent to jail. Doesn't that strike you as strange? If this is such a terrible crime, and I tell you , gentlemen, it is a serious crime, a most serious crime, don't you think that the Greenglasses put it over the Government when Ruth Greenglass wasn't even indicted? Something peculiar, and I am not attributing anything wrong to the FBI or the prosecutor's staff, and let us get that straight right now. With all due respect I think the Greenglasses sold you a bill of goods. . . .

Ruth Greenglass got out. She walked out and put her sister-in-law in. It was a deal that the Greenglasses planned and made for themselves, and they made it--they may not have made it by express agreement with the Government, and I don't think the Government would countenance anything like that, but tell me do actions speak louder than words? Is the proof of the pudding in the eating? Is Ruth Greenglass a defendant here?

And, ladies and gentlemen, this explains why Dave Greenglass was willing to bury his sister and his brother-in-law to save his wife. Yes, there were other factors of course. He had a grudge against Rosenberg because he felt that Rosenberg had gyped him out of a thousand dollars, but that would not have been enough to explain Greenglass' act.

Not only are the Greenglasses self-confessed spies but they were mercenary spies. They spied for money. . . . They would do anything for money. They would murder people for money. They are trying to murder people for money.

Now I will tell you what the plot of the Greenglasses was here. Two-fold. Greenglass figured that if he couldn't put the finger on somebody, he would lessen his own punishment; and he had to put the finger on somebody who was here in the United States, and he had to put the finger on somebody who was a clay pigeon; and that man sitting there (indicating defendant Julius Rosenberg) is a clay pigeon, because he was fired from the Government service, because it was alleged that he was a member of the Community party; and he was the guy who was very open and expressed his views about the United States and the Soviet Union, which may have been all right when the Soviet Union and the United States were Allies, but today it is anathema; and you heard him testify, and he said it openly here, he didn't try to conceal it, "Yes, I thought that the Soviet did a lot for the underdog and they did a lot of reconstruction work and he went on to recount one or two other things that he felt should be to their credit. Well, that is the kind of philosophy that was expounded in the New Deal days by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and by these gentlemen of the press, sitting here. But, boy, when you do that today, it is different; and in 1950 we had the same kind of climate that we have now. This man was a clay pigeon....

What kind of man was [Julius Rosenberg]? Is this a Costello? Is this your concept of a racketeer? Is this your concept of a pay-off man, a man who lived in a Knickerbocker Village apartment at $45 a month, and finally his rent was raised after many, many years, was raised to $51 a month, whose wife did scrubbing and cleaning and who had two kids, and they had a terrible struggle and they had to go and borrow money, and he scraped together $1,000 in May 1950 to buy stock in the Pitt Machine Company, and he had to give notes for $4,500 for the balance of the purchase price; tell me, does that square with your idea of a pay-off man?

Now, look at that terrible spy (pointing to the defendant Ethel Rosenberg). Look at that terrible spy and compare her to Ruthie Greenglass, who came here all dolled up, arrogant, smart, cute, eager-beaver, like a phonograph record.

[Y]ou will find that [Ruth Greenglass] repeated, almost word for word, if not word for word, the whole business; and she wants you to believe that she didn't rehearse this story with Dave and Dave Greenglass didn't rehearse this story with her. Cute, cute. Maybe some of you are more acute in sizing up women than others, but if Ruth Greenglass is not the embodiment of evil, I would like to know what person is? Is Ruth Greenglass the kind of person that can be trusted? Let me tell you something, she is so acute that she wriggled out of this. That is how smart she is. She wriggled out of it. She squirmed through that needle's eye. Well, if she can fool the FBI, I do hope that she won't be able to fool you.....

[Ethel] wanted to help [David Greenglass]. That is human. Can we condemn every member of a family who wants to stick to another member of the family? What is so terrible? Wouldn't you do it, and wouldn't I do it? And here is a man who had had a fight with Davey to get his stock. And when Davey came around and said he was in trouble, like a schnook--that is a Jewish word; it means this--I am trying to get the exact translation--well, a very easygoing fool. He goes to his doctor to try to get a false certification for Davey....

[Gold] got his 30-year bit and he told the truth. That is why I didn't cross-examine him....

Bentley is a professional anti-Communist. She makes money on it. I am sure the Government doesn't pay her any money. She writes books, she lectures. This is her business; her business is testifying. Now, what did she say? Let us hear what this great authority said, this intellectual moll, this Puritan little girl from New England. Did she ever meet Rosenberg? She was a top gal. She gave orders, she says to Earl Browder....

Now, for God's sake, you are intelligent people. Do you believe, or have you ever heard that a Government cites somebody without making public the citation: And do you believe that this little guy (indicating), with a little business, this terribly wealthy man who hasn't got a dime to his name, that he was cited by the Russian Government? If you believe that, for God's sake, convict the Rosenbergs and let's get an end to this case; but if you don't believe it, then take a lot of the other things with salt that these Greenglasses said in their anxiety to bury the Rosenbergs....

Now is want to conclude very simply . I told you at the beginning and I tell you now that we don't come to you in this kind of charge looking for sympathy. Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, there is plenty of room here for a lawyer to try to harp on your emotions, especially so far as Ethel Rosenberg is concerned; a mother, she has two children, her husband is under arrest. No, because if these people are guilty of that crime they deserve no sympathy. No, we want you to decide this case with your minds, not with your hearts, with your minds. . . . I say that if you do that, you can come to no other conclusion than that these defendants are innocent and you are going to show to the world that in America a man can get a fair trial.

Irving Saypol for the Prosecution

All of the partners and employees of the firm do not do the same thing at the same time. While one partner talks to a customer, another may be negotiating with another prospect. . . . Each act by each party, by each employer in the court of business is an act performed for the benefit of the firm and for the benefit of his fellows. Imagine a wheel. In the center of the wheel, Rosenberg, reaching out like the tentacles of an octopus. Rosenberg to David Greenglass. Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth Greenglass; Rosenberg to Harry Gold; Rosenberg, Yakovlev. Information obtained, supplied. Rosenberg, Sobell, Elitcher--always the objective in the center coming from all the legs, all the tentacles going to the one center, solely for the one object: The benefit of Soviet Russia. The sources, Government sources, Los Alamos, atomic information. Sobell, Elitcher, information from the Navy, relating particularly to gunfire control; always secret, always classified, always of advantage to a foreign government. The association of Rosenberg and Sobell began at City College, and it continues until today. They have been held together by one common bond: Their mutual devotion to communism and the Soviet Union, and their membership in this conspiracy to commit espionage for that Soviet Union. That is why their classmate, Max Elitcher, was asked to join the Young Communist League when they were at college. That is why Sobell and Rosenberg joined in the concerted action to recruit Elitcher into their Soviet espionage ring. While Sobell was chairman of his Communist Party unit in Washington, delivering to its members weekly directives concerning worship of the Soviet Union, Rosenberg was working his way up in the Communist Party underground.

Rosenberg told Elitcher at Manny Wolf's that night in 1948, just as Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg had told Ruth Greenglass that night in November 1944, how he had realized the ambition of his life. He told them how he had gone from one Communist Party contact to another until he had achieved the coveted status of a Communist Party espionage agent.

There is no condonation for the activities of the Greenglasses in 1944 and 1945. David Greenglass is a confessed member of the Rosenberg espionage ring. . . By his own plea of guilty, by his own voluntary act, without weaving a web of lies in an attempt to deceive you, he has made himself liable to the death penalty, too. The spurious defense that Greenglass, or the Greenglasses, in order to satisfy a business grudge, a business dispute against the Rosenbergs, has concocted a story about espionage, making himself liable to the capital penalty by his plea of guilty because of the business disagreement, is as much of a concoction as the story of the defendants that Greenglass went to his worst enemy, Julius Rosenberg, for help when he wanted to flee the country.

Greenglass' relations toward his older sister, Ethel, and her husband, Julius, were such that he was willing prey to their Communistic propaganda. He committed this crime because they persuaded him to do it.

As far as Gold is concerned, the die has already been cast. The charges against him have already been disposed of. He has been sentenced to thirty years, the maximum term of imprisonment. He can gain nothing from testifying as he did in this courtroom except the initial relief, the moral satisfaction in his soul of having told the truth and tried to make amends. Harry Gold, who furnished the absolute corroboration of the testimony of the Greenglasses, forged the necessary link in the chain that points indisputably to the guilt of the Rosenbergs. Not one questions was asked of him by any defendant on cross-examination.

The atom bomb secrets stolen by Greenglass at the instigation of the Rosenbergs were delivered by Harry Gold right into the hands of an official representative of the Soviet Union. The veracity of David and Ruth Greenglass and of Harry Gold is established by documentary evidence and cannot be contradicted. You have in evidence before you the registration card from the Hotel Hilton in Albuquerque, which shows that he was registered there on June 3, 1945. You have before you the transcript of the record of the Albuquerque bank, showing that on the morning of June 4, 1945, Ruth Greenglass opened a bank account in Albuquerque and made an initial deposit of $400 in cash--just as she and David testified they did here on the witness stand right before you.

This description of the atom bomb, destined for delivery to the Soviet Union, was typed up by the defendant Ethel Rosenberg that afternoon at her apartment at 10 Monroe Street. Just so had she on countless other occasions sat at that typewriter and struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.

The truth was beginning to catch up with the Rosenbergs and their crowd. The passport photos of the Greenglass family were taken at Rosenberg's insistence. Rosenberg asked for five sets, but Greenglass had six sets taken. The five sets are now undoubtedly in the hands of Rosenberg's Soviet partners, but the sixth set is here, in this courtroom, before you as Government's Exhibits 9-A and 9-B.

We know what Julius Rosenberg told Ruth Greenglass on that occasion and what he and his wife told Ruth and David on every occasion when they were together. The Rosenbergs told them to go and commit espionage in the interests of communism in the Soviet Union, just as Rosenberg and Sobell told that to Elitcher and countless others, and that is what happened.

You heard the testimony about what was done to that console table, so that it was used for microfilming. How strange, on the one hand, the testimony from the Greenglasses that that was a present from the Soviet, the testimony from the Rosenbergs that they paid $221 for it in 1944 or 1945, when furniture was scarce, at Macy's; and then a disinterested woman (Mrs. Evelyn Cox), even in the face of adroit cross-examination, resolute in her determination, told the truth. She saw the table. Mrs. Rosenberg told her it was a wedding present from a friend of Julius, whom they hadn't seen for many years. And this remarkably strange behavior taking the best piece of furniture in the house and storing it in the closet--why did they have to hide it?

Yesterday you heard Mr. Schneider identify both of them as those who had come to him at his place of business on a Saturday in the middle of June 1950, with their children. He told us nothing of snapshots, taken for amusement of precocious children. He told us of an order for three dozen passport photos for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their family, who told him that they were going to France.

But it is these very witnesses whom they now attack that they themselves chose as their partners in crime. While Rosenberg attacks the Greenglasses today, seven years ago it was the Rosenbergs who took this same David Greenglass and set him to betraying his country. It was Sobell at Rosenberg's instigation who recruited Elitcher. The only ones with knowledge about the activities of these defendants are those who participated in the same activities. These witnesses were not y our choice, nor were they mine, these witnesses, Elitcher and the Greenglasses. They were selected by thee defendants as their associates and partners in crime.

We have not only the testimony of Ruth and David Greenglass about Rosenberg's espionage activities. We have Elitcher's, a man who never saw Ruth and David Greenglass or Harry Gold. Elitcher has placed the brand of Soviet spy on Rosenberg. You have the documentary evidence of Gold's registration card, the bank account, the wrapping paper, the testimony of Dr. Bernhardt, Dorothy Abel, Evelyn Cox, of Schneider, who took the passport pictures. That is why the evidence as to the Rosenbergs' guilt is incontrovertible. Their guilt is established by the proof not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any conceivable doubt.

These defendants seek to escape the consequences of their own acts by hiding behind straw men. . . . Greenglass is a confessed spy and Elitcher has admitted that some years ago he did not disclose his Communist Party membership in an application; but these men under the greatest stress have stood up here and disclosed the truth about their past activities. They have not compounded their sins by trying to lie to you here in this courtroom. The question here is not the fate, or present or future, of other people. The question here is the guilt of these three defendants named by the grand jury here on trial before you in this courtroom. That is the single issue and the evidence on that issue is overwhelming.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard statements of defense counsel here concerning the injection of communism in this case. I repeat again, these defendants are not on trial for being Communists. I don't want you to convict them merely because of their Communist activity. Communism, as the testimony has demonstrated, has a very definite place in this case because it is the Communist ideology which teaches worship and devotion to the Soviet Union over our own government. It has provided the motive and inspiration for these people to do the terrible things which have been proven against them. It is this adherence and devotion which makes clear their intent and motivation in carrying out this conspiracy to commit espionage. We ask you to sustain the charge of the grand jury in a verdict of guilty against each of these three defendants, on one basis and one basis alone; the evidence produced in this courtroom as to their guilt oft he crime of conspiracy to commit espionage; that proof as to each defendant has been overwhelming. The guilt of each one has been established beyond any peradventure of doubt.

I am a firm believer in the American jury system. I have confidence in the perception of the jury of twelve intelligent American citizens. I am confident that you will render the only verdict possible on the evidence presented before you in this courtroom--that of guilty as charged by the grand jury as to each of these three defendants.

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