Born in 1918 in New York to Jewish immigrants from Russia. Groomed in the Orthodox Jewish faith to be a rabbi. Attended City College of New York with a degree in Electrical Engineering. While attending the school, became a devout member of the Communist Party. Married Ethel Greenglass in 1939.
Began working for the United States Signal Corp in 1940 as a civilian employee. Believed to have become a spy for the Soviet Union during this period of time, confiding his actions to his wife and seeking her aid with his activities. The Rosenbergs were believed to have been recruited by NKVD agent Gaik Ovakimian.
As he became more involved in espionage activities, Julius Rosenberg stepped back from his Communist Party activities so as not to draw attention to himself. Worked under the control of Soviet spymaster Anatoli Yakovlev, an attaché from the Russian Consulate in New York. Yakovlev instructed Julius to seek to obtain information related to the development of atomic weaponry, specifically the atomic bomb.
Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass was involved in the research taking place in Los Alamos, New Mexico on the atomic bomb. Code-named “the Manhattan Project”, the work involved many of the most respected scientific minds in the world. One of the people involved was Klaus Fuchs, a brilliant physicist from sent over from England.
Julius Rosenberg had begun working as an organizer and recruiter of spies and sought help from Greenglass. He convinced David’s wife, Ruth Greenglass to visit him in New Mexico and obtain classified secrets about the atomic bomb from her husband, explaining that the information would be passed on to the Soviet Union so that the United States ally would be in a position to better defend itself against Nazi Germany. Ruth returned from her visit with names of scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, locations of test sites and descriptions of different experiments being conducted. She passed this information to the Rosenbergs.
In January 1945, while on leave from New Mexico, Greenglass met with Julius and Ethel. He had been a member of the Communist Party for several years already, persuaded to join by his sister Ethel. Emphasizing the importance of his contributions, Julius took a box of Jell-O and tore it in half marking each half in a particular manner. He gave one half to David Greenglass and told him that a new Soviet contact would be arranged for him, recognizable because the contact would possess the other half of the box.
In June 1945, David was approached by Harry Gold, a Soviet agent who was also gathering information at the time from Klaus Fuchs. Gold showed Greenglass the other half of the Jell-O box as his identification. Greenglass gave Gold the documents that he had procured and Gold, in exchange, gave Greenglass $500.00.
In September 1945, Greenglass traveled to New York and met with the Rosenbergs. Here, he gave a detailed description of the Uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the Plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Although he was provided with an escape plan developed by the Soviets that would take him to Moscow by way of Mexico, David decided not to leave the United States. Subsequently, he was arrested on June 15, 1950. He quickly informed the FBI about the Julius Rosenberg and the spy ring that Julius was involved in. In spite of his preparations for the inevitability of arrest (Julius had obtained passport photos and applications for his family), Julius and Ethel did not flee in time (as had other Soviet spies, including Morris and Leona Cohen) and he was arrested on July 17, 1950. Ethel was subsequently arrested on August 11, 1950 and both were charged with espionage, as was Greenglass. Greenglass pled guilty while the Rosenbergs pled not guilty. Also arrested was Morton Sobell, another spy involved.
The Rosenbergs were tried in March of 1951 represented in the U.S. District Federal Court by the noted attorney Emanuel Bloch. Julius took the stand but denied involvement with anything actionable, repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Ethel did much the same. The jury found Ethel, Julius and Sobell guilty of espionage. Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in prison and Greenglass 15, but the judge harshly sentenced both of the Rosenbergs to death, a sentence aggressively sought by the Justice Department. The judge in the case, Irving Kaufman, reasoned that by passing the secrets to the Soviets, they had allowed the Soviet Union to begin building an atomic weapon years faster than it other would have, setting in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead to the Korean War.
The death sentences provoked world-wide criticism and charges of anti-Semitism, despite the fact that Judge Kaufman as well as two of the prosecutors was Jewish. It was believed that Ethel, whose role was much more limited than Julius’ was sentenced to death in order to compel Julius to make a full confession, yet none would be forthcoming. More than 15 appeals to the United States Supreme Court and to President Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were denied and the execution date was set for June 19, 1953.
Julius Rosenberg was executed in the electric chair at the Ossining Prison in upstate New York as was Ethel minutes later. Both maintained their innocence until the end. The Rosenberg case was hotly debated for years, with their innocence championed by their children. In 1995, however, the Venona messages were released, providing conclusive evidence that Julius was undoubtedly involved in espionage. Ethel, although unquestionably aware of Julius efforts, may not have participated sufficiently so as to justify a death sentence.