Ethel Greenglass was born in New York on 28th September, 1915. She attended the Seward High School with her brother, David Greenglass. After taking a short secretarial course, she held a variety of clerical jobs and became an active trade unionist.
In 1939 Ethel married Julius Rosenberg. During the Second World War Julius was employed as a civilian inspector for the Army Signal Corps, but was dismissed in 1945 as a result of allegations that he was a member of the American Communist Party. Rosenberg now opened a small machine shop in Manhattan with Ethel's brother, David Greenglass. However, the business did badly and Greenglass left the partnership.
On 5th September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a KGB intelligence officer based in Canada, defected to the West claiming he had evidence of an Soviet spy ring based in Britain. Gouzenko provided evidence that led to the arrest of 22 local agents and 15 Soviet spies in Canada. Some of this information from Gouzenko resulted in Klaus Fuchs being interviewed by MI5. In 1950 Fuchs, head of the physics department of the British nuclear research centre at Harwell, was arrested and charged with espionage. Fuchs confessed that he had been passing information to the Soviet Union since working on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. However, after repeated interviews with Jim Skardon he eventually confessed on 23rd January 1950 to passing information to the Soviet Union . Six weeks later Fuchs was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The FBI were desperate to discover the names of the spies who had worked with Klaus Fuchs while he had been in America. Elizabeth Bentley, a former member of the American Communist Party, had in 1945 given FBI agents eighty names of people she believed were involved in espionage. At the time it had been impossible to acquire enough information to bring the suspects to court. These people were interviewed again and one of them, Harry Gold, confessed that he had acted as Fuchs's courier. He also named David Greenglass as being a member of the spy ring. In July, 1950, Greenglass was arrested by the FBI and accused of spying for the Soviet Union. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a spy and named Julius Rosenberg as one of his contacts. He denied that his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, had been involved but confessed that his wife, Ruth Greenglass, had been used as a courier.
Julius Rosenberg was arrested but refused to implicate anybody else in spying for the Soviet Union. Joseph McCarthy had just launched his attack on a so-called group of communists based in Washington. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, saw the arrest of Rosenberg as a means of getting good publicity for the FBI. Hoover sent a memorandum to the US attorney general Howard McGrath saying: "There is no question that 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 these matters."
J. Edgar Hoover ordered the arrest of Ethel and her two children were taken into care. Julius and Ethel were put under pressure to incriminate others involved in the spy ring. Neither offered any further information.
Ten days before the start of the trial of the Rosenbergs the FBI re-interviewed David Greenglass. He was offered a deal if he provided information against Ethel Rosenberg. This included a promise not to charge Ruth Greenglass with being a member of the spy ring. Greenglass now changed his story. In his original statement, he said that he handed over atomic information to Julius Rosenberg on a street corner in New York. In his new interview, Greenglass claimed that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenberg's New York flat. In her FBI interview Ruth argued that "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told (Ethel) she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter... and proceeded to type info which David had given to Julius".
The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began on 6th March 1951. David Greenglass was questioned by the chief prosecutor assistant, Roy Cohn. After Greenglass testified to his passing sketches of a high explosive lens mold he provided incriminating detail of the Rosenberg's espionage activity.
Ruth Greenglass testified as to how she was asked by Julius Rosenberg to inquire of her husband, recently stationed in Los Alamos, whether he would be willing to provide information on the progress of the Manhattan Project. She also testified that Ethel Rosenberg spent a January evening in 1945 typing her husband's handwritten notes from Los Alamos.
The Rosenberg's defense attorney, Emanuel Bloch, argued that Greenglass was lying in order to gain revenge because he blamed Rosenberg for their failed business venture and to get a lighter sentence for himself.
In his summation, the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, declared: "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 jury believed the evidence of David Greenglass and Ruth Greenglass and both Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, were found guilty and sentenced to death. A large number of people were shocked by the severity of the sentence as they had not been found guilty of treason. In fact, they had been tried under the terms of the Espionage Act that had been passed in 1917 to deal with the American anti-war movement.
Afterwards it became clear that the government did not believe the Rosenbergs would be executed. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had warned that history would not be kind to a government responsible for orphaning the couple's two young sons on such poor evidence. Rumours began to circulate that the government would be willing to spare the couple's life if they confessed and gave evidence about other American Communist Party spies.
The case created a great deal of controversy in Europe where it was argued that the Rosenbergs were victims of anti-semitism and McCarthyism. Nobel prize-winner, Jean-Paul Sartre, called the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation".
Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg remained on death row for twenty-six months. They both refused to confess and provide evidence against others and they were eventually executed on 19th June, 1953. As one political commentator pointed out, they died because they refused to confess and name others.
Joanna Moorhead later reported: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so." Abe Meeropol and his wife eventually agreed to adopt Michael Rosenberg and Robert Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s... I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted."
In December 2001, Sam Roberts, a New York Times reporter, traced David Greenglass, who was living under an assumed name with Ruth Greenglass. Interviewed on television under a heavy disguise, he acknowledged that his and his wife's court statements had been untrue. "Julius asked me to write up some stuff, which I did, and then he had it typed. I don't know who typed it, frankly. And to this day I can't even remember that the typing took place. But somebody typed it. Now I'm not sure who it was and I don't even think it was done while we were there."
David Greenglass said he had no regrets about his testimony that resulted in the execution of Ethel Rosenberg. "As a spy who turned his family in, I don't care. I sleep very well. I would not sacrifice my wife and my children for my sister... You know, I seldom use the word sister anymore; I've just wiped it out of my mind. My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife... My wife says, 'Look, we're still alive'."
Jon Wiener has argued that both Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were atomic spies: "Two scientists at Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, did convey valuable atomic information to the Soviets; but neither had any connection to the Communist Party... The decoded Soviet cables show that Ethel Rosenberg was not a Soviet spy and that, while Julius had passed non-atomic information to the Soviets, the trial case against them was largely fabricated... Why didn't the FBI go after Hall? Did the government execute the Rosenbergs and let Hall go because it didn't want to admit it had prosecuted the wrong people as atom spies?"