Aug. 11, 2022

The Arrest of Ethel Rosenberg

The Arrest of Ethel Rosenberg

August 11, 1950. The alleged traitor Ethel Rosenberg is arrested on allegations of spying for the Soviet Union.


Cold Open

It’s August 11th, 1950, in New York City.

It’s a stifling day in Manhattan. The asphalt cooks. Trees droop in the heat. And sun gleams harshly off the windows of skyscrapers.

At Foley Square, the doors to the United States Federal Courthouse swing open… and a woman in a sleeveless white summer dress hurries outside.

32-year-old Ethel Rosenberg is soon sweating in the heat. But she’s just glad to be out of the building behind her. The marble halls of the Federal Courthouse were cool enough, but giving evidence before a Grand Jury is not Ethel’s idea of a relaxing afternoon.

All she wants now is to get home to her children.

Ethel crosses the courthouse portico, with its grand stone columns, and clips down the steps toward the street. There she hurries across the square, dodging traffic as she heads for a nearby subway station.

But Ethel hasn’t gone far when she sees a man in a dark suit emerged from among the trees in the square. He’s moving to cut her off. So, Ethel quickens her pace.

But her pursuer catches up and steps into her path. At the same time, another suited man appears from behind and grabs Ethel by the arm. Before she can resist, one of the men in suites tells her they’re from the FBI – and she’s under arrest. Then, the two men turn Ethel around, march her across the road, and back into the building she just left.

This is the last moment Ethel Rosenberg will ever be a free woman. Her husband Julius has already been charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Ethel just gave testimony to the grand jury for his case. But Ethel didn’t expect that she too would be arrested.

By the summer of 1950, America is in the grip of a ‘Red Scare’. Across the world, Communism is on the rise. In China, the revolutionary Mao Zedong has seized power. Communist North Korea has just invaded South Korea. And the Soviet Union has recently detonated its first atomic bomb.

What’s even more frightening to many Americans is the so-called ‘enemy within’. There’s widespread fear that Communists have infiltrated American society, that there are traitors lying in wait, ready to turn on their fellow citizens.

It’s in this climate of fear that the Rosenbergs will face trial. And for many it will result in a terrible miscarriage of justice, one that began with Ethel’s arrest on August 11th, 1950.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 11th, 1950: The Arrest of Ethel Rosenberg.

Act One: Spies

It’s November 1944, six years before Ethel Rosenberg is arrested in New York; and World War II is raging across Europe and the Pacific.

In the living room of a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Ethel and her husband Julius frantically picking up their one-year-old son’s toys. They’re expecting company and they want the house to be tidy.

So just as Ethel tracks down one of the last wooden blocks their son has scattered all over the floor, there’s a knock on the door. Ethel and Julius share a look. They’re nervous but determined. They’ll do this together.

The Rosenbergs are communists. Julius has been spying for the Soviet Union since 1942. At the time, the Americans and Russians were allies, fighting together in World War II against Nazi Germany. But there remained suspicion between the two superpowers.

During the war, the United States began a secret program called the Manhattan Project. Its goal was to develop a new weapon: an atomic bomb. But the Soviets soon realized the Americans were up to something. And before long, they launched an operation to infiltrate the Manhattan Project with Soviet spies.

Julius identified the ideal recruit for the mission, his wife Ethel’s 22-year-old brother, David Greenglass. David worked at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the epicenter of the Manhattan Project. But the work there was so secret that Julius couldn't get access to David. David was allowed contact with his wife Ruth though. So, in early November 1944, Julius invited her over to their apartment in New York. With Ethel’s help, he hopes to recruit Ruth as a Soviet asset, who can then convince her husband to join them in their espionage.

So today Ethel opens the apartment door and welcomes in her sister-in-law Ruth.

They’ve spoken about politics before – and they know Ruth is sympathetic to Communism. But what they’re about to ask her to do is treason and they aren’t certain how she’ll respond.

Over coffee, they try to persuade Ruth to take the espionage proposal to her husband David. But Ruth is unsure. She and David both believe in the principles of socialism, but what the Rosenbergs are asking of them is dangerous; pensively, Ruth wonders whether all this will really help defeat fascism.

Ethel and Julius tell her it’s precisely because there is a war raging across the globe that the information about the atomic bomb should be shared. They say the United States and the Soviet Union are supposed to be allies against the fascist Nazis. It isn’t right that America keeps this new technology to itself.

By the time they’ve finished their coffees, it’s agreed. Ruth is still nervous but she’s willing to pass the proposal on to her husband.

And a few days later, Ruth leaves New York for Albuquerque, New Mexico to see David and spend a few days together.

By the end of the trip, David has agreed to become a Soviet spy.


It’s September 23rd, 1949, five years after David Greenglass began passing information to the Soviets about the atomic bomb.

In Manhattan, Ethel Rosenberg pushes her youngest son in a stroller past a street corner newsstand. The headline on the front page catches her eye.

“Atomic blast in Russia”. Ethel hurries over to the newsstand, fiddling with her purse to find money for a copy.

The newspaper carries an announcement by the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. In his statement released to the press, Truman says, “We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR.” Truman then goes on to suggest that this development became inevitable the moment atomic energy was first released by man. He assures the American public that the US government has taken this eventuality into account.

But the President’s words of reassurance conceal the truth: the American government has been caught completely by surprise. They knew the Russians were working on the bomb. But they believed a successful test was likely years away.

Now the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union has shifted. Before there was only one country in the world which possessed the devastating destructive power of the atomic bomb. But now the Soviet Union has it too. And the world has entered a new and dangerous era of nuclear rivalry.

But Ethel is delighted by the news. She tries to hide her elation in front of the man at the newsstand. But as she pushes the stroller away, she allows herself a subtle but satisfied smile.

The revelation about the Soviet atomic bomb only deepens anxiety in America about the rising threat of Communism. But it’s not just the specter of nuclear war that frightens people. It’s the fear that there may be traitors working against America hiding in plain sight.

Many in the halls of power share this paranoia. They wonder darkly how the Soviets were able to develop the bomb so much faster than expected. They begin to have suspicions about the loyalty of those involved in the Manhattan Project.

Those suspicions eventually lead investigators to the door of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg whose lives will soon be turned upside down.

Act Two: Betrayal

It’s June 7th, 1950, two months before the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg.

On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Julius Rosenberg is on his way to visit his brother-in-law. But just as he nears the entrance to David’s apartment block, he spots three men sitting in a car across the street, staring at the building’s front door.

Julius can guess that they’re agents from the FBI.

But he can’t turn away now; it would only draw more attention to himself. So, instead, he continues inside the building as planned.

Julius knows law enforcement is closing in. Back in January, British intelligence caught a Soviet spy working on the British atomic weapons program. This man, Klaus Fuchs, was a prolific agent. And between 1944 and 1946, Fuchs had worked at Los Alamos, the secret laboratory where America developed the first nuclear weapons. Soon, the British learned that Fuchs was part of a far larger Soviet spy ring operating on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British shared this intelligence with their American allies who promptly tracked down and arrested one of Fuchs's contacts; a courier who then implicated another spy who had worked on the Manhattan Project, a man with the codename ‘Caliber’ – Ethel Rosenberg’s brother David Greenglass.

As soon as Julius heard that Fuchs had been arrested, he knew his spy network was in danger. Now, he’s here at David’s apartment to convince his brother-in-law to leave the country and take his wife, Ruth, with him.

When Julius reaches David and Ruth’s apartment, he feigns normal conversation, knowing that the room is almost certainly bugged. But as he speaks, he writes a note on a piece of paper. It warns David that he’s being watched and that he needs to get out of America while he still can.

Soon after delivering this warning, Julius leaves. As he exits the building, he passes by the three FBI men, still sitting in the car outside, watching and waiting for their moment to strike.

Julius’ warning has come too late.

Not long after his visit to the apartment, the FBI make their move.  They arrest David Greenglass who confesses and points the finger at Julius Rosenberg. But David does not give up his sister, Ethel. He denies she had anything to do with the spy ring.

Soon, David will change his story. To save himself, and his wife Ruth, David will betray his sister.


On the morning of March 6th, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg ride in the back of a prison van as it winds its way through the streets of Manhattan.

Confined in separate metal cages, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are en route to the courthouse. Their trial on charges of federal espionage is about to begin.

Julius was arrested on July 17th, 1950. FBI investigators were convinced Julius had information on other Soviet spies operating in America. But Julius refused to confess or implicate anyone else. So, the FBI ratcheted up the pressure by arresting his wife, Ethel. Their gambit didn’t work. Julius didn’t buckle, and neither did Ethel. Even the heartbreaking separation from their two young children didn’t break their determination.

So the FBI applied even more pressure. They knew they had enough evidence against Julius to lock him away. But they were worried the case against Ethel was too flimsy. So, they put this grouse to Ethel’s brother, David, and his wife, Ruth. At first, David and Ruth refused to implicate Ethel. But when the FBI offered leniency in exchange for their cooperation, David changed his story and gave up his sister.

At last, the FBI had their case against Ethel. They tried to convince her to confess and to give them names. But Ethel refused. She didn’t break, and neither did her husband. So, in March 1951, the FBI took her and David to court.

During the proceedings, David and Ruth Greenglass both take the stand and tell the same story: that David passed his handwritten notes about the Manhattan Project to the Rosenbergs, and that Ethel typed them up before they were passed on to the Soviets.

But it wasn't true. Ethel never typed up any notes. She was largely a bystander. But David and Ruth’s false testimony transforms her from someone on the sidelines into one of the main players in the atomic spy ring.

On March 29th, both Julius and Ethel are convicted of espionage. The judge is damning, saying, “I believe your conduct … has already caused the Communist aggression in Korea, with… casualties exceeding 50,000… who knows but that millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” The judge goes on to say that through their acts of betrayal, the Rosenbergs have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of America. He then sentences Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to death. But despite the hopes of the FBI, the Rosenbergs resolve will not break. Julius and Ethel will still refuse to cooperate, even when faced with the electric chair.

Act Three: Execution

It’s 8 PM on June 19th, 1953, three years since the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg.

At Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison 30 miles north of New York City, Julius Rosenberg is strapped into an electric chair. A black leather helmet is placed on his head, covering his eyes. Electrodes are connected to his leg. Then the prison warden gives a signal. A switch is thrown and three massive bolts of electricity surge through Julius’ body.

At 8:06 PM, Julius is declared dead, and his body is wheeled out of the execution chamber.

The judge’s decision to sentence the Rosenbergs to death shocked many people around the world. A campaign was immediately launched for clemency. Even the Pope pleaded with the American government to spare the young couple.

But all appeals failed.

Right up until the moment of execution, the FBI still believed one or both of the Rosenbergs would confess, and cooperate, to spare themselves. But Ethel was adamant. She and her husband would never talk. They would share the same fate – either they would both be spared, or they would die together.

A few moments after Julius’ body was wheeled out of the execution chamber, Ethel is led into the same room and strapped into the chair; still warm from her husband.

But Ethel’s execution does not go as smoothly. The first set of electric shocks don’t kill her. So, they strap her in again. It takes two more rounds and almost five minutes in total, for the young woman to die.

The Rosenbergs will be the only American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War. Many now believe it was a miscarriage of justice and that even if the couple was guilty, the death sentence was far too harsh a penalty for their crimes. The intelligence Julius passed on to the Soviets only had a limited impact. It may have slightly quickened the pace of Soviet research – but it didn’t change the result. The Soviets would have developed the bomb regardless. And even a certainty of Julius's guilt of espionage did not prove Ethel's, who many now believe was only guilty by association. Whatever her crimes, many believe that Ethel did not deserve to die.

Years after the trial, Ethel’s brother David will admit to lying in court. He’ll say he did it to save his wife, and that he had no idea Ethel and Julius would receive the death penalty. But David’s false testimony was just a small part of the government's attempt to force a confession from the stubbornly silent Rosenberg; a failed effort that ended in the electric chair and began with Ethel’s arrest on this day, August 11th, 1950.


Next onHistory Daily: August 12th, 1898. The signing of a peace pact in Washington brings an end to the fighting in the brief but consequential Spanish-American War.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.