The U.S. government executed infamous American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 for leaking information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Now, some of the long-awaited secrets from their trial will be released and housed at Gelman Library’s National Security Archives.
A U.S. district judge in New York ordered the federal government to release several of the grand jury testimonies from the 1951 trial late last month, in response to a petition filed to the court in part by the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research institution that houses declassified government files on the seventh floor of Gelman Library.
Kristin Adair, staff counsel for the archives, said this ruling helped set a precedent that historical importance can outweigh government concerns for secrecy.
“We have a lot of significant cases that are going on now and potentially will be going on with terrorist prosecutions and such,” Adair said. “If those things – 50 years from now – become historically important, then we could come back to this case.”
Aside from the wealth of historical insight the new materials will provide, they may help to determine if the government mishandled the Rosenberg case in order to reach their desired verdict – an exciting prospect for historians who continue to argue over the trial.
“People are vehement on all sides, even 50-plus years after this case took place,” Adair said. “A lot of historians suggest that there was some misconduct that happened behind the scenes.”
All but three testimonies of the 45 grand jury witnesses, who are either dead or consented to waive their privacy rights, will be available to the public. The judge concluded that the long-term historical significance of the case outweighed the government’s desire to keep grand jury proceedings secret. He gave the government two months to appeal.
But the testimony that historians were most eager to see will not be released, Adair said.
David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and the primary witness for the prosecution, refused to allow the unsealing of his court statements. He testified that his sister transcribed notes about the atomic bomb so they could be passed off to the KGB.
“It’s compelling that he told the story to the FBI about his sister and brother-in-law, which is possibly one of the things that led them to being convicted,” Adair said.
His testimony will most likely not be released until his death, she said.
The Rosenberg’s trial, one that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called “the case of the century,” had many historical repercussions during the Cold War.
“The Rosenberg case was a major cause cél?bre for the 1950s,” said Edward Berkowitz, a history professor at GW who specializes in 20th-century America.
The intense media coverage of the trial of a Jewish couple from New York with Communist sympathies divided the country in a time marked by the Red Scare and the atomic bomb.
“For a generation, these kinds of cases were like a political litmus test where people could determine one’s political affiliations based on their thoughts of the trial,” Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz said though this case may not be as well-known to young people today, it was riveting for older generations, “maybe their grandparents, especially if they were Jewish people or if they were from New York.”
When the documents are released, most likely in October, the archive plans to post the most important ones online along with commentary from historians.