On this day in 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for alleged spying. The couple were American citizens, but were convicted for espionage after they were accused of giving information to the Soviets about the atomic bomb. They were both arrested in 1950, and became the face of the supposed Communist conspiracy, the fear of which gripped Cold War United States throughout the 1950s and beyond.
The couple insisted upon their innocence, but they were still convicted and sentenced to die. In the years between their conviction and execution, public opinion was divided on the guilt of the Rosenbergs. Despite the reservations of some, they were executed on June 19th 1953 by electric chair. It remained unclear whether the pair were indeed Soviet spies, but due to evidence which has since come to light Julius Rosenberg does appear to have been guilty.
Whether they were guilty or not, the Rosenbergs certainly became the villainous face of communism in America. Cold War era United States was a nation in chaos, where people saw communists and nuclear war around every corner. The discovery of people who were arrested and executed/imprisoned for spying just served to reinforce these fears. It was this climate that the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era took place in, where respectable members of society became enemies of the state overnight. The tensions of the Cold War gradually waned and faded into history, but the memory of its victims remains clear. The modern invocation of espionage laws in the case of whistleblowers and leakers like Edward Snowden has renewed debates over the veracity of these laws that echo the Rosenberg controversy. Even if Julius and Ethel were Soviet spies, they did not deserve to be killed by their country under an archaic law.