Although the lives of most of America’s greatest spies are always kept secret, it’s the lives of the notorious double agents that capture the public’s attention.
It’s no secret that the United States has had its fair share of duplicitous spies. Today, movies portraying double agents and TV shows like The Americans pay homage to Cold War fears and politics that now seem so far away. While time has placed a definite, physical distance between today and that era, the effects of some of the most infamous, traitorous American spies are not as distant as they may seem. In many cases, the repercussions can still be felt to this day.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sat down in the electric chair in New York’s notorious Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953. At the end of the day, the Rosenbergs took their place in history as the only American civilians to be executed for espionage during peacetime.
The Rosenbergs were, and still are, a divisive couple. Convicted of conspiring to pass crucial information on the creation of an atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, both professed their innocence to their last breath.
Both Julius and Ethel were born and raised New Yorkers. They met as members of the Young Communist League, and married in 1939. Their devotion to the Soviet Union — coupled with their work for the U.S. government — ultimately led to their deaths.
Julius was an engineer for the United States Army Signal Corps. Ethel’s side of the family was employed by the government as well. Her younger brother, David Greenglass, worked as a machinist at the atomic bomb testing center in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Greenglass would gather information and pass it to Julius, who would then pass it to a Soviet handler.
But this ended following a series of confessions. A coworker exposed Greenglass for passing on information, and he in turn gave up the names of his sister and brother in law. Both Julius and Ethel were arrested and charged with sharing information about the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union.
On April 5, 1951, the couple were sentenced to death and sent to Sing Sing.
For two years, people around the world reacted to the Rosenberg trial. Pablo Picasso publicly stated, “Do not let this crime against humanity take place,” and Pope Pius XII asked President Eisenhower to pardon the couple.
It was to no avail. “The execution of two human beings is a grave matter,” Eisenhower said. “But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”