Depending on whose side the spy is spying for, and whose nation suffers from the spying, spies are seen as heroes or villains. There is no middle of the road in the spy game.
The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was certainly dramatic. The Rosenbergs—accused of participating in a complex plot to sell American atomic secrets to the Soviets—were arrested in the summer of 1950, Julius on July 17 and Ethel slightly less than one month later. Their trial began in early March, 1951, and was concluded in three weeks, with the jury submitting a guilty verdict one day after final arguments were concluded.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had both been affiliated with American communists, and this did not mitigate their claims in court. Biographer Craig Nelson writes, “The Rosenbergs insisted, throughout, that they were innocent and many in the global audience transfixed by this story of atomic spies believed them… [however] the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. President Eisenhower, in the morning hours of the Cold War, refused clemency.”
The Rosenbergs’ executions had originally been scheduled to take place in May, 1951, toward the end of President Harry Truman’s term. However, legal appeals and protests—both domestic and international—stalled the proceedings into the Eisenhower administration. On June 19, 1953, after the appeals were exhausted and after jurists at the highest levels refused to stay the sentence any longer, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953.
The National Portrait Gallery has two works in its collection that show the Rosenbergs, a drawing and photograph, both were created during the time of their trial and appeals.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Nelson, Craig. The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. New York: Scribner, 2014.
For further reading, please also see the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website at: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/the-atom-spy-case