Laura Millar | The British response to the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

On 6 March 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg faced trial, charged with conspiracy to commit wartime espionage. They were convicted and sentenced to death. Two years later, after two denied appeals for clemency, they were executed, making them the only people in America to be executed on the grounds of espionage.

The Rosenbergs were accused of being part of a Soviet spy ring that had infiltrated The Manhattan Project and had been passing atomic secrets onto the Soviets. This allowed the Soviets to acquire nuclear weapons much earlier than expected, breaking the atomic monopoly that America held over nuclear weapons. Punishment for treason in America is death, a sentence which polling data taken at the time showed that 73% of Americans agreed with. There were, however, many fallacies in the case against the Rosenbergs. The case strongly relied on the testimonies of confessed spies who were themselves under pressure from the government and were likely to lie. The case against Ethel Rosenberg was overall weak and the government extorted the arrest and execution of Ethel in order to bring about Julius’s confession. These were only a few factors that were causing international outcry.

The Reaction Overseas Report, an American study into the effects of the trial, expressed concerns that Non-communist press were focusing on doubts about the Rosenberg’s guilt. The report suggested that ‘Clemency will play less into the hands of the communist propaganda then will execution and subsequent martyrdom.’ Eisenhower, however, ignored these conclusions, which happened to be a correct representation of international opinion.

During the five days prior to the executions, demonstrations were being carried out in London, Manchester and Birmingham. In London a demonstration filled Grosvenor Square, where protesters were carrying banners saying ‘Death for the Rosenbergs is Victory for McCarthy’, ‘What have they done?’ and ‘The Rosenbergs must not die’. Four arrests were made as a section of the demonstration started shouting anti-American slogans at United State servicemen who were present. 100 young men and women lobbied MPs in the house of commons and a women in the public gallery interrupted a debate with a cry of “The Rosenbergs are about to die what are you going to do about it? They are innocent. Save the Rosenbergs.”

The public outcry prompted a British appeal for clemency in which over 40 MPs gave their support, with a cablegram being sent to Eisenhower citing clemency based on common humanity and mercy. Rosenberg Defence Committees from Manchester and Birmingham also submitted petitions for clemency, Manchester’s having over ten thousand signatures.

On the night of the execution, protests at Marble Arch joined forces with the Rosenberg Defence Committee and asked the prime minister to intercede, while a telegram was sent to the Queen asking for her influence in securing a reprieve. Churchill answered with “It is not within my duty or my power to intervene in this manner”. In Manchester a crowd of 200 silently protested until the execution was announced, after which they vowed to ‘Continue the fight to clear the name of the Rosenbergs’ and ‘To pin the blame where it rightly belongs’.

The severity of the British reaction was due to the realisation of the extent of McCarthyism. Many believed that the Rosenbergs were innocent victims of this era in American history and were only prosecuted due to anti-communist hysteria. This opinion was amplified when the case against the Rosenbergs was evaluated under British Law and it was found that the circumstances of the trial and evidence would be sufficient for a retrial or reprieve.

Many felt the trial was unfair and that the Rosenbergs had been denied their individual rights. Had clemency been issued, many believed this would have exemplified before universal conscience the difference between the humanity of democratic states versus the fanaticism of totalitarian governments. As this wasn’t the case, the Rosenbergs were, in the eyes of the British, the first victims of American fascism.

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