On this day sixty-four years ago Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Only in later decades was it conclusively proven that indeed Julius Rosenberg had given information to the Russians while they were allies of the United States, and continued after that was no longer the case. His wife, Ethel, however, seems to have had no involvement but was executed anyway, with Julius, in June of 1953. As their case winded its way through the legal system, Arthur Garfield Hays wrote in The Nation that the issue was less about conclusively proving the couple’s guilt or innocence than about the inherent injustice of the death penalty itself:
It is the damnable death penalty that causes the uneasiness. To avoid this horrible killing by the state, argument is made that the trial was unfair, and some people, mostly leftists I take it, are claiming that the Rosenbergs are innocent. If this judgment is carried through, we shall make martyrs of the Rosenbergs, perhaps not to many people in the United States, but to millions in other parts of the world. You can imagine what would be our own emotional response if two Russians were sentenced to death for supplying information to us while we were allied with Russia.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.