Julius and Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg were a married couple from New York City. Of Jewish-American origin, the two had met in 1936 at a meeting of the Young Communist League.
Julius joined in the army in 1940, where he served in the Signal Corps, working on radar equipment. He was recruited by the NKVD as a spy in 1942, and passed a considerable body of data to the Soviets, notably the proximity fuse used to shoot down Gary Powers in 1960.
But with the arrest of Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, the dominoes started to fall. Fuchs fingered another spy: his courier, Gold. Gold has also been a courier for David Greenglass – Ethel’s brother. Greenglass testified that he had been recruited by Julius, though he denied Ethel’s involvement.
The Rosenbergs were convicted on March 29, 1951, and sentenced to death on April 5. The conviction helped to fuel Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into anti-American activities by U.S. citizens. While their devotion to the Communist cause was well-documented, the Rosenbergs denied the espionage charges even as they faced the electric chair. They were the only two American civilians to be executed for espionage-related activity during the Cold War.
On May 1, American pilot Gary Powers was shot down while flying a Lockheed U-2 over the USSR on a covert surveillance mission, photographing military and other targets. Four days later, the American government released disinformation stating that Powers had gone missing and was presumed dead while flying over Northern Turkey. On May 7, Khrushchev released information demonstrating that the Americans had lied, causing a massive loss of face to the Eisenhower administration, and heightening Cold War tensions. Not only was Powers still alive, but his plain had been captured mostly intact. Indeed, the Soviets were even able to develop some of the photos Powers had taken.
This was unfortunate timing, to say the least, as the Four Powers summit in Paris was due to begin on May 14. Krushchev demanded an apology from the UNited States, and when Eisenhower proved recalcitrant, he walked out of the summit. Soviet-American relations deteriorated notably as a result of these incidents.
Powers was tried for espionage, pleaded guilty and was convicted on August 19, Although his sentence called for 3 years’ imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor, he served only one and three-quarter years of the sentence before returning to the West in a hostage swap deal.