and Ethel Rosenberg
years after the Rosenbergs’ execution, the parallels between
the Cold War and the War on Terrorism are striking—and frightening
Silja J.A. Talvi
will record that we were victims of the most monstrous
frame-up of our country.
—Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, June 1953
My parents were executed because they resisted. We choose
to celebrate and honor that resistance at a time when
resistance has never been more important.
—Robert Meeropol (nče Rosenberg), June 2003
June 19, 1953, despite international outcry and urgent pleas
for an 11th-hour reprieve, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were
put to death by means of electrocution in New York’s Sing
Rosenbergs left behind two young children, Michael and Robert,
who were respectively 10 and 6 years of age when their parents
Robert Meeropol was young enough that the graphic details
of his parents’ execution eluded him, even as his sense
of the emotions swirling around told him that something
was indeed very wrong. In 1950, Julius was arrested in the
family’s modest Lower East Side apartment; Ethel was next.
Soon after, the two were sentenced to death for “conspiracy
to commit espionage” the following year, during the height
of the red-baiting McCarthy era.
In the 18 months between their arrest and execution, the
Rosenbergs’ sons visited their parents numerous times in
prison. The visits, as Meeropol recalls in his newly released
autobiography, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s
Journey (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), were as comforting
and loving as the circumstances could allow. For all of
the publicized insinuations that the Rosenbergs cared more
for communism than for their own children, Meeropol says,
nothing could have been further from the truth.
wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification
of living our lives with you,” Ethel and Julius wrote to
their children on the eve of their execution. “We press
you close and kiss you with all our strength.”
To the moment they drew their final breaths, the couple
maintained their innocence and pointed to a government frame-up.
And then, in a blaze of electricity and agony, the Rosenbergs
were gone. Small wonder that the state-sanctioned execution
of his parents has been with Meeropol ever since. The nightmare
start to his young life could have marred him irreparably.
To be sure, there were emotional hardships, countless struggles,
and even a nervous breakdown along the way.
But in the final analysis, Meeropol’s sense of responsibility
for humanity—and toward the pursuit of justice for all—has
triumphed over the pain. Vengeful fantasies of ordering
his parents’ executioners to their own deaths eventually
gave way to something that Meeropol refers to as “constructive
revenge,” focused on positive aims. For Meeropol, it represents
a nonpartisan agenda of proactive social change best articulated
through his stewardship of the Rosenberg Fund for Children
and Michael Meeropol
founding the RFC in 1990, Meeropol has overseen the distribution
of $1.1 million in grant monies to help the children of
activist parents who have suffered consequences of their
actions. The RFC, which also supports “targeted” activist
youth, does not always agree with the activism of its grantees.
The point, says Meeropol, is recognizing that dissent is
the very kernel of a functioning democracy. Censorship,
harassment, incarceration and capital punishment are tools
at the government’s disposal, but that does not make the
use of those tools right, righteous, or even rightfully
granted to an entity charged with constitutional, representative
governance over our lives.
is not a right, it’s an obligation,” says Meeropol. “It
is a part of citizenship to actively engage the world, to
critique it, to try to solve problems, and to heal it.”
The primary mechanism of dissent—the dissemination of information—is
now under constant attack, charges Meeropol. Unquestioning
approval and hurrah-style patriotism fit neatly in the folds
of a governmental “obedience model” to which Meeropol refers.
Anything outside the model is a threat and an occasion for
In the aftermath of 9/11, the fear has become acute. The
Bush administration has worked overtime to try to frighten
the populace into submission, interrogating and detaining
immigrants and creating and passing one repressive and unconstitutional
piece of legislation after another.
On June 5, just days after the release of a scalding internal
report rebuking the Department of Justice for its handling
of nearly 800 detainees in the aftermath of 9/11, Attorney
General John Ashcroft stood before the House Judiciary Committee
to seek an expansion of his powers. Among other requests,
Ashcroft sought more power to deny bail to suspected terrorists,
and to increase the number of federal terror-related crimes
subject to the death penalty.
no modern prosecutor has been granted as much power as you
now hold,” Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) told Ashcroft
during the hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“You said in your statement we must not forget that our
enemies are ruthless fanatics. But the solution is not for
us to become zealots ourselves.”
side by side, do 1953 and 2003 really look so different
from one another? Isn’t dissent, in essence, being criminalized
in much the same way? From where Meeropol sits, there is
no doubt as to the veracity of this comparison.
the McCarthy period, the perception was that we would be
destroyed by an international communist conspiracy. If we
had to sacrifice the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
in the process, so be it,” he says. “Three thousand killed
[on 9/11] was a genuine tragedy. But the idea that al Qaeda
truly presents a threat to the American way of life is absurd.
Today, we are the richest, most powerful nation on Earth,
and the Bush administration is still basing its entire policy
on fear—allowing the Constitution and, yes, the American
way of life to be threatened.”
and Julius Rosenberg, 1951
administration’s grab for unprecedented prosecutorial and
extrajudicial power was cemented with the rushed passage
of the USA Patriot Act less than 10 weeks after Sept. 11,
look at this document and realize that it was a wish list
from before 9/11,” he says. “If you look at the language,
you see that the authors took [elements of] the Smith Act,
the McCarran Act [see info box, this page], read them, and
revised them. Where you would have seen ‘communist’ or ‘subversive’
in these [older] acts, [the present-day authors] substituted
‘terrorist’ in the Patriot Act.”
In a letter to his sons in October 1952 from his prison
cell, Julius Rosenberg wrote the following: “One thing must
be crystal clear and that is that our case is an integral
part of the conspiracy to establish fear in our land.”
The fear conspiracy of which Julius wrote more than 50 years
ago still has as one of its chief goals the de facto (and
now, de jure) criminalization of dissent.
The criminalization of dissent, says Meeropol, is occurring
beneath our very noses, creeping closer to its goal day
by precious day. Silence, complicity and obeisance; this
is the America that our administration would seem to prefer
that we embrace.
getting closer to labeling dissenters as terrorists and
creating a situation where the price would be so high for
dissent that people would be fearful of doing it,” Meeropol
The essential ingredient in all of this, Meeropol reminds
us, is a wartime setting. The Korean War, as he notes, bracketed
the arrest and execution of his parents. Today, wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq bracket the heavy-handed crackdown
on law-abiding immigrants and peaceful dissenters from coast
Bush administration has learned that a state of war is a
wonderful cover for domestic repression,” Meeropol says.
“With the military adventures of our government and the
attacks on civil liberties at home, resistance has never
been more important.”
are remarkably strong words from a man who spent much of
his young life hiding his parentage and disguising himself
as a “mild-mannered liberal.”
That façade only lasted so long before both Robert and Michael
Meeropol stepped into the spotlight in the 1970s. Together,
the two mounted a Freedom of Information Act campaign for
the release of 300,000 pages of documents about their parents.
While at least 100,000 pages still remain classified and
unreleased, the brothers experienced a series of victories
beginning in 1975, when they obtained copies of documents
relating to trial judge Irving R. Kaufman.
Kaufman Papers,” as they were called, proved that the trial
judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death had lied from
the bench and stated that he had made his decision independently.
But, as Meeropol writes in his book, Kaufman had in fact
consulted with prosecuting attorneys about sentencing, and
had indicated to the Justice Department that he would impose
the death sentence—while the trial was still in progress.
Other documents showed that Judge Kaufman had used the Justice
Department and the FBI to interfere with the appellate process
to ensure a speedy execution.
Perhaps the biggest triumph of all arrived in August 1978,
in the form of a government check for $195,802.50. The check
was payable to the Meeropol brothers for their attorneys’
fees in the FOIA suit, after the federal court found that
Robert and Michael had “substantially prevailed” in their
lawsuit to get defiant government agencies to open their
What’s little remembered today is that although accusations
of treason were bandied about and sensationalized in the
press, the Rosenbergs were actually executed for conspiracy
to commit espionage. No concrete proof of espionage or treason,
as such, was necessary. (Meeropol observes that Zacharias
Moussaoui is the first person since his parents to face
the death penalty for a conspiracy charge. “The government
is not seeking to have him killed for what he did, but for
what he would have done,” he says.)
and Michael Meeropol
and the dubious testimony of Ethel’s own brother were all
woven together to insinuate that this working-class, communist
Jewish couple had managed to pass on the secret of the A-bomb
to the Soviet Union, despite the fact that there was no
single “secret” to speak of.
Over the decades, the trickle of interviews, confessions,
documents and transcripts have established neither the Rosenbergs’
absolute guilt nor their absolute innocence. If anything,
the “Venona transcripts” (decrypted KGB transmissions released
by the NSA and CIA in 1995) indicated that Julius may have
committed non-atomic industrial espionage with the intent
of helping the Soviets defeat the Nazis, while Ethel was
not involved in any capacity.
he once championed his parents’ innocence, Meeropol, who
is a lawyer by training, says that the guilty-or- innocent
debate is beside the point. Instead, the real question should
be whether his parents were guilty of the charge for which
they were executed. And in this regard, says Meeropol, they
were absolutely innocent.
parents were framed, based on evidence that was concocted
at an essentially unfair trial in which the judge acted
as a member of the prosecution team,” Meeropol says. “They
did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb.”
Another left-wing, secular Jewish couple, Abel and Anne
Meeropol, later adopted the two children. (Abel, a songwriter,
was the author of “Strange Fruit,” a song about the lynching
of blacks in the South popularized by Billie Holiday). The
boys took their adoptive parents’ surnames, allowing them
to live in relative obscurity.
Today Robert Meeropol neither seeks nor shies away from
the limelight. The upcoming 50th anniversary of his parents’
execution, he says, is a unique occasion and provides a
valuable comparison of the times that we find ourselves
living in now. It does not take a radical political orientation
or a selfless activist lifestyle to be where Meeropol is
today, as he is quick to point out.
can sum up my politics in a very short sentence,” he says.
“To paraphrase Tom Paine, I’m a citizen of the world, and
my religion is to do good.”
Harry Belafonte, Susan Sarandon, Martin Espada, Holly Near,
Tovah Feldshuh and many others will join Robert Meeropol
at the City Center in New York City on June 19. “Celebrate
the Children of Resistance” will begin at 8 PM, exactly
at the moment Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed 50
years ago. Proceeds will benefit the Rosenberg Fund for
Children. Visit www.rfc.org or www.citycenter.org for more