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Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Unhappy Anniversary
Fifty years after the Rosenbergs’ execution, the parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terrorism are striking—and frightening
By Silja J.A. Talvi

History 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

On 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 Sing prison.

The Rosenbergs left behind two young children, Michael and Robert, who were respectively 10 and 6 years of age when their parents were executed.

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.

“We 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 (RFC).

Robert and Michael Meeropol

Since 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.

“Dissent 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 fear.

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.

“Surely, 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.”

Viewed 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.

“In 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.”

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 1951

The 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, notes Meeropol.

“You 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.

“We’re 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 states.

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 to coast.

“The 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.”

These 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.

“The 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 Rosenberg files.

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.)

Robert and Michael Meeropol

Speculation 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.

While 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.

“My 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.

“I 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 information.


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