Sixty years ago today, Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman sentenced my parents to death. He justified the death penalty for their “Conspiracy to Commit Espionage” (planning to commit espionage) conviction by saying their “conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding fifty thousand.”
The hoopla about Morton Sobell’s recent statements that he and my father engaged in non-atomic espionage to help the Soviet Union both during and after World War II serves to distract attention from Judge Kaufman’s towering lie: that the government of the United States knew that neither Ethel nor Julius Rosenberg stole the secret of the atomic bomb, and that Ethel Rosenberg did not actively participate in any illegal activity. Nevertheless, the government arrested, charged, tried, convicted and ultimately executed her, solely to put pressure on my father to acquiesce to the lie that he stole atomic secrets.
Judge Kaufman’s statement remains as false today as it was in 1951. The FBI, the Justice Department and Judge Kaufman were guilty of a much more serious conspiracy than any my father was involved in. The formers’ involved the fabrication of evidence, the subornation of perjury, the manipulation of the jury and the wrongful execution of two young parents. It subverted the rule of law, violated the constitution and damaged our democracy. Sixty years later, the government still refuses to come clean, and most of the corporate-controlled media continue to ignore this scandal.
I’d be less than honest if I did not admit that the latest news that Morton Sobell, my father and two others provided aeronautical information to the Soviet Union in 1948 gives me pause. My parents wrote in their last letter to me and my brother: “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.” My father, at least, doesn’t seem quite so innocent anymore.
Right-wing cold warriors trumpet that Sobell’s recent statement proves that my parents were lying manipulators, but it is much more complicated than that. Neither Julius nor Ethel was guilty of the crime for which they faced the executioner. Ethel was not a spy and Julius was ignorant of the atomic bomb project. They were innocent of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and they were fighting for their lives. It would have been next to impossible for them to explain to their children and supporters the subtle distinction between not being guilty of stealing atomic secrets and blanket innocence. Given that, I can understand the course of action they took from a political standpoint
But how does this impact me personally? How could they engage in such high-risk activities that could potentially leave their children orphans? When I wrote An Execution in the Family, I thought my father might only have engaged in helping the Soviet Union fight fascism during World War II and I asked, “How many tens of thousands of American men with young children willingly went to fight during World War II knowing that they might not survive the conflict? Was my father, whose poor eyesight disqualified him for military service, taking a greater risk by choosing this role in the battle?”
I disagree with my parents’ uncritical support for the USSR and the strategy my father employed to aid it after World War II. And knowing the terrible toll parents’ activism can take on the family, I believe parents should always take their children into account when they engage in risky activity. But I do not believe it axiomatic that all parents of young children should refrain from such activity. The RFC helps parents who engage the world and take courageous actions even though they have children. Our best chance of building a more humane and just society rests on the activism of ordinary citizens with family concerns.
Still, I question my parents’ actions more than I used to. I’ve had the luxury of living a much longer life than they did and hopefully I’ve learned from many experiences that were foreclosed to them. I may question my parents’ judgment, but I remain proud of them, even if my father did what he could to aid the Soviet Union throughout the 1940’s and my mother supported him. Despite the awful consequences of their choices and of Judge Kaufman’s lie, my parents acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals, and passed their passion for social justice on to me and my brother.
To receive a notification whenever there is a new post to Out on a Limb Together, subscribe now.