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Guest Blog: Q&A with Michael Meeropol

Submitted by jenn on Mon, 09/13/2021 - 11:03

On August 26th, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. hosted a virtual event with Historian and Curator Andrew Hammond in conversation with Anne Sebba, the author of "Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy." Rosenberg son Michael Meeropol participated in the Q&A section of the program. The video of the full event is now available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7KJngCZst8&t=3044s.

After the event, many participants sent follow up questions to Michael care of the museum; he compiled the following set of questions and answers.

 

Guest blog by Michael Meeropol

DEAR PARTICIPANTS IN THE SEBBA DISCUSSION ON AUGUST 26:

I was so impressed with so many of these questions that I asked staff at the International Spy Museum to put them together in a word document so I could respond.   Before I do, I want to thank the Spy Museum for hosting this event and Dr. Andrew Hammond for being first questioner.   For more details on my view of the case of my parents, see my article “A Spy Who Turned His Family In”:  Revisiting David Greenglass and the Rosenberg Case which was published in AMERICAN COMMUNIST HISTORY in 2018.   Much of the evidence for what I said (and what I argue below) is available there.  I also recommend checking out the website of THE ROSENBERG FUND FOR CHILDREN (www.rfc.org) especially the EXONERATE ETHEL section.

Here goes:

Question: Regarding Ms Sebba's points about prejudicial reporting during the trial, did the outcome and their executions lead to any changes in press reporting of Federal or State prosecutions?

Answer: I don’t think any of the journalists who covered the case during the 1950s ever had second thoughts.  The only newspaper that supported my parents was the NATIONAL GUARDIAN an independent left wing weekly which the US government called a “communist” paper even though in fact it wasn’t.   Aa I noted in the discussion, the New York Times in particular has a long history of refusing to give our side of the story a fair shake --- this continued up through 1993 when there was a mock trial sponsored by the American Bar Association in NYC and when two six person New York juries found the “Rosenbergs” innocent, the NY Times didn’t print a word about it.  In 2015 when on my mother’s 100th birthday members of the family and members of the NY City Council gathered at City Hall to issue a proclamation supporting exoneration for my mother, once again, the NY Times did not cover it.

Question: How many children during that time had to go into witness protection later because their parents or parent was a spy for Communism?  Didn't Julius and Ethel Rosenberg children have to be hidden so to speak because of the trial?

I don’t think any children of targeted leftists --- including for example Mark and Sydney Sobell, the children of my parents’ co-defendant Morton Sobell --- ever were in “witness protection” --- I lived as Michael Rosenberg till December 1954 when Robby and I started living with Abel and Anne Meeropol --- taking their last name.  Even then in February 1954 there was some publicity and the kids I went to public school with knew who I was ….During the trial we were at a children’s shelter in the Bronx … I wouldn’t say we were hidden but of course we were not in the public eye.  We did however guard our privacy as Meeropols from 1954 till we came out in public in 1973.  

Question: How this relates to the grany spy in England did they think they were doing good? Or was Ethel drawn into the times?

I don’t think there was any relation between my parents’ case to any British spy case.  Even Klaus Fuchs had no direct connection to my father --- Harry Gold was a courier for BOTH Fuchs and Greenglass --- and of course, Harry Gold said he NEVER met either of my parents.  SO the only connection was in very general terms that some communists on both sides of the Atlantic believed that helping the Soviet Union (especially during World War II) was the way to help bring “socialism” to the world.   I believe my mother and father both were drawn to communism because they had experienced the poverty and more general failures of capitalism during their formative years --- this WAS the Great Depression.  Also starting in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began, most communists thought this was the opening salvo of the Second World War.  My parents were certainly involved in small ways in trying to help the Spanish Republic defeat the fascists.

Question: Surely sentimentality is not an excuse for espionage. We now know far more about her guilt, such as the Jerome Tartakow material. Why ignore it?

Sorry to say you have it wrong.   There is nothing in the stories Jerome Tartakow told the FBI (check out Radosh and Milton’s chapter in their book) that indicates my mother was a spy.   And we never ignored it --- the last chapter in the second edition of WE ARE YOUR SONS (U. of Illinois Press, 1986) is a detailed refutation of Radosh and Milton with lots of discussion of Tartakow’s stories.  Now that we know about VENONA (which Rob and I did not know when we wrote the second edition) we can see that Tartakow became a place to “park” things the FBI knew from Venona but did not want to reveal the source. The existence of VENONA actually explains WHY the FBI might want to plant stories with Tartakow.

Question: "In the early to mid-Forties Forties, Stalin was a wartime ally of the U.S. Thus, the period of Julius Rosenberg's contacts with the Soviets was quite different than the McCarthyite hysteria of the early Fifties. Yet why weren't the Rosenbergs' sympathies for Stalin's Soviet Union affected by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of August 1939?”

I wish my parents had lived (obviously).  There could have been a most interesting “discussion” (argument?) I might have had with them as an adult.   My father Abel Meeropol and I once had a big argument about why the American Communists (he was one) went along with the view (during the period of the pact which of course ended in June 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union) that Roosevelt’s efforts to help the British against the Nazis during 1940 and early 1941 was “war mongering” --- I have to admit, I didn’t get a coherent answer out of him ---

By the way, I think given the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by Chamberlain in 1938, Stalin was right to sign that pact --- it bought the Soviet Union two years in which to build up its war-making capabilities (and this in no way is an attempt by me to whitewash Stalin’s war against the Finns, the Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, nor the Red Army’s massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest --- those were criminal actions).  My argument was why did the American communists not say:  The Soviet Union is right to sign the pact to interfere with the British and French desire to induce Hitler to invade them first --- but we Americans know that Naziism is a grave danger and we support all efforts President Roosevelt is taking to defeat Hitler and Mussolini.  That would have been a principled stand – I have NO IDEA why American Communists didn’t take that stand --- perhaps slavish devotion to everything Soviet.

Follow up Question:   After all, during the Forties there were other venues for left-wing social action, such as the American Labor Party in New York and Norman Thomas's Socialist Party."

AGREED – although the ALP was pretty closely associated with the Communists.

Question: Do you believe that Ethel had the conversation with Ruth Greenglass to encourage David to cooperate with Julius?  If so, in your view, was that a sufficient overt act to close the conspiracy loop to include Ethel?

If Ruth Greenglass was telling the truth about the conversation where Julius “recruited” her to attempt to “recruit” David as per her trial testimony then, yes, that is evidence my mother was guilty as charged in the conspiracy.  But as I show in my article, the contemporary records (admittedly uncertain for all the reasons Anne mentioned) as per Vassiliev’s diaries (which purport to reproduce a written report by my father to the KGB) give a totally different version.  And when David Greenglass (admittedly years later) was interviewed by journalist Sam Roberts for the book THE BROTHER he specifically said that when Ruth came to Albuquerque to recruit him, she was quoting JULIUS …. So I think she lied at the trial --- as she did on numerous occasions at the trial (especially about the typing!)    

Question: If we agree she was aware of the Espionage and more likely than not participated in some way, would it have been appropriate to sentence her to prison?  Didn't the government offer to take the death penalty off the table if she confessed to espionage?  Wasn't it their refusal to admit to their espionage which led to their execution?

It wasn’t as simple as that --- My parents had not merely to “confess” but to “fully cooperate” --- and that meant naming names.  It is true, all my mother had to do was “name” her husband as a spy and she MIGHT have been spared --- there were numerous times when Judge Kaufman himself made it clear that he would reduce sentence if they fully cooperated …. But confession alone would not have been enough…

This was made crystal clear when William Bennett, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons visited both my parents in Sing Sing early in June, 1953.  See WE ARE YOUR SONS by Robert and me for details.

Question: Other participants (Fuchs / Greenglass) weren't executed BECAUSE they admitted their guilt and pled guilty.  

Fuchs could never have gotten the death sentence because the British charged him with violating the Official Secrets Act.   No one ever thought to charge him with Treason.  Morton Sobell didn’t admit his guilt and was sentenced to 30 years because as the Judge said, “You had nothing to do with the atom bomb.”   In order to justify the Death Sentence, at the trial the government passed off the crude Greenglass diagram and his written description that had errors as “the secret of the atom bomb” --- which was a lie.   We now know (per my article using evidence from THE HAUNTED WOOD and the VASSILIEV NOTEBOOKS) that when Greenglass passed his diagram and descriptive material to the Soviets my father was OUT OF THE LOOP.  In February, 1945, the KGB told my father to cease all contacts with his espionage contacts – and according to one note in Vassiliev’s notebooks he remained out of contact with the Soviets for two years.               

Question: Why wouldn't they plead guilty (like the others)...  if they actually were committing espionage... particularly if it would have help them avoid the death penalty?

My mother had nothing to confess and my father would have had to “rat out” all his friends --

Question: In 1953, did President Eisenhower consider commuting Ethel's sentence? Did Attorney General Brownell make him aware of VENONA before he decided not to?

Attorney General Brownell alluded to VENONA and the people at the International Spy Museum do believe that Eisenhower was aware of VENONA --- but I am very doubtful that Eisenhower was told she never had a code name and that Gardner had determined that “does not work” meant “is not a spy” --- Eisenhower did make a point in a letter to his son that he wanted to intervene in the case of “the woman” but he bought into the ridiculous “psychological study” by Morris Ernst an ACLU lawyer who proposed to the FBI that he ingratiate himself into the defense team to persuade my parents to confess.  He claimed my mother was the leader and that Julius was her “slave” – this was (ridiculously) based on NOTHING but the fact that she was three years older than him.  Eisenhower echoed the idea that mom was the “leader” etc.

Question: "Weren’t the KGB traditional male chauvinists so that may be why the KGB downplayed Ethel’s role in passing the documents.”

I think that’s very unlikely.  There is significant reference in THE HAUNTED WOOD to all the activities that Ruth Greenglass was engaged in --- including that in DIRECT contradiction to her and David’s trial testimony “verbal signals” were to be determined by RUTH sometime in March --- well after the jello box had been allegedly cut in January ---

Question: Ethel had a few minutes, perhaps an hour, after Julius was gone to speak, to give them something, to save her life, for herself, and for her two boys.....to maybe be there for them, someday.  She chose silence.  How does that impact your view of who Ethel was and what she believed was important?

She had a few minutes --- in the single digits --- she would have had to repudiate her marriage and then live --- for 19 years?? --- in prison --- when she got out we would be adults.  She believed that she could not betray my dad and any name she might have given the FBI would have been worthless because it would have been based on hearsay --- Of course, they would have spared her life if she had turned on him but what would that in the end leave Robby and me?   As I guessed in discussing this with my daughter Ivy in her film HEIR TO AN EXECUTION, we would (probably) grow up to hate her for what she did … It may be a cliché but I and Rob would much rather be our parents’ children than the children of David and Ruth Greenglass.  (Of course part of this is the extraordinary luck we had that Abel and Anne Meeropol were chosen by Manny Bloch to be our parents.)            

Question: In what way did prosecutors attempt to use Ethel as a "lever" against Julius? What was offered, and what was the response? By insisting on her innocence now, don’t we cheapen her sacrifice?

The government probably surmised that Julius might trade his confession for almost no sentence for my mother --- they never specifically told him that though in 1953 there was a lot of speculation in the press that she might be spared so her “spy secrets” wouldn’t die with her.  This prompted a very angry letter from my mother to Manny Bloch which Anne quotes --- it’s a truly angry response not written for the public but just to get the anger out of her… All letters we had in 1993 were published in a book I edited, THE ROSENBERG LETTERS.   The letter I am referencing was I believe from Feb 9, 1953 --- I don’t have my copy with me today!

I guess the point of the “cheapen her sacrifice” idea is that if she were a spy, her willing to die rather than betray her “spy secrets” is somehow more heroic than if she were innocent and had nothing to disclose.  I think willingness to die rather than cooperate is pretty heroic, period – whether innocent or guilty.  Innocent people confess all the time, under much less pressure.  (Think of the Central Park Five who confessed to the cops after hours of interrogation even though DNA proved them innocent years later.)

Question: Isn't it possible to acknowledge that there was prosecutorial misconduct in the trial of the Rosenbergs and that their death sentences were not appropriate to their crimes, and at the same time infer from the Venona tapes and information from Alexander Vassiliev that Ethel was, indeed, guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage.  For example, she helped the KGB identify and recruit spies in the United States (most famously, her brother).

I know the “other side” (and there are bunch of them, Haynes, Klehr, Usdin, Radosh --- none of whom, by the way, have even ACKNOWLEDGED my article which was published in 2018 and which they all KNOW about ---) asserts that she helped the KGB identify and recruit spies.  There is NOTHING (yes, NOTHING) in Venona and Vassiliev’s notebooks to support that assertion.   There is ONE LINE in one Venona decryption that my father and she recommend Ruth Greenglass as a “clever girl.”  --- but this is clearly a report about what my father told his KGB contact.  As Miriam Schneir pointed out in a letter to the New York Times the Vassiliev Notebook version of this does not mention that my mother had recommended Ruth.   The “other side” takes that one entry and turns it into a PLURAL recommendation of “spies” as in the question.   Who are the other “spies” she recommended --- there is nothing in VEnona or Vassiliev that she “recommended” anyone but Ruth.  

So in answer to the question it WOULD be possible to conclude my mom was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage IF it were true as Ruth Greenglass said at the trial that she had specifically pressed Ruth to recruit David.  I just think the preponderance --- the overwhelming preponderance --- of evidence is that she was not a spy.   (And I think there’s a good reason --- she was available to take care of Robby and me if my dad were arrested.  That is what happened in the Sobell family.  Morton was involved and Helen wasn’t --- and so when he was arrested, she was able to take care of Mark and Sydney.)

CONTINUATION OF QUESTION: and she acted as a "cut out" in communications between the KGB and members of Julius's network. 

Once again, a SINGLE mention in a SINGLE entry into Vassiliev’s notebook is PLURALIZED.  Allegedly, my mother was in a local grocery store and when the Soviet contact saw her, he knew it was safe to go up to my father and mother’s apartment.  Does that prove she was wittingly engaged in an overt act in furtherance of a conspiracy?  I don’t think so but I guess some folks might … If this writer has information on my mother being a cut-out for ANY OTHER members of the network and the KGB he/she ought to reference it directly.

CONTINUATION(2) OF QUESTION: If she knew what was going on and remained silent about it, she was guilty of conspiracy.

NOT TRUE --- you have to AGREE to be part of the conspiracy.  

CONTINUATION(3) OF QUESTION: As to what the FBI knew at the time, it clearly had access to material in the Venona tapes but could not reveal that information at trial without revealing the source.

THERE IS NOTHING in the Venona Tapes that supports the assertions made by this questioner --- the FBI did NOT have access to Vassiliev’s notebooks --- these have been used after the fact by this crew of historians who have insisted on resisting the interpretation of Walter and Miriam Schneir in FINAL VERDICT and (as mentioned above) have chosen to ignore my article.

Question: I am not familiar about the case so this may be a silly question but what role or known opinion did Hoover have about Ethel if any?

Hoover officially recommended against sentencing her to death but after that, never did anything.  However, as Anne mentions in her book.  When the FBI prepared questions for dad should he agree to confess (FBI agents were in the death house with these questions prepared --- all my dad had to do was SIGNAL that he was ready to confess and the execution would have been stopped) the only one that mentioned my mother was, “Was your wife cognizant of your activities?”  (this is a direct quote from the only VENONA decryption that mentions my mother by name --- “knows about [Liberals’] work with {two code names mentioned}”)

Question: How significant a role does Michael (and by all means let Anne weigh in) believe his family’s Jewish heritage contributed to the prosecution, public image and/or execution? And in the decades since, to what extent has this continued to play a role?

Anne is right.  My father was arrested because David Greenglass fingered him and they (the FBI) were able to realize that my father was the spy code named LIBERAL in the VENONA decryptions.  They were not arrested because they were Jewish.   I think anti-semitism played a role in getting Kaufman, Saypol and Cohn to work extra hard to convict my parents and for Kaufman to want to appear strong by sentencing them to death --- proving to the gentile population that there were good Jews would take take care of the dangerous commies.  One juror interviewed in 1975 said he felt it was good that “the Jews” were taking care of the dangerous traitor Jews.  I also think after the convictions, it gave the anti-semites in the US a FIELD DAY of linking all Jews to communism and treason.       

QUESTION: A question - based on your research do you think that David Greenglass was a sociopath?”

Doubt it.  He was trapped and a bit stupid (he identified his wife as the person who had recruited him --- then he identified my father --- then he tried to tell the truth about my mother but ultimately agreed to the (false) typing story) --- and also, I think, pretty arrogant.   When interviewed by 60 Minutes and asked how history would remember him he said, “As a spy, who turned his family in….” and he asserted he didn’t care – that he slept very well at night.

Question: Seems to me that there is an apt comparison between Ethel Rosenberg and Mary Surratt (the first woman executed by the federal govt). There certainly appears to be evidence that both women played “roles” in the events at issue (all of which can be subject to reasonable debate) but that they did not deserve execution.

Don’t know anything about Mary Surratt.             

Question: Do you believe the line about requiring more volts to Ethel than an "ordinary person" was antisemitic?  The idea that Jews don't die by ordinary means is a long time antisemitic trope.

I have watched the CONSIDINE film a number of times.  You can tell he was totally shocked and shook by the experience.  Years later he was interviewed and stated that the experience of witnessing that had a lasting impression on him --- it made him a strong campaigner against the death penalty.            

Question: How has being the son of executed Soviet “spies” impacted Michael’s adulthood and everyday life?

It made me a radical --- a total skeptic about our government --- there was a great bumper sticker in the 1960s, QUESTION AUTHORITY.   I believe that totally.       It also made me very sensitive to when people are accused of heinous crimes --- I probably err on the side of “innocent until proven guilty” more than on the other side ….

Question: Another reason not to plead guilty: direction from Moscow was to stick by your story. Nathan Silvermaster did this, Alger Hiss did this to his dying day.

If there was such “direction from Moscow” it was totally internal.  There is nothing in Vassiliev’s notebooks or the Venona decryptions that indicate any actual message was sent to ANY of their spies never to plead guilty.  Alger Hiss might also have been innocent --- see the work of Jeff Kisseloff debunking the argument that ALES was Hiss’s code name in VENONA ….      

Question: How much of the blame then goes on Julius and Ethel for choosing not to plead guilty (whether due to ideological reasons or to protect other friends)?

Not much.  I think the blame was on the US government for knowingly framing my mother and ignoring some of the contradictions in the Greenglass testimony that might have indicated that even as to my father’s involvement there was uncertainty about the atomic part of the conspiracy ….    

Question: The KGB confirmed their guilt in 1968

WOW --- please send documents.   Maybe this person is referring to Kim Philby’s memoirs which refer to Gold being talkative leading to the arrest and executions of the “heroic” Rosenbergs.   This is not a very clear admission by Philby.  There is a FOOTNOTE in My Silent War that references my parents but that was put in by the British editor, not by Philby ….           

Question: They never admitted to committing espionage . . . when they were clearly involved in espionage.         

Sorry to be snarky but you are obviously able to know better than the KGB who their spies are????

The word “they” includes my mother.  The KGB and Meredith Gardner and Robert Lamphere KNEW she was not a spy.  See Jonathan Blum’s book IN THE ENEMY”S HOUSE ….             

Question: I would love to hear about the family who adopted Michael and his brother and the strength they had to brave the storm

Abel and Anne were special people.  Rob and I were very lucky they came forward.  Living with them, growing up with them, saved our lives.  You can read about them in Rob’s book AN EXECUTION IN THE FAMILY and in his section of WE ARE YOUR SONS … Anyone out there who knows publishers, there is a WONDERFUL biography of my father (Abel) written by David Newstead who did phenomenal research --- the manuscript is basically finished --- it’s just looking for an publisher!!

THANK YOU ALL,

Michael Meeropol          

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