President Harry S. Truman was famous for the sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” But when it came to my parents’ case this proved just as false as so many other truisms about our government - such as that all citizens be afforded due process before the law, be presumed innocent until proven guilty, or that our constitution’s “separation of powers” would prevent the judicial branch of government from conspiring with the executive branch to speed an execution.
My parents’ First Petition for Executive Clemency reached President Truman’s office on January 10, 1953, but he “vacated the Presidency on January 20, 1953, without acting on the Rosenbergs’ clemency appeals” (Invitation to an Inquest, Walter and Miriam Schneir, Pantheon, 1983, p. 192). In a few days we will reach the 60th anniversary of the day Truman passed the buck to Eisenhower.
Three weeks after entering office, the newly inaugurated President denied the petition. Eisenhower explained his denial of their request as follows:
“The nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of the taking of the life of another citizen: it involves the deliberate betrayal of an entire nation and could very well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens.” [This presumes my parents stole what prosecutors called valuable atomic secrets, but now we know that this was not the case.]
“All rights of appeal were exercised and the conviction of the trial court was upheld after four judicial reviews, including that of the highest court of the land.” [Another error, since the Supreme Court never reviewed my parents’ case.]
“I have made a careful examination into this case and am satisfied that the two individuals have been accorded their full measure of justice.’ [Eisenhower only consulted with those involved in my parents’ prosecution.]
Eisenhower received my parents’ Second Petition for Executive Clemency on June 16, 1953 just a few days before their execution. He denied that one as well. On June 16th he explained in a letter to his son, John, that although it might seem harsh to execute a woman, if he commuted her sentence it would only encourage the Soviets to recruit more female spies. Eisenhower’s rationale for executing my mother was that the Soviet Union would recruit more female spies because, if captured, they’d be imprisoned, rather than executed. This doesn’t make much sense, but as Truman’s “The buck stops here” plaque and Eisenhower’s statements denying my parents’ first clemency petition indicated, accuracy and logic were in short supply during the McCarthy era hysteria.
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