Guest Blog: Exonerate Ethel

by Robert Meeropol

originally published on Robert Meeropol's blog, Still Out on a Limb

In March the Rosenberg Fund for Children launched an online petition campaign to exonerate my mother, Ethel. I urge everyone  to sign the petition, and to spread the word throughout your communities.

I’ve wanted this for decades. I can’t recall when I first thought of separating my mother’s case from my father’s. I think the women’s liberation movement of the late 60’s planted the seed. As we began the reopening effort in 1974, I noticed that while almost everyone on both sides talked about “the Rosenbergs,” the debate focused almost entirely on whether Julius was an atomic spy. I remember saying that Ethel was “disappeared” into Julius.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s information began to dribble out that raised the possibility that Julius was a spy. The release of the Venona transcriptions in 1995 added force to this possibility, but also provided powerful proof that Ethel never spied. The KGB gave all its operatives code names; Ethel had no code name. At that time, I proposed that we accept that Julius might have engaged in non-atomic military-industrial spying, without conceding this was certain, and that we concentrate on Ethel, whose innocence seemed more likely. Our lawyer, Marshall Perlin, disagreed, saying that would be perceived as giving up on Julius and that would defeat efforts to reopen our parents’ case. I regret accepting his argument.

For the next decade, I groused to close comrades that we should emphasize Ethel more, but met with similar resistance about abandoning Julius. I gave talks that focused on my mother’s innocence, but did nothing further.

Two events in 2008 strengthened my determination to do more. The first was the release of Ruth Greenglass’ Grand Jury statements that demonstrated Ruth lied at trial about Ethel’s involvement. The second was my parents’ co-defendant Morton Sobell’s admission that he and Julius engaged in military-industrial espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Still, it wasn’t until 2012, when I realized that September 28, 2015 would mark Ethel’s 100th birthday, and that was the ideal time to stage a major event all about her. Now I had the answer when people asked, “but what about Julius?” Ethel was almost two years older than Julius; it was neither his birthday, nor his centenary.

With the help of several others I began the work that resulted in New York City Council Members and Manhattan’s Borough President issuing proclamations honoring Ethel on her centenary and declaring her execution wrongful. I had no way of knowing that this plan would get a boost from the release in July, 2015, of David Greenglass’ Grand Jury testimony denying Ethel’s involvement. This release also led to the New York Times publishing an Op Ed piece, written by my brother and me, calling on the Obama Administration to exonerate Ethel.

It took a few more months, but this cascade led to the RFC’s launch of the online petition campaign to pressure the Obama Administration to acknowledge the injustice done to my mother. Regardless of what the administration does, the growing public acceptance of Ethel’s innocence is a triumph. It has been a long, but ultimately fruitful, journey.

P.S. I would also love the government to declare Julius’ execution wrongful because he did not engage in atomic espionage. Such a declaration from this administration appears impossible, but what would have been Julius’ 100th birthday is still more than a year away. Perhaps a future administration will be more accommodating.

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I concur with the present strategy of clearing Ethel first, then focus on Julius. Clearing her has implications for current innocents railroaded to prison as well.

From an early age, having heard my parents feelings about Ethel and Julius, I was aware of the horrendous miscarriage of justice visited upon them and upon you and Michael. There is no doubt that they were viciously scapegoated in the light of the "Red scare" manufactured by the government. I of course signed the petition and hope that the Federal Government recognizes the injustice done to your parents and you, and publicly states Ethel's innocence, and of course, I would love to see Julius exonerated of the wrongful charges against him as well!! Yours in the struggle, Barbara Dean

Robby: I admire and support your statement about the basis for exonerating your Mother. Which is not to say that either should have been executed, for that sentence was not justified given what your Father did. Their case remains one of the great injustices of 20th-century American jurisprudence. The revelation of historical truth can be a long and torturous process. Your family deserves tremendous credit for pursuing the truth and coming to terms with it. In solidarity, Scott

I have always believed your parents were innocent. I read the papers when I was a child and the article on their execution seemed to be trying to convince the public of its right thinking. But it was cruel and had nothing to do with facts and I knew even then ( I was a kid) that there would be no reason to do that unless they had built a false case. I am truly sorry for the pain your family has suffered and I am glad that at last that some movement is happening to change the verdict even though the evil of the execution will stand through eternity.

Thanks for a very clear and painfully honest comment answering the question "What about Julius?" Both Ethel and Julius, as well as Morton Sobell (who suffered so many years behind bars), were victims of grave injustice during the horrific Cold War McCarthy era. My own parents, like yours, were ill-advised to admire the Soviet Union as much as they did, but they were kind, good people. My parents might also have "helped" the "first socialist nation," as the USSR was called, but they were just chicken farmers. There were many thousands like them who cared about workers' rights, racial justice, peace, and so on.

I am sure I signed the petition for Ethel; I would also sign one for the exoneration of Julius. This terrible event (the execution of them both) is a sorry chapter of American history and a miscarriage of justice.

I am 88 years old and still am appalled by the execution of The Rosenbergs and the children left behind during the era of the Cold War and the many injustices of that period. It would seem a belated blessing to exonerate
Ethel and further to exonerate Julius as well. It is unfortunately a case of Too little too late on the part of the
government but better late than never, at least for their children.

The blog is impressive in its clarity and honesty. I totally support his position. I can recall the lynch mob atmosphere at the height of the cold war. It is paralleled today by the "War on Terror."

As far as I'm concerned, neither Ethel nor Julius should have been executed.

I too,have signed the petition for Ethel and would also sign for Julius,but I agree that this is the direction to go with;one victory can only lead to another. I can only imagine the pain/sorrow your family has dealt with over the years;I will follow the story and be solid with you.

I agree with your statement Robert. Hard as this is for you and your brother to not fight for exoneration of both of your parents, it's very understandable given the evidence against julius. However, you should not lose sight of another major reason neither should have been executed: the US Government should not EVER be forgiven for officially executing anyone. A majority of Americans are now against the death penalty; even Supreme Court Justices probably. Getting the US Gov't to admit it should not have executed your parents, regardless of Julius' guilt, would be a significant victory. Aside from the immorality of executions in general, your mother's execution as an innocent woman is the ultimate Exhibit A of why execution is always a bad idea: innocent people get executed!

Robby, I do hope that with all of us signing the petition to exonerate your mom, that you and Michael will get the results that you have wanted for most of your lives. Good luck. I send my best to you and Ellie.

I have read extensively on the Rosenberg case and count some of their close associates, family members, and supporters among my good friends and mentors. I am convinced that Ethel was innocent of the crimes she was charged with and that there is still reasonable doubt about Julius. In any case, there was clear miscarriage of justice, but the important issue for me is not innocence or guilt, but rather the right of the State to legally execute anybody no matter what they did. The first step should be to gain exoneration for Ethel and to use the issue as a wedge in a campaign against capital punishment across the board in the United States.

My grandfather, Harold Phillips defended Morton Sobell and by having a separate trial for him managed to allow him to live. For years I believed in the total innocence of Julius and Ethel and the case has haunted me since childhood. Although evidence came to light that Julius was indeed a "spy" the issue remains the utter incomprehensibility of the execution. His "crime" in no way warranted this cruel and unusual punishment that was 100% about the times and the cold war hysteria that dominated. The fate of the children also haunted me and I am not surprised that the case lives through a grandchild. Bless your heart, Jennifer, your father and uncle. May we never, never witness such times again. Just as with the Holocaust, present and future generations must be taught what happened and why right here in America.

Defense of the Soviet Union against U.S. imperialism was no crime, but a profound expression of loyalty to the working class and oppressed people everywhere. All the criminality lies on the side of their killers. I believe both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (like millions of others in those days) understood this completely. I'm sorry you don't.

I truly hope a future administration will enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to
exonerate both Rosenbergs! How proud they would be of their children and granddaughter
for keeping this hope alive!

Our government, I think, is historically unwilling to admit doing wrong or even doing harm -- Hiroshima comes to mind, and reparations for slavery. But thank you for your principles and your appeal to the best in human nature. That, if anything, is the path to greater understanding by the people, and eventually by their leaders.

Last night my 12 year old daughter asked me if I knew who the Rosenbergs were. I asked her, do you mean Julius and Ethel? Yes, she said. I told her the abbreviated story, ending with two orphaned boys. She was horrified.

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