Guest blog by Robert Meeropol, Rosenberg Fund for Children Founder & son of Ethel & Julius Rosenberg
It has been a year since the release of David Greenglass’s grand jury testimony in which he denied my mother, Ethel Rosenberg’s, involvement in espionage. This was the final element necessary for me to pursue a plan I’d thought about for decades.
As my brother and I began the effort to reopen our parents’ case in 1973, I noticed that while almost everyone on both sides talked about “the Rosenbergs,” the debate focused 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.
Two events in 2008 strengthened my determination to focus more on my mother. The first was the release of Ruth Greenglass’s 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 non-atomic, military-industrial espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
Ruth’s testimony was released in 2008 because she’d died earlier that year. But we had to wait for David’s death six years later, and endure another year of legal maneuvers to overcome his family’s objections, before we gained access to David’s testimony. Once we had that material in hand, we were able to demonstrate that neither David nor Ruth provided evidence against Ethel in their sworn grand jury testimony.
Armed with this final puzzle piece, last August my brother and I published an Op Ed in The New York Times which called on President Obama to exonerate Ethel. The enormous support we received in response, led the Rosenberg Fund for Children to launch the petition we plan to present to the President later this year.
Some supporters have expressed concern that by singling out Ethel, we’ve neglected the injustice done to my father. Exonerating my father is more complicated. Morton Sobell’s 2008 admission, coupled with other evidence, prevents us from claiming his complete innocence. Still, he was executed for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb, a crime he did not commit, and the trial testimony necessary to convict him was false.
Julius grew up during the great depression on Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side. He joined the Communist Party after witnessing its efforts to alleviate suffering in his neighborhood. He saw the rise of fascism in Europe and admired the young men who volunteered to fight Franco’s Nazi-supported army in Spain. When World War II erupted, he determined to help the Soviet Union defeat what he called “the Hitler beast.” Bad eyesight kept him out of the armed forces, so he organized several young scientists and engineers to share cutting edge military-industrial information with the USSR.
By 1950, when the government arrested Julius, Russia (our WWII ally) had become our enemy. In order to avoid confronting more powerful atomic scientists who had shared information with their Russian counterparts, Justice Department attorneys and FBI agents conspired to transform my passionately idealistic father, whose goal was to help the Soviet Union defend itself, into a master atomic spy. Next, they arrested Ethel, even though they knew she was not a spy, and involved the judge in their conspiracy. With Judge Kaufman’s connivance, they used the death penalty to try to coerce my parents to confess to a crime they did not commit and to rat out the friends Julius had recruited.
Facing death, Julius and Ethel agreed that they would never bow to the government’s demands or betray their comrades. Even though both believed that helping to defeat Hitler was essential, I suspect they thought Ethel was insulated from Julius’ illegal activities.
I don’t think they ever considered that Julius might face execution, or that the government would develop a diabolical plan to arrest and hold Ethel hostage with a death sentence. I believe what happened to Ethel was likely my father’s greatest regret. That’s why I’m certain that Julius would have given his wholehearted support to the Exonerate Ethel Campaign.
Thank you, Robert. For your passionate yet grounded and nuanced explanation of why the campaign for Ethel makes so much sense. I had already signed the petition, but so many thanks for reminding us of the context - of history, of fascism, of the Cold War and McCarthyism and the betrayal of judges. Thanks for all of it. You help make it possible for those of us too young to have fought those fights, to still stand on the shoulders of those who went before.
People were giving false evidence and this caused Ethel save the personal harm.Let her be exonerated.
This case is particularly cruel. For one, We (I) the People killed two fine human beings. They were not murderers or haters or greedy or even ordinary, they were idealistic at a time when the world had gone crazy. Both were loving people and carried loyalty in their hearts. They were tied together and had hope that justice would prevail at a time when America was taken over by hate.
It has been a long saga to find the truth. Finding it doesn't make their deaths easier, but it does bring some justice to an issue weighing heavily on so many people who fought to find the truth.
Whenever I see comments like this (from above) "We (I) the People killed two fine human beings. " I must object. Neither you, nor I, committed this atrocity. The administration of imperialism did, through the agency of specific individuals--not you and I. There is no moral valor in accepting guilt for that which we did not do. Guilt is neither appropriate for us who understand this injustice, nor is it politically useful.
Instead, we must redouble our energy to preclude any similar events (e.g., instant execution of American citizens who happen to be Afro-American.) This system is brittle--hard but fragile, and it is unsustainable. That means it will come to an end. How that happens is something for which we can take responsibility, not accepting false guilt.
Just the point that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel made:
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
He applied it to the Viet Nam War, for example.
I am very happy that you, Jenn, and Robert have published this information. I have been one who has felt somewhat distressed about the campaign, in that focusing only on Ethel could have implied vilification of Julius. I respect everyone in your family very much, and I do support the campaign to exonerate Ethel. I wish only that all people could know that Julius acted in the best interest of humanity. Maybe that will be the next step. I will feel obliged to join you. With gratitude for the work YOU have done for humanity, Andrea Devine, Cambridge, MA
I am moved by the ways you deeply honor both your parents. Sending love.
It is so important that the truth come out now when we face such perilous times.
We will probably be very close to a nuclear holocaust If Trump and the Republicans get in office. Let's hope for more activists to save us.
Re: "If Trump and the Republicans get in office." Scared of Trump? Disgusted by Hill? Vote for Jill! Ever since (at least) LBJ was the "peace candidate (sic) vs Goldwater (the war candidate) they have played the "lesser of two evils " game. Time to opt out of THEIR game and break new bold ground. The best way to honor Ethel and Julius is to put an end to this rapacious empire. Anyone disagree?
Your relative(s) were wrongfully convicted. I think everyone who cares to look realizes that an injustice was done. I'd prefer your efforts and money were spent on current injustices and the prevention of same. I don't want to insult and I know you care deeply. I just don't care that my relatives from way back might have rooted for the injustice...so what, the current government needs our efforts for justice now.
If this causes you any pain I apologize. The email was sent unsolicited.
The truth is of utmost importance because its denial leads to illness both mental and physical on both the personal and societal levels. The fundamental falsehood behind the Rosenberg's trial and execution is only one of many falsehoods that the US government has promoted (and still promotes) in order to advance its agenda of the day. The horrific tragedies resulting from present and past US policies on both the domestic and international stages are the consequence of a broad American societal illness the result of decades and centuries of denial. We must own up to the falsehoods and injustices of the past as well as the present to regain the health of our society. This is true patriotism.
Yes, exonerate Ethyle, but also expose the treachery of the US government in their persecution of Julius.
My Mom's folks were Jewish Bolsheviks from Russia. I was born on Labor day 1942 the day US intelligence claim Julius began to work with Russia. I was a target in early 50's when George Bush Sr wanted me to spy on my family who were good friends of Gus Hall and my Dad was a fellow Traveler of CPUSA. I refused to spy for Bush, told my family, friends and Teachers at School. The FBI came over but dad reused to talk and was scared. Actually he saved the Bush Family by keeping quiet. He knew Presscott and got his first job out of High school as a life guard at the Bush's Country Club in Columbus Ohio. But they knew I knew too much so in the 60's Phil Ochs and I were set up with fist hand knowledge of the JFK assassination and about a month or so before the US Government rogues with the mob involved ambush in Dallas, the CIA flew me to Mobile Alabama with my wife Jean to get a publicity Photo for the Hollywood Hootenanny Tour through the South which I was told by the managers they wanted me on even after I told them I was warned not to go because President Kennedy would be killed in the South. I reported this to the FBI headquarters in Tampa August of 91 when I ran against Bush as a write in candidate in Florida. The Spy game is dangerous. Oleg Kalugin asked me to work for Russia in the early 70's but he left happily relived when I told him I spy for everyone not any nation. When I asked my Grandma in the 50's when this all "started again" she said when Roosevelt died. When I told her about Bush in the 50's she was scared about the Rosenberg case and Bush was talking to me about Alger Hiss. The dark days of our Russophobia may be coming to a new light but that is my hope talking. Don't give up for Peace and Justice.
Julius was trying to defeat Hitler when he gave information out? I can't see that being a crime especially when the Soviets were allies at that particular time. I think I'd government was worried about the rosenbergs giving the USSR information on the bomb. I don't know as much as I should about their case but it certainly sounds like a setup to me.
I agree completely with what you have done to win the exoneration your mother. An additional point needs to be made that relates to the death penalty in this country today. The execution of Ethel Rosenberg by a government that knew she was innocent shows how low those in power will stoop to further their terrible ends. This is going on today. There are innocent people on death row. A few of many examples: Troy Davis was innocent and yet he was executed even though all the witnesses recanted their testimony against him. Two prosecutors who sent innocent people to death row, one in Louisiana (who was finally exonerated after 30 years in prison), one in Texas (who was executed--Ruben Cantu), have admitted doing this. Kevin Cooper, on death row in California, has appeals judges writing in dissent that "California may be about to execute an innocent man." The circumstances that allowed your innocent mother to be executed are circumstances that prevail today, which makes your work to have Ethel posthumously exonerated, of utmost importance to us all.
The "fall guy paranoia" of the McCarthy years claimed justification of the execution of Ethel and of Julius too. Raw and brutal, senseless! I, of course exonerate them both Ethel and Julius. Whistleblowers are revolutionaries. Long live whistleblowers! Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. Don't stop pulling back the veil!
I think my parents knew your parents from NYC and I believe Michael went to New Lincoln Kindergarten with my sister. And if I'm not mistaken, our parents were in the same circle of friends, card-carrying and cardless.
Hope you succeed in exonerating Ethel. Our government did many nasty things to people in the 1950's.
First of all, peace be with you and your brother, your children, and the Metropols.
When I was first forming my political views, I read John Wexley's "The Judgement of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" as well as the poignant and revelatory book by yourself and your brother, "We Are Your Sons." The courage of your parents has been a shining star of example throughout my life, in that era of oppression. The horror of their fate, and your experience as their children, has been a kind of horrific example of the state gone wrong. I was cheered to hear about this campaign to pardon Ethel. Of course, I thought immediately: 'Why not Julius?' but as immediately realised the case would be more difficult, possibly insurmountably so. I am so sorry. But I wanted to write you a note to say that, even though you do not know me, I am just one person of many who remember, and who care. I realize this is not of any material aid, but here it is. I will always be a better person and more apt to act for good in this world because of the courage and immense sacrifice of your parents, and of yourself and you family.
Julius "... was executed for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb, a crime he did not commit, and the trial testimony necessary to convict him was false." So what is the logic of seeking the exoneration of just Ethel?
The fact is that neither were guilty of the crimes for which they were executed. Neither of the Rosenbergs would consent to trying to exonerate one and not the other. As well intention as the effort might be it is
misguided and completely out of character of the Rosenbergs.
I've signed the petition, and I'm glad that you and your children are continuing to keep the issue alive. It may take generations, but some times truth seeps into the history that the victors (or, in this case, the executioners) want to exclude. Strength and love for you and everyone who's working on exonerating Ethel and putting the actions of Julius in the proper context. Both of them remain heroes in my heart.
From everything you say it seems clear to me that Julius was a brave anti-fascist and a heroic defender of the poor. Exoneration today is a mere technicality. The process of fighting to achieve it is more important than the actual result. For an exoneration from drone happy Obama, check happy Clinton or god-forbid, trigger happy Trump would hardly do justice to the Rosenbergs, who belong to the galaxy of American legends like Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti.
Not mentioned in any of the prior comments is the overwhelming likelihood that antisemitism played a big role in the decision to convict and murder julius and ethel.
I have already signed the petition. Very glad to see this explanation of the context in which the murder of Ethel and Julius took place. I wasn't too young to remember, and their execution was a traumatic day. For many Jews and others the rise of fascism made political left wing movements the only security they saw. Having had to move to another country to fully learn and understand the role of the Soviet Union in fighting fascism and liberating the survivors of the camps, I agree that it is essential, especially in the current situation of the rise of the right wing and radical right, to look at history full in the face. Thank you and your family.
I am moved by your principled commitment and determination to exonerate your Mother. In so doing, as I’m sure you are aware, you will not only exonerate her, but you will serve as a model for others of us to stand up to, as Phyllis Bennis reminds us, McCarthyism - and blind capitalist anti-communism, so prevalent today.
Thank you for all you are doing. I’m with you.
Let's hope that President Obama has the courage in the lame-duck session to exercise his right of Presidential Pardon/Exoneration. Wish I was optimistic about the chances of that but I have followed the cases of too many death row men and women to be optimistic.
Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Like your father I saw socialist ideals as much more advanced ethics than the ethics of capitalism. If asked, if in a position to do what your father did, I would have done the same. But that is not the central question. The central question is that he was framed, mock tried, and executed for a crime he did not comitt, and probably did not even exist.
Ethel is an example of what is wrong with the death penalty. I am sending this to my friends all over the world to see if by exonerating Ethel somehow we are reminded of all other innocents who were murdered by the State and all the others still languishing in death rows.
I got Jenn Meeropol's e-mail (and blog) about this recently. I saw where Phyllis Bennis (among others) has said she signed the petition to overturn Ethel's conviction. Is there a link to the petition? If so, I didn't see it. So could you please send it to me again (or for the first time) to: firstname.lastname@example.org Thanx, Paul Corell (= Brooklyn supporter of RFC)
We salute their struggle againsta faxcism. I appreciate your efforts to make the history straight and remind the US about their injustice to your parents.
Please keep up this great cause
Must be both husband and wife exoneration. How ugly power and corruption can be. This is a long time in coming. I remember how my parents grieved after this monumental injustice and now all needs to come out and the powers that be need to be held accountable. How many others that we do not know about? We have nerve to point fingers at other countries atrocities. I wish for both your parents to be exonerated.
There are a lot of books out there citing the Venona papers and KGB leaks as "proof" Julius was a spy. But these are all 1) partial 2) both decoded and translated 3) far from a complete picture. One message in particular claimed the Ethel in question was 'of delicate health' and didn't work; does that sound like Ethel Rosenberg? Clearly there were two indictments -- the one on paper and the one the judge and prosecutors pounded orally. Whatever Julius' activities, he and Ethel clearly were NOT guilty of "passing 'the' secret of the atom bomb to The Enemy." If they can exonerate Dr. Mudd, they can exonerate both Rosenbergs.
Can you sue the Federal Government for wrongful death of Ethel, in light of the new evidence? That could achieve the same aim as your petition.
Eventually all secrets are brought out into the light. One way or another you will see you're parent's names cleared.
Remember, God sees but he waits.
GOD bless you for doing the "right" thing and for never giving up in your search for the truth. May you live to to 100, and me 100 minus one day. So that I'll never know that a great woman like you has passed away.............Ramon Pina
Kennedy may have made a mistake in assuming Nazis LOST WWII.