I ended my last post (Aug 25) by posing a question about why the Grand Jury investigating my parents’ case was so interested in Helene Elitcher’s recollection of the social lives of my parents and their friends: what did this have to do with stealing the secret of the atomic bomb?
The Grand Jury wanted to link all these people, at least some of whom denied knowing each other, to one another and to the Communist Party. A picture emerges of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their friends at the hub of an energetic and politically engaged community of Communist Party members and their allies. Many of them were recent college graduates, starting careers and families. They’d grown up in poverty during the Depression, sometimes even going hungry and cold. Yet they rose to the top of their classes in high school, some became the first members of their families to attend college, and all aspired to bring economic and racial justice to the world.
They were in some ways the 1940’s equivalent of my friends and me in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the end of the 1960’s, although none of my friends grew up in poverty. Just as the Grand Juries of the 1960’s and 70’s, in the guise of investigating violence and bombings, sought to infiltrate, intimidate and isolate radical young activists, this one in 1950, in the name of uncovering espionage, sought to do the same to my parents’ generation. This doesn’t mean that none of the Grand Juries' targets committed crimes, but rather that the investigators’ political agendas went miles beyond preventing illegal acts. Destroying such activist communities was a key objective of these agents of repression.
These witch hunts continue to this day. We do not have access to recent Grand Jury interrogations of radical environmental activists, but a similar scenario has played out around activists caught up in the Green Scare cases in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. Once again the targets are energetic and politically engaged communities of radical young people. And once again, the Grand Jury’s object has as much to do with destroying these communities and their activist impulses as it does with preventing illegal activity.
In my parents’ case, it is telling that less than a half-dozen of the 46 witnesses interrogated by the Grand Jury were called to testify at my parents’ trial. This indicates not only how little evidence of espionage was uncovered, but also what a fishing expedition it was. However, the 40 or so witnesses who were not called to testify at my parents’ trial still had their lives thrown into turmoil, their careers disrupted or even destroyed, and many of their relationships severed.
The Grand Jury minutes revealed some specifics of my parents’ lives I had not known, but I must have intuitively sensed the importance to them of activist community. That makes it all the more fitting that one of the central aims of the RFC’s program has always been to protect and develop progressive networks under attack from repressive forces.
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