Along with the Haymarket and Sacco and Vanzetti trials, the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the McCarthy-era stands as among the gravest miscarriages of justice in American history.
In the last few months, the Rosenberg family has amassed over 13,000 signatures (http://www.rfc.org/ethel) calling on President Obama to issue an executive proclamation nullifying the guilty verdict for Ethel modeled after what Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts did on the 50th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The Rosenberg trial, Ethel's grand-daughter Jennifer Meeropol said in an interview last week, was a "farce" in which "government prosecutors manufactured evidence, using my grandmother as leverage against her husband, thinking he would cooperate with authorities [and name some fellow co-conspirators]. However, it didn't work out that way and the bluff was called."
According to Jennifer, the kind of tactics used by government prosecutors "cannot be allowed to stand in a functioning criminal justice system and democracy," giving urgency to the petition. "The manipulation of evidence for political purposes," Ethel's son Robert Meeropol said, "is incompatible with a free society and reflective more of totalitarian justice systems."
The Meeropols' campaign to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg has gained momentum following a 60 Minutes broadcast on October 16th which Robert called "a breakthrough" in allowing the family to present its side of the story on national network television. The shows' producers, he said, did a great deal of research and "a really good job of summarizing details in the case that have come out over decades."
The petition was first conceived following the release in July, 2015 of grand jury testimony from David Greenglass, Ethel's brother, confirming Ethel's innocence.
The transcripts show that Greenglass, the main prosecutorial witness who worked for the army weapons lab at Los Alamos, changed his story about Ethel having typewritten David's handwritten notes that accompanied a sketch of a cross-section of the atomic bomb and having persuaded his wife Ruth to recruit him into a spy ring led by Julius in order to protect Ruth from prosecution.
Ethel's only crime it appears was to protect her husband. She was never given a code name, and according to KGB agent Alexander Feklisov, "never worked for us," a fact the U.S. government knew.
On 60 Minutes, historian Ronald Radosh suggested Ethel may have been "an accessory to spying by helping [to] identify people, urging people to be recruited, suggesting that her own brother be recruited," in short "aiding and abetting those who are spying."
Robert Meeropol believes, however, that Radosh said nothing "to contradict our claims about the trial and [in essence] says he knows better than the KGB. He relies on fourth or fifth hand snippets of information based on a report allegedly given by Julius Rosenberg to some KGB agent translated into Russian and then encrypted, decrypted, and hand-copied that was found in the Soviet archive which was only open briefly. There is no independent verification of the accuracy of the report and none of the information was presented at Ethel's trial and [it] would not be admissible in court today....if the allegations weren't so serious, the evidence presented by Radosh would be laughable."
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a young Jewish couple living on the lower East Side of Manhattan who like many of their generation gravitated to leftist and communist ideals because they had experienced the harshness of the capitalist system during the Great Depression, and as Robert put it, "wanted to make the world a better place."
Described by the New York Times as a "little woman with soft and pleasant features" Ethel, Robert said, "saw people being thrown in the streets and evicted, and it was the communists helping the people to get their homes back.... They were heroic." She became a dedicated political activist who organized strikes before her 20th birthday and also sponsored blood drives and knit socks for soldiers on the front fighting against fascism during World War II.
Julius shared his wife's political commitments while working as an Army Signal Corps engineer, testifying at his trial that the Soviet government had improved "the lot of the underdog...made a lot of progress in eliminating illiteracy, built up a lot of resources [such as dams]... and contributed a major share in destroying the Hitler beast who killed six million of my co-religionists [Jews]."
Julius' main reason for collaborating with the Soviets was to help defeat the Nazi army. He gave Russian agents information on technology used for the development of jet fighters, radars and detonators, however nothing directly on the atomic bomb as declassified VENONA transcriptions of KGB files confirm.
A supposed meeting in September 1945 with Greenglass involving Ethel could not have occurred as Julius had been suspended from all ongoing activities because the KGB feared the U.S. had discovered his spying.
In December 1945, Greenglass through his wife Ruth provided the Russians crudely drawn sketches of a cross-section of the bomb related to high explosive lenses, though these were considered by experts to be "unimpressive," to display "naïve misunderstandings," and to disclose "ludicrously little" about a complex program Greenglass was minor to. (Holding a low-grade security clearance, he only had a high school degree and had failed eight classes at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute).
In June 1961, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared: "Who, in all good conscience could say that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the spies who delivered the secret of the atomic bomb into the hands of the Soviets, should have been spared when their treachery caused the shadow of annihilation to fall upon all of the world's people."
The evidence from the case, however, shows these comments to be untrue, like with the preposterous claim of Judge Irving Kaufman that the Rosenberg's caused the "communist aggression in Korea, with resultant casualties exceeding 50,000" and of Dwight Eisenhower that by "immeasurably increasing the chances of atomic war, the Rosenberg's may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people all over the world."
Robert Meeropol points out that the main reason the feds went after Julius was because he was the "recruiter who got others involved [in giving information to the Soviets]." Julius was "the idealistic head of a politically generated group who remained true to his beliefs...He was asked to turn in all his comrades, which he refused to do."
Robert says that as a child of the 1960s, he does not have the same politics as his father and recognizes his parents made some mistakes. However, he can understand why they would believe the government was "lying about Stalin when they were clearly lying about what the communists were doing in the United States."
Though he might have been personally upset, Robert feels the case could have been settled if Julius was given "maybe five or ten" years in prison instead of the death penalty. The bias of the trial was epitomized by the fact that Ray Cohn, the assistant district attorney and an aide to Joseph McCarthy, discussed the case with Judge Irving Kaufman by phone from the courthouse lobby.
Robert and his older brother Michael were raised by supporters of the Rosenberg's, Anne and Abel Meeropol, and in 1990 founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a non-profit organization now run by Jennifer, which has awarded over $6 million in helping the children of political activists facing legal problems. (http://www.rfc.org/aboutus)
Currently, the Fund is assisting children of organizers with OUR WALMART (a labor rights group) in California who were fired after protesting working conditions at the retailer; a young Black Lives Matter activist in Massachusetts who was repeatedly targeted for arrest and harassment by police; and children in a family that has received death threats and whose family dog was poisoned as a result of the parents working to protect and restore a river basin in Louisiana.
The Meeropol's experience gives them keen insights into the contradictions of American democracy, which in theory "wants everyone to participate in it," but deals rather harshly, as Robert points out, with those "who take on entrenched interests, oppose racial discrimination and militarized police forces and take on the multi-national corporations that are destroying our planet."
Robert added that "when someone sticks their head out above the crowd and powerful forces want to lop it off, we [Rosenberg Fund for Children] come to their aid...One goal [of the foundation] is to encourage ordinary people with family concerns to keep engaging in society."
The petition to exonerate Ethel fits well with the Rosenberg Fund's mission. Its importance is magnified in a political climate where the Democratic Party presidential candidate accuses the Republican candidate of being a Russian agent and where the Republican has proposed reinstituting loyalty oaths and was mentored by the Rosenberg's prosecutor, Roy Cohn.
In our interview, Jennifer cited a speech by President Obama repudiating calls to ban Muslim immigrants in which Obama acknowledged we "had gone through moments in history when we acted out of fear," saying this was a "shameful part of our history."
The act of exonerating Ethel would help transcend this shameful past, and is something valuable Obama can do before he exits the presidential stage.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012). For a well-researched account of the Rosenberg case, see Walter and Miriam Schneir, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case (Melville House, 2010).