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Revisiting the Rosenberg Executions

Why civil liberties are taking a backseat to national security haunts Robert Meeropol, son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

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Robert Meeropol was 6 in 1953 when his parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, members of the American Communist Party, were executed after being found guilty of giving the secret of the atomic bomb to the USSR. Robert and his brother, Michael, who was 10 when his parents were executed, were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol. The adoptive parents, though less overtly political, were progressives: Abel, a songwriter, wrote the anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit" popularized by Billie Holiday.

 

The boys grew up outside of New York City, neither revealing their true identity nor being discovered by the media. Then, in the early '70s, they went public, launching a Freedom of Information Act suit against the federal government and securing court transcripts and FBI files that, they claim, prove that their parents, whose case was pursued at the height of the McCarthy era and Korean War, did not get a fair trial. Robert Meeropol once maintained his parents' innocence; today he argues that his mother was not a spy and that the government, at best, proved that his father had contact with the KGB but not that he provided the blueprint for the atomic bomb. Meeropol also takes some pride in the fact that, when pressed by prosecutors about their political affiliations and fellow travelers, they invoked the Fifth Amendment.

 

Last June, on the 50th anniversary of his parents' execution, Meeropol published a memoir, An Execution in the Family. The book chronicles the surprisingly stable childhood he owes to his adoptive parents, his anti-war activism in the '70s and finally, after stints as a professor and lawyer, his founding of the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990. The non-profit funds educational and recreational activities for children whose parents are imprisoned or otherwise financially imperiled because of their progressive activism. Meeropol says the fund, which gave away $260,000 last year, is "my way of taking the destruction that was visited on my family and turning it into something constructive."

 

Meeropol will be in Pittsburgh for appearances at Carnegie Mellon University on March 22 and at the University of Pittsburgh Law School on March 23.

 

How knowledgeable are people today about your parents' case?

The average response to anyone under 40 to, "What do you think of the Rosenberg case?" is, "What case?" -- unfortunately. Most people know nothing about the case or their knowledge is extremely vague.

 

Why should we remember the Rosenbergs?

My parents' case was critical to the formation of the Cold War ideology during the McCarthy period. It was sort of the lynchpin, one of those events in which people said, "A ha! American spies stole the secret of the atomic bomb -- that shows the international communist conspiracy's going to destroy our way of life."

 

You've said that the operative question about your parents is not if they're guilty, but "guilty of what?" How'd you arrive at that question yourself?

I didn't know anything about the facts of my parents' case when I was growing up, but my brother, who was older, told me they were innocent and the Meeropols told me they were innocent and I believed that emotionally.

 

Our Freedom of Information Act suit in the '70s forced the release of documents that showed government misconduct, how unfair the trial was, the inventing of evidence -- and then that convinced me even intellectually that they were innocent.

 

But then I went to law school in the 1980s when I was in my 30s and I realized that, yeah, we proved the trial was unfair, and we proved that the government invented evidence and that there was misconduct. And I think we showed pretty conclusively that they didn't steal the secret of the atomic bomb. But did we show that they weren't involved in any sort of spying at all? And after all, since they were charged [not with spying itself but] with this vague "conspiracy to commit espionage," could I say that they were innocent of that? And I realized I couldn't. And ultimately that frames my view to this day, where I still would call myself an agnostic.

 

And does being "agnostic" in this way make you think less of your parents' legacy?

The minute I admitted that Julius Rosenberg might have been involved with the KGB during World War II, I realized that I didn't feel as badly about it as I thought I would. I thought about them as conscious political actors who made a principled determination that, look, maybe we're not completely innocent, but we didn't do what they're saying we did and we're not going to bear false witness against anybody else, and that is our bottom line and we're going to stand up for that no matter what the consequences. I take greater pride in that than them just being innocent victims.

 

Are your opinions about the case dismissed because you have this profound personal interest?

Certain academics have made a profession -- or part of their profession -- out of my parents' case. And they realize that they can score debating points by pointing out that, you know, I'm my parents' child and therefore I'm psychologically incapable of looking at the situation in a fair and unbiased manner.

 

If your last name were Nixon you'd be defending Watergate.

Exactly. But as I'm approaching 60 -- I'm 56 now -- I'm not like a small child who has to defend mommy and daddy no matter what. It's gone way beyond that.

 

Doesn't the hindsight that McCarthy's witch-hunts of the '50s were an abomination lend to a perception that your parents' case should be re-examined outside of the context of that hysteria?

Well, if you go to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and read certain books now you find that there's this whole revisionist history of people trying to say that McCarthy was right, that all the releases of the KGB files and documents show that there were spies all over the place. They say that McCarthy might have gotten the wrong people and he might have been a little excessive, but the witch-hunts were justified in the '50s because there really were witches.

 

I recently heard a local conservative talk show host, Jim Quinn, say that very thing, that McCarthy might have been a little "brash," but he was right about the Communist conspiracy.

Of course that's really dangerous because what they're talking about is not 1953 but 2004, and they want to set the stage to bring it back to the present. Since 2001 the immigrant community has been attacked -- if you're South Asian or Middle Eastern and you're Muslim, than it's probably a really nervous time for you here in the United States and you never can tell when a knock will come from the FBI.

 

If you're a typical American leftist, and you don't go out on the streets of Miami or something where you're going to be shot down by rubber bullets and tear gas whether you're doing anything illegal or not, you're probably going to be OK. But that doesn't mean that if the left begins to make a certain amount of headway and the American public gets really fed up and we begin to strike a responsive chord, all those laws that have been put in place to quote-unquote "protect us from terrorism" won't be turned against us in order to silence us. So when people start talking about how McCarthy wasn't so bad after all, it should send chills down our spine.

 

So in a way perhaps people can now better understand what happened to the Rosenbergs?

It's still hard for people to understand or come to terms with the fact that our government executed two people who had only been convicted of the crime of conspiracy. They're often referred to as being convicted of treason or espionage -- they were neither tried nor convicted of either. They were only convicted of planning to commit espionage. The level of proof was much lower. People sort of have a hard time believing that, but maybe in post-9/11 America, with our attitude toward civil liberties somewhat up in that air, people can see that that might happen.

 

Where do you see the stage perhaps being set in that way?

Our executive branch of government has declared that they have the right to declare any American citizen an "enemy combatant" on the say-so of a Justice Department official and take away all their rights, deny them their right to counsel, just hold them before a military tribunal. There's the [more than 600] people at Guantanamo [Bay, Cuba], and we don't know what's going to happen to them. We are entering a kind of legal never-never land -- all justified by fear.

 

And that brings the whole thing full circle to the McCarthy period. The reason the American public did not put up a lot of fuss about my parents' execution is because we were at war and they were terrified that the international communist conspiracy was going to destroy our way of life. Everybody said that means civil liberties have to take a backseat to national security. And now people are saying, "I don't know whether those people at Guantanamo are the right people. But we really don't want to take a chance." Because we're frightened, we're willing to let horrible things happen to other people. Of course the World Trade Center was a terrible attack and everybody's fearful of something like that happening again, but at the same time we seem to have a double standard about such things. We're willing to risk someone else's freedom for our protection, but if the shoe were on the other foot, we'd scream bloody murder.

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