I thought that last Thursday’s televised bear-baiting event — amusingly misnamed a “debate” — in which numerous Republican candidates took softball swings at hardball questions thrown in their direction by uncooperative Fox journalists, would have at least one bright aspect: it would give me an easy week blogwise, as it has given most of the political commentators of the nation.
But then on Monday there appeared in The Times an op-ed essay by Michael and Robert Meeropol entitled, “Exonerate Our Mother, Ethel Rosenberg.” So the Rosenberg case has trumped Trump in my mind.
I wrote a little essay about it a year ago when the death of David Greenglass was announced, but it continues to worry my mind, as it probably worries others of my generation. Ethel Rosenberg may no longer command much “name recognition,” but she played a significant role in the history of mid-century America, and especially of the Cold War and of McCarthyism.
On June 19, 1953, she and her husband Julius, having been convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, were executed by electrocution at Sing Sing prison. Julius Rosenberg and Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, were accused of giving the "secret" of the atomic bomb to Russian espionage agents. Ethel Rosenberg and others were believed to be conspirators. The Rosenbergs left two young children — Michael (b. 1943) and Robert (b. 1947) — who were later adopted by the singer-songwriter Abel Meeropol, whose name they adopted.
The guiltlessness of the Rosenbergs was an article of faith among American Communists, of whom there were still a surprising number in 1950 and among some other segments of the American Left. The Meeropol brothers spent many years of their adult lives loudly proclaiming their parents’ innocence and, thus, the injustice of their deaths. Only fairly recently, with the publication of once-secret Russian espionage intercepts and the actual public confession of one of Julius' still-living fellow spies, did they come to acknowledge that their father was in fact a spy. They now focus their efforts at righting ancient wrongs on the case of their mother.
Should Ethel Rosenberg be exonerated? I certainly wish she had not been executed. The trauma inflicted upon the Rosenberg children in these circumstances probably cannot be easily imagined. I have furthermore come to oppose capital punishment on general principle.
There never was a single secret of the atomic bomb, though Greenglass' crude sketch of an implosion lens might have been a big help to Russian bomb engineers. The evidence suggests that the vigor of the government’s prosecution of Ethel was intended to put pressure on Julius and encourage him to confess.
According to the Meeropol brothers that evidence “demonstrates conclusively that our mother was prosecuted primarily for refusing to turn on our father." If I had been grading their essay in a writing course I would have written in the margin here: “Take greater care with your adverbs.” Conclusion is frequently in the mind of the concluder, and the fact that Ethel may have been primarily prosecuted in attempt to force a confession from Julius does not mean that she was not rightly prosecuted as a collaborator in espionage, as I continue to believe she was.
That Ethel Rosenberg’s execution was a possible judicial blunder I can accept. The prosecutors' strategy was probably maladroit. But I cannot accept the argument — or rather the simple assertion — that Ethel was an innocent person knowingly framed by malevolent government prosecutors. Some “evidence” on which the Meeropols make such an insinuation approaches the ridiculous. Since the Soviet intercepts did not assign to her a code name as they did to her husband (“Liberal”), she could not have been involved.
On the other hand, there may well have been an injustice of omission if not of commission. Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, were as gung-ho Communists as the Rosenbergs themselves and considerably more naive. Ruth Greenglass, very likely an active conspirator or at least a wannabe, was never charged.
When a few years back I almost accidentally, and certainly naively, began writing my book, "The Anti-Communist Manifestos," I was unaware of what a beargarden the field of American Communist history was. Essentially I found an arena in which the political battles of the 1930s are refought with vituperation and footnotes, though more of the former than the latter.
As I got deeper into my book I was forced to confront and try to explain the fact that a significant number of idealistic American intellectuals — and in France and some other European countries a huge number — had been either actual members of the Communist Party or pretty vigorous fellow travelers. All Western Communist parties of the time were slavishly indentured to Stalin’s Russia, and by 1950 inquiring minds knew, or should have known, a great deal about the appalling realities of the Soviet regime. Hence an American Communist of that period had the rather stark choice of being a fool or a knave.
Most were in the former category — true believers for whom the realities of actual Communist power in practice were nothing more than lies and capitalist propaganda. The syndrome is eloquently analyzed in literally dozens of autobiographies of ex-Communists, but I especially recommend Arthur Koestler.
The conspiracy in which Julius Rosenberg undoubtedly played a central role and his wife probably played a minor one was of a different sort. It was knavishly criminal, treasonous and dangerous. The Meeropols’ current argument is that Ethel was convicted of participation in it on the basis of perjured evidence by her brother and sister-in-law, the motive of their lies being the protection of Ruth.
In this scenario David lied to save his guilty wife, while Julius merely refused to tell the truth to save his innocent wife. Such a scenario would provide an interesting gloss on Julius’ character but not, in my opinion, grounds for the exoneration of Ethel