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50 year anniversary of the Rosenberg's execution
June 20, 2003 4:04 PM   Subscribe

Robert Meeropol, the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, writes about his parents. I'm suprised nobody else posted about this yesterday--June 19th was the 50th anniversary of their execution for espionage.
The executions at Sing Sing on June 19, 1953, ended a sensational Cold War case that still symbolizes the years when McCarthyism held sway and the government's word was accepted more readily than today. It was the first execution of civilians for espionage in U.S. history and it reverberated into the issues of dissent, anti-Semitism and capital punishment.
Pete Seeger and others comment here; the Guardian here. The Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Trial (which features representations of the couple by Picasso, among others) notes that:
In August of 1993, members of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation re-enacted the 1951 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A moot trial was conducted with expertise and meticulous concern for accuracy. The unanimous verdict of the twelve jurors was "Not Guilty." This "trial" and its dramatic outcome was widely reported by the media - for one day only.
posted by jokeefe (20 comments total)

 
Thanks for this.
posted by plep at 4:15 PM on June 20, 2003


You are very welcome, plep. I just wish it was a happier post. :)
I didn't want to make the FPP too long, so I didn't go on to mention just how international a story this was. From the Guardian article:

Fifty years on, the Rosenbergs' trial and execution remains the most potent emblem of this gruesome period in US history. Jean-Paul Sartre described the execution as "a legal lynching that has covered a whole nation in blood". "When two innocents are sentenced to death, it is the whole world's business," he added.

And the world duly made the Rosenbergs their business. Before their execution, American embassies across the globe were flooded with petitions and letters; one protester was killed in the crush at a "Liberez les Rosenbergs" rally in the Place de la Concorde, Paris.

posted by jokeefe at 4:35 PM on June 20, 2003


Also in the Globe and Mail - 'Michael and Robert Meeropol look around the United States today, and they are struck by the resemblance to June 19, 1953: the day their parents were executed by the U.S. government ... '; and the Guardian... lessons to be learned from this, indeed. Thanks again.
posted by plep at 4:37 PM on June 20, 2003


NPR's Michele Norris spoke with Meeropol on All Things Considered yesterday, and it was the Talk of the Nation the day before. Both very interesting shows.

RealPlayer or Windows Media Player required to listen. Yeah, I know: lesser of two evils?
posted by DakotaPaul at 5:17 PM on June 20, 2003


It's important to remember the trial as a grotesque hallmark of a grotesque time. The Rosenbergs should certainly not have been executed, and the execution of Ethel was particularly evil: she was only charged to put pressure on her husband, and when that didn't work they cynically went ahead with it. What was one life, or two, compared with the battle against Communism, after all?

But we should not lose sight of the fact that Julius was unquestionably guilty. And I for one can have no respect for Sartre's position, which had nothing to do with morality but was a simple reflection of the position of the Communist Party. Had the PCF taken a different position, so would he. In the words of Ron Radosh:
The orchestrated international Communist effort to depict the Rosenbergs as innocent martyrs worked--witness how Sartre and others responded to the two episodes at the time. I have argued in _The Rosenberg File_ that the timing of the Party's entry into the campaign to save the Rosenbergs can only be understood in the context of the Slansky purge trial. Indeed, the Rosenberg Defense committee was founded in Paris the very same day of Slansky's execution in Prague. As Jacque Duclos, the French Stalinist put it, "the conviction of . . . Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was an example of anti-Semitism, but the execution of eight Jews in Czechoslovakia last week was not."
I hope the farther-left among us will take my word for it that I am not a professional anti-Communist; I think the American Communists were wrong but were subject to far worse than any harm they themselves ever did. But there are few heroes in this story.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 PM on June 20, 2003


Quoting Satre, as I did, was mostly to illustrate just how involved the American and European intelligentsia were with this case, and how many great names rallied to the Roseberg's defense: Einstein, for example, made a plea for clemency. In some ways, my contempt for nationalism is so ingrained that I almost don't care whether or not they were guilty; I find I just can't really conceive of executing civilians simply for passing along information to another country. Yes, I suppose that this is simplistic, even naive. Did I mention that I was brought up in the Unitarian Church?

I am not a professional anti-Communist

Better not be! And to think I let you buy me dinner! Oy!

:) :)
posted by jokeefe at 6:01 PM on June 20, 2003


Now that the VENONA intercepts have been released, it is abundantly clear that they were guilty. The son won't debate the facts as they are known because they clearly show that the Rosenbergs were Soviet spies.
posted by cameldrv at 7:00 PM on June 20, 2003


I just can't really conceive of executing civilians simply for passing along information to another country.

Nor can I. But then I don't believe in executing people, period.

cameldrv: Julius was a Soviet spy. Ethel was a loyal wife. Let's keep the details straight.
posted by languagehat at 7:10 PM on June 20, 2003


While I agree that the death penalty is barbaric, Julius did hand over important information that helped the Soviet Union build nuclear weapons. That's hardly the sort of thing we should just brush off as unimportant. Ethel's death was of course, incredibly unfortunate, but I find it hard to cry for Julius' fate.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 7:37 PM on June 20, 2003


Pseudoephedrine: "incredibly unfortunate":
That is not exactly the phrase that springs to mind, at least for me, concerning cases in which innocent civilians are put to death by their own governments. "Abrogation of the Constitutional protections ostensibly afforded all Americans" *is* one, however, as is "criminal murder."

I wonder if you'd be so callous if the government declared vendetta on someone close to you.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:32 PM on June 20, 2003


Pseudoephedrine: "incredibly unfortunate":
That is not exactly the phrase that springs to mind, at least for me, concerning a case in which an innocent civilian is put to death by her own government, knowingly. "Abrogation of the Constitutional protections ostensibly afforded all Americans" *is* one, however, as is "unpunished criminal murder."

I wonder if you'd be so callous if the government declared vendetta on someone close to you.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:33 PM on June 20, 2003


LOL...excellent! Look at that editing process go!
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:35 PM on June 20, 2003


For those needing context, Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies from NOVA (which will be rebroadcast in August) includes transcripts of some of the cables, especially this incriminating one. The brothers Meeropol were interviewed.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on June 20, 2003



Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?

'George Orwell, venerated as "the wintry conscience of a generation", gave the British government a list of 38 suspected or actual communist sympathisers, the Guardian reveals today.' Here's a list of some of them.
posted by plep at 3:06 AM on June 21, 2003


plep: Welll the man absolutely had no love of communism (witness Animal Farm) so I'm not suprised.
posted by PenDevil at 5:20 AM on June 21, 2003


I'm suprised nobody else posted about this yesterday-

I have a book of art and writing about the Rosenbergs from the 40th anniversary, full of all kinds of big names (Vonnegut, Sue Coe, Picasso, Alice Neel, EL Doctorow, etc etc) but that was back when people still thought they were innocent. I think the issue gets less attention now because you can disagree with capital punishment and the insanity of nationalism / espionage / etc, but it doesn't have the same force as a government mad with power killing civilians.

As for the tragedy of Ethel, at least some people might put some of the responsibility there on Julius - ?

Really what the Rosenbergs make me think of is the opening line to The Bell Jar...
posted by mdn at 6:37 AM on June 21, 2003


great post, jokeefe - thanks.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:26 AM on June 21, 2003


I find the 20/20 hindsight arguments about crime and punishment so very amusing. Be it Sacco & Vanzetti, Alger Hiss, or Julius & Ethel, the essential element is always to ignore whether they were guilty of whatever heinous crime in favor of "how awful that they were punished!"

The irony is that their crimes are ignored because of "membership", which if to the *right* group, is a "Get out of Jail, Free" card. Sacco & Vanzetti are innocent, because they are Italian Anarchists. Julius & Ethel are innocent, because they are Jewish Communists. Alger Hiss was "persecuted" simply for being a Communist spy against evil America, the bad guys.

Crapola.
posted by kablam at 11:46 AM on June 21, 2003


That might be a little harsh, kablam.

Julius Rosenberg was probably guilty, it's true, but there was still injustice here. Sacco & Vanzetti and Alger Hiss were innocent according to the evidence (arguably. I'm not gonna debate the actual cases, that's already been done by smarter people than me), but they were railroaded because of their memberships, not absolved of guilt by them.

The irony is that their crimes are ignored because of "membership", which if to the *right* group, is a "Get out of Jail, Free" card.

This statement is just wrong. Has anyone given a passionate defense of Leon Czolgosz lately? The SLA? Baader-Meinhof? No, not by anyone sane, anyway? Why? because despite any political sympathies, these groups were guilty. Use your head, man.
posted by jonmc at 6:59 AM on June 22, 2003 [1 favorite]


Thank you, jonmc.
posted by jokeefe at 12:22 PM on June 22, 2003


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