ROBERT and Michael Meeropol, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were orphaned when their parents were sent to the electric chair in June 1953 in one of the worst excesses of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. Now they are appealing to President Barack Obama to exonerate their mother of the crime of espionage.
Exoneration goes further than a pardon. The brothers say a pardon from Obama would amount to forgiveness but would also represent proof of guilt. They want their mother cleared, not forgiven.
The Rosenbergs were electrocuted for their roles in passing US atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. It was the most sensational espionage case in US history.
Making the appeal, Robert Meeropol said the distinction between a pardon and a exoneration is very important. “The evidence shows that my mother should not have been found guilty. Her conviction was based on lies. She was not a spy and would not be convicted today,” he said.
There is at least one important precedent for such legal decision. In 1977 Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis exonerated the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who had been framed and executed for murder in 1927.
Recent releases of government papers have shown that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was to a large extent based on lies in the testimony against her. The brothers maintain she was essentially held hostage by the government in order to gain evidence against her husband.
When she refused to co-operate, the government sent both her and her husband to the electric chair. It has now been proved that, unlike Julius, Ethel was never given a code name by the KGB.
Both sons now accept their father’s involvement with espionage but their mother’s case is a different story. The grand jury testimony of David Greenglass who died last year convinced them that their father was legally guilty of the conspiracy charge, but not of atomic spying. They both believe that neither of their parents deserved the death penalty.
Public attitudes are changing. Last year the New York City Council marked the 100th anniversary of Ethel Rosenberg’s birth with a proclamation that saluted her role in a 1935 strike and attacked her 1953 execution.
Born on 1915 in a crowded tenement in New York City’s Lower East Side, Ethel Greenglass was the oldest child of Barney and Tessie Greenglass. Her father was an immigrant from Russia.
At school she tried acting before graduating in 1931. Rosenberg soon found a job with a packing and shipping company and enjoyed spare time spent singing and acting. Through her job, she became active in her union and in wider political campaigns.
It was at a union event that she met Julius Rosenberg. The two began dating, and individually they both joined the Young Communist League. Ethel married Julius in 1939. Son Michael was born in 1943, and Robert in 1947.
Ethel’s role in one of the most infamous US espionage cases remains unclear. It does seem certain that Julius recruited her younger brother, David Greenglass, to pass information to the Soviets.
Greenglass delivered notes and sketches to Julius. Greenglass, serving in the army, had been a machinist working on the Manhattan Project, developing the US atomic bomb.
In 1950, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage along with Greenglass and Julius’s friend, Morton Sobell.
At the trial Greenglass said that Ethel took the notes and typed them up for Julius to pass to his Soviet contacts.
These accusations are the only direct evidence of Ethel’s involvement in her husband’s spying activities.
Greenglass served just 10 years in prison for actually stealing and passing on the atom bomb secrets.
The Rosenbergs’ trial started in March 1951. With anti-communist witch hunts already under way in the US, the Rosenbergs had no chance of a fair trial.
Ethel was convicted and sentenced to death, despite the lack of direct evidence linking her to any spying.
Greenglass and his wife Ruth gave evidence that in November 1944, Ethel helped Julius persuade Ruth to recruit Greenglass into Julius’s espionage ring. They also testified that Ethel participated in a September 1945 meeting at which Greenglass gave a sketch to Julius of a cross-section of the bomb, and at which Ethel typed Greenglass’s handwritten notes explaining the diagram.
Yet official records refute these claims. Greenglass’s grand jury testimony on August 7 1950 made no mention of any such meeting with Ethel. Responding to questions about spying, Greenglass told the grand jury: “My sister has never spoken to me about this subject.”
Ruth’s grand jury testimony, on August 3 1950, made no mention of a September meeting. Greenglass had passed information to a courier in New Mexico in June 1945, she said, but he had given no material to Julius afterward.
The very next day, on August 4, Greenglass told a prosecutor that he had given the cross-section sketch to Julius some time that fall in New York City. Three days later David repeated this story under oath, contradicting Ruth’s account.
By the time of the trial, this story had grown into a meeting at the Rosenbergs’ apartment with Ethel and Julius.
Decades later Greenglass admitted to the New York Times reporter Sam Roberts that he had lied about his sister Ethel in an effort to protect his wife Ruth. Unlike Ethel, Ruth was never charged and died in 2008. KGB files reveal Ruth did have a code name as a Soviet agent.
Those recently released papers show that in July 1950, an assistant attorney general told the FBI that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Ethel, but that she could be used “as a lever against her husband.”
In February 1951, a month before the trial, a federal prosecutor told a congressional committee: “The case is not too strong against Mrs Rosenberg. But for the purpose of acting as a deterrent, I think it is very important that she be convicted too, and given a stiff sentence.”
Now is the time that terrible injustice is put right.