[Ppnews] Meeropols - The essential lessons of the Rosenberg case
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 6 12:49:33 EDT 2008
The essential lessons of the Rosenberg case
The couple's sons say those in power manufactured evidence and
targeted their parents, making them the focus of the public's Cold
War fear and anger.
By Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol
October 5, 2008
We are the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. We were young children
-- 10 and 6 years old, respectively -- when our parents were put to
death in the electric chair at Sing Sing for passing the secret of
the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
For many years after that, we believed our parents to be wholly
innocent of the charges against them. But over the years, and
especially as further evidence became available at the end of the
Cold War, we began to question that belief.
Now, 55 years after their execution, two recent revelations in our
parents' case have again rekindled fierce debate about their
culpability. But in our opinion, these disclosures -- the release of
our aunt's sworn statements to a grand jury and a surprise new
admission by our parents' codefendant -- have obscured both the
essence and the essential lessons of the Rosenberg case.
Many Americans now living were not born when our parents stood trial
in 1951 for conspiracy to commit espionage, so they may not
understand why this case remains one of our nation's most sensational
courtroom dramas. The reason is that, at the height of the Cold War,
two people were executed for allegedly giving the secret of the
atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
Viewed through the lens of 1950s America, it appeared to many that
the Rosenbergs had given our archenemy the means to destroy our
nation. The trial judge justified the death sentences by pronouncing
that our parents made it possible for the Soviets to build their bomb
earlier than expected, causing the Korean War and the deaths of
thousands of American soldiers. "I consider your crime worse than
murder," said the judge as he sentenced our parents to death. "Plain
deliberate contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison
with the crime you have committed."
But was that true? Had they in fact passed the so-called secret of
the atomic bomb to the Russians? We have acknowledged for a long time
the possibility that our father may have engaged in non-atomic
espionage. The recent statement by our parents' codefendant, Morton
Sobell, confirms exactly that, and several weeks ago we stated
publicly for the first time that we now believe that our father did,
in fact, participate in passing along military information.
But Sobell's recent admission sheds no light on whether our father in
fact stole the secret of the atomic bomb, the crime for which he was
executed. To this day, there is no credible evidence that he
participated in obtaining or passing on any such secret.
In contrast, the newly released grand jury transcript does provide
interesting new information about the case.
At the start of the investigation against our parents, David and Ruth
Greenglass, our mother's brother and sister-in-law, confessed to
being part of an atomic spy ring and cooperated with the prosecution
in exchange for no charges being brought against Ruth and a
comparatively light sentence for David.
Ruth's trial testimony provided the one key piece of evidence that
led to our mother's conviction and subsequent execution. She
testified at trial that our mother typed up notes that contained the
"secret" of the atomic bomb, provided, supposedly, by David, a U.S.
Army sergeant with only a high school education, who was assigned as
a machinist to the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory in New Mexico.
However, the newly released transcript reveals that Ruth Greenglass'
grand jury testimony included nothing about our mother typing any
espionage notes. The only notes mentioned in Ruth's testimony were
ones she wrote herself, which described the buildings at Los Alamos,
not the atomic bomb.
It was not until February 1951, months after her grand jury
testimony, that Ruth gave a new statement in which she reported (we
would say "invented"), for the first time, the allegation that our
mother had typed David's handwritten notes describing the atomic
bomb. Confronted with Ruth's revisions, David Greenglass then
contradicted his earlier statement to the FBI in which he had denied
our mother's participation in espionage activities. Subsequently,
David and Ruth both testified at the trial that our mother had typed
notes about the secret of the atomic bomb.
In another stunning discrepancy, there is no mention in Ruth's grand
jury testimony of an alleged meeting described by David and Ruth at
the trial, during which David supposedly handed over the "secret of
the atom bomb sketch" -- trial Exhibit 8 -- to Julius. Exhibit 8 was
the main evidence for the government's contention that Julius
successfully stole such a secret. If there is no mention of the
meeting in David's grand jury testimony (which has yet to be released
but which is essential to obtain), the core of the government's case
against both of our parents will be dealt a crippling blow.
Some commentators have, in essence, said that neither this lack of
evidence nor these inconsistencies matter. "The Rosenbergs were
Soviet spies, and not minor ones either," wrote Ronald Radosh in
these pages on Sept. 17.
Evidently, in Radosh's eyes, our mother remains a spy even though the
new information indicates that the evidence against her was
fabricated, and our father succeeded in passing vitally important
data even though there is no clear proof to this day of the value of
the military/industrial information that he, Sobell or others transmitted.
Radosh's arguments also divert attention from the most important
problem of all: The U.S. government executed two people for stealing
the secret of the atomic bomb -- a crime it knew they did not commit.
The central lesson of this episode is that our government abused its
power in dangerous ways that remain relevant today. Those in power
targeted our parents, making them the focus of the public's Cold
War-era fear and anger. They manufactured testimony and evidence.
They arrested our mother simply as leverage to get our father to cooperate.
They used the ultimate weapon -- the threat of death -- to try to
extort a confession. They created the myth that there was a key
"secret" of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it
appear that our father had sought and passed on that "secret." They
executed our father when he refused to collaborate in this lie. They
executed our mother as well, even though they knew that she was not
an active participant in any espionage activities.
This case provides a crucial warning about the tendencies of our
government to manufacture and exploit public fear, to trample civil
rights and to manipulate judicial proceedings. In our current
political climate, the targets being vilified have changed, but the
tactics of those in power remain much the same.
Michael Meeropol is chairman of the economics department at Western
New England College in Springfield, Mass. Robert Meeropol is the
founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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