Thursday, January 19, 2017

Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg

* 1/20, updated below.

What with the Russian flu raging within corporate journalistic circles, you probably haven't heard too much lately about the movement to clear Ethel Rosenberg's name.

Ethel and her husband Julius were executed by the United States government on June 19, 1953, three years after their conviction for conspiracy to commit espionage. Contrary to myth, they were neither charged nor convicted of treason or even actual espionage; conspiracy was considered easier to prove by zealous prosecutors. Although Julius did pass on certain documents to the Soviets (not, as legend also still has it, secrets of the atomic bomb) Ethel herself was never part of any spy ring. She was, however, an avowed Communist just when the Cold War was heating up. The government used her as leverage in an attempt to get Julius to crumble and confess and name names. She remained staunchly silent until the very end, when she was electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York shortly after her husband.  

The Rosenbergs left behind two orphaned sons, Michael and Robert, just six and ten years old at the time of their parents' executions. 

Not only was Ethel Rosenberg not a spy, her conviction was based on false testimony of witnesses including her own brother, who finally recanted decades later as he neared death. Prosecuting the case was future Joe McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn - who ironically enough, later became a mentor to Donald Trump. Ironic, given how Trump is now himself being accused of Russian stoogedom by Democratic leaders and their partners in the corporate media.

The Red Scare was so intense that Harry Truman passed on commuting the sentence despite overwhelming evidence of prosecutorial overreach presented to him. He, President Eisenhower and even the presiding judge went so far as to directly blame Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for the Korean War. Eisenhower also turned down numerous petitions for clemency and refused to stay their executions. And on the day that both were strapped into the electric chair, his aides actually had to dissuade him from hitting the links to play his favorite sport. Optics were a "thing" even back in the Red Scare 50s.

Robert Meeropol (formerly Rosenberg -- the names of the two boys were changed by their adoptive parents to protect their privacy) has appealed to President Obama to exonerate his mother. Senator Elizabeth Warren and others also joined the cause when results of an investigation by Seton Hall University Law School, released just last month, show just how depraved the government's actions were in bringing her to trial. A long-suppressed FBI memo from June 1950 categorically states that evidence against Ethel was insufficient to bring any charges against her. She was merely a pawn.

US government propaganda disseminated throughout the mainstream media over the several years that the "crime of the century" case played out ensured that the American public was sanguine about putting the Rosenbergs to death. When carefully polled, the vast majority proclaimed themselves fully behind the official callousness. By then, the Rosenbergs had been convicted not only of conspiracy -- in the court of public opinion they were considered guilty of outright treason. Plus, it really helped that most people liked Ike and his carefully crafted avuncular image very, very much.

(As a very young child, I myself was convinced for quite some time that Eisenhower was my grandpa. How could he not be, with that kindly smiling Kansas face looking and talking directly at me from the TV set?)

  But as Lori Clune outlines in her book Executing the Rosenbergs, this was not the case elsewhere. Worldwide, massive and sometimes violent protests against US government persecution of the couple were carefully kept out of American media accounts.

 The State Department kept deliberately hidden a cache of international press reports, appeals for mercy from foreign dignitaries, and cables from panicked American diplomats seeking guidance on the case.  Clune accidentally came upon clues to their existence during the course of her unrelated investigation into high-profile security cases involving Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson and J. Robert Oppenheimer. The massive dossier of over 900 State Department documents she uncovered proves that, despite continuing propaganda to the contrary from our current leaders in the media-political complex, damage to America's reputation abroad hardly started with the election of Donald Trump. "American Psychosis" was also the unanimous official diagnosis from much of the rest of the world during our first Cold War more than 65 years ago.

"They (the documents) show that protests extended from Argentina to Australia, from Iceland to India, and from Switzerland to South Africa," writes Clune. "On a dozen separate occasions the American ambassador to France himself wrote to complain about the government's handling of the Rosenberg case. We may never know why the State Department hid these sources.... Whoever was responsible decided in this case that the need for secrecy trumped any desire for government transparency."

Plus ca change, etc. 

The Rosenberg Fund for Children is running an online petition asking President Obama to formally exonerate Ethel before he leaves office. We should know his decision, or lack thereof, by noon tomorrow at the very latest.


Statement of Robert and Michael Meeropol, sons of Ethel Rosenberg

January 20, 2017

In August 2015, The New York Times published our Op-Ed calling on President Obama to exonerate our mother, Ethel Rosenberg. It was a response to the release of government material a month before, showing the prime trial witness against our mother – her brother David Greenglass – repeatedly and adamantly stated under oath before the Grand Jury that he never spoke to our mother about espionage. That testimony, coupled with the enormous body of other independent evidence, made it clear that the government manipulated witnesses and created a false case against our mother, to put pressure on our father to cooperate in the politically motivated investigation of his actions.
The outpouring of support we received from our Times essay spurred us to forge ahead with an exoneration campaign. Its aim was to move the President to publicly declare that our mother’s conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful, while also educating the public about the dangers of unchecked government power, especially in times of heightened concern about national security. Although we didn’t achieve the first goal, we were extremely successful with the second.
Some 60,000 concerned individuals added their names to our petition asking President Obama to act. Artists, activists, public intellectuals and elected officials were among the many, high profile people who supported our effort. A class of eighth graders in West Virginia championed the effort by gathering petition signatures and producing a video aimed at the President, about the parallels they saw between the play The Crucible and Ethel’s case.
The exoneration campaign was covered extensively and favorably by many of the most respected and far-reaching media outlets around the U.S. and internationally. These included 60 Minutes, NPR’s Morning Edition and Here and Now, and The Boston Globe.
With even Fox News publishing a report highlighting the grave miscarriage of justice in our mother’s case, it’s clear we succeeded in moving the needle on the public’s understanding of how the government wronged our mother, and why, dramatically.
We received thousands of moving and poignant communications from people who supported the effort. Many who contacted us have first-hand memories of our parents’ trial and execution. They described how their lives were forever affected by our parents’ case. They also recalled the fear and outrage they felt at that time, and are experiencing once again in our current political climate.
From the 90-year-olds who sent us shaky, handwritten letters, to the middle schoolers who posted about the campaign on social media, everyone who supported this effort demonstrated a deep commitment to holding our leaders accountable that we found inspiring. In their final letter to us just hours before their execution, our parents wrote that they, “were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.”

The campaign to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg has proved our parents correct in their belief that after they were gone, others would continue to resist repression and fight for justice. We consider that a victory.


Jamie said...

Today, I am sure Ethel would have been accused of helping Trump ... before the Democrats killed her, of course.

Miryam Gordon said...

If you are interested in another book (which was also used by Prof. Clune, look for Exoneration by Emily and David Alman (at Green Elms Press which provides a new analysis of the trial and the only account of the grassroots worldwide clemency movement that included pleas from the Pope and hundreds of thousands of others.