The Fight to Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg

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Why is the sixty-five year-old spy case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg back in the news?

Anderson Cooper reported a segment for 60 Minutes, and Democracy Now joined numerous newspapers in continuing the siren’s call.  The case is grabbing unprecedented attention because the Rosenberg sons – Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol – want to get President Obama’s attention before he leaves office.  They are asking him to posthumously exonerate their mother – Ethel Rosenberg – for being wrongly convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and executed in 1953.

They have good reason to ask.  The 1951 trial was a mess, plagued with shocking irregularities and illegalities.  President Harry Truman’s prosecution team committed acts of misconduct, the judge violated the judicial code of ethics, the defense verged on incompetence, and the Supreme Court’s review of the case proved ineffective.

Most recently, Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Policy and Research used trial transcripts and FBI documents to detail the irregularities in the government’s case.  When Fox News picked up the story they claimed the Seton Hall law students “uncovered bombshell new evidence.”  Of course, scholars – most notably Radosh and Milton in The Rosenberg File; Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev in Spies; Schneir and Schneir in Final Verdict; and Roberts in The Brother – have used these documents for years.  All who write about the case refer to the government’s manipulation of Ethel as leverage to try to get Julius to talk.  The only thing new here is the urgency of exoneration.

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The Rosenberg sons – and thousands of their supporters – want Obama to officially exonerate their mother before he leaves the White House on Friday, January 20th.  They understand that it is quite unlikely that President Trump would even consider such a request.  Doing so would shame Roy Cohn, the most instrumental prosecuting attorney in the Rosenberg case and the trusted foot soldier for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade.  Roy Cohn was also a lawyer for – and mentor to – a young Donald J. Trump.

A presidential pardon would imply that Ethel Rosenberg was guilty.  Instead, supporters are asking for exoneration for Ethel, which would officially absolve her of blame.  They say Ethel was innocent and that federal officials only targeted her to push Julius to name other spies.  They admit Julius was a spy.

In 1950, FBI agents arrested Julius Rosenberg in New York City and charged him with conspiracy under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Specifically, officials accused Julius of using his military spy ring to pass the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.  To pressure Julius to talk and name other spies, agents soon arrested his wife, Ethel.  After a jury found them guilty, the judge sentenced both Rosenbergs to death to further pressure them to talk.  Julius and Ethel claimed their innocence and refused to name names.  The appeals process and global protest movement lasted more than two years.  President Eisenhower twice denied clemency before prison officials in Sing Sing Prison electrocuted the couple on June 19, 1953, making orphans of Michael, age ten, and Robert, age six.

We must look at the Rosenbergs individually to get to the truth.  Contrary to the judge’s assertion, Julius Rosenberg did not hand atomic bomb blueprints to the Communists or cause the Korean War.  He did, however, run a sizable spy ring that funneled military secrets to the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1950.  Ethel had no spy codename and likely engaged in no active spying of her own.  She was, however, cognizant of her husband’s activities.  The charge against both Julius and Ethel in 1950 was not espionage, but conspiracy to commit espionage.

A conspiracy takes place when two or more individuals agree to commit an illegal act.  Proving a conspiracy in a court of law, however, can be challenging.  Legally, it is such a vague concept that in 1949 the Supreme Court stated conspiracy “almost defies definition.”  It is feasible for a jury to convict Ethel of conspiracy for merely being cognizant of Julius’s espionage.  Indeed, they did.

In sentencing the Rosenbergs to death the Justice Department wanted to accomplish three things: they wanted to crack Julius and make him talk, to frighten future spies, and to demonstrate the strength and superiority of American democracy.  Unfortunately, in applying the extreme sentence they failed on all three counts.

The Rosenberg case judge, in consultation with the Justice Department, handed down the death sentence to pressure Julius into confessing.  Officials believed that he would break and spill the names of his fellow spies in the hopes of sparing the life of his wife and the mother of his children.  This tactic proved a disaster.  Up until Julius and Ethel’s final moments the FBI was prepared to listen. The couple called their bluff and went to their deaths instead – and dead spies don’t talk.

Federal officers hoped that the tough sentence would scare anyone contemplating a life of espionage.  By so publicly executing these young parents, officials wanted to demonstrate that the U.S. government would stop at nothing to hunt spies.  However, the Rosenberg executions did not deter future espionage activity against the United States.  FBI agents would capture more spies during the Reagan administration than at any other time during the Cold War.

Instead of proving the superiority of American democracy, the Rosenberg executions tarnished America’s image abroad.  Recently discovered State Department documents expose a protest movement that erupted in eighty-four cities in forty-eight countries around the world.  Active protests extended from Argentina to Australia, from Iceland to India, and from Switzerland to South Africa.  Allies in Europe and the Americas  – even those who accepted the couple’s guilt – questioned whether the executions were senseless violence motivated by paranoid anti-Communism.  Protesters accused U.S. government officials of allowing a real fear of aggressive Communism to cloud their judgment regarding the Rosenbergs.

These protesters were not only Communist sympathizers.  Outspoken and powerful critics – including Pope Pius XII, Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel, artist Pablo Picasso, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and French President Vincent Auriol – spanned the political spectrum and fanned flames across the globe.  U.S. officials assumed the global population would be less skeptical about their tactics, but they grossly underestimated the negative response.

Cold War terror and paranoia drove federal officials to prosecute the only spies they could get their hands on.  In all likelihood Ethel’s role in the spy ring was that of an aware spectator, placing her inside the fluid category of conspiracy in the eyes of the law.  But it was in imposing the death penalty that federal officials committed a cruel and unjust act.  Executing Ethel was a morally repugnant travesty of justice that the U.S. government can and should apologize for.  If not now, when?

Lori Clune, Associate Professor of History at California State University, Fresno, is the author of Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World (Oxford University Press, 2016), which explores the U.S. government’s response to the widespread global protest movement the Rosenberg case provoked.

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