Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Guilty by suspicion

In 1953, Communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for allegedly passing secret details of the US atomic bomb to the Russians. There was a huge campaign and outcry against their execution. Ashley Smith interviewed one of their sons, Robert Meeropol, about his memories of his parents and his politics today
The Rosenbergs, executed by the US government in 1953

My parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were arrested when I was three years old and were executed when I was six. My brother was four years older than I was.

As a child I lived a nightmare. People always question how much you can really remember. Well, I actually remember quite a bit. I remember almost nothing before the arrest and then as the years become 1950, 1952 and 1953 my memory becomes better, because of course a six year old remembers a lot more than a three year old. I particularly remember the last year of my parents' life. On Monday 15 June 1953 the supreme court adjourned for the summer after turning down my parents' eighth appeal for a review of the case. The court never made a review because the case was a hot potato and it didn't want to get involved. So my parents were scheduled to die Thursday 18 June, which happened to be their fourteenth wedding anniversary.

On Tuesday a special petition was presented to justice Douglas, the court's most liberal justice, as he was going on vacation. He agreed to postpone his holiday one day and consider a stay of execution. On Wednesday, Douglas stayed the execution and went on vacation. On Thursday the supreme court was recalled into special session for the first time ever, and on Friday morning it overturned justice Douglas's stay by a six to three vote. The execution took place one minute before sundown on Friday so as not to desecrate the Jewish Sabbath.

I saw this on television. I heard it on radio. I pretended that I didn't know what was going on. In some ways I didn't understand, but I got the essence.

Now I am 48 years old and I have come to terms with my nightmare. I work to transform the destruction that was visited upon my family into something positive for other families today. I've been married for 25 years and my wife Ellie and I have two kids who are 19 and 23, but I can't really say that I've got over my nightmare. I can still feel the pain. It's still there and it comes out in small ways. To give you a small example, I've always liked numbers and worked with numbers. I'm taken up short whenever I come into my bedroom and see displayed on my clock radio 6:19; that reminds me of 19 June, the day my parents were executed. In fact I inwardly cringe whenever I see the number 619.

The pain doesn't really stop with me. It also affects my children. My older daughter, who graduated from college in June 1994, has given me permission to quote from the postscript of her senior thesis about the grandmother she never knew.

I must admit that I do not forgive the government for its state sponsored killing of my parents. There is no way for the government or anyone else to make good what was done to me and to my family. I don't believe that the death penalty serves any positive purpose. It will not bring back murdered family members. It will not heal the shattered families of murder victims, but it will shatter innocent families of those the state executes.

There is a general belief that there are actually documents that prove my parents were guilty. The USA Today headline is the classic example of that, 'Soviet Documents Incriminate Rosenbergs'.

The problem is that there are no documents. Actually all we have is the CIA's transcriptions of intercepted Soviet radio transmissions between 1943 and the beginning of 1945. We have nothing but CIA and NSA's word that these transmissions were intercepted and faithfully decrypted. What these agencies are essentially saying is, trust us. The problem with that is that we know not to trust them.

The next thing to focus on is to understand the context of what they're trying to do here.

What the NSA and the CIA were doing was showing the American public that they performed a vital and necessary purpose. They intercepted these transmissions. They swooped down and arrested these spies and protected our national security. Therefore they have justified their existence and they're very important and we need them to protect us.

It's no accident that this comes at the end of the CIA being attacked for incompetence and complicity with all sorts of other things.

What you come down to if you accept the transcriptions at face value is that Ethel Rosenberg didn't do anything and that neither Rosenberg was guilty as charged. The reason the case was the OJ Simpson trial of the early 1950s, the reason there was a death sentence, is the secret of the atomic bomb. That's the major flaw in the case: that two people stole the secret of the atomic bomb, as if there was a secret that could be stolen in that manner. It never happened.

During the 1950s the justification for making the military industrial complex the primary financial priority of the entire country for globalising the entire economy was the international Communist threat. In the process the left wing trade unions were broken. My parents' case was used to 'prove' to the American public that we actually were going to be destroyed by the international Communist conspiracy if we didn't do this. All of these offensive actions were justified as really being defensive, which is clearly fraud. It was not the case.

After the break up of the Soviet Union, you cannot maintain that there is any more a credible international Communist threat, so the threat is now internal--it's prisoners, immigrants, the dark folks who are crashing our borders, the people who are going to rob you in the middle of the night. And this is fuelling a massive penal construction industry and the death penalty is serving similar needs.

I was in Chicago a while back and was visiting a cemetery where a lot of the original leaders of the American Communist Party are buried. I got a little pamphlet that guides you through the cemetery and has biographies about various people. The thing that jumped out at me from the biographies was how many of them as children were influenced by reading about the Haymarket Martyrs and then similarly, for the generation of people who were active in the 1930s, how important the Sacco and Vanzetti case was. And now today as I travel and speak, many people come up to me and talk to me about my parents' case.

That tells me a hell of a lot about the importance of Mumia Abu Jamal's case now. It's true that there are 3,000 people on death row and it's true that it's not just Mumia and he's the first to say that. But his struggle is going to be a major struggle of this nature for the people who are coming of political age now. They're going to remember this case the way people of earlier generations remember the Rosenberg case, Saccco and Vanzetti, and the Haymarket Martyrs. And that is critically important. Some of the biggest political formations in this country had their genesis in the Haymarket case or at least those martyrs played a major role.

The imagined threat of the Russian bomb

I go back to the old idea that you create a society of the people, by the people, and for the people. Or you create a society in which 1 percent of the population has 50 percent of the wealth and its share keeps on rising. As a result you exclude a large percentage of that society from the fruits of that society. And that means people become alienated from it and the only way they can get ahead is to attack it, and the only way the people who have the money can protect themselves is by surrounding themselves with a fortress and locking up those people. Those are the alternatives. And that 'us and them' mentality is the direction we're unfortunately going in right now. And I think the death penalty is the flash point--the most dramatic evidence of just that kind of direction.

No human system can be made mistake free. Mistakes are inevitable. It's ironic how many of the people who say that government bureaucracy is unfair, incompetent, totally corrupt and worthless, are the same people who trust our government to create another bureaucracy to decide who should live and who should die through the institution of the death penalty.

Simply put, the death penalty means innocent people will be killed. It's inevitable. If you favour the death penalty, you favour this happening. And most people don't want that to happen. When put in those stark terms, they move a little bit.

I think we should reach out to undecided people by exposing the true nature of many death penalty advocates. Many ardent death penalty advocates don't really care if the death penalty is racist; they don't care that it doesn't deter, they don't care that it doesn't save money; they don't care that it won't make society safer. They just don't care about these things. They simply want revenge. And in fact some of these people like the idea of killing and they get gratification from it. Pandering to their blood lust will only increase the level of violence in our society.

If we can show those undecided people what these people are really like, if we can stop being defensive and take it to some of these people, I believe we can turn the public tide of sentiment against the death penalty.

I think one of the reasons that anti-racism was more popular during the civil rights time was not just because of the civil rights movement: it's because Hitler had demonstrated what racism leads to. And I believe that one of the reasons we're seeing a resurgence of racism is that this memory is fading. Of course it's more complicated than just that, but still that memory is fading. If you can show what death penalty proponents lead to, who these people really are, the ugliness, the hatred, the violence, I think we can capture a lot of people in the centre. The same thing goes for racists. Show the venom of the people in power and the Klan and the ultra-right.

We have to expose the Democrats as well. We have to tell the story of Clinton going back to execute Ricky Ray Rector. But the liberals are always the toughest. I remember at the University of Michigan we kept growing under Harlan Hatcher who was a Republican. He brought the cops in and we grew and grew and grew. Then when they got Flemming in, who was a Democrat, we had more and more trouble.

In some ways I've become less ideological than I used to be. When ultimately asked on mainstream radio what do I believe in, because they want to know whether I'm in the Communist Party, what I end up saying is that I've become much less ideological and that really Thomas Paine summed it up for me when he said, 'I'm a citizen of the world; my religion is to do good.' That pretty much sums me up in a nutshell. Having said that, I also know what I don't like and that is capitalism. So I describe myself as fairly pink and fairly green.


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