Sixty-three years ago, Robert and Michael Meeropol made their first trip to the White House seeking to save their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, from execution as Communist spies.
The boys, then ages 6 and 10, are seen in a photo standing at a gate in front of the White House on June 14, 1953, attempting to hand-deliver a letter to then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower in which Michael wrote: “Please let my mommy and daddy go and not let anything happen to them.” The plea failed and the Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
Last Thursday, the brothers reenacted their visit to the White House, this time seeking a proclamation from President Barack Obama exonerating their mother by declaring that she was not a spy for the Soviet Union and that she was unjustly convicted and executed. Michael, 73, who lives in New York, and Robert, 69, of Easthampton, have spent some four decades trying to clear their mother’s name.
It is past time for the U.S. government to acknowledge this grievous wrong that was committed during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. While many people were victimized by the anti-Communist hysteria fueled by demagogues such as U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Ethel Rosenberg, who was a Communist, stands atop the list because she paid with her life after being accused with her husband Julius of committing the “crime of the century” by passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviets.
By issuing the proclamation, Obama would make a powerful, cautionary statement not only about the the Cold War-era of the 1950s, but also about fears stoked by the anti-Muslim rhetoric of president-elect Donald Trump. That message should be to reject guilt by association and sweeping generalizations – whether it be labeling all Communists as un-American 60 years ago, or all Muslims as terrorists today.
The documents available today show that Julius Rosenberg was part of one of several spy rings run by the Soviet Union in the United States after World War II, although the nature of the information he passed on during his espionage is disputed. His sons maintain that he did not give up secrets about the atomic bomb.
The Rosenbergs were convicted largely as the result of testimony by Ethel’s brother Army Sgt. David Greenglass, who worked as a machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Greenglass and his wife Ruth testified during Ethel Rosenberg’s trial that she had been present at two meetings in 1945 with her husband and the Greenglasses. According to the Greenglasses’ testimony, at one of those meetings David gave Julius a sketch of the atomic bomb, while Ethel typed notes.
However, David Greenglass, who was indicted as a co-conspirator and sentenced to 10 years in prison, gave different testimony to a grand jury before the trial. Documents released in 2015, a year after his death, had no mention in his grand jury testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s presence at either meeting. Instead, Greenglass told the grand jury: “I never spoke to my sister about this at all.”
The Meeropol brothers contend that Greenglass fabricated his testimony at Ethel Rosenberg’s trial after reaching a deal with prosecutors to reduce his sentence.
In addition to delivering documents supporting their case to the White House last week, the Meeropols have an online petition (www.rfc.org/ethel) seeking exoneration for Ethel Rosenberg. As of Monday afternoon, it had been signed by 44,336 people.
In an accompanying statement, the Meeropols write that “our parents’ execution helped fuel a dangerous climate of fear and intolerance in our country which permitted political opportunists like Senator Joseph McCarthy to poison our society. Today we face a similar climate of hatred which targets immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI individuals and others.”
Congressman James P. McGovern of Worcester last week wrote a letter to Obama urging him to issue a proclamation acknowledging the politically motivated injustice in Ethel Rosenberg’s execution. “By so doing, you can send a clear message to the American people that our government’s actions must be just, humane and accountable,” McGovern told the president.
That would be fitting as one of Obama’s final acts before he leaves office in January.