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 (
Readers Respond: The Essential Lessons of the Rosenberg Case
Re: David Arocho on the Rosenbergs
From: *Leonard J. Lehrman, Co-Director, National Committee to
Reopen the Rosenberg Case
*the original message from David Arocho
1. From: Leonard J.Lehrman
David Arocho's comment on the Meeropols' excellent Los
Angeles Times article should not go unanswered. Mr. Arocho
seems to believe that the Rosenbergs were justly convicted
and deserved to die, having betrayed their friends for a
false ideal. None of these things are true. Even if they
did provide (or try to provide) information to a wartime
ally, their trial was marred by a tremendous amount of
prosecutorial and governmental misconduct; whatever law(s)
they may have broken should never have been grounds for the
death penalty; and they did not betray their friends: On the
contrary, they refused to do so, which was the price the
government demanded of them, in exchange for an offer to
spare their lives.
I would like to share with Portside readers part of a
correspondence I had with Sam Roberts, whose interviews
revealed both the admission of perjury by David Greenglass
(in his book, "The Brother") and the admission of non-atomic
industrial espionage by Morton Sobell (in the 9/12/08 NY
Times). Some of what I wrote him he quoted in his Week in
Review article of 9/21/08. Please post that, but also what
he did not quote--it's all pasted below:
9/18/08 Dear Mr. Roberts:
You ask whether "after defending Julius as 'innocent,' is it
disappointing, frustrating or whatever to learn that, in
fact, he was guilty of what he was charged with (conspiracy
to commit espionage) whether or not he stole atomic secrets
or deserved the death penalty?"
Your question hinges on the definition of the word
"innocent." The Rosenbergs, like Sacco and Vanzetti, went to
their deaths proclaiming "We are innocent." Do we have any
reason now to doubt that they were telling the truth?
This question has been posed repeatedly. Joyce Milton
brought it up at the Bryant Library (in Roslyn, NY) in June
1988, shortly before the premiere there of my Rosenberg
Cantata, based on their letters, entitled "We Are Innocent."
It has been raised by the Venona papers, and now by you. Now,
as then, the answer is No.
[This is the portion he quoted:]
The Rosenbergs were not guilty of starting the Korean War,
not guilty of stealing the "secret" of the atomic bomb and
giving it to the Russians, not guilty of betraying their
country, not guilty of atomic espionage, and not guilty of
any form of espionage on behalf of an adversary in wartime.
Were they guilty of some sort of conspiracy to commit some
sort of espionage? That's a purely subjective judgment. [up
We believe that, given the full historical context, an
unbiased jury in a fair trial before an impartial judge would
have found them not guilty of any crime; that like Daniel
Ellsberg they were far more sinned against than sinning. If
only they had had a lawyer like Leonard Boudin (who was tied
up with Judith Coplon's case, which seemed at the time much
harder to defend), then the case would have been thrown out
for govt/prosecutorial misconduct. So the answer is still
In a certain sense, the question is not whether Julius was
"innocent" but whether he could be seen as morally guilty of
deliberately harming the US by delivering ANY secrets - let
alone atomic secrets - to our then ally who, by the time of
the trial, had become our cold-war enemy. If the change in
historical context, the immense magnification and distortion
of his actions, and the gross prosecutorial and other
governmental misconduct in this case had been taken
rationally into account, we believe that he and Ethel would
not have been convicted, or perhaps would have received the
kind of relatively light sentence Lynne Stewart received.
After the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, many Americans
hoped the two would destroy each other. Those America-
Firsters did not disappear after Pearl Harbor and the Nazi
declaration of war against the US that December. Among other
things, they tried to undercut the vital military aid which
which Americans sent the Russians. In areas in which
cooperation with the Russians seemed deficient, Julius
Rosenberg and his associates, whoever they were, tried to
correct that, sometimes illegally, but never with harmful
intent to this country. So much was kept secret - and still
is. The most important question is perhaps why Morton Sobell
felt he had to keep silent on this subject for 57 years. The
answer seems to us to be the same reason Julius and Ethel
kept silent. They knew the FBI wasn't really interested in
what they had done, which was, as Morton put it to me,
"trivial." The FBI just wanted them to name names, and
wouldn't rest until they got those names, with the death
penalty used as the ultimate threat. Camps, like that at
Guantanamo, had been set up all over the country,
anticipating a roundup of "traitors," including those the
Rosenbergs would name. But the Rosenbergs said, as we
continue to say: No.
One more issue that really deserves attention is the American
government's stubborn refusal to acknowledge official
misconduct: in this case; in that of Canadian rendition
survivor Maher Arar, who got compensation from his own
government but not even a word of apology from ours; and the
refusal of Karl Rove to answer a Congressional subpoena, a
refusal the Times itself has criticized. Why do you and the
Times continue to justify the excessive punishment which
Julius Rosenberg was subjected to, by focusing narrowly on
his behavior, while essentially ignoring the government's
disgraceful behavior in this case?
Leonard J. Lehrman
Co-Director, National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case
= = =
2. From: Jay Schaffner
I don't know about other portside readers, but I was outraged
to read yesterday's tidbits about the Rosenbergs. David
Arocho's statement at the close of his comments is
"The best that can be said for the Rosenbergs and their
fellow travelers is that they betrayed their friends and
their fellow citizens in a misguided zeal for a fake
utopia, that they fell for the Soviet propaganda and paid
with their lives for that mistake."
Newspaper after newspaper has come out in the past few weeks
to state that the U.S. government railroaded, and yes
murdered Ethel Rosenberg, as a means of attempting to force
her husband to "name names".
Scientists of all political stripes state that there was no
conspiracy that resulted in the "stealing of atomic secrets".
There were no secrets after Einstein's early publication of
fundamental laws of physics back in the 1920s.
The Rosenbergs did not betray their friends and fellow
citizens. Would the writer have wished that the Soviet Union
have never existed, and that it not have existed to be a
global counter-weight to the designs of U.S. and world
Was the notion of socialism a fake utopia? While there were
inherent problems in the Soviet social-economic system, while
there were gross violations of elementary democracy, and of
what some in the world would consider socialist democracy,
does this means that it was wrong for millions over the past
eight decades to continue their belief in a social system
free of exploitation.
While there were weaknesses in the Soviet Union and the other
socialist countries with regard to democratic rights,
oppression and the fullest extension of equality - there were
also tremendous advances in ending the most virulent forms of
national oppression that were flagrant at the time of the
Russian Revolution. Does this mean that we have not learned
from mistakes that were made, so that future generations and
their vision of socialism will be more equal, more democratic
and more humane? I think not.
Was it just propaganda that led millions around the world to
recognize the need to curb the nuclear power of the United
States at the end of the 1940s? Was it just propaganda for
millions to say that the violent racism, anti-Semitism and
anti-communism of Nazi Germany must never be allowed to
happen again. I think not.
Was it just propaganda for millions throughout the world who
said that nuclear weapons must never be allowed to be used,
that the world must never allow a future Hiroshima or
Nagasaki? Again, I think not.
I think the writer is blinded by his own narrow anti-
Sovietism, and at the same time has swallowed the nationalism
and poison of the McCarthy period.
While there is room on the left for all views, I would hope
that portside does not become a vehicle for such views. I
would hope that portside is a voice on the left that says we
learn from the past, so as not to make those same mistakes in
the future; and that together we will forge a movement that
is both progressive and democratic, and one in which the
views and accomplishments of past and present socialisms will
be taken into account.
Jay Schaffner. New York, NY
= = =
From: Pearl Volkov
Reply to The Essential Lessons of the Rosenberg Case by David
On Tidbits of October 8, Mr Arocho stated in his article
about the Rosenberg Case, "When use of such tactics
(testimony by fellow criminals) leads to conviction of an
innocent person we can rally around the victim and advocate
for his/her rights. On the other hand, when it leads to the
conviction of the guilty, we do not owe the convicted
anything," He then continues to indicate that they were both
deserving of their fate since they"betrayed their friends and
their fellow citizens in a misguided zeal for a fake utopia".
First of all this logic doesn't hold true in the Rosenberg
case since Ethel Rosenberg had been betrayed by her brother
and sister-in-law's false accusations against her to save
their own lives. Worst of all, the government had this
information that was kept secret and allowed them to be put
to death regardless. As to betraying friends and fellow
citizens, their refusal to name names of friends and
political allies was the main reason they were threatened by
the government and when they refused to do so, in
retaliation, they followed through with their threat.
As well, the continuing belief that Julius had given the
secret of the Atom bomb to Russia is also false since there
was no secret to the basic structure of the bomb which
scientists throughout the world were aware of (Germany was
building an atom bomb). Whatever Julius perhaps foolishly
gave to the Russians could only have been technical
information which might have hastened their work. We seem to
forget that the U.S. and Russia had been allies and friends
during WW11 and the atmosphere at the height of McCarthyism
during their trial along with Presidents Truman and
Eisenhower who aided and abetted the cold war, had created an
atmosphere of hysteria which did not permit a fair
investigation of the accusations against them.
Mr. Arocho's line of reasoning should then be carried over to
punishing the stealing of technical secrets by other
countries (Israel has built an arsenal of nuclear missiles by
obtaining information and help since the l950's which was
kept secret for many years.They had the help and information
to accomplish this by working behind the scenes with
questionable sources which is not unique in our world).
Before we condemn so strongly, let us look more closely at
the facts and whether people like the Rosenbergs ever got a
fair hearing or deserved their fate, as Mr Arocho presumes.
Burlington, Ontario, Canada
-------- Original Message --------
Tidbits: October 8, 2008
RE: The essential lessons of the Rosenberg case
What exactly are we being told here is the essential meaning
of the Rosenberg case? Doubtless it has been a tragedy for
the children of the Rosenbergs. After years of believing
their parents innocent, the facts revealed convincingly even
to them that their parents were in fact acting as Soviet
spies. The merits and demerits of using testimony by fellow
criminals have been debated, but it remains one tactic or
tool which continues to be used to convict the accused. When
use of such tactics leads to conviction of an innocent
person, we can rally around the victim and advocate for
his/her rights. On the other hand, when it leads to the
conviction of the guilty, we do not owe the convicted
anything. The rosenbergs could have been condemn to death
for espionage, even if their revelations to the Soviets had
not led to an earlier development of the bomb.
Whether through misguided Communist ideals or simply for the
profit such activities provided, there were plenty of
Americans who served the Stalinist regime and abetted
murderous activities. Realizing that our government was on
many levels equally guilty of crimes against humanity,
especially in Latin America, does not lead me to feel any
more forgiving of the Soviet pogroms and campaigns of
assasination. Those who abetted such a monstrous machine are
not excused because of ignorance or naivete.
If there is a lesson, it is that all governments tend to be
despotic and repressive, and that they all hide their deeds
and intentions behind noble principles and entrenched dogmas.
Being human inventions, they all have some bad and some good
deeds to show, but the tendency is to seek to maintain
control at all costs. The best that can be said for the
Rosenbergs and their fellow travelers is that they betrayed
their friends and their fellow citizens in a misguided zeal
for a fake utopia, that they fell for the Soviet propaganda
and paid with their lives for that mistake.