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Correcting the Record

Time is eroding the espionage claims against Ethel Rosenberg

Last year, new developments roused our country’s crisis of conscience vis-a-vis the trial and execution of Ethel Rosenberg. 

Michael Meeropol ’64 (nee Rosenberg) and brother Robert, orphaned in 1953 by the execution of their parents, Julius and Ethel, served up a New York Times op-ed column in August. “Exonerate our mother, Ethel Rosenberg,” they wrote, addressing President Obama. Their plea was published a month after original grand-jury testimony was unsealed that reaffirmed perjury by the prosecution’s star witness, Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass.

Then in the fall, the New York City Council also took action on the issue of Ethel’s innocence. Sept. 28—on what would have been her 100th birthday—spokesman Daniel Dromm read from a proclamation signed by 13 fellow council members. “The government wrongly executed Ethel Rosenberg,” declared Dromm on the steps of City Hall to a crowd that included Michael, Robert, and their families.

These developments in the Rosenberg case prompt an important question: Is our country ready to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg?


MICHAEL AND ROBERT were 10 and 6, respectively, when their parents went to the electric chair June 19, 1953. They have spent their entire lives demanding justice for Julius and Ethel, though their perspectives have shifted over the years as new evidence emerged. “We always said the truth is more important than any of our positions. Sure, we had opinions, but we really wanted to know what happened,” says Michael.

What happened to the Rosenbergs was carried off in the spirit of the times—perhaps America’s most dystopian era. In 1950, when the couple was arrested, Cold War paranoia prevailed throughout politics and in the news media. The Soviets now had an atomic bomb, and the U.S. had just entered the Korean War—a conflict steeped with fears that a war with China, or worse, Russia, was next. It was a time of unparalleled xenophobia and unease, driven by demagoguery that culminated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s fearmongering and, especially applicable here, the dangerous machinations of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. 

The FBI first arrested David Greenglass, in connection with Soviet operatives collecting and relaying atomic information to the KGB. Greenglass admitted that he had provided sketches based on what ultimately amounted to inaccurate and rudimentary knowledge gleaned from his Army post at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico during the Manhattan Project. A month later, Julius Rosenberg, a working-class electrical engineer from New York’s Lower East Side, was arrested and accused of relaying his brother-in-law’s drawings to Soviet spies. In his ensuing grand-jury testimony, unsealed in July, Greenglass unequivocally disassociates Ethel from the spy ring. 

A memo to then-Attorney General Howard McGrath, dated two days after Julius’s arrest, however, suggests that Hoover was desperate to get Julius talking: “Proceeding against the wife,” he wrote, “might serve as a lever in this matter.”

After her testimony before the grand jury in early August 1950, the FBI arrested 33-year-old Ethel as she left the courthouse. Bail, which she had requested so she could find accommodations for her two young sons, was set at $100,000, almost $1 million when adjusted for inflation. She spent the rest of her life—three years—behind bars. During that time, the boys would be bounced around among relatives—and, briefly, a boys’ home—before Anne and Abel Meeropol, a childless couple acquainted with the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, adopted them. 

As the Rosenbergs awaited trial, Greenglass reversed his earlier claim of his sister’s innocence. He now cast Ethel as Julius’s typist and willing co-conspirator. In exchange for his testimony, Greenglass earned his wife, Ruth, immunity for her role in his spying activities, and a lesser sentence for himself. (He spent only nine-and-a-half years in prison.) His reversal, a boon for the prosecution, aligned perfectly with testimony from the only other witness against Julius, fellow Soviet informer Harry Gold, who was jailed near Greenglass as they awaited trial. Many, including Meeropol, believe these accommodations provided ample opportunity for collusion. Greenglass recanted his trial testimony during interviews with the press more than once before his 2014 death. 


"THERE ARE MANY judges, including myself, who think that the case was not well handled,” says Jed Rakoff ’64, U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York, the same court that tried the Rosenbergs. Rakoff, a classmate and friend of Meeropol, believes there is “ample basis” to request a statement of exoneration for Ethel. 

For Rakoff, the couple’s problems at trial—even beyond the false testimony and the hysteria of the times—were manifold. He cites inadequate counsel and calls prosecutors Roy Cohn and Irving Saypol “some of the least honorable ever to be a part of the Southern District of New York.” Rakoff continues, “And Judge [Irving] Kaufman was brilliant but abrasive. I think most people who knew him felt he lacked a judicial temperament.”

At the trial, which lasted three weeks in March 1951, the prosecution presented only three witnesses against the Rosenbergs—most damagingly for Ethel, the uncorroborated claim of the Greenglasses’ that Ethel typed Julius’s notes for the Soviets. The prosecution had only five pieces of physical evidence—considered dubious by most scholars of the case—but nevertheless Julius and Ethel were pronounced guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage.

“I think the jury probably gave a reasonable verdict, given what they saw, because they didn’t get a fair picture,” says Rakoff. “Ironically, the  judge seems to have been more impacted by the pressure of the times than was the jury. Judge Kaufman bent to those pressures in a way that does not do him credit.” 

April 6, 1953, Kaufman sentenced the couple to death, asserting that their transference of atomic secrets helped start the Korean War. In his sentencing he assigned them responsibility for “casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more innocent people may pay the price of your treason.” He was the first judge to issue a death sentence in civil court for a conspiracy charge.


THE YEARS SINCE the Rosenbergs’ executions have been laden with informational bombshells: In the ’90s came the Venona decryptions, deciphered communications between the KGB and its U.S.-based agents who worked with American informants, including Julius’s small spy ring. It was revealed that Greenglass and Julius had KGB code names and were active informants. Ethel was never given a code name—in the communications she is rarely mentioned and only ever in relation to Julius. 

For the Meeropols, this was the first convincing evidence they’d seen against their father. “With the Venona decrypts, my brother and I recognized the very strong possibility that [the charges against Julius] weren’t just CIA misinformation,” says Michael.

A few years later, the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant, Morton Sobell, who received a 30-year sentence, admitted to his and Julius’s involvement with Soviet intelligence gathering. 

“When Morty told The New York Times he was involved with my father, that was it. We changed our position completely,” says Meeropol.

Meeropol continues, “The government had had its eye on my father [before his arrest]. … The death penalty and indicting my mother was a way to get him to talk.” Meeropol adds that Julius steadfastly protected fellow informants and that while Ethel probably knew about his activities, in the absence of a KGB code name, her involvement was likely negligible. “I don’t think my father was being loyal to Communism; I think he was being loyal to his friends who’d gotten involved with him.”


IT'S IMPORTANT TO place progressives in the context of the times, says Editor Emeritus of The Nation Victor Navasky ’54, who has written about the case. “Growing up [in New York] when the newsreels showed FDR and Stalin during World War II, there was always applause,” he says. “Russia was our ally, and they were losing lives at Stalingrad. Then came the Cold War immediately after World War II, and suddenly the Russians were the enemy.”

Rosenberg proponents often note that Russia was a U.S. ally when Julius worked with the Soviets, but Rakoff roundly rejects the point: “Where in the law does it say it’s OK to spy for allies, but just not for enemies? Today’s allies may be tomorrow’s enemies.”     

Navasky adds that in post-Depression New York, class inequalities were vast, radicalizing forces. Many politically minded people thought Soviet-style socialism could save the working class, he says. “Whether or not [the Rosenbergs] were guilty of espionage, they thought they were doing something that helped mankind.” 


SO WHY DIDN'T Ethel cooperate and save herself? 

“She would have had to testify against her husband and then live a certain kind of a life in the eyes of her children, her own eyes, and in the eyes of the world—and I don’t think she wanted that,” says Miriam Schneir, whose works, co-authored with her late husband, Walter, include Invitation to an Inquest and the book that the Meeropol brothers believe solves it, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case. “I think, too, Ethel and Julius always hoped right up until the end that something would happen that wouldn’t result in the electric chair.” 

There were attempts to derail the death sentence, including two ignored pleas for clemency submitted to President Eisenhower. There were appeals. There was even a stay of execution filed by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, which was ultimately undone by a 5–4 vote of the Supreme Court—a ruling Meeropol says Justice Hugo Black later argued was unconstitutional. 

Privately, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter lamented the ordeal for years: “The manner in which the court disposed of [the Rosenberg] case,” he wrote 1956, “is one of the least edifying episodes in modern history.” 

With the exception of still-classified U.S. records and Soviet-era documents locked away in Moscow, Meeropol believes that—for his lifetime, anyway—the public has seen all it ever will of the evidence against his parents. 

“I believe we know what happened,” he says. “Ethel was a hostage that the government murdered.” 

In 2001, New York Times reporter Sam Roberts interviewed William Rogers, the deputy attorney general at the time of the Rosenbergs’ trial. Rogers revealed that, as outlined in Hoover’s note, the FBI intended to leverage the death sentence against Ethel to elicit Julius’s cooperation. Roberts asked him what went wrong. 

Rogers replied, “She called our bluff.” 


RAKOFF, WHO OPPOSES the death penalty, believes that where Ethel is concerned, the system got it wrong. “I don’t want to overstate it, but our system makes mistakes, and if you recognize that a system makes mistakes, you cannot have a penalty that can never be corrected.” 

Schneir, who has studied the case for 50 years, believes that the country is more prepared than ever to reconsider Ethel’s case. 

“The historical record now very strongly points to Ethel’s innocence,” she says. “Also, as public opinion on the death penalty gradually becomes less favorable, I think that the execution of the Rosenbergs seems increasingly unwarranted.” 

Rakoff believes that the information that Julius likely stole was “not overwhelmingly important.” He thinks a 20-to-30-year sentence would have been more appropriate. 

“With respect to Ethel, she knew that [Julius] was up to no good, but that’s about it,” he says. “But assuming she helped him out, I don’t see giving her more than five years, at the most.” He adds, “And, of course, I personally think she should be exonerated.”


TODAY MEEROPOL, A retired economics professor, is a vocal opponent of the death penalty but primarily occupies himself as his grandsons’ Little League coach. He’s not sure about the next step to exonerating his mother, but he’s hopeful that President Obama’s background as a constitutional lawyer will help his cause.

“There’s still a lot of pushback online,” he says. Recent articles about the Meeropols’ efforts to exonerate Ethel are unfalteringly followed by commenters’ screeds decrying liberals, Jews, and Communists. 

Still, on the steps of New York’s City Hall in September, Meeropol delivered yet another message to the president: “We call upon Attorney General Lynch and President Obama to acknowledge the injustice done to Ethel Rosenberg … as a way of learning from our past in the hope that similar injustices will be avoided in the future.”

“Now,” Meeropol says, 62 years after his mother’s execution, “we wait.”