Ethel Rosenberg died June 19, 1953, executed by her government for a crime she did not commit.
In what became the most notorious spy case of the Cold War, Rosenberg and her husband Julius were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1951 for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. The Supreme Court voted against a stay of execution. Crowds gathered outside New York’s Sing Sing prison to celebrate their deaths. President Dwight Eisenhower issued a statement that said the Rosenberg executions were “a grave matter. But even graver is the thought of the millions of dead whose deaths may be directly attributable to what these spies have done.”
Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy.
She was the mother of two young sons, Michael and Robert, a devoted wife, a native New Yorker who once aspired to be an opera singer. She was also a Communist who believed, as many postwar American leftists did, that socialism could better address society’s ills. Rosenberg was likely aware of her husband’s illicit activities, but there has never been definitive evidence that she collaborated with or aided the Soviet Union in its pursuit of atomic secrets. She was a victim of false testimony, prosecutorial misconduct, and a government too eager to cement its unyielding stance on Communism.
It is time for Ethel Rosenberg to receive a presidential pardon.
In 1995, declassified files bolstered the long-held belief that Ethel Rosenberg should not have been arrested, let alone put to death. The Venona transcripts,
decades-old Soviet documents collected and deciphered by the National Security Agency, provided irrefutable proof that Julius was a spy for the Soviet Union, revealing his code names and the depth of his involvement. Yet Ethel is mentioned only once, as being politically active and knowing about her husband’s activities.
Then, in 2008, Morton Sobell, the Rosenbergs’ codefendant, who served 18 years for espionage, admitted he had been a Soviet spy. He also implicated Julius Rosenberg, but made clear that Ethel was not a participant. Sobell told The New York Times, “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”
In the “better dead than Red” fervor of 1950s America, that was close enough. With the nation hell-bent on purging Communists and their sympathizers, careers were ruined, lives were shattered, and families were torn apart. Thousands filled arenas for raucous anti-Communist rallies. The US military produced propaganda films like “How To Spot a Communist.” Midcentury America collapsed into its own hysterical version of the 17th century Salem witch trials
One month after FBI agents swarmed the Rosenbergs’ small New York apartment to arrest Julius, Ethel Rosenberg was taken into custody. The Rosenbergs’ older son, Michael Meeropol, who was 7 at the time, believes authorities used his mother in an effort to force his father to name names.
During a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Meeropol called his mother “collateral damage,” and said what the government did was akin to “putting a gun to her head and saying to [Julius] ‘Talk or we’ll kill her.’ ” In essence, Ethel Rosenberg was used as a hostage. When her husband did not deliver what the government wanted, she was executed.
Two men were mostly responsible for Ethel’s death. Her brother, David Greenglass, an Army sergeant who stole intelligence secrets from the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory, cut a deal with the government for a reduced sentence. To save his wife, Ruth, who was a recruitment intermediary, he gave false testimony that implicated his sister. Greenglass, who died in 2014, expressed no regrets over the decision that sealed his sister’s fate.
Then there was the federal prosecutor who, Greenglass claimed, pressured and encouraged him to commit perjury — Roy Cohn.
After making his name as the fierce anti-Communist acolyte who helped condemn the Rosenbergs, Cohn became chief counsel to demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy. Years later, Cohn was the mentor and ruthless protector of a young man from Queens already riding his real estate magnate father’s coattails and money, but eager to establish himself as a power broker in Manhattan and beyond. That man is now President-elect Donald Trump. It is inconceivable that Trump would ever betray Cohn’s memory and pardon the woman his mentor fought so hard to put in the electric chair.
On the day of Rosenbergs’ executions, Rabbi Irving Koslowe, Sing Sing prison’s Jewish chaplain, asked Julius if he would reveal any of his coconspirators. He refused, and was executed. Then, as Koslowe recalled decades later in a CNN interview, he posed the same question to Ethel, reminding her that her death would render her sons as orphans.
“I came back and told her her husband was dead. Did she have anything to say to me, a name, to stay the execution?” Koslowe said. “She said, ‘No, I have no names to give, I’m innocent,’ and she was far more stolid than he.”
The first jolt of electricity did not kill her.
Bob Considine, an International News Service reporter who witnessed the executions, said, “She died a lot harder. Believing she was dead, the attendants had taken off the ghastly strappings, electrodes, black belts and so forth. These had to be readjusted again, and she was given more electricity, which started again kind of a ghastly plume of smoke that rose from her head and went up against the skylight overhead.”
Nearly five minutes after she was first placed in the electric chair, Ethel Rosenberg was pronounced dead. In a final letter to her sons, she wrote, “Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.” Michael Meeropol, now 73 and retired, was an economics professor at Western New England University in Springfield. Robert Meeropol, 69, founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, based in Easthampton, Mass., where he lives.
President Obama has issued the fewest pardons — 70, so far — of any two-term president since George Washington. During an August press conference, Obama said that by the end of his presidency, his number of pardons would be “roughly in line with what other presidents have done.” His predecessor, George W. Bush, granted 189 pardons.
Obama has been far more generous with commutations. As of Nov. 4. Obama has issued more than 1,000 commutations, including 324 life sentences, many for minor drug offenders who got scooped up by draconian sentencing laws. As the Obama administration winds down, there are still more than 13,000 petitions for presidential pardons and commutations. To be “roughly in line” with Bush, Obama would need to issue more than 100 pardons in less than two months which, given how deliberative he’s been, seems unlikely.
Ethel Rosenberg’s sons have campaigned and launched a petition through the Rosenberg Fund for Children for their mother’s exoneration. This may be her last, best chance to be pardoned. Recent Republican evocations of Japanese-American internment camps and talk of reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee to fight terrorism are worrisome reminders that this nation may again turn darkly toward a series of injustices in the name of justice. More than ever, what happened to Ethel Rosenberg, wrongly branded as a traitor and sent to her death because of her political beliefs, should haunt America.
Throughout his tenure, Obama has shown extraordinary compassion to hundreds of men and women by commuting their harsh sentences; it is time for him to bestow on Ethel Rosenberg a similar act of presidential mercy and historical reparation.