November 6, 2010
WHY THE ROSENBERGS DIED BEFORE NIGHTFALL
Not long ago, I reviewed in these pages a book titled “The Invisible Harry Gold” by Allen M. Hornblum, the biography of a man who figured crucially in the 1951 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges that they conspired to provide “the secret of the atomic bomb” to our wartime ally, the Soviet Union.
One reader of my review was someone with an unmatched command of the Rosenberg case — Michael Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Meeropol was orphaned along with his brother, Robert, when their parents died in the electric chair in 1953. Meeropol took issue with the Hornblum book — and with some of my comments about the book — in his communications with me, and I hope to share his thoughts with the readers of The Jewish Journal in the near future.
In the meantime, however, I have been reading another book about the Rosenberg case, one that Michael Meeropol recommended and for which he provides an introduction — “Exoneration” by Emily Arnow-Alman and David Alman (Green Elms Press: $24.95). The argument and evidence presented by the authors of “Exoneration” are summed up in its subtitle: “The Trial of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell — Prosecutorial deceptions, suborned perjuries, anti-Semitism and precedent for today’s unconstitutional trials.”
The Rosenberg case, as I suggested in my review of the Hornblum book, is something much more than a matter of jurisprudence. The Rosenbergs can be described as iconic in the original sense of the word — they were martyrs to a certain political madness that seized the American democracy during the McCarthy era, and their fate is a caution against the excesses of true belief.
But it is also true that the Rosenberg case can and ought to be regarded as an acid test of the American system of justice. “Exoneration” argues convincingly that the Rosenbergs did not receive a fair trial, and Julius and Ethel were condemned to death on the basis of perjured testimony, forged documents, and questionable conduct by both the court and the prosecution.
The tone of “Exoneration” is urgent and intimate. The authors were neighbors of the Rosenbergs in Knickerbocker Village in Manhattan, and Emily once met Ethel and her children in a nearby park in 1950. The Almans later knew young Robert and Michael after they had been adopted by the Meeropol family after the death of their parents. But the greatest achievement of the authors is their exhaustive and meticulous documentary research and their mastery of the scandals, contradictions, and ironies that have always haunted the Rosenberg case. The Almans began writing “Exoneration” in 1995, and David completed the book only after Emily’s death in 2004. Immediately upon its publication in 2010, “Exoneration” became an essential addition to the literature of the Rosenberg case.
The authors point out that the trial of the Rosenbergs and their alleged co-conspirators, with its “all-Jewish cast of defendants” and its Jewish judge and prosecutors, is a poignant spectacle for the Jewish reader. They cite evidence that Julius may have been “motivated by his belief that…a strengthened Soviet Union would stand in the way of the future emergence of another Holocaust-driven state.” And they suggest that the grotesquely long prison sentence imposed on Jonathan Pollard in 1986 for espionage on behalf of Israel “revealed the persistence of discriminatory justice against Jews.”
Among the most intriguing revelations in “Exoneration” — and there are many of them — is the calling to account of William H. Rehnquist, the long-serving Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1953, Rehnquist was a clerk to Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was considering the final appeal of the Rosenbergs. “It is too bad that drawing and quartering has been abolished,” wrote Rehnquist in a memo to Jackson about the fate of the Rosenbergs, whom he regarded as “fitting candidates” for execution. And Richard Nixon is shown to admit that the evidence against Ethel Rosenberg, which prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to deny clemency to the Rosenbergs, turned out to be, in Nixon’s words, “tainted.” “If we had known that at the time,” Nixon later admitted, “he might have taken a different view with regard to her.” The Rosenbergs, in other words, died because “overzealous” investigators and prosecutors were willing to fabricate evidence against them.
The bottom line, according to the Almans, is that the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs amounted to a grievous, avoidable but irreparable miscarriage of justice. They concede that Julius Rosenberg may have passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II, but the evidence offered to prove that the information included “the secret of the atomic bomb” was questionable or phony. No evidence at all exists against Ethel Rosenberg, who was charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the sole purpose of coercing a confession that would have spared the government the task of proving its case.
To their credit, there is not a single tough question that the Almans do not confront. “The most profound question of all,” they write, “the question that has haunted students of the case for more than half a century is this: why did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple in their thirties, the parents of two very young sons, choose to be executed rather than confess?” The conventional answer is that they chose to martyr themselves for the cause of Communism, but the Almans reject it. “[T]hey did not defend Communism at their trial,” they write. “They simply said they were innocent.” In that sense, the Rosenbergs can be seen as martyrs for the Constitution — they died because they would not confess to crimes they did not commit.
“[J]ust as my brother and I can admit our earlier mistake in proclaiming our parents’ total innocence,” writes Robert Meeropol in a passage that is quoted in “Exoneration,” “it is past time for the Executive Branch of the Federal Government to acknowledge that it was wrong to execute two people for a crime they did not commit, and remove from their names all stigma that is associated with the commission of that act.”
The tragic ending of the Rosenberg case is especially bitter for the Jewish reader. The executions were scheduled to take place on a Friday night. To win at least one more day of life for the Rosenbergs after all their appeals had been denied, their attorney, Emanuel Bloch, asked to Judge Irving R. Kaufman to delay the execution until Sabbath ended at nightfall on the following day. But a decision was made by the authorities to advance rather than delay the hour of execution “to show their respect for the Jewish Sabbath.” The Rosenbergs died before sundown on Friday, June 19, 1953.