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Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg? No. Apologize for Her Execution? Yes.

Related Link Stephen Ambrose's Falsifications of the Rosenberg Execution By Lori Clune

Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol recently took to the pages of the New York Times to call upon President Obama to formally exonerate their mother – Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed sixty-two years ago  – for being wrongly convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. This is not surprising. Few of us can imagine the pain and horror of losing parents at such a young age – they were six and ten – and in so public and devastating a way. As a historian of the case I agree with them. Partially.

The 1951 trial was a mess plagued with irregularities and illegalities. Truman’s Justice Department prosecution team committed acts of misconduct, the judge violated the judicial code of ethics, the defense performed with minimal competence, and the Supreme Court’s subsequent review of the case proved inadequate. After President Eisenhower twice denied clemency, prison officials in Ossining, New York electrocuted the couple on June 19, 1953.

Julius Rosenberg did not hand atomic bomb blueprints to the Communists or cause the Korean War, as the judge asserted. He did, however, run a sizable spy ring that funneled military secrets to the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1950. As Michael and Robert admit – and scholars agree – though Ethel had no code name and likely engaged in no active spying of her own, she “was at least generally aware of Julius’s activities.” Officials charged the couple in 1950 with conspiracy to commit espionage, not actual espionage. 

A conspiracy takes place when two or more persons agree to commit an illegal act. Proving a conspiracy in a court of law, however, can be challenging. Legally, it is such a notoriously vague concept that in 1949 the Supreme Court stated conspiracy “almost defies definition.  It is predominantly mental in composition because it consists primarily of a meeting of minds and an intent.”  It is feasible that a jury would convict Ethel of conspiracy for merely being cognizant of Julius’s espionage. Indeed, they did.

We know now that the judge, in consultation with the Justice Department, handed down the death sentence to pressure Julius into talking. Federal officials believed that he would crack during years on death row and confess the names of his fellow spies in the hopes of sparing the life of his wife and the mother of his children. This tactic proved a failure. Up until Julius and Ethel’s final moments the FBI was prepared to listen. The couple called their bluff and went to their deaths instead – and dead spies don’t talk.

The executions were also a mistake because they tarnished America’s image abroad. While the majority of Americans supported the action, recently discovered State Department documents expose a widespread protest movement that erupted in eighty-four cities in forty-eight countries around the world.  Allies across the globe – even those who accepted the couple’s guilt – saw the executions as senseless violence motivated by paranoid anti-Communism. During the Cold War American administrations worried about the spread of Communism at home and overseas, and were horrified at the prospect of leaving the homeland vulnerable to a devastating nuclear attack.  Protesters accused U.S. government officials of allowing those real fears to cloud their judgment regarding the Rosenbergs.

Cold War terror and paranoia drove federal officials to prosecute the only spies they could get their hands on. In all likelihood Ethel’s role in the spy ring was at least that of an aware spectator, placing her inside the fluid category of conspiracy in the eyes of the law. But it was in imposing the death penalty that federal officials committed a cruel and unjust act. Executing Ethel was a wrong for which the U.S. government can and should apologize.