On June 19, 1953, at the height of Cold War hysteria in the United States, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their executions remain perhaps the darkest of the many dark chapters of that terrible time. Even more than half a century later, the appalling cruelty of killing the father and mother of two young sons, six and 10, is hard to stomach.
Such was the sweep of anti-Communism and the fear of being seen as “a Red” that relatives of the Rosenberg would not take them in, leaving the youngsters to be brought up by Abel and Anne Meeropol, a kindly, left-leaning couple in New York. (Under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, Abel Meeropol wrote the Billie Holiday classic, Strange Fruit.)
Newly-elected president Dwight Eisenhower ignored world-wide pleas for the lives of the Rosenbergs to be spared. Among those who gave voice to the clemency campaign were Albert Einstein, Harold Urey of the Manhattan Project, Pope Pius XII (albeit timidly), Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and French president Vincent Auriol. Hundreds of prominent Americans, including many religious leaders, also protested the death penalty. For many who participated in the drive, still hopeful of a last-minute reprieve, the bleak news that the Rosenbergs had indeed been executed was overwhelming. The legendary religious activist and editor Dorothy Day summed up those feelings the next day in her paper, The Catholic Worker:
“My heart was heavy…knowing that Ethel Rosenberg must have been thinking, with all the yearning of her heart, of her own soon-to-be-orphaned children…..What greater punishment can be inflicted on anyone than those two long years in a death house, watched without ceasing so that there is no chance of one taking one’s life, and so thwarting the vengeance of the State.
“….At the last Ethel turned to one of the two police matrons who accompanied her and clasping her by the hand, pulled her toward her and kissed her warmly. Her last gesture was a gesture of love….Let us have no part with the vindictive State and let us pray for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. By virtue of the prayers we may say in the future, at the moment of the death which so appallingly met them, they will have been given the grace to choose light rather than darkness. Love rather than Hate. May their souls rest in peace.”
Although there was widespread belief among protestors that the Rosenbergs were innocent, we now know for certainty that Julius Rosenberg did spy for the Soviet Union. However, his contribution to development of the atomic bomb by the Soviets was far from critical, wildly exaggerated by prosecutors, government and anti-Communist media. Whatever he did, nothing justified death in the electric chair.
Far worse, we also know that hard evidence against Ethel Rosenberg was extremely weak, hinging on false testimony by Ethel’s own brother, David Greenglass, also part of the Soviet spy ring, who was seeking to cover up his own wife’s involvement. He died recently at the age of 92, unrepentant to the end over his decision to send his older sister to her death.
The shameful story is vividly recounted in obituaries this week by the New York Times and the Guardian. Once a snake, always a snake.