Steve Cohen reviews “An Execution In The Family” by Robert Meeropol, St Martins Press
New Labour is a clean machine. On the bridge over Victoria Station in Manchester there used to be a slogan daubed well before the age of spray paint. In bold white-wash it demanded “Save the Rosenbergs”. This was obliterated by the Labour council some time in the 1990s. I want to restore it. Thanks to that slogan, by my eighth birthday I’d become politicised on one significant issue — the cruelty, corruption and anti-communism of the USA political and judicial system.
In particular I understood that we were living in what the playwright Lillian Hellman was later to describe as “scoundrel times”. It was the time of McCarthy. The time of House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). It was the time where the question “Are you or have you ever been a communist?” pervaded the entire society of the USA — the supposed land of the free. As Arthur Miller wrote in his play The Crucible (about the seventeenth century Salem witch trials, and devised as an analogue to the scoundrel times in which he lived), “The whole country’s talkin’ witchcraft”
It was on 19 June 1953, just a month before my birthday, that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for supposedly giving the secrets of the atom bomb to the USSR during the Second World War. I was taught by my parents that this was a frame up of the innocent that ranked with the judicial murder (execution) nearly three decades earlier of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for allegedly killing a police officer — as well as the overtly racist convictions and imprisonment in the 1930s of the nine Scottsboro boys for alleged rape.
As all this was in the USA I began to have an overwhelming feeling that I was living in the wrong country. If I was going to dedicate myself to fighting this strange thing called “imperialism” I might as well live in the centre of the beast rather than this island backwater called England. At the very least I thought, and still do think, that a knowledge of USA history is central to understanding today’s world. And all the time and for ever after, it was the innocence of the Rosenbergs that became the idée fixe of my political life. And I know I’m not alone in this.
None of this was anything to do with my parents being communist. They weren’t. I envied those kids whose parents were Stalinists. It seemed a far more exciting and subversive life. My parents were Jewish. Liberal Jewish. The inquisitorial “are you or have you ever been” was also effectively directed at Jews as Jews. In less than a decade after the war against Nazism anti-semitism was running amok in the centre of imperialism, which in itself shows the lie that the war was in any sense being fought to prevent Jewish annihilation.
The Rosenberg case is itself a classic example of anti-semitism as much as anti-communism. Not only were the Rosenbergs themselves Jewish. The state ensured that at the trial both the judge, the disgusting Irving Kaufman, and one of the chief prosecutors, the even more disgusting Roy Cohn, were also Jewish. The defence attorney, the warm-hearted but inexperienced and incompetent Manny Bloch, was Jewish too. The only non-Jews involved in the process were the jury that convicted the accused. Jews had to be seen to be killing Jews with the sanction of the gentiles.
The frame-up and execution were the foundations and building blocks of my communist commitment. Of my historic world view. The ripples of the Rosenberg case extended well beyond the USA seaboard — there were major demonstrations in several European countries against their execution.
And now it has become necessary to look again at the whole edifice. It has become necessary because Robert Meeropol in this latest book raises some fundamental questions.
Robert is one of the two sons of Ethel and Julius. He was six at the time of the execution. The hysteria around the trial was such that most of the Rosenberg family simply rejected the children. Fortunately they were adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol.
Abel wrote the haunting anti-lynching song popularised by Billy Holiday — Strange Fruit (“Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”)
An Execution In The Family intertwines cleverly and sympathetically Robert’s questioning of his identity as the son of Ethel and Julius with his own political activism and a re-appraisal of the trial of his biological parents. It is a testimony to his own character and that of the Meeropols that he survived emotionally strong enough to engage in and face up to all of this.
Most major Jewish organisations — as an act of craven assimilationism — joined in the condemnation of the Rosenbergs as communists. The Jewish Board of Guardians went several steps further by taking out a court action accusing the Meeropols of abuse — not physical abuse but political abuse! As a result armed police effectively snatched the children, brought them before a judge who then institutionalised them until another court order secured their release.
Robert grew up not just as a child of four parents but also of the 1960s. He attended the same school as Angela Davis and the two children of Norman Mailer).
He became a student activist. As a “red diaper baby” par excellence he straddled the old and the new left. As an organiser for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) he effectively subscribed to the “million groovy kids theory” of revolution — somewhat removed from the Stalinism of his biological and adopted parents (all four of whom who were at some time or other members of the CP).
Much of the book recounts Robert’s experiences as a proponent of direct action (stopping short of the faction that became the Weathermen). In middle age his major political activity has become the financing and running of the unique and uniquely political Rosenberg Fund for Children to help children whose parents have been politically victimised for progressive political activity.
However, central to this autobiography is the whole question of the “innocence” or “guilt” of the Rosenbergs — and what these terms mean politically.
Robert (along with his brother Michael) spent many years subsequent to his student activism initiating and building the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case (NCRRC). As a matter of both faith and logic he accepted the absolute innocence of Julius and Ethel.
And indeed the trial was so absolutely unfair, so fundamentally based on fabricated evidence, so monumentally corrupt as to amount to a frame-up. Robert gives numerous examples of this.
David Greenglass — Ethel’s brother, who sent her to the electric chair by turning state’s evidence — worked on the Manhattan atom bomb project at Los Alamos and was allegedly the source of information on the bomb’s “secret”.
However Greenglass was a low-level engineer without access to or knowledge of the weapon’s intricacies. There was no single “secret” to the bomb, which was a device of many complexities. And yet Greenglass was supposed to have provided a drawing of the bomb to Julius on the back of a jello packet!
Another so-called accomplice, the seedy Harry Gold, was later to confess about the trial that “I lied so often it’s a wonder steam didn’t come out of my ears”.
The USA has a Freedom of Information Act alongside the hidden world of the spooks of the FBI and CIA. Over 200,000 documents relating to the case have been released under the Act — the huge number is a political indication of the super significance the state gave to the Rosenberg trial. These papers show that Greenglass and Gold were groomed by the FBI to concoct some sort of meeting where Gold was supposedly acting as a courier using the somewhat transparent code “I come from Julius”.
Judge Kaufman had decided before commencement that a guilty verdict would result in execution. He had also decided to ensure a conviction by holding highly irregular and secret discussions with the slimy prosecutor, Cohn.
Cohn was to become McCarthy’s chief prosecutor in the HUAC Hollywood hearings. His homophobia was only equalled by his own furtive but rampant gay sex life and eventually his death through AIDS. His future boss, Edgar J Hoover, founder of the FBI, was a homophobic transvestite.
According to another authority (Kenneth Kahn, author of Secret Judgement) Roy Cohn was actually instrumental in getting Kaufman appointed as judge in the trial and Cohn’s immediate superior in the case — Irving Saypol — was only appointed Attorney General for New York (where the trial took place) on the nod of the mafia mob boss, Frank Costello. Saypol had been chief prosecutor in the 1950 frame-up of Alger Hiss as another Soviet spy based on the perjury of Whittaker Chambers.
In passing sentence, Kaufman accused the Rosenbergs of being responsible for the Korean war — and the entire trial took place amidst the virulent anti-communism of that war
The judicial system permitted Kaufman to hear some of the appeals against his own judgement. Even the Supreme Court was “nobbled”. At the last moment one of its members, William G Douglas, granted a stay of execution. That was effectively over-ruled by a cabal consisting of the USA Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, Chief Justice Fred Vinson and Justice Robert Jackson (who had been chief prosecutor of the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials) — with Kaufman being kept informed by phone of their shenanigans. The Court as a whole then endorsed them.
The Rosenbergs were never convicted of spying as such, only of conspiracy, a charge typically used by the state, any state — including the British state — when it wants to exact the maximum penalty in the absence of any real proof of an actual offence.
So thE Rosenbergs were framed. And therefore they should not have been found guilty as charged. No problem — apparently.
However Robert Meeropol raises the brave and important question. The evidence and procedures were fundamentally tainted, but were the Rosenbergs innocent? If they were not innocent then of what were they actually guilty?
Robert Meeropol raises these questions because of other evidence that have come to light (or been deliberately brought into the light by government spooks) since the execution of his biological parents.
There are two sources. One is alleged tape recordings by former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, claiming he remembered Stalin once saying that the Rosenbergs had offered significant help to the Soviet bomb development.
The second and far more crucial source is the so-called Venona transcripts, released in 1995 by the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA). These are, or purport to be, decrypted KGB electronic transmissions sent from the Soviet consulate in New York to Moscow in 1944 and 1945 — transmissions which allegedly showed the Rosenbergs’ guilt but which were too “sensitive” to be produced at their trial.
The transcripts have led some investigators to denounce the Rosenbergs as atom bomb spies, including previous supporters of their cause, such as Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their book The Rosenberg File.
When I first read the Radosh/Milton book I went into intellectual denial — I guess like many other people. I didn’t want the building blocks of my political life to be shattered. I needed the Rosenbergs to be innocent!
Now Meeropol has put the issues in perspective. He (correctly) dismisses the Khrushchev tapes as being of dubious pedigree, with a voice expert refusing to confirm who made the recordings.
The Venona transcripts, if accepted as being true and not tampered with, reveal two remarkable things. They would appear to exonerate Ethel as being any sort of agent.
If the transcripts relate to Julius (his name does not appear, only the pseudonym, bizarre for a communist, “Liberal”) they suggest he was “in ignorance” of the “problem” — that is, the bomb project.
The Rosenbergs did not give the Soviets the “secrets” of the bomb — as they never possessed them, and the USSR didn’t need Ethel or Julius for them.
Klaus Fuchs had already been convicted in the UK for supplying details of atomic fusion. Fuchs received fourteen years and unlike the Rosenbergs lived to tell the tale.
Inasmuch as there is evidence in the Venona papers that Julius (or “Liberal”) was passing on information to the KGB, it was military-industrial rather than atomic espionage. Robert Meeropol is prepared to believe that Julius was doing that.
So what? The Rosenbergs were convicted of supplying information during a war when the Soviet Union and the USA were supposedly allies in fighting Nazism.
Many people might regard the supply of information as a positive contribution — hardly treachery. And for communists the whole construct of “treachery” to a bourgeois state is highly problematic. We are the self-proclaimed traitors!
Robert Meeropol reports discussing this issue with Tsekei Murati, one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth Council. Tsekei simply said “Nobody ever asks us to say Nelson is not guilty”.
This brings us to the role of the USA Communist Party in the Rosenberg case — a role which does not appear in the book under review. The CPUSA was a thoroughly Stalinised outfit.
The Party has gained much historic credit for apparently organising the international campaign in defence of the Rosenbergs. In fact, however, at the start of the case the CPUSA consciously distanced themselves from the Rosenbergs — apparently out of fear of being associated with disloyalty to the USA! Subsequently they saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped on the bandwagon of the growing defence campaign.
My own interpretation of this is that they were looking for martyrs, and were willing to see the Rosenbergs sacrificed as martyrs to the cause. This could explain one of the mysteries of the Rosenberg case. If Julius had been involved in some sort of industrial espionage, why didn’t he just confess to it as a way of showing himself innocent of the major charge and thus save his and Ethel’s lives? Did he remain silent out of misplaced loyalty or even at the direct demand of the CP?
Today once again we are living in scoundrel times. Substitute “terrorists” for “communists”, and we are back in the age of McCarthy. And there is a direct line between the ages.
The popularisation of the lies and deceit engineered to convict Julius and Ethel paved the way for the corruption of Watergate and Irangate and for the waging of war against Iraq on a pretext — weapons of mass destruction — that is as bogus as the claim that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sold the bomb and started the Korean war.
Each big lie is just a softening up process for the next big lie. Even if we can’t do what that slogan exhorted us to do over fifty years ago, “save the Rosenbergs”, we should still remember them and their judicial murder.