In 1950 Harry Gold was arrested by the FBI and accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He named Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, as being a member of the spy ring. Under questioning, he admitted acting as a spy and named Robert's father as one of his contacts. He denied that his sister had been involved but confessed that his wife, Ruth Greenglass, had been used as a courier.
Julius Rosenberg was arrested but refused to implicate anybody else in spying for the Soviet Union. Joseph McCarthy had just launched his attack on a so-called group of communists based in Washington. J. Edgar Hoover, saw the arrest of Rosenberg as a means of getting good publicity for the FBI. Hoover sent a memorandum to the US attorney general Howard McGrath saying: "There is no question that if Julius Rosenberg would furnish details of his extensive espionage activities it would be possible to proceed against other individuals. Proceeding against his wife might serve as a lever in these matters."
J. Edgar Hoover ordered the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg and Michael and his brother Robert Rosenberg were looked after by her mother, Tessie Greenglass. She found this very difficult and after three months the boys were sent to the Hebrew Children's Home. Later that year, Julius' mother, Sophie Rosenberg, removed them from the children's home and decided to care for the boys herself.
Ten days before the start of the trial of the Rosenbergs the FBI re-interviewed David Greenglass. He was offered a deal if he provided information against Ethel Rosenberg. This included a promise not to charge Ruth Greenglass with being a member of the spy ring. Greenglass now changed his story. In his original statement, he said that he handed over atomic information to Julius Rosenberg on a street corner in New York. In his new interview, Greenglass claimed that the handover had taken place in the living room of the Rosenberg's New York flat. In her FBI interview Ruth argued that "Julius then took the info into the bathroom and read it, and when he came out he told (Ethel) she had to type this info immediately. Ethel then sat down at the typewriter... and proceeded to type info which David had given to Julius".
The trial of the Rosenbergs began on 6th March 1951. The jury believed the evidence of David Greenglass and Ruth Greenglass and both Julius and his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, were found guilty and sentenced to death. A large number of people were shocked by the severity of the sentence as they had not been found guilty of treason. In fact, they had been tried under the terms of the Espionage Act that had been passed in 1917 to deal with the American anti-war movement.
Afterwards it became clear that the government did not believe the Rosenbergs would be executed. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had warned that history would not be kind to a government responsible for orphaning the couple's two young sons on such poor evidence. Rumours began to circulate that the government would be willing to spare the couple's life if they confessed and gave evidence about other American Communist Party spies.
The case created a great deal of controversy in Europe where it was argued that the Rosenbergs were victims of anti-semitism and McCarthyism. Nobel prize-winner, Jean-Paul Sartre, called the case "a legal lynching which smears with blood a whole nation".
Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg remained on death row for twenty-six months. They both refused to confess and provide evidence against others and they were eventually executed on 19th June, 1953. As one political commentator pointed out, they died because they refused to confess and name others.
Robert Rosenberg later revealed: "My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. They wrote that they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. And I think that has multiple meanings. I think it meant, on a personal level to me and my brother, that other people would take care of us after they were no longer able to do so. But I also think it meant on the political level their political beliefs, the principles that they stood up for, their refusal to lie, their refusal to be pawns of the McCarthyite hysteria, in other words their refusal to be used to attack the movements that they believed in - that even though they were no longer able to carry on those struggles, others would be able to carry them on their absence. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same."
Joanna Moorhead later reported: "From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they (Rosenberg's two sons) were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter. It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so."
Abe Meeropol and his wife Anne eventually agreed to adopt Michael and Robert Rosenberg. According to Robert: "Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s... I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted." Both boys later changed their name to Meeropol. They were brought up in Manhattan before moving to Hastings-on-Hudson in 1961.
Michael Meeropol studied at Swarthmore College, University of Cambridge and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his PhD in in 1973. With his brother he worked actively with the National Committee to reopen the Rosenberg Case.
Robert and Michael also co-wrote a book about their childhood, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (1975). They accepted the possibility that Julius Rosenberg had been involved in spying for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. However, they point out that at the time the country was an ally of the United States: "The central lesson of this episode is that our government abused its power in dangerous ways that remain relevant today. Those in power targeted our parents, making them the focus of the public's Cold War-era fear and anger. They manufactured testimony and evidence. They arrested our mother simply as leverage to get our father to cooperate. They used the ultimate weapon - the threat of death - to try to extort a confession. They created the myth that there was a key secret of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it appear that our father had sought and passed on that secret. They executed our father when he refused to collaborate in this lie. They executed our mother as well, even though they knew that she was not an active participant in any espionage activities."
Michael Meeropol taught economics and in 1998 published Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution. He is also a commentator on WAMC radio. His daughter, Ivy Meeropol, is the director of the documentary, Heir to an Execution (2004).
The U.S. government executed two people for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb - a crime it knew they did not commit.
The central lesson of this episode is that our government abused its power in dangerous ways that remain relevant today. Those in power targeted our parents, making them the focus of the public's Cold War-era fear and anger. They manufactured testimony and evidence. They arrested our mother simply as leverage to get our father to cooperate.
They used the ultimate weapon -- the threat of death -- to try to extort a confession. They created the myth that there was a key "secret" of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it appear that our father had sought and passed on that "secret." They executed our father when he refused to collaborate in this lie. They executed our mother as well, even though they knew that she was not an active participant in any espionage activities.
Q: Your parents were executed for their political beliefs. Could you tell our readers how this happened?
A: My parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were members of the American Communist Party and they were arrested in the summer of 1950 and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. More particularly, they were charged with conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb and give it to the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2. There was no evidence presented at trial that they were directly involved in the transmission of anything to the Soviet Union. Testimony came from alleged co-conspirators, that is, people facing prison sentences or even the death penalty who agreed as part of a government deal to say my parents were involved with these other people.
Q: You've uncovered evidence that shows your parents were framed - what government agencies were involved in this?
A: Back in the 1970s, we sued under the newly strengthened Freedom of Information Act. We asked for the files of the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, Army intelligence, the State Department, etc. I think we asked for information from 17 different agencies and we got information from all of them. This whole effort sort of went across-the-board of the government bureaucracy. We got a lot of previously secret documents. And what did these previously secret documents show? They demonstrated that my parents did not get a fair trial - that the trial judge was in secret communication with the prosecutors before, during and after the trial; that the trial judge, according to FBI documents, had actually agreed to give a death penalty to at least my father and possibly to both of my parents before the defense even began to present its case; and that the trial judge interfered with the appeals process and kept the FBI informed of developments during the appeals process and was actually pushing for a rapid execution even when he was sitting on further appeals in the case.
The chief prosecution witnesses, David and Ruth Greenglass and Harry Gold, all changed their stories. In their initial statements, for instance, David Greenglass said Ethel Rosenberg wasn't involved in anything. Then during the trial he testified that Ethel Rosenberg was present during their meetings and typed up the minutes to their meetings. We also have files showing that a few weeks before the trial the prosecuting attorneys, in briefing some of the Congressmen who were involved with the Atomic Energy Commission, stated that the case against Ethel Rosenberg was virtually non-existent but they had to develop a case against her in order to get a stiff prison sentence - to convince my father to cooperate. And then a few days later David and Ruth Greenglass gave the new statements that she typed up the minutes - and then that became the evidence that led to her conviction.
Q: Why do you think the government was so determined to execute your parents?
A: My parents were unknown. They were just two poor people, members of the Communist Party living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Then they got arrested and charged with being master atomic spies. When my father refused to name other people, then they arrested my mother to get him to name other people. As the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case grew and as the defense that my parents mounted through their letters grew, articulating the fact that it was all based on phony government frame-ups, they became more and more dangerous. General Lesley Groves, who was the military general in charge of the production of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico - where my parents supposedly engineered the stealing of the secret of the atomic bomb - said he believed that the information that went out in the Rosenberg case was of minor value but he'd never want anybody to say that because he felt in the greater scheme of things that the Rosenbergs deserved to hang.
Q; What happened to you and your brother Michael after your parents were executed?
A: The FBI came to my parents very soon after the arrest and said, essentially, talk or die. They said think about what will happen to your children if you don't talk - and if you talk, Julius, you'll have a prison term and Ethel, you'll be released and you can take care of the kids. Well, they offered the same deal to David and Ruth Greenglass, who also had two kids, and they took the deal. So Greenglass got a prison sentence and Ruth was never indicted and never spent a day in jail even though she swore she helped steal the secret of the atomic bomb. Quite a contrast with my mother.
There were so many people who put themselves on the line to save me when I was a kid that I grew up with the most abiding respect for anybody who would take a chance in order to make this society a better place for all of us. So I grew up sort of as a child of the movement and it was no accident that I got involved first in civil rights and then anti-war stuff and then ultimately SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in college.
Q: You've published letters your parents wrote to you from prison. Is there anything about them you could share with us?
A: My parents' last letter to me and my brother stands out for me. They wrote that they died secure in the knowledge that others would carry on after them. And I think that has multiple meanings. I think it meant, on a personal level to me and my brother, that other people would take care of us after they were no longer able to do so. But I also think it meant on the political level their political beliefs, the principles that they stood up for, their refusal to lie, their refusal to be pawns of the McCarthyite hysteria, in other words their refusal to be used to attack the movements that they believed in - that even though they were no longer able to carry on those struggles, others would be able to carry them on their absence. And I saw that as a call for me to do the same. And in some ways I've dedicated my life to carrying on in their absence. The Rosenberg Fund for Children is my effort to justify that trust.
The Rosenberg Fund for Children is a public foundation that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted in the course of their progressive activities. What that actually means is that we find people today in this country who are suffering the same kind of attacks that my parents suffered and if they have children we provide the kind of assistance that my brother and I were provided with. We connect them with progressive institutions so the kids can be raised in a supportive environment.
Some of them are the children of political prisoners, whether they be Puerto Rican nationalists, whether they be ex-Black Panthers, whether they be white revolutionaries, whether they be people who have fought against racial discrimination or sexual harassment on the job and been fired, whether they be activists who have been bombed, maimed, killed in the course of their activism. There are people like this all over the country who have either been attacked by government forces of repression or right-wing non-governmental oppression or what I call corporate harassment by corporations trying to fight against their progressive work. We just had our ninth anniversary. We gave away $100,000 to help slightly over 100 children in 1998. We've really been growing by leaps and bounds. The demands upon us have been increasing and we'll probably give away $150,000 this year.
Even more than half a century on, it's hard to hear this story without being affected by its magnitude. As Robert Meeropol describes what happened on that evening 56 years ago, I have tears in my eyes. When Meeropol describes how, earlier that same day, his brother began moaning, "That's it then! Goodbye, goodbye"; when the news flashed on to the television that the executions were going ahead that night; and when he describes seeing the press reports counting down his parents' final days, I can hardly bear to listen.
Meeropol (whose name was later changed to that of the couple who adopted him) is used to journalists getting emotional on him. "It's different for you," he says understandingly, "I've lived with this all my life; I'm used to it." But how does anyone get used to the fact that their parents have been put to death by their country; how does anyone pick up the pieces of a childhood left that broken? What is most extraordinary about Meeropol, in fact, is how entirely ordinary he seems today. We meet in Berlin, where he is currently on a book and campaigning tour. Now 62, bespectacled and balding, he is every inch the liberal east-coast lawyer and grandfather he has become. Yet, as he's the first to point out, his life is permeated by the story of the parents he knew for such a short space of time: their legacy has taken up much of his life, certainly much of his last 30 years, and fighting against the death penalty, and being an advocate for children who suffer as he did because of their parents' politics, is now his full-time occupation...
Doesn't Meeropol ever feel, though, that the choice Ethel and Julius made was fundamentally selfish: that their most important role was as parents? "Absolutely not," he says. "The world was very different then: capitalism and communism were engaged in a globe-spanning battle to determine the world's fate. Lots of people chose sides in this life-and-death battle. Also, my mother didn't actively participate in what went on - maybe that was a conscious effort to ensure that at least one parent would be around to raise the children if my father was caught."
But even when they were arrested - Julius was taken first, then Ethel - there seems little doubt that they could have acted to save themselves. Wouldn't that have been better for their children? Again, Meeropol thinks not. "Neither of my parents had a choice whereby they could come forward and say, 'OK, I admit I've done this, now how can I save my life?' What the government wanted them to do - and remember this was the McCarthy era - was become puppets, to dance to their tune and to provide a list of others who would then be put in exactly the position they were in. They would have had to renounce all that they believed in. To save themselves, they'd have had to betray others and that was too high a price to pay."
But all this went way over the heads of the two small boys who suddenly found themselves without a mother and father, shunted from home to home while the sand ran through the timer counting down the final months and weeks of the Rosenbergs' lives. It's clear from everything he says that the events of that desperate time were almost unfathomable to him; it's clear, too, that he'd have given anything for an ordinary home and an ordinary family. He remembers, for example, seeing his cousins with their parents and thinking, why can't we be like that? But, interestingly, the adult Meeropol believes that, while the little boy he once was suffered for his parents' stubbornness in the face of death, the adult self he became has gained enormously from it. He is immensely proud of them, even grateful: he says he hopes that, in their shoes, he would have made the same decision they did - the decision not to betray their friends.
But more than that, what the Rosenbergs bequeathed to their younger son was something every life needs. They left him a purpose. Campaigning against the death penalty and working for his fund have given his life a structure and a cause: their decision half a century ago is continuing to shape his life.
Pull him back to his stories of the personal encounters he remembers with his parents, and it's clear, too, that he knows he was a much-loved little boy. The time Ethel and Julius had with him might have been short (he was three when they were taken away to prison), but they made it count with their love and concern. What is more - and this, too, is almost unbearably poignant - it's clear that they tried to parent him as best they could from their prison cells. There were letters - lots of them - all unfailingly upbeat and cheerful; there were visits...
The Meeropols, who were not friends of the Rosenbergs but were members of the American Communist Party, came into the boys' lives after a period of constant upheaval. From the time of their parents' arrests, and even after the execution, they were passed from one home to another - first one grandmother looked after them, then another, then friends. For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.
It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people - even family members - were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn't get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. "I can't say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted," he says.
His debt to Abel and Anne is profound: he feels he is at least as much a product of their upbringing as of that of Julius and Ethel. "They were childless, and like our birth parents they were people who believed in standing up for what they believed in," he says. "They were more artistically inclined than my parents [Abel wrote the anti-racism song Strange Fruit, sung most famously by Billie Holiday]."
It was, against the odds, a happy childhood, punctuated with visits to summer camp, music and fun. Very quickly, Robert began to call his new parents mommy and daddy; today, he says he feels he had not two but four parents in his life. "I'm the sort of person who finds the upside in life," he says. And having four parents was, he believes, a blessing.
Another blessing was Michael. In his book, Meeropol describes Michael as "the one constant presence ... in my life. Our four-year age difference diminished our sibling rivalry. We always slept in the same room." Before the Meeropols, Michael was "the only person I felt 100% safe with". To this day, the brothers are extremely close.
Having lost his parents, says Meeropol, family became paramount for both brothers: "Both of us married young, and both of us are still married to the person we married all those years ago. Creating a family, and maintaining it, has been central to both of us." Meeropol has two daughters, now in their 30s; the younger has a one-year-old called Josie. If there is anything that resonates down the years, he says, it is that he often finds himself thinking: if I was taken away, what would my family have to remember me by? What would my little granddaughter know of her grandfather if suddenly he was removed from her life?
If having the Rosenbergs as parents has given their sons a strong sense of family, it has also given them profound insight into what happens when a family is torn apart. Because one of the most remarkable aspects of the trial in 1952 was that it was Ethel's own brother, David Greenglass, who provided the testimony that sent the couple to their deaths.
Greenglass had been an army machinist at the plant where the atomic bomb was being developed, and was recruited by Julius as a spy; to save himself and his wife, Meeropol believes, he betrayed his sister and her husband. Unsurprisingly, this is a family split that never has been, and never can be, mended. "I have never had any connection with David Greenglass or the Greenglass family," says Meeropol. "I saw him interviewed on television once and the thing I noticed was how he denied responsibility for everything. Nothing was his fault - it was all someone else's fault." He pauses. "In some ways," he says, "I've defined myself, all my life, as someone who is not David Greenglass."
The fallout for his uncle and his family (there are two cousins, and now there are Greenglass grandchildren too) has been, in fact, a testament to what would have happened to the Rosenbergs if they had switched sides. "The Greenglasses had to have new names, they have had to live their lives in secrecy, they have lived in fear.
"What my parents gave me and Michael, though, was a life in which we have never had to hide, a life in which we can stand up and be ourselves and do the things we believe in." He pauses. "In a way," he says, "the best revenge is simply living a good life. And that's what I believe I'm doing."