Day 6

Rosenbergs' son says new evidence exonerates his mother

Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, explains why he is asking the US government to fully exonerate his late mother 62 years after she was executed for conspiracy to commit espionage.
FILE- In this 1951 file photo, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, center, are shown during their trial for espionage in New York. The couple is accused of conspiring to recruit her brother, David Greenglass, into gathering "classified information concerning the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union." A New York judge has ordered the release David Greenglass' grand jury testimony from 1950. Ethel and her husband Julius Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair in 1953 for conspiring to give nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. (AP Photo, File) (The Associated Press)
Listen15:28

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and were executed by the American government on June 19, 1953. The pair were accused of planning to pass secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, but they maintained their innocence until the very end. Their two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, have fought for decades on their behalf. The men concede their father was guilty of the conspiracy charge, but argue their mother was innocent. They say neither deserved the death penalty. 

Much of Ethel's conviction hinged on the testimony of her brother, David Greenglass, who was a soldier assigned to the secret nuclear weapons testing known as the Manhattan Project. He testified at the trial that Ethel helped recruit him into the spy ring, and was present when he handed over top secret information to her husband, Julius. 

In July, the transcripts of Greenglass's grand jury testimony from before the Rosenbergs' trial were released. Michael and Robert wrote in the New York Times that the information in those transcripts exonerates their mother. Robert joins us to explain what the new information reveals, and why he's calling on President Obama to acknowledge Ethel was wrongly convicted and executed.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Helen Mann: What is contained in these newly released documents that you believe fully exonerates your mother?

Robert Meeropol: Well the key is this is sworn testimony that we know David Greenglass, my mother's and my parents' chief accuser, said. And what he said to the grand jury was that he never talked to Ethel Rosenberg about any of his espionage activities. That is a direct contradiction to what he swore at trial. We've had all sorts of research through our Freedom of Information Act efforts to reveal what the government files have said. The KGB files, some of them have been released. There's been all sorts of analysis for years, and that analysis indicated that my mother probably wasn't guilty. But there's a difference between trying to analyze these kinds of secret documents and having proven sworn statements that we know were said on certain dates. So that enabled us to put the capstone on all of this and say Ethel Rosenberg was wrongfully convicted, and therefore wrongfully executed.

HM: So when you say the testimony given before the grand jury differed significantly from what your uncle David Greenglass said at trial, can you point out the key differences for us?

RM: The key differences are that, to the grand jury, David Greenglass said, "I never talked to my sister about my activities, about any of this". At the trial, he said that Ethel was present at the espionage meeting at my parents' apartment, and that she typed up David's handwritten notes that described a sketch that was the cross-section of the atomic bomb that the prosecutor said were the greatest secrets known to mankind. So you have on the one hand him swearing she didn't know anything about this, and on the other hand, he's swearing she was there and she took a specific action in support of my activities.  

HM: So before he died last year, David Greenglass told a New York Times reporter that he had indeed lied in court about your mother. Why do you think he changed his story?

RM: Well because we forced hundreds of thousands of secret files into the public eye, we can see that the government's strategy was to arrest my mother and get her a stiff prison sentence in order to coerce my father into saying what the government wanted him to say. In other words, they weren't arresting her for guilt, they were arresting her to hold her as a hostage. And the hostage taking involved not only my mother, but basically David Greenglass was confronted with the government saying to him "if you and your wife don't say what we want you to say and involve Ethel, then we're going to arrest your wife". So as David said on television, "I had to choose between my wife and my sister and I don't sleep with my sister."

HM: If your mother was just to be used as a hostage, why do you think she was ultimately given the death penalty?

RM: As one of the assistant attorney-generals told a New York Times reporter several years ago, 'She called our bluff'. In other words, the government got put in a position where it felt it couldn't back down because it would appear weak. The reality is, of course, that my mother didn't do the thing they claimed she did, and so if they didn't execute her she would be in prison filing appeal after appeal. Sooner or later the truth will come out and make the government look worse, and the government just decided "well I guess she's just collateral damage."  

HM: You mentioned the release of KGB documents. There are some that still look at those transcripts, point to them and say they seem to implicate your mother. How do you reconcile the information in those documents with the position you're taking?  

RM: There is one document in particular. Another charge that Greenglass made is that when there was an effort to recruit David Greenglass into espionage work by my father, that my mother was present and encouraged Ruth to transmit this request to David. And there are KGB files which quote my mother as saying 'You have to be very careful, you don't want to get in trouble', urging caution. Well, people have seized upon that and said, 'See, she's part of the conspiracy'. The problem with that is these people are acting as if Ethel actually said that. We don't know what Ethel said. What we have here is a description, an English re-translation of a double encrypted Russian translation of an English report of Julia's description of what Ethel said. Now, I bet you had a hard time following that, but that's what these people are seizing upon to prove that Ethel was guilty. That's the difference between the kind of new material that's been released, sworn to transcriptions that we can be absolutely certain of their accuracy.

HM: Don't the KGB documents say, however, that your mother was fully aware of your father's activities and that they might see her as a potential operative because she could be valuable?

RM: I don't know about the 'might see her as a potential operative' part because the KGB files repeatedly say 'in view of delicate health does not work'. And then the chief American decrypter analyzes that and says that means she didn't do espionage work. The KGB files do indicate that my mother was fully, well, at least generally, aware of my father's activities, and I don't deny that. I don't know that she knew the specifics, but she had to know the general. I don't think they kept those kind of secrets from each other, and I think she probably approved of Julius' activities. But being aware and approving of something is not the same as being guilty of being a spy, let alone an atomic spy. It's not a question of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg both being pure as the driven snow. It's a question of what's the evidence? Was there a justification for the conviction? Was there a justification for the sentence? And I think the answer to the last two questions is 'no'. Regardless of her knowledge.

HM: You were only six when they were executed - is that right?

RM: Yes. I was three when they were arrested, six when they were executed.

HM: What do you remember about the night they were killed?

RM: As a six year old, I understood and I didn't understand. It was late in June, the evening was long. I couldn't read the newspapers. I didn't know what was going on. But we were watching a baseball game on T.V. and the program was interrupted to say the executions were going forward, and my brother got upset by this because he could read. So they sent us outside to play baseball, and that's what I remember. I remember going outside to play baseball. I remember us coming back in, and I remember my brother being upset. I remember that the way I dealt with that was to say 'I'm sleepy, I want to go to sleep', and that's what I did. I can't tell you when it actually became clear to me that my parents had been killed. As a six year old, my brother reports that even after he told me I sometimes said, 'When are we going to go see mommy and daddy?' So that's a child's brain - that's my interpretation.

HM: Tell me about those visits, because you and your brother Michael were actually taken to Sing Sing to see your parents. What are your memories? As you say you were young, but what have you retained from that?

RM: The first time we visited them was about a year after they had been taken away from us, so that was in the late summer of 1951, and I was four years old. I think we visited them about a dozen times. I can't say that I remember specific visits, they're all kind of glommed together in my mind. What I remember most about them is that they acted normal when we were together. The family was reunited. I wanted to pretend that things were normal because I didn't like fuss and bother and it never seemed to do any good anyway. And they wanted to act like things were normal, and that the family was reunited and everything would work out in the end. That's what I remember, that they were calm and quiet affairs. You know if Hollywood were to do a movie and try to make dramatic scenes with screaming and crying and all that kind of stuff, it wouldn't be true. That's what I remember. The reality is, as a five and six-year-old, I think I remember more about the car trip we used to take up along the Hudson River from Manhattan to Sing-Sing than I actually remember about entering and exiting the prison . But of course I do remember seeing my parents, and really those are the only clear memories I have of them.

HM: What were your mother's last words to you?

RM: Both my parents wrote in their final letter to us that they were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after that. And I've always taken those words to heart, and to have multiple meanings. One, that other adults would carry on to take care of us, but also that other people would carry on the political ideals that they believed in. That's the thing that I think is crucial to know about this is that the government of the United States was not asking my parents to tell the truth. It was asking my parents to lie. And regardless of the fact that Julius was guilty of military industrial espionage not atomic espionage, they just simply refused to do that. That is an ideal that they upheld to the end. And I have always taken those final words as a guidepost for my own life, and I hope I've lived up to their legacy.

HM: So you admire how they lived out their last days, but do you wish your parents had made different choices?

RM: That's a very difficult question. As their child, and as someone who lived through their arrest and execution, those aren't the choices I would make with small children. However, I recognize that it's very difficult to make those decisions, that sometimes adults take dangerous actions because they want to make the world a better place for their children. So I look back to my parents and I say, 'Well, they grew up in the depression. The world was coming apart. Communism, fascism, capitalism, and World War II was starting. My father had bad eyesight. He wanted to play a role in helping defeat the Nazis. And this was a role that he saw he could play.'

HM: One of the things you wrote in an op-ed piece this week was that your mother's execution has disturbing echoes today. How so?

RM: If you look back in the 1950s, basically our government was drawing a pretty simple equation. The international communist conspiracy was going to destroy our way of life, they were stealing atomic secrets, and they could blow us off the planet. Therefore, civil rights, human rights, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, all of that had to take a backseat to national security so that the international communist conspiracy wouldn't destroy us. If you pull out the words international communist conspiracy and you plug in the words international terrorist conspiracy, you have the equation that is being drawn today. We see the suspension of the Constitution in our courts, decisions over fear of terrorism over and over again. We see the government accepting torture. We see the government increasing its security. We see the government being so scared of the truth, witness people like Snowden and Assange. So those are the kind of echoes that I'm talking about. That's one of the reasons why understanding the kind of trouble you can get into, the kind of injustice that you can facilitate, if you allow that fear to overcome the protections that are put in place to protect not the guilty, but to protect everyone.

HM: So then what would it mean if President Obama were to admit that your mother was wrongly convicted and executed?

RM: It would raise awareness of the misuse of the death penalty, which is something I feel very strongly about. Beyond that, I think it would start a discussion of government misconduct that I think is essential today. Who knows where it would would lead, but I must say, I'm not holding my breath for this to happen. I hope it happens, but if it does happen, it's going to take a fair amount of work and time.