"What we need to do is speak out"
June 20, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7
ROBERT MEEROPOL was 6 years old when his parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed in 1953. He has dedicated his life to activism, helping to found the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990 to aid the children of activists who have been targeted for their dissent. He is also the author of the recent book An Execution in the Family, published by St. Martin's Press. Here, Robert described his thoughts on the 50th anniversary of his parents' execution.
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WHAT COMPARISONS to the 1950s would you draw from today?
IT'S AN unfortunate reality that 2003 reminds me of 1953 in so many ways. We don't have the Korean War. We have the war on terror--Afghanistan, Iraq, whoever's next. In some ways, the war on terror has replaced the Cold War. The specifics of who we were opposing in the Cold War is analogous to whatever particular countries we're trying to confuse with the war on terror today.
Instead of J. Edgar Hoover, we have John Ashcroft. Instead of the McCarran and the Smith Acts, we have the USA PATRIOT Act and USA PATRIOT Act II. The most frightening aspect is the way that public support is mobilized by terrorizing people. In the 1950s, people were scared of a nuclear holocaust, and they were convinced that the Russians were going to drop the bomb on us. And American soldiers were dying at the rate of 1,000 a month in Korea. All of this came together to justify what happened to my parents.
Today, in the wake of the September 11 attack, where thousands of people were killed, people are being terrorized with fear that it's going to happen again--with various levels of alerts, with concerns about weapons of mass destruction held by rogue states, when in reality, we're the country that has the most weapons of mass destruction and uses them most frequently.
All of these parallels are there. But I think we have to go beyond dwelling on the negative parallels. We have to look back and say that all these terrible things happened in the 1950s, but we came through it and bounced back from it. Why did that happen? And then we have to apply those lessons to today. I'm more interested in how we can come through this period that I'm in, than in bemoaning how terrible it is.
From my personal experience of the 1950s, the groups that hung together--that created communities of support and prevented complete isolation on the part of politically active left-wing people--served an extremely important service. A lot of the institutions that survived, things as trivial as left-wing summer camps, served as incubators for a new generation of activists.
In the 1960s, when we had a rebirth of activism, there was a strong component of people who had survived the 1950s, who were able to have a disproportionate positive impact, compared to their numbers. What that tells me today is that what we need to do is speak out, not run and hide--and we need to stick together. We need to support institutions that create progressive cohesion. As the 50th anniversary approaches, we're trying to show the parallels--both good and bad--and trying to have a positive influence on our progressive people's survival in general, and on building movement for the future.
DESCRIBE THE activism around the struggle to save your parents.
MY PARENTS' case has an interesting history of activism that people don't know that well. First, to put it in perspective, between 1948 and 1953--between the reelection of Harry Truman and the Montgomery Bus Boycott--the movement to save my parents was the largest mass public movement on the American left. It involved tens of thousands, possibly even several hundreds of thousands of people--a big movement happening in the heart of the McCarthy period.
The history of the organization of that movement is largely lost. For instance, most people will be shocked to learn that if you read all the newspapers when my parents' trial took place in March 1951, you would find not one newspapers making a peep about the fact that these people might have been framed--not left, right or center. There was silence on the left and a chorus of condemnation in the center and the right.
That didn't come until late in the summer of 1951, when William Reuben published a series of articles in the National Guardian called "The Rosenberg Case: An American Dreyfus Affair?" Reuben looked through the trial transcript, reviewed all the evidence and concluded that something was fishy.
The Guardian was an independent left paper, not a communist paper. It published this, and the Communist Party (CP) paper hadn't published anything. Shortly after the publication of the series in the Guardian, several people--against the explicit wishes of the American CP--formed the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. A lot of them had been close to the party, or were ex-party people, but they didn't have the support of the party.
Later, the CP decided to throw its weight behind the international effort to save my parents' lives. At that point, the movement exploded internationally. That's when it really became big news. From my perspective, this forced the movement to secure justice in the Rosenberg case to be a broad coalition of many groups, because they didn't have that core of support from a big institution to begin with. And that ultimately became one of its principal strengths.
HOW DID the U.S. government use your parents as an example for the rest of the left?
IF YOU look at the actual charge against my parents--conspiracy to commit espionage--and you read the indictment, the words "atomic bomb" are never mentioned. The actual charge against my parents and the evidence presented in court was much vaguer.
Seeing two poor, anonymous people from the Lower East Side--not big names or big-time organizers, just ordinary rank-and-file CP members being charged with the theft of the world's greatest secret--people on the left knew that something was wrong. They saw the charges as an attempt to tell everybody on the left: "Look, we used to get you with perjury charges, or we used to throw you out of your job, but now we're going to pin even bigger things on you. If you don't tow the line, we're not just going to send you to jail for five years for perjury, we're going to kill you."
That's what this was all about--to strike fear in the heart of the American left. It succeeded to a degree. But I think it served a more potent political purpose--and that was to convince the American public in general that left-wingers were really agents of a foreign power. They weren't engaged in legitimate dissent, but illegitimate dissent. Communists were spies, and leftists in general tended to be communists, and it was mushed together.
And because of that, none of them should have any rights, because they weren't just dissenting--they were agents of a foreign power. And my parents' case "proved" that. From the ruling class' point of view, that was the most important lesson of the Rosenberg case.
YOU ARE, of course, a longtime opponent of the death penalty. What do you have to say about the shift in public opinion that has resulted from recent abolitionist successes?
IT'S A sign that we've made incredible progress in the anti-capital punishment movement that the Bush administration has not been making such a big deal about killing people. In the fall of 2001, I was fearful that we were going to have a new wave of capital conspiracy cases. My parents' case was a capital conspiracy case--they received capital punishment after only being convicted of conspiracy. That's extremely unusual; it's almost always is a murder case.
Zacharias Massoui has been charged with conspiracy and he's facing capital punishment. So he's the first capital conspiracy case in this country since my parents. I thought there were going to be a whole slew of them, but instead, the Bush administration seems to be intent on dealing with these people extra-judicially--in other words, having military trials outside of the U.S., removing people beyond the justice system, putting people in Guantanamo Bay, and who knows what they're doing to people in other countries.
Why do they have to do that? Why not bring them to the U.S. where they can have big show trials and get executions. I think it's because they'd have a very difficult time doing it in the current climate. And that's a testament to the power of the anti-capital punishment movement and the shift that's taken place. From a practical point of view, the real shift that has taken place is because more and more of the public have come to realize that innocent people have been executed and will be executed given the imperfect nature of our system.
The practical truth that people in Illinois demonstrated is that because of the corrupt and imperfect nature of the system--because of the political nature of executions--it's inevitable that innocent people will be executed. Once people saw that, the tide began to turn. I think it's still turning. I remain optimistic about the ultimate abolition of capital punishment in the U.S.
That said, there's a rear-guard action being fought by the proponents of capital punishment who are trying to figure out ways to save it---maybe we'll tinker with it a little bit, we won't execute juveniles, retarded people, maybe we'll institute a special category of capital punishment for those whose crimes are worse than murder, like mass terror. All these things are designed to protect the core of capital punishment. But the very fact that they're doing this shows that they're on the defensive.
WHAT ROLE does activism play in your life?
MY ENTIRE life has been infused with activism, and part of the reason for that is the community that rallied to my support after my parents' executions. The people who raised us, they became my heroes. They all put themselves on the line for my benefit and to make this country a better place, at a very difficult political time in the McCarthy period.
It only felt natural for me to follow in their footsteps, because my childhood experience told me that that was a positive thing. So it seemed only natural that I would get involved in antiwar work, civil rights, and ultimately the effort to reopen my parents' case in the 1970s. Finally, I started the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990, which is dedicated to providing for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists in this country. We look for people who are being attacked for their activism today, and if they have children, we help their children--in the same way that I was helped when I was a child.
People who used to do civil disobedience at the School of the Americas used to get a $50 fine, and they'd come back the next year again. All of a sudden, people doing the exact same thing are being sentenced to nine months in prison. There are an increasing number of cases where people doing relatively symbolic acts of protest are really having the book thrown at them. We're seeing the fallout from that.