I enjoyed the Ivy Meeropol’s film Heir to an Execution, because it offered a different perspective on the political climate of theUS during the Cold War, portraying its human consequences for American citizens. Her coverage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s trial and execution from the perspective of their family, as their granddaughter, automatically offered a more human – as opposed to ideological – approach to the story. At the same time, I found myself pondering ideology throughout the documentary.
While new evidence indicating at least Julius Rosenberg’s guilt has surfaced since the trial – most notably in the Venona cables, released in the mid 1990s – this documentary did a good job of showing how little evidence was actually in the hands of the prosecution at the time (a good chronology of the case, spanning from 1915 to 2008, can be found here). Given the relative lack of evidence, the prosecution of the Rosenbergs seems a response more to an ideological attack rather than a material one. While the prosecution may not have known how much material damage had been done to theUnited States as a result of theRosenbergs’ actions, their ideological leanings towards communism (and thus, theSoviet Union) were more obviously visible. This could also explain why the government tried so hard to illicit confession and information from theRosenbergs – could the potential for symbolic reaffirmation of their loyalty to theUnited States have been even more important than whatever names they might have provided?
Given that the USand the Soviet Union were still allies when the Rosenbergs were said to have been passing along information, I was also struck by the severity of the judge’s sentencing statement in theRosenberg trial. What particularly interested me was that the judge alluded to this fact in the sentencing, but noted that it was no excuse: to him, the fact that theRosenbergs had put their personal ideological beliefs ahead of the decisions of their country’s authorities was the ultimate offense. But why was their commitment to ideology so offensive? It is continually stressed – both in the documentary and elsewhere – how terrible it was that theRosenbergs had put their beliefs even ahead of their own children. TheRosenberg’s case seemed, in a sense, to rebuff the individual’s right to an ideology independent to that of their government. To me, however, this evokes images of the Soviet Union, not of theUnited States. To realize that this was perhaps universal made me question my assumptions of who did or did not hold a “moral high ground” in the Cold War.