Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953 on the grounds of espionage – passing atomic bomb intelligence to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Their case has been the center of controversy for decades, with new, game-changing information being uncovered as time goes by. Throughout their case, they maintained their innocence. Over fifty years later, however, Morton Sobell finally admitted to his own espionage as well as Julius’ participation in transmission of intelligence to the Soviets. Ethel, however, was no criminal, other than the fact that she was aware of her husband’s participation.
In the film “Heir to an Execution,” the Rosenberg’s granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, examines the events leading up to the execution, sharing personal perspectives from both her own family and those who knew the Rosenbergs. She conveys intimate and very human moments, offering a unique perspective on a dark time in American history. She belongs to a family ruptured by anti-Communist hysteria, and while she did not know her grandparents, she feels an intense connection with her kin.
Interestingly, she does not vehemently argue for their innocence. She states that she simply does not know. She does know, however, that they were ordinary people, and they were her family.
This vulnerable side to the story- how two boys, her uncle and father, were orphaned- left the biggest impression upon me. The decision of Ethel to keep in solidarity with her husband, until death do us part, rather than to succumb to government pressure to crack and exchange information for life, truly baffles me. How can a mother leave behind two helpless and dependent children? She did not break with her principles, and that cost her life. Her decision to refrain from giving up names casts her in the same light as a martyr, simultaneously showing a very ugly side to the American government. This woman was executed for her association with her spying spouse.
The very decision to execute people on the grounds of treason is in itself controversial, as the death penalty is a widely debated practice. Less than twenty nations practice capital punishment today, of almost two-hundred in the world. While the Rosenbergs were executed over fifty years ago, the debate over the legitimacy of their death and the moral conflict it provoked greatly calls into question the measures taken by America during the Cold War. What constitutes such extreme practices? To what extent is the American government willing to compromise human rights of its citizens in the face of political fear? These questions are relevant today in the context of the practice of torture in order to procure information about terrorist organizations and the departure from fundamental American principles regarding human rights. The decisions are complex, but in the end, the importance of human rights must rise as top priority.