Last week, our class gathered together to watch a film about the notorious U.S. spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Far from being a typical documentary listing facts and explaining theories, this film was unorthodox in that it was a series of home videos featuring the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, Ivy Meeropol, on a mission to uncover the truth about who these people really were and what motivated them to do what they did.
Aside from being communists, up until capture the Rosenbergs lead pretty unremarkable lives. Julius was an electrical engineer and Ethel was a secretary and a singer. Then in 1950 a string of arrests on the charges of espionage brought U.S. authorities to David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, who then implicated Julius, and later Ethel in the transfer of information to the Soviet Union regarding the atomic bomb. At the time, there was little evidence to suggest that Ethel was actually involved in any way besides Greenglass’s testimony (which he later admitted he made up), so it has been speculated that she was indicted with Julius in order to pressure him into giving names. However, both of them remained completely silent for the remainder of their lives when it came to relinquishing any kind of information, even though it may have saved one or both of them.
The trial, conviction, and execution of the Rosenbergs was surrounded by a media craze that gripped the whole country. Jean-Paul Sartre famously called it a “legal lynching,” although a minority of people in the states protested and even called for President Eisenhower to grant clemency. He refused to act, and in 1953 they were executed in the electric chair, orphaning two small boys, Robert and Michael.
This is the part Ivy finds hard to reconcile. “What did they die for?” she asks. It becomes evident throughout the movie that to some extent she blames them for abandoning two children unnecessarily. To draw my own conclusions of the movie, from the people she interviewed and the information she did obtain, I can only guess they did it because they were fiercely commited to their cause and to each other. From that standpoint, I can sympathize, but I can also understand why Ivy held some bitterness toward them.
More generally, my impression of the Rosenberg case after watching the film was nothing short of revulsion. Not in resonse to their treason, as a few of my classmates expressed themselves to be, but to the barbaric way the whole thing was handled by authorities, the courts, and the American people. What happened to the Rosenbergs wasn’t justice, it was in fact a witch hunt, and in my opinion, a stain upon American history. Whether or not either of them were guilty of treason (the Venona papers, which surfaced later, suggest only Julius was), the misconduct by the prosecution during the trial and the overall bloodthirsty, circus-style approach to the case was grotesquely disproportionate to the crime. And even if it wasn’t, it was not as though these people were the only spies or the most dangerous spies in America at this time. They were made examples of, but what I take away from their story is not a healthy fear of what can happen to someone if they commit treason against the United States, but what can happen to our country, indeed the principles of any civilized society, if we allow ourselves to be ruled into such backwardness by widespread paranoia and mob-mentality.