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A Test of Loyalty

Evidence against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg shook, but did not topple, a son's faith

June 16, 2003|Robert Meeropol

I was 3 years old when the FBI knocked on the door of our Lower East Side apartment and took my father away. Not long after, my mother was arrested as well.

For the next three years, my older brother, Michael, and I were shuttled among grandparents, friends and shelters while my parents were tried and then convicted, and while they fought, and lost, a series of appeals.

It came to an end on the evening of June 19, 1953, when my parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. The banner headline on the front page of the New York Times the next day read "Rosenbergs Executed as Atomic Spies."

The government congratulated itself for a job well done, but I was left without a mother and a father, and without the most basic of memories -- how they looked when they smiled; or how their voices sounded.

What I did have was this: a firm belief in my parents.

I grew up with great certainty that they were very good people who were wholly innocent of the charges against them. Indeed, in their last letter to Michael and me, they wrote: "Always remember that we were innocent." Yes, they were communists. Yes, they sympathized with the Soviet Union. But I concluded for myself that they had not been spies.

As a young man, I gave speeches to that effect, buoyed by research showing that their trial was unfair, the judge was biased and critical evidence had been fabricated.

But in the years since then, it has become more difficult to hold so firmly to the beliefs of my childhood. As long ago as the early 1980s, when I was in law school, I began to rethink some of my most basic assumptions. And after the end of the Cold War, new evidence emerged. This included the Venona cables -- electronic transmissions, sent from the Soviet Consulate in New York to Moscow during World War II, that had been intercepted and decrypted by the Americans.

Many felt these documents proved once and for all that my father had helped pass secrets to the Russians.

When the Venona transcriptions were released in 1995, I wanted to face the revelations honestly. I didn't want to ignore reality or defend my parents blindly. After all, I am not my parents' lawyer, but their son. So I spent a good deal of time studying the information, trying to reach an honest conclusion. Some people who don't know me assume I must be in denial or despair. Neither is the case.

Here is what I have come to believe:

My father might have helped pass secrets to the Russians during World War II. But "might" is the key word. The Venona transcriptions -- taken at face value -- strongly suggest it. But I have reason to distrust them as well. Why, for example, did the government repeatedly revise the transcriptions, in a process that remains secret? Also, the FBI and other federal agencies in charge of collecting, storing and finally disseminating the Venona material have a history of crafting disinformation. These agencies helped orchestrate my parents' frame-up and have a huge stake in maintaining it.

Second, I have concluded that my mother was not guilty. Even if I were to accept the Venona transcriptions as accurate, they show she was never given a code name by the Russians, and even the chief American decrypter acknowledges that this indicates she was never a spy.

There is no doubt in my mind that my mother was executed for a crime she did not commit.

Third, although I now acknowledge that my father may have been a spy, that doesn't change my fundamental belief that he and my mother were framed; after all, a guilty man can receive an unfair trial. That may sound like hair-splitting, but it's not. There was secret -- and illegal -- communication between the prosecutor and the judge during the course of the trial. And there were clear fabrications, including testimony worked out in advance between the FBI and Harry Gold and David Greenglass, who testified against my parents.

Finally, and this is extremely important, I continue to believe that my parents died for a crime they did not commit: passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Even if you choose to believe the Venona transcripts, they report that my father was ignorant of the atomic bomb project. This is crucial because although they were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, that's not why they were executed.

Make no mistake: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were not strapped into the electric chair because my father had conspired with the KGB to commit non-atomic espionage. My parents were really tried, sentenced and punished for giving the bomb to the Soviet Union. The judge declared the death sentence justified because my parents put the bomb "into the hands of the Russians years before our best scientists predicted."

Here's the key question: Did Ethel and Julius Rosenberg commit the act they were executed for? Even those who accept Venona's validity must also admit that the answer is no.

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