Today, June 19, marks the 60th anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two courageous communists murdered by the U.S. government in the midst of the ferocious anti-communist witch-hunt of the 1950s.
They were electrocuted on June 19, 1953, in Sing Sing prison in New York, despite worldwide protests, after a three-year persecution on trumped-up charges of espionage conspiracy, supposedly for providing elements of atomic-bomb production to the Soviet Union.
The Rosenbergs’ real crime, however, was that they stood for socialism at a dangerous time for progressive activists in the United States, when the U.S. government was waging an ideological war at home and abroad in the name of “fighting communism.”
After World War II ended in 1945, the U.S. government launched a military, political and economic offensive against the Soviet Union and socialist camp, commonly referred to as the “Cold War.”
The U.S. had emerged singularly unscathed from the war. It was the only country in the world to possess nuclear weapons, and showed its willingness to use them by annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The leaders in Washington were determined to achieve global domination and viewed the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union, and the revolutionary movements allied with it, as the main obstacle in their path.
At home, the offensive was aimed at crushing working-class struggles as well as revolutionary socialist and communist organizations. Throughout the late 1940s into the 1950s, U.S. labor unions were purged of socialists and communists, who had helped lead successful workers’ struggles in major industries. By 1949, dozens of communists were imprisoned under the draconian Smith Act (Alien Registration Act of 1940).
U.S. imperialism began its massive bombing war against Korea on June 25, 1950, at the same time the FBI moved against the Rosenbergs, with the arrest of Julius on July 17 and Ethel on August 11, 1950.
After their conviction on treason charges in a rigged trial, Judge Irving Kaufman, sentenced the Rosenbergs to death on April 5, 1951. Kaufman declared them responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Korea and, reflecting the wild hysteria of the time, added, “millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.”
Central figures in the Rosenbergs’ arrest and trial were FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, then a leading red-baiter in Congress.
Hoover, Nixon and the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy were hit men for U.S. imperialism on the home front.
To quell political dissent as the U.S. advanced its objectives, key political trials were given major prominence in the newspapers and new medium of television. The message was: “Communists are endangering the American way of life.”
Hoover and Nixon had just concluded—in January 1950—an outrageous frame-up of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official who was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union, by an alleged “former communist” named Whitaker Chambers.
The prosecution of Hiss and many other liberal government officials was part of the drive by right-wing elements to gain dominance.
False testimony by Chambers and his absurd claim of burying espionage film given to him by Hiss in a pumpkin (“the pumpkin papers”) conjured up images of ubiquitous Soviet spies in the most unexpected places.
Congressional hearings were conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with Nixon leading the charge. Hiss was convicted of perjury and served five years in prison. He was exonerated decades later.
The next victims of the Cold War
The next targets were the Rosenbergs, who were implicated by individuals who gave false testimony to avoid their own prosecution.
The ruling class manufactured a hysteria to crush dissent and the Rosenbergs paid the ultimate price for refusing to comply with repression. To the last minute, the government offered to spare them if they would admit guilt and “name names” of others who could then face the same persecution.
When they refused, they were killed, a clear case of state murder designed to terrorize others on the left.
The Rosenbergs had two young sons, Michael, age 10 at the time of their execution, and Robert, then 6 years old. They suffered greatly, being placed in shelters and orphanages, because relatives were too frightened to take them in. Finally Anne and Abel Meeropol won a court battle for their custody and adopted them.
In 1990, Robert Meeropol established the Rosenberg Fund for Children, to help children whose families are politically targeted. Both Michael and Robert became activists in many social causes in their youth.
For the 60th anniversary of their relatives’ executions, Robert Meeropol and his daughter Jenn, wrote:
“The US government used the Rosenberg case to attempt to prove to the public that the international communist conspiracy threatened the American way of life, and claimed fighting communism required that human rights and civil liberties take a back seat to national security.
“Today, the US government asserts that danger from the international terrorist conspiracy and their weapons of mass destruction justifies massive surveillance, indefinite detention and even torture. Authorities say we must guard national secrets even more securely to avoid destruction. Today, the issues raised by the Rosenberg case resonate from the Oval Office of the White House to Bradley Manning, who is being tried under the Espionage Act of 1917, as were Ethel and Julius.”
Long live the courage and memory of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.