The Rosenberg Case | The Nation


The Rosenberg Case

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An American Failure

The execution of the Rosenbergs was a sickening and disheartening failure of the American conscience, of the American sense of fair play, of American moral leadership, of American justice. With world opinion aroused by the judicial horror implicit in sending the mother of two minor children to the electric chair for an act of peace-time espionage, about all we have had to say in reply is that "Communist propagandists" are to blame. But Communist propagandists did not prompt the London News Chronicle to observe:

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It is indeed an astonishing thing that the most important issue of this whole astonishing case appears only to have been raised in the last minute of the eleventh hour...Only on Wednesday of this week, President Eisenhower was saying how the Coronation had thrown a vivid light on the glorious heritage of law that was common to the United States and Britain. It is a pity that a heritage of clemency is not apparently common to them.

As immoral as the use of the cry "Communist propaganda" to blind Americans to the true state of world opinion was the editorial ballyhoo about the "due process" accorded the defendants. The plain fact is that the Supreme Court consistently refused to review the case and the substantial point on which Justice Douglas relied in granting a stay was only considered in the most oblique manner and with such indecent haste that two members of the court felt compelled to enter vigorous protests over the speed-up ordered by the Attorney General. How much better it would have been if, as Justice Black pointed out, the court had granted a full review on all the issues. As it is, the world will not be permitted to forget that very grave doubt exists that the death sentence was properly imposed. Nor do Communist propagandists need to remind those who read the American press that influential newspapers screamed for the blood of the Rosenbergs or that word of the execution was greeted with applause in Congress where Representative Frank L. Chelf interrupted a debate on foreign aid to say, "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow and thanks to the Supreme Court."

Years ago, John Jay Chapman said of a lynching in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, "I said to myself: 'I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there. What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people.' For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker."

This failure of the American conscience was, however, in part redeemed by the courage, insight, and moral integrity of Justice Douglas and Justice Black. Every American who values our tradition of individual as distinguished from "political" or collective justice will be forever grateful to them. The failure was also redeemed in part by the Rosenbergs who, guilty or not, went to their deaths with a composure and dignity that won praise even from hostile newspapers.

Intruders and Interlopers

B ut this publication feels a special gratitude to Irwin Edelman, an indefatigable pamphleteer and soapbox orator who has been attempting to enlighten the crowds in Los Angeles' Pershing Square these many years. Expelled from the Communist Party in 1947, Edelman did not turn informer or renegade; instead he turned on the fools and opportunists who had expelled him and has been making life miserable for them ever since. Advertisements for his first pamphlet on the Rosenberg case -- thoroughly justified criticism of the manner in which the defense had been conducted -- were refused by, among other publications, the National Guardian. The ads appeared in The Nation as did a lengthy communication from Edelman.

In the last tragic chapter it was Edelman who came forward as the "friend" of the Rosenbergs to raise the point, over the objection of the Rosenbergs' accredited counsel, that won a stay and might, if it had been raised earlier, have won a review. Yet one of the justices referred to him as a "vagrant," citing a court decision from which it clearly appears that Edelman had raised and carried to the Supreme Court of California an important free-speech issue. A word of appreciation, too, should go to Daniel G. Marshall and Fyke Farmer, the lawyers who volunteered to help Edelman and who, with him, were denounced as "intruders and interlopers." A prominent Catholic layman whose trip to Washington was financed by Los Angeles Unitarians, Mr. Marshall has a fine record of distinguished service on behalf of civil rights and liberties.

On the night the Rosenbergs were executed, the intrepid Edelman was chased from Pershing Square by an angry crowd. As the spry little Russian-born pamphleteer sought refuge in a nearby coffee shop, he shouted at his pursuers: "If you are happy about the execution of the Rosenbergs, you are rotten to the core." In that act of defiance and clarity, this little man with a passion for justice demonstrated, as Chapman demonstrated in 1911, that there are always some Americans who can not remain aloof when they look on the agony of a fellow human.

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