Last month the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, now balding men of 73 and 69, stood outside the gates of the White House. The first time they stood there, in June 1953, Michael was 10, Robert 6, and the man in the White House was Dwight Eisenhower. Their parents were scheduled to die in a few days, and the boys had come with their paternal grandmother to beg the president to spare their lives. Now, in the final weeks of the Obama administration, Michael and Robert Meeropol (their adopted name) had returned to ask the president to exonerate Ethel. For although the sons have come to accept that their father committed espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II, they are convinced that their mother was not a spy. “We are giving the United States government the chance…to acknowledge the terrible wrong it did to her and to us,” Robert told reporters.
In support of their request, the Meeropols submitted a petition with over 40,000 signatures collected by the Rosenberg Fund for Children, an organization founded by Robert. They also delivered to the White House copies of testimony given to a federal grand jury in 1950 by Ethel’s brother David Greenglass and David’s wife, Ruth. The grand-jury minutes, which were not fully available until 2015, have added to the growing body of evidence that David and Ruth—the only witnesses against Ethel—lied about her role in the espionage conspiracy.
The campaign for Ethel’s exoneration was given a boost recently when the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey released a report provocatively titled “The Government’s Hostage: The Conviction and Execution of Ethel Rosenberg.” The 25-page report, which is based on an independent investigation led by the director of the center, Professor Mark Denbeaux, withholds judgment about whether Ethel was guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, the offense for which she was tried, convicted, and executed. The investigators are, however, severely critical of the government’s prosecution of Ethel. Among their key conclusions: “the evidence upon which [Ethel’s] conviction was based was threadbare,” and “Ethel was merely a pawn used for leverage in the government’s attempt to build a case against Julius Rosenberg.”
The Seton Hall report uses pretrial documents and trial testimony to show how—and why—J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the US Justice Department, and a team of US Attorneys from the Southern District of New York (one of whom was Roy Cohn) targeted Ethel and pursued her to her death. Most of the pretrial documents it cites are not new, but were obtained decades after the trial through a protracted Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Meeropols, and were evaluated in 1983 in an expanded edition of Invitation to an Inquest, a study of the case Walter Schneir and I coauthored. But by focusing solely on Ethel, the report lays bare the injustice visited upon her by high officials of the federal judiciary.
The government’s cynical scheme to use Ethel as a lever to pry a confession from her husband was formulated early in the investigation. An internal FBI memo dated July 17, 1950, the day of Julius’s arrest, reported that the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division had advised the bureau that “there was insufficient evidence to issue process against [Ethel] at this time,” since her participation in the conspiracy was attested by only one person, her sister-in-law Ruth Greenglass. However, the FBI memo continued, the Justice Department “was of the opinion that it might be possible to utilize [Ethel] as a lever against her husband.”