Robert Meeropol is the founder and executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. In 1953, when he was 6 years old, the United States government framed up and executed his parents for “conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb” despite a worldwide campaign to spare their lives. The Rosenbergs were victims of the anti-communist hysteria of the time.
Meeropol is the author of “An Execution in the Family,” recently released in paperback (St. Martin’s Press). This political memoir chronicles Meeropol’s journey from childhood victim of McCarthy-era repression, to 1960s militant activist, to politically engaged parent and law student, to founder and leader of the RFC.
The RFC provides for the educational and emotional needs of both targeted activist youth and children in this country whose parents have been harassed, injured, jailed, lost jobs or died in the course of their progressive activities.
Carolyn Rummel interviewed Meeropol for the People’s Weekly World via telephone June 15, one year after her first interview with him when “An Execution in the Family” was originally published in hardcover.
PWW: A year ago you were already warning about the similarities between your parents’ case and what’s happening in the government today. How has the situation changed in the past year? .
RM: On the one hand, the government … is doing everything it can to bring back the McCarthy period … the government’s line is, “Oh, all the people complaining about civil liberties, don’t they trust us? Don’t they know that we’re only going to use these powers in the most responsible way?”
And then, of course, you have the Abu Ghraib prison photos and the torture memo and all the stuff that’s come out. That has alarmed a lot of people. So while the government’s position hasn’t changed one iota, there has been a pretty massive public outcry against where they want to go.
One of the things that has struck me, I’m still going out and doing readings from my book … I used to read from the beginning section of the book [the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs] and then a section in the middle [about his work, as an adult, to clear their name]. As time has gone by, I tend to now read from the beginning section and a portion of the epilogue. And the epilogue was written in the wake of Sept. 11 and is about post-Sept. 11 America. What surprises me … is that although it was written in the summer of 2002, with the exception of actually invading and occupying Iraq, it could have been written yesterday. The forces that are in control pretty much are pushing the same agenda in the same way.
PWW: You mentioned Abu Ghraib prison. There’s a certain similarity to the McCarthy period in that some people who might not have approved of what they saw were afraid to speak up and say, “This isn’t right.” .
RM: That’s been shown over and over again, particularly in an army circumstance where the model is obedience. There are many ways you can characterize the Bush administration but essentially it wants to impose a military model upon society of “obey.” You obey those in authority and you don’t question. You put people in the military and you put them in this situation and it’s particularly difficult for people to come forward.
I was speaking in Baltimore recently and the guy whose house I stayed, an old friend, is a public defender. … One of the things that he knows as a public defender and someone working in the criminal justice system is the reason these people were acting as prison guards in Iraq is because they were prison guards at home. So what does that say about what’s going on in American prisons? … If this is the kind of thing with a little bit of encouragement they could be brought to do, you can imagine how they’re treating prisoners in the United States.
PWW: What’s your outlook on the November elections? .
RM: I’m going to vote for Kerry. In some ways it’s almost foolish that I’m voting for Kerry because I live in Massachusetts where he’s going to win and get our electoral votes anyway so what’s the point? In some ways I should be free to vote my conscience and vote for some person more to the left but I want Kerry to get as many votes as he possibly can, not because I think Kerry’s any great shakes because I don’t think he is. It’s obvious he represents powerful forces in American society who essentially want America to be the way it is, with some minor adjustments here and there. … But I think these people who are in power, this cabal of Bush and his cronies, are so dangerous … if Bush is not defeated the space in which we have to operate [will be diminished] and the trend toward more authoritarian government and right-wing domination … will continue and I want to derail these folks. The best way I can think of to derail these folks is to throw them out of office.
But I have few illusions that this is going to start a trend in the right direction. This group or something like them is going to come back into power again. This group or people like them were in power during the McCarthy period, they were in power during the Reagan period, now they’re in power again. … [T]he point is that as long as you’re in this sort of Democrat/Republican alternating power, these kind of things are going to keep coming up, this authoritarian bent, this type of right-wing fundamentalists are going to keep coming back, this kind of society, the direction we’re going in, is going to keep returning. We have to figure out a way to get beyond that and yet at this juncture I think it’s just really important to get Bush out.
PWW: What are you working on now? .
RM: The bulk of my work is the Rosenberg Fund for Children, continuing to spread the word of what we do, and gather beneficiaries, and make grants and gather contributions and do all the work that needs to be done. Sometimes people outside of institutions … they just don’t know what’s involved in maintaining something like this. It’s more than a full-time job.
The other big thing I should mention, the thing your readers should be aware of is there’s a very important international political event taking place in Montreal October 6-9. [It] will be the second worldwide congress to abolish the death penalty. There will be people from every continent; there will be thousands of activists from all over the world. It’s really being pushed by European countries and I’ll be attending and participating. I went to the first one in Strasbourg, France, in 2001 … and it was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had. This is not going to be a particularly radical conference but it’s going to be people with good sensibilities from all over the world and it’ll be a wonderful opportunity to meet very engaged people we should have connections to from all over. It’s going to be hard to find publicity in the United States, though there will be efforts to publicize it as we get into September but … that’s another big thing on the horizon.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.
(See related story below)
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Rosenberg granddaughter film on HBO
“Heir to an Execution,” by Ivy Meeropol, HBO, 92 minutes.
Check local listings for showings.
In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed by the U.S. government, their names seared into history. This film chronicles the efforts of filmmaker Ivy Meeropol to come to terms with the lives and deaths of the Rosenbergs – her grandparents. Meeropol weaves archival footage, family home movies and conversations with her father Michael, his younger brother Robert and other relatives and associates of the Rosenbergs. The result is a deeply personal and sometimes painfully emotional film that paints a never-before-seen portrait of a devoted couple who came to symbolize the victims of Cold War hysteria.
Robert Meeropol, in his interview with the World, said people may wonder, “Why is HBO airing this film that casts Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in a sympathetic light?” He said be believes “there are very powerful forces within our society who are far from revolutionary or radical … but these powerful forces are actually quite anxious about the direction that the Bush administration is taking society. One of the ways they can strike back culturally is to produce mass market films like this that show what can happen if right-wing repressive people are able to do everything they want to do. The showing of Ivy’s film at this point has as much to do with today as it [does] with the McCarthy period.”