LOS ANGELES – June 19th was the 60th anniversary of the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, seen by many as a grave injustice in our nation’s history. In 1953, the Rosenbergs were sent to the electric chair at the height of the McCarthy era in an atmosphere of hysterical anti-communism with undertones of anti-Semitism.
Longstanding progressive activist actor Ed Asner and fellow actor and anti-death penalty activist Mike Farrell marked the occasion by co-sponsoring a screening of the 1983 Sidney Lumet film “Daniel” at the Los Angeles Workers’ Center. HollywoodProgressive.com, LAProgressive.com, and the Communist Party USA co-presented the event.
“Daniel,” starring Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin, and Lindsay Crouse, is a fictionalized account of the Rosenberg case, focusing on the traumatic experiences of the children of persecuted Communist activists. The Rosenbergs were charged with “conspiracy to commit espionage” under the Espionage Act of 1917 (as was Bradley Manning). Prosecutors painted the Rosenbergs as traitors, responsible for providing the Soviet Union with “the secret of the atomic bomb.”
It turns out the Rosenbergs probably never had access to atomic secrets, and although Julius had passed industrial secrets to the Russians during World War II (when the Soviets were U.S. allies) Ethel didn’t engage in espionage and was charged with a capital crime in order to pressure Julius into confessing. Despite propagandistic myths of American technical prowess, atomic scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer disputed the existence of a so-called “secret of the bomb,” and held that the Soviets could have developed the bomb independently. The lives of the Rosenbergs were offered up as a sacrifice not in the interest of national security, but for political purposes.
Event organizer Rossana Cambron began the evening by reading a letter written by Julius and Ethel’s son, Robert Meeropol, for the occasion. In it he described how his parents’ case mirrors the current “War on Terror” in that “human rights and civil liberties take a back seat to national security.” Meeropol went on to say that the government insists that the terrorist threat “is so dangerous that it justifies massive surveillance, expanding secrecy, indefinite detention, and even torture. The Rosenberg case resonates from the inmates at Guantanamo to Private Bradley Manning to the Oval Office of the White House.”
Folk singer Ross Altman followed the reading with his moving song, “Ethel and Julius,” written in 1993 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their execution.
In a short talk reviewing anti-Semitism in the McCarthy/J. Edgar Hoover era, Eric Gordon said, “The Rosenberg case has to be seen in its historical – and hysterical – context. … America needed a show trial, and what better case than this one to prove Communist sympathies among Jews?” He also reminded the audience that in New York, a city with a 30 percent Jewish population, the prosecution made sure that not one Jew sat on the Rosenberg jury.
Farrell (best known for his portrayal of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in the classic anti-war TV show “M*A*S*H”), spoke about his work as president of Death Penalty Focus, an organization dedicated to ending capital punishment. He noted that the close vote on Proposition 34 (to abolish California’s death penalty) last November debunked the conventional wisdom that an overwhelming majority supports capital punishment. The initiative failed to pass, but still garnered 48 percent of the vote. Farrell went on to describe capital punishment as a “political tool” used against black people, hispanic people, and other oppressed groups; it reflects the interests not of the people, but of “a government controlled by corporate interests.” He said not only is the death penalty discriminatory in its use and ineffective for deterring crime, but its continued practice is “destroying our nation’s moral standing.”
Asner (who played the defense attorney in “Daniel”) spoke of the anti-Semitic character of the Rosenberg trial, drawing parallels with the show trials arising from Stalin’s “Doctor’s Plot” in the Soviet Union around the same time. He noted his own outspoken opposition, as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, to the Reagan administration’s brutal anti-communist policies in Central America in the 1980s.
Asner, who is perhaps most famous for his Emmy-award-winning role as Mary Tyler Moore’s boss in the long-running “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” recalled how “Daniel” wasn’t received well in the mainstream press. The Rosenberg case was still controversial, despite 30 years having passed. The 1983 New York Times review regarded the film’s redemptive portrayal of political activism disdainfully, reflecting the neo-Cold War mentality of Reagan’s America.
Asner lamented the ongoing “antipathy in this country for people of differing opinions,” and offered this advice: “Be the opposition.”
Eric Gordon also contributed to this story.
Photo: Actors Ed Asner, left, and Mike Farrell, at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the execution of the Rosenbergs, June 19, in Los Angeles. Eric Gordon/PW