OPINION: The Rosenberg case revisited: heroes and betrayers

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The ugly days of the 1950s witchhunts returned to the headlines this month, hitting me in a very personal way.

Transcripts of grand jury testimony in the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg case were released to the public Sept. 11 following a lawsuit by the independent National Security Archive and a coalition of historians. The transcripts reveal that the claims used to convict Ethel — and thereby send the couple, parents of two young children, to the electric chair — were nowhere to be found in the original testimony.

The next day, The New York Times front-paged an article based on an interview with Rosenberg co-defendant Morton Sobell, now 91. Sobell, according to the reporter, said that he as well as Julius gave non-atomic, defensive military information to the Soviet Union during World War II in an effort to help them defeat the Nazis (at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies).

Days later, the reporter contacted this newspaper, inquiring if this revelation left us “feeling betrayed.”

My father, Oscar Vago, was among the grand jury witnesses whose testimony was made public. Reading the transcript of that long-ago inquisition shed new light for me on some details. Most of all, though, it reminded me of who were the heroes and who were the betrayers in that time, and now.

So it was with great appreciation that I read a message sent out Sept. 18 by one of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert Meeropol.

His conclusions are profound:

“All that I have learned in the last week,” he wrote, “coupled with all that I have gleaned from the information already available, reinforces the biggest lesson to be taken from my parents’ case — that the U.S. government abused its power in truly dangerous ways that are still very relevant today. “Those in power who were involved in my parents’ case:

* Created and fueled anti-communist hysteria

* Capitalized on that political climate by targeting my parents, then making them the focus of the public’s Cold-War-era fear and anger

* Manufactured testimony and evidence

* Facilitated judicial misconduct

* Hounded witnesses for their political beliefs and associations rather than about any alleged illegal activities

* Arrested Ethel simply as leverage to try to get Julius to cooperate with the prosecution

* Used the ultimate weapon — the threat of death — to try extort a confession from my parents and to force them to name and testify against others

* Created the myth that there was a key “secret” of the atomic bomb, and then devised a strategy to make it appear that Julius had sought out and passed on that “secret”

* Executed Julius when he refused to cooperate, despite knowing that the “secret” used to justify the death penalty was a prosecution-created fallacy

* Executed Ethel when she refused to cooperate, despite knowing that she was not guilty of ANY charges against her and was not an active participant in ANY espionage activities.

“And finally, the agencies and individuals involved in my parents’ case systematically and emphatically covered up and denied all these abuses.”

This is the real story of the Rosenberg case.

How startling that the transcripts became public on Sept. 11. Using that 2001 tragedy, the far-right successors of the 1950s witchhunters thought they could repeat history. They whipped up flag-waving fear-of-terrorism hysteria in order to launch a policy of militarism and aggression and to slash civil liberties and intimidate dissent. But fortunately, it didn’t take long for the public to reject this “red-alert” fear-mongering.

The American people had been there before.

Some five decades earlier, as World War II drew to a close, right-wing forces seized the opportunity to launch a fear campaign to justify a switch to a militarist Cold War foreign policy and to destroy the mass democratic movement that swept our country before and during the war.

This progressive majority upsurge had demanded action to defeat fascism; organized industrial unions; fought racism, segregation, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant chauvinism; won Social Security, unemployment insurance, labor rights and other landmark reforms, and sparked a flowering of progressive culture.

Key to destroying this popular front was sowing fear by manufacturing the idea that communists, socialists, trade unionists, liberals, civil libertarians, civil rights advocates, were “un-American,” disloyal, foreign agents, traitors. The atom bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered horrifying images that could be used to fuel this terror campaign (as they were used in 2002 to sell the Iraq war). What could be more terrifying than “atom spies”?

How many people lost their jobs and had their lives torn up because they refused to sign “loyalty” oaths or name names? How many unions were weakened or destroyed by anti-communism? How much was the labor movement set back by the Cold War Taft-Hartley Act? How much was democracy in our country damaged by this reign of terror? We continue to struggle with the damaging legacy of the spy hysteria to this day.

Who were the heroes? Those who refused to comply. Modest, unassuming people like my father, and like the Rosenbergs, who made the ultimate, unimaginable sacrifice because they believed that a better world is possible and necessary. They stood up to the witchhunters, the anti-Semites, the labor-baiters and the immigrant-haters who did such harm to our country.

Who do I feel betrayed by now? Those who would try to find in the historical record some justification for this shameful, destructive episode in our history.

The evidence just released confirms that the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was a terrible blot on our nation’s history — a gross miscarriage of justice. Yet the right-wing forces of that time and of today have not succeeded in suppressing the struggles of the American people for democracy, peace and social and economic justice. Just look around you.

Susan Webb (suewebb@pww.org) is associate editor of the People’s Weekly World.