President Obama did not exonerate Ethel Rosenberg
The iconic 1952 lithograph of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “por Michael & Bobby,” by Pablo Picasso.

To the disappointment of many, thousands of individuals and organizations who supported the appeal to President Obama’s conscience in an effort to move him to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg, Obama did not do so in his final days in office. The hope had been that Obama might have righted a wrong committed under the watch of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After noon on January 20, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were both executed in 1953 on trumped-up atomic spy charges, released a statement that seemingly puts an end to the campaign.

Robert and Michael Meeropol wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in August 2015, citing recent revelations showing the mendacity of the government’s chief witness against their mother, namely, her brother David Greenglass. The renewed interest in the case excited by that op-ed article moved the two brothers “to forge ahead with an exoneration campaign,” according to the January 20th statement. “Its aim was to move the President to publicly declare that our mother’s conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful, while also educating the public about the dangers of unchecked government power, especially in times of heightened concern about national security.”

Obama did not respond to some 60,000 signers on a petition for exoneration, which was previously reported on in People’s World.

“The exoneration campaign,” the Meeropols wrote, “was covered extensively and favorably by many of the most respected and far-reaching media outlets around the U.S. and internationally. These included 60 Minutes, NPR’s Morning Edition and Here and Now, and The Boston Globe.

“With even Fox News publishing a report highlighting the grave miscarriage of justice in our mother’s case, it’s clear we succeeded in moving the needle on the public’s understanding of how the government wronged our mother, and why, dramatically.”

The Meeropols cited letters received from people who remembered the trial from the early 1950s. These people “also recalled the fear and outrage they felt at that time, and are experiencing once again in our current political climate.”

In the final letter that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sent to their sons in the hours before the federal government executed them at Sing-Sing State Penitentiary on June 19, 1953, they wrote “comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us.”

Although the petition failed, and promises zero chance of being acted on by President Trump — whose early mentor was Roy Cohn, an adviser to prosecution in the Rosenberg case —the campaign, in the Meeropol brothers’ words, “has proved our parents correct in their belief that after they were gone, others would continue to resist repression and fight for justice. We consider that a victory.”

Exoneration will have to wait for another day in history.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.