Fifty years ago I was among thousands camped at the Washington Monument waiting to hear the outcome of the final appeal to President Eisenhower to spare the lives of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. When the denial came, there was anger and grief for these two heroes, victims of the Cold War and McCarthyism. They were truly heroes of the struggle for democracy and peace, heroes of the left and Communist movement. This young couple who loved each other, their two sons, Michael and Robert, and life itself, chose death rather than betray their principles and besmirch the struggles and movements with which they were associated.

What gave rise to this country’s only peacetime executions for treason?

Coming out of World War II, there was a huge upsurge in the worldwide progressive and socialist movement. In the U.S., the left and the Communist Party grew because of their role in fighting fascism abroad and in building the labor movement and combating Jim Crow and racism at home. The American Labor Party and left candidates advanced in the 1944-46 elections. The CPUSA reached its largest membership in 1948 with some 80-100,000 members.

U.S. imperialism tried to contain and roll back the forces of social progress. In 1947, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made the first public declaration of a Cold War against the Soviet Union, claiming, in Fulton, Mo., that the USSR, our former ally, threatened to conquer the world for “Communist totalitarianism” by force and/or subversion.

Starting with the atom bombing of Japan in 1945, the U.S. pursued a policy of nuclear blackmail of the USSR and the world’s progressive forces. It intervened in country after country with CIA coups and assassinations, with the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban blockade.

This new Cold War policy met considerable opposition from the broad New Deal coalition. McCarthyism emerged as a weapon to smash even moderate opposition and push the country to the right.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, claimed that the CPUSA and the left were not really American, but rather, were agents of the USSR, engaging in espionage and sabotage, “infiltrating” every walk of life. Through the activities of the McCarthy Committee and similar bodies, thousands, from shop workers to Hollywood figures, lost their livelihood. Hundreds were deported. The FBI tried to terrorize all on the left. Hundreds were wrongly imprisoned. These included most of the CPUSA national and district leadership, beginning in 1948 with the Foley Square trial under the thought-control Smith Act. They also included the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell, jailed on charges of passing secrets to the USSR.

Lurid headlines about spies dominated the media, and none more than those about the Rosenbergs. Headlines screamed that they had endangered the lives of all Americans by giving the USSR the “secret” of the atom bomb.

The Rosenberg case was one of the most decisive of the period, not only because two innocent people were executed but because it was centrally connected to the whole system of lies about the Soviet threat externally and the Communist threat internally.

The execution of the Rosenbergs is the epitome of a shameful period in U.S. history. The struggle to save the Rosenbergs and their refusal to bend even to save their own lives inspired the ultimately successful fight to defeat McCarthyism.

Over the years, more and more pieces of the case against them have disintegrated. In an attempt to justify anew their murder, anti-Communist academics have claimed to find proof in the former Soviet archives that Julius Rosenberg turned over key information on the atom bomb, while Ethel was not involved, so only one person was unjustly executed.

Such “evidence” and arguments do not hold water. It defies credulity that Julius would have failed to admit guilt to save Ethel, keep his children from being made orphans, and save himself. It is also demonstrably true that those archives are not reliable, as it was often U.S. intelligence that planted material there.

But efforts to resurrect the legitimacy of McCarthyism will not fly. The CPUSA, the left and millions of democratic-minded people fought and eventually defeated McCarthyism. The heroism of the Rosenbergs helped protect U.S. democracy.

Daniel Rubin is a member of the Education Commission of the Communist Party USA. He was a hostile witness before the Senate witchhunt committee in 1958; and lost his job as a result.