Robert Meeropol will have been living with the specter of his parents, the only two US civilians executed for espionage, for exactly six decades on June 19 — amid a highly publicized trial against Bradley Manning, a US soldier who leaked classified military intelligence from the nation’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the anniversary of his parents’ deaths that, in the immediate, made way for McCarthyism, Meeropol wants to rally the international community to speak out against the proposed 20-year incarceration of Manning, 25.
“It wasn’t until late 1952, when the executions were already looming, that a national movement arose” for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Meeropol’s parents, who were executed the following year, “It was a bigger movement around the world, but there was a significant movement in the US (…) Bradley Manning support has grown a lot quicker,” Meeropol told The Vancouver Observer.
“The more people scream bloody murder, the better that is for Bradley Manning. I’m not sure it will make a difference [for the ongoing trial], but that’s all we can hope for, is that people come out,” Meeropol added, encouraging people to get involved in a mounting movement calling for Manning’s release, spearheaded by the Bradley Manning Support Network.
Frida Kahlo, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the international icons who spoke out against — but were eventually unsuccessful in halting — the Rosenbergs’ execution in the early 1950s.
Born in New York City, the Rosenbergs had both been active in the Communist Party and local labour union movements. In the aftermath of their execution for allegedly revealing the secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, a slew of books, movies, released evidence and testimony have introduced a number of hypotheses regarding whether the couple was actually engaged in espionage for the USSR.
In 1995, a cable released by US authorities revealed that Julius Rosenberg had indeed provided Moscow with an unknown degree of information, and in 2008, Morton Sobell, who served 18 years in prison after being tried together with the Rosenbergs, admitted that he and Julius had in fact engaged in providing military information to the Soviets.
Today, Meeropol admits that his father was a spy.
“My father was acting in secret to provide information to another government, which he had placed his faith in, because he believed it represented working class — the 99% in today’s parlance. I believe that faith was misplaced,” he said.
Still, Meeropol — himself a lawyer — noted that there is no conclusive evidence to support that Julius Rosenberg ever provided Moscow with the secret to the atomic bomb — the charge on which he was executed.
And historians largely agree that there is no substantive evidence that Meeropol’s mother, Ethel Rosenberg, engaged in any espionage at all, let alone providing the Soviet Union with the atomic secrets for which she too was killed. The FBI had reportedly coerced her brother, David Greenglass, into testifying against her, when they threatened to incriminate his own wife.
Ethel Rosenberg, for her part, declined to “reveal” the names of any of her alleged accomplices. Her husband Julius died after one shock in the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing prison. Ethel’s heart reportedly wouldn’t stop beating; She died after five shocks.
“I think the government pretty well knew that my mother wasn’t engaged in any activity. They knew they were killing somebody for something this person didn’t do,” Meeropol said.
Robert, then only six, and his brother Michael, 10, were orphaned, until they were adopted by the family of social activist Abel Meeropol, who penned Billie Holiday’s celebrated anti-lynching song Strange Fruit.
Over the past 60 years, the Rosenbergs’ children have engaged in an odyssey to, as Robert Meeropol says, not necessarily exonerate his parents — they have pledged to reveal incriminating information to the public as well — but rather seek out and release the heavily classified evidence in their trial to the American public. In 1975, Robert and Michael filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which resulted in the release of 300,000 documents related to the Rosenberg case.
“The people have a right to know what the government does in its name,” Meeropol said.
Robert Meeropol feels “a connection” to Bradley Manning not just because of the deep moral dilemma that has gripped the public over Manning’s trial as it has over the Rosenbergs’ execution in the last six decades, but also because of Robert’s own commitment to informing the US public about what it funds with tax dollars.
Manning leaked US military information obtained during his work in Iraq as a military analyst to Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. Among the leaked intel was video footage of a US attack helicopter killing a group of Iraqi civilians — to include one Reuters journalist.
Manning has plead guilty to 10 of the 22 counts he faces, including the release information that could have aided the US’s enemies abroad. But in court last week, Manning maintained that his actions aimed to reveal the US military’s overarching “disregard for human life” to American civilians.
Several analysts have noted that, as Manning stands accused of releasing potentially sensitive information to Wikileaks, the US Senate has chosen to drop an investigation into the Washington’s ambiguous cooperation with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, an Oscar-nominated film that portrayed the details of the assassination of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden.
Meeropol believes that the US judiciary is as flawed today as it was in 1953.
“We have judicial system that is implacable,” he said.
There is a telling gap between the charges against the Rosenbergs and the trial against Bradley Manning, Meeropol notes.
“There is a qualitative difference between supplying information to public and giving it to another governmental entity, even if you believe that’s in the public favor.”
“The government is arguing that Bradley Manning’s intention in his actions is irrelevant. The fact that he wanted to get this material before the public because the public deserved to have it, rather than aid the enemy — the government says that’s irrelevant.
Meeropol addressed his argument directly at The Vancouver Observer.
“That means, if you released information as an investigative journalists with no intention to aid the enemy, you can be charged for releasing information that aids the enemy. That’s dangerous to every investigative journalist or whistleblower. It’s dangerous for any democracy. If the government takes information off limits to the public, and disputes the flow of that information among the public, it is stopping the very activity that is a crucial function of any democracy.”
Like many in the North American Open Access community, Meeropol also believes that the prosecution against the late Aaron Swartz was motivated — not entirely by Swartz’s attempt to make millions of paywalled JSTOR articles available to the public — but by his overarching support for the free flow of information on the Internet.
“I don’t have the computer smarts or savvy to understand the details, but I understand the threat that it represents to those in power. They want to control the flow of information. The basic statement that Aaron Swartz made was this info should be made open to the public,” Meeropol said.
“That statement goes back to the original commitment [of my brother and I] that we’ve been committed to since our FOIA in the 70s. Something basic, but radical: That the people have right to know what the government does in its name. That’s what [people like Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz] put their lives on the line for.”
Six decades down the line, the Rosenbergs’ specter lingers.
In pop culture, Meeropol has literally seen his mother’s ghost — portrayed by Meryl Streep in TV drama Angels in America. In The Book of Daniel, author E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalized account of the Rosenberg children’s lives after their parents’ execution, Meeropol was recast as a young girl, who, after suffering the emotional trauma of her parents’ death, commits suicide.
“Yeah – she goes crazy and kills herself,” Meeropol says.
In 1990, Meeropol started the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), a non-profit that offers support to the children of targeted activists and other political entities in the US, like the children of Mumia abu-Jamal, who “suffer the same fate” of the Rosenberg/ Meeropol brothers.
The RFC Web site features the letter Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wrote to their children on their last day:
Be comforted then that we were serene and understood, with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life: and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us (…) Always remember that we were innocent, and could not wrong our conscience.
Whatever the Rosenbergs’ crimes, Meeropol maintains that the crime of knowingly executing a mother without without evidence and leaving two children orphaned — of a sharp punishment in a trial full of uncertainties — “is greater than any crime in which the Rosenbergs would have engaged.”
“My parents were following their conscience.”
Robert Meeropol’s daughter Jenn will take the reigns on RFC — carrying on her fathers legacy, over half a century after her grandparents’ execution by the state.
Via Vancouver Observer