Robert Meeropol

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Exonerate Ethel

March 15, 2016

Tags: Exonerate Ethel

Last week the Rosenberg Fund for Children launched an online petition campaign to exonerate my mother, Ethel. I urge everyone to click on the picture to the left (it's a link), to sign the petition, and to spread the word throughout your communities.

I’ve wanted this for decades. I can’t recall when I first thought of separating my mother’s case from my father’s. I think the women’s liberation movement of the late 60’s planted the seed. As we began the reopening effort in 1974, I noticed that while almost everyone on both sides talked about “the Rosenbergs,” the debate focused almost entirely on whether Julius was an atomic spy. I remember saying that Ethel was “disappeared” into Julius.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s information began to dribble out that raised the possibility that Julius was a spy. The release of the Venona transcriptions in 1995 added force to this possibility, but also provided powerful proof that Ethel never spied. The KGB gave all its operatives code names; Ethel had no code name. At that time, I proposed that we accept that Julius might have engaged in non-atomic military-industrial spying, without conceding this was certain, and that we concentrate on Ethel, whose innocence seemed more likely. Our lawyer, Marshall Perlin, disagreed, saying that would be perceived as giving up on Julius and that would defeat efforts to reopen our parents’ case. I regret accepting his argument.

For the next decade, I groused to close comrades that we should emphasize Ethel more, but met with similar resistance about abandoning Julius. I gave talks that focused on my mother’s innocence, but did nothing further.

Two events in 2008 strengthened my determination to do more. The first was the release of Ruth Greenglass’ Grand Jury statements that demonstrated Ruth lied at trial about Ethel’s involvement. The second was my parents’ co-defendant Morton Sobell’s admission that he and Julius engaged in military-industrial espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Still, it wasn’t until 2012, when I realized that September 28, 2015 would mark Ethel’s 100th birthday, and that was the ideal time to stage a major event all about her. Now I had the answer when people asked, “but what about Julius?” Ethel was almost two years older than Julius; it was neither his birthday, nor his centenary.

With the help of several others I began the work that resulted in New York City Council Members and Manhattan’s Borough President issuing proclamations honoring Ethel on her centenary and declaring her execution wrongful. I had no way of knowing that this plan would get a boost from the release in July, 2015, of David Greenglass’ Grand Jury testimony denying Ethel’s involvement. This release also led to the New York Times publishing an Op Ed piece, written by my brother and me, calling on the Obama Administration to exonerate Ethel.

It took a few more months, but this cascade led to the RFC’s launch of the online petition campaign to pressure the Obama Administration to acknowledge the injustice done to my mother. Regardless of what the administration does, the growing public acceptance of Ethel’s innocence is a triumph. It has been a long, but ultimately fruitful, journey.

Post Script: I would also love the government to declare Julius’ execution wrongful because he did not engage in atomic espionage. Such a declaration from this administration appears impossible, but what would have been Julius’ 100th birthday is still more than a year away. Perhaps the Sanders’ administration will be more accommodating.


  1. March 17, 2016 8:02 PM EDT
    I think this is a more-than-worthy cause and I salute you for it. I also think, sadly, that there's no more chance that the U.S. government would admit any of its executions was wrongful -- let alone this one -- than that it would acknowledge wrongdoing in the bombing of Hiroshima. But thank you for making it possible for people like me to sign on.
    - Robert Egelko
  2. March 22, 2016 5:31 PM EDT
    Such a fearful and dark time and what a terrible burden to carry while growing up. I support your efforts to exonerate your mother and sympathize with your conclusions regarding your father. If anything, I trust the American legal system has learned something from this tragedy.
    - Rael Nidess, M.D.
  3. March 23, 2016 1:08 PM EDT
    You need to read and reread the last letter to their children written by your mother on the day of their execution which ends:

    "Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience."

    The absence of the singular is striking
    Walter Tillow
    Louisville, KY
    - Walter Tillow
  4. March 25, 2016 11:01 AM EDT
    Response to Walter,

    Yes it is. They were innocent of stealing the secret of the A-bomb, but Julius was guilty of non-atomic espionage. So the statement was both true and untrue. Even principled people whose politics we support may not be entirely truthful in extraordinary circumstances. They still deserve our support.
    - Robert Meeropol

Selected Works

"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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