The sons of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg returned to the White House on Thursday, more than 50 years after pleading unsuccessfully to spare her life, in a last-ditch appeal to President Barack Obama to exonerate her amid new evidence.
Rosenberg was executed in 1953 along with her husband, Julius, after being convicted of conspiring to pass secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. But court records made public last year through a judge’s order cast doubt on the conventional narrative of a Cold War espionage case that captivated the country.
“This is our mother we’re talking about,” Robert Meeropol, one of Rosenberg’s two sons, said as he stood outside the White House gates. “Since we can’t bring her back to life, there could be nothing more satisfying to us than to have the government acknowledge that this shouldn’t have happened, that this was wrong.”
The new documents showed that Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, whose damning trial testimony against her and her husband helped secure the couple’s conviction, had never implicated his sister in an earlier appearance before a grand jury. The brother, David Greenglass, offered the grand jury no evidence of his sister’s direct involvement and said he never discussed such matters with his sister.
As young boys, Robert and Michael Meeropol visited the White House in 1953 in a failed bid to get President Dwight Eisenhower to prevent their parents’ executions. Half a century later, the brothers approached a guard booth outside the White House and asked to deliver their letter to Obama.
They were turned away by U.S. Secret Service. “Ok, well, we tried,” Michael Meeropol said as he stood in the sun, peering through the gate at the West Wing. “Thank you very much, anyway.”
No matter, the brothers said. They’ve already sent a hard copy to Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and are hoping Obama will act before leaving office.
“I’m sure we’ll take a look,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. He said he was “not aware of any work that has been done thus far” on the brothers’ request.
Both brothers argued that a national reckoning over an erroneous execution is crucial, perhaps now more than ever.
“We have gone through cycles in our history of hysteria, targeting people, over punishing, framing people. We’re in danger of that happening again,” Michael Meeropol said. “Recognizing that in the past we’ve done things we shouldn’t have done might be a cautionary tale.”
The Meeropols are not seeking a presidential pardon, saying that would suggest their mother was guilty. They instead are seeking a public exoneration, akin to a 1977 statement by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis on behalf of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants who were convicted of a 1920 murder and later executed. That proclamation said the trial was “permeated by prejudice” and that “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed” from their names.
It’s not clear what action, if any, the Obama administration will take in its waning weeks. But Rosenberg’s supporters believe their prospects are dim once President-elect Donald Trump takes office, in part because Roy Cohn, once a lawyer for Trump, was a member of the Justice Department’s prosecution team against the Rosenbergs.
“The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is going to haunt the White House once Donald Trump takes office,” Robert Meeropol said.
The Rosenbergs both maintained their innocence, though the Meeropols are requesting only Ethel’s exoneration. The sons said that’s because they believe their father was legally guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage, though they argue he didn’t engage in atomic spying and shouldn’t have been executed.
Ethel Rosenberg’s supporters believe their cause was helped by the 2015 release of Greenglass’ grand jury testimony, which a federal judge in New York unsealed after Greenglass’ death in response to a request from historians and archivists.
That 1950 testimony conflicted with statements Greenglass made a year later during the couple’s trial. He was indicted as a co-conspirator and served 10 years in prison.
Greenglass said he had given the Rosenbergs research data he had obtained while working as an Army machinist at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, headquarters of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. He said he recalled seeing his older sister transcribing handwritten notes to give to the Soviets on a portable typewriter at the Rosenbergs’ New York apartment in 1945.
But the grand jury records show no mention of the typing and indicate he appeared to minimize his dealings with his sister.
Greenglass told the grand jury that Julius Rosenberg was adamant that he should continue with his Army service so he could “continue giving him information,” but when asked whether his sister was similarly insistent, he replied, “I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all.”
Decades after the trial, Greenglass was quoted by a New York Times journalist as having admitted to testifying that his sister typed the notes in order to protect his wife.
In a May decision ordering the records unsealed, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein noted that Greenglass said in his new statements that it was likely his wife, Ruth Greenglass, rather than Ethel Rosenberg, who typed up the notes.
Following their parents’ executions, the brothers were adopted and changed their last name.