Yesterday's front-page Boston Globe story on efforts to prove that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed for spying for the Russians includes a reference by Michael Meeropol (Rosenberg's son) to Dukakis's proclamation on Sacco and Vanzetti:
Meeropol.. said they specifically are not seeking a presidential pardon. “A pardon is weird because it implies guilt,” he said. Rather, the brothers want a proclamation similar to one issued in 1977 by then Governor Michael Dukakis in the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case. Dukakis declared the pair had been unjustly executed in 1927 for murders they did not commit, proclaiming “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed” from their names and those of their descendants."
The Globe story also quotes this statement from Michael Meeropol on the proclamation: “It would be a way of reminding people that every once in a while, our system of justice goes awry, especially in politically charged times."
This statement strikes me as a keeper, a truth that goes beyond the particulars of the Rosenberg case.
Scholars and students of the case still disagree on whether the evidence the Meeropols have uncovered exonerates Ethel Rosenberg. But whether or not she was guilty of what the government accused her of doing, the charge hardly rises to a level deserving execution.
Why do governments choose to execute people? The reason seldom has much to do with the evidence for the charges against them. So why the need for the judicially sanctioned homicide called "execution"? To protect our secrets? Why do we have so many secrets? Did we kill the Rosenbergs to scare off other spies? To teach us all a lesson?
It is surely the case that the Soviet Union (like other autocratic regimes) executed people left and right with no regard, at the whim of its dictators, without regard to evidence or what American law calls "due process." But if we do the same thing to people such as the Rosenbergs for largely political reasons, how do we show that we are any better a totalitarian police state?
To the best of my understanding the trial of the Rosenbergs was a complicated espionage case oversimplified by America's hysterical fear of Communism during the McCarthy period.
According to Ron Radosh (co-author of the book "The Rosenberg File") Ethel Rosenberg assisted her husband's spy work by serving as a communication channel between him and Soviet agents. Radosh was interviewed by the "60 Minutes" staff as a rebuttal witness for that network news program's recent broadcast in which the Meeropols made their case for their mother's innocende. Here's a link to that show:
Here's some of what Radosh had to say:
The program’s producers and their staff worked extremely hard. Indeed, my segment was taped last winter, and they worked for months putting their report together. I and my associates... gave them a mountain of copies of KGB material from the Vassiliev files, specific KGB messages from the Venona decrypts, and answered many questions that they had. We left no stone unturned in giving them material that proved beyond any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was indeed guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage.”
While Radosh clearly believes in Ethel's guilt, his next comment sums up the most significant point about the case's lasting historical value: "None of us believed she should have been executed, and no one on the program, including myself, argued otherwise."
To read Radosh's detailed analysis of the "60 Minutes" show and his significant points of the legal evidence here's the link:
The Meeropols are given the last word. They say they were undoubtedly “damaged” by what their parents did, but are certain that Ethel Rosenberg was “killed for something she did not do.” True, she did not type any notes.
But the Rosenbergs were charged and found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage,” not treason as many people think was the case. In a conspiracy indictment, any party who was part of a conspiracy is as guilty as the main perpetrator. That means legally, Ethel—who in fact did many things for the network—was no less guilty than her husband.
Still, it seems an unnecessarily vengeful law that exposes someone to capital punishment for playing a decidedly secondary role in somebody else's espionage. Again, Ethel helped her husband, but in no way deserved execution.
Radosh also acknowledges the impact of the executions on the couple's two young sons: when you kill people's parents, you traumatize their children.
To me the value of looking once again at this 1951-1953 case seems to be the way it raises issues that currently bedevil American democracy: surveillance, secrecy, espionage, routine and systematic violations of individual privacy.
Why do we have so many "official" government secrets? So many weapons whose engineering we need to protect? So many enemies? So many spies of our own? Why do we continue to ape the practices of dictatorial, authoritarian and totalitarian governments?
So long as we have secrets we will have spies. And, inevitably, betrayals.
Another conclusion the case suggests that whether you are likely to believe or disbelieve that Rosenbergs were guilty, or framed, comes down to political loyalty: Which side are you on? People like myself who despise the McCarthy Era and the entire Cold War period of my childhood tend to believe that anybody accused of helping the Communists would find it hard to get a fair trial in the political climate of those times. And their supporters were probably being smeared. Because Joe McCarthy was the biggest liar in American politics before the emergence of the current demagogue in the campaign of 2016.
While I have not personally dug into the Rosenberg case, I have read widely about the 'notorious' Sacco-Vanzetti case, and I don't believe the state made any sort of a rational case for their guilt the crime for which they were tried: the robbery-murder of factory payroll in South Braintree Square.
As noted earlier, the Rosenbergs' sons are seeking from the President for their mother what then Governor Michael Dukakis gave to the defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti: a proclamation repudiating their guilt. And I certainly agree with their larger thesis that "politically charged times" tend to pervert American justice.
In times of stress governments have an observable tendency to reach and kill people for a host of political reasons: To demonstrate the seriousness of the threat; to reassure a threatened populace that he full weight of the law would fall on the enemies of public safety. To intimidate the perceived enemies. To make an example.
That tendency remains a weakness in our democratic system that we have to guard against.
In the desire to fulfill all the goals cited above, the state of Massachusetts (quite possibly encouraged by branches of the federal government) reached out in 1920 to kill anarchists.
In the post-World War I years of 1918-1920, times were tense. Returning soldiers faced unemployment. Crime increased. Prohibition created vast new criminal enterprises. The example of the Russian Revolution governments and corporate interests.
According the period's historians, some anarchists tied to the network inspired by Luigi Galleani declared war on the US government after Galleani was tried and deported to Italy because of his opposition to the draft and America's entry into World War I. This Italian-American anarchist movement was suppressed; their press shut down; their beliefs outlawed; their office raided; and associates of Galleani were also prosecuted and deported. Other members of the movement went underground and decided to strike back by planting bombs intended for officials or business leaders who played an active part in their persecution. They sent some bombs through the mail, although none reached their intended targets. Then they planted a bomb at the home of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
This was the political climate in which Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with a most unlikely crime: robbing a workers' payroll.
When anarchists turn to violence, history shows they have planted explosives or sought to assassinate heads of government. They do not become "ordinary criminals," steal money, rob banks or -- most unlikely of all -- steal workers' payrolls. American anarchists of the early 20th century regarded themselves as workers, and Sacco and Vanzetti were in fact workers all their shortened lives. Harming other workers by stealing the payrolls their families depended on is the last thing in the world they could imagine doing.
And the government's case against them was nothing more than a vengeful fantasy. An attempt to kill anarchists, any anarchists, to get back at the bombers.
But society cannot revisit a case in any more meaningful way than a governor's proclamation or change its mind about the fairness or truthfulness of a judicial proceeding when the defendants have been executed.
People shake their heads mutter that 'mistakes were made.'
That sad truth remains the biggest objection to the practice of capital punishment.