Judge Maurice Cobbs wonders: Can you still call it paranoia when they really are out to get you?
To most Americans, the Rosenbergs were traitors. To others, heroes. Now, fifty years later, it's time to find out who they really were.
"Citizens of this country who betray their fellow countrymen can be under none of the delusions about the benignity of Soviet power that they might have been prior to World War II. The nature of Russian terrorism is now self-evident. Idealism as a rationale dissolves…I consider your crime worse than murder…I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000, and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country…Indeed, the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected—all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives—it was even greater than their love for their children."—Excerpts from Judge Irving Kaufman's statement before sentencing the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair.
Facts of the Case
On June 19th, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair after being convicted of treason against the United States, having been accused of providing the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They left behind two sons, ten-year-old Michael and six-year old Robert, who were adopted by strangers because no member of the Rosenberg family would take them in. In "Heir to an Execution," Ivy Meeropol, the eldest granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, tries to discover the truth about who her grandparents were, and how the infamy of their trial and execution has scarred her family.
This is not an objective look at the Rosenberg case—it couldn't be, not in the hands of the filmmaker. Rather than spending time attempting to prove the innocence of her grandparents, though, Ivy Meeropol instead paints a portrait of the real victims of the Rosenberg treason trial: the heirs to the execution. Innocence or guilt is not the question that is addressed here; and indeed, it is a moot question since the release of formerly classified documents from both the U.S. and Soviet governments, such as the Venona papers, which confirm—among other things—that Julius Rosenberg was in fact a major spy for the U.S.S.R. (under the crushingly ironic code name "Liberal"). Furthermore, former KGB colonel Aleksander Feklisov, who personally handled the Rosenberg case, admitted that he had recruited Julius to spy for the U.S.S.R. in 1943. Feklisov said that Ethel knew about her husband's spying and claimed that Julius gave him valuable military information. And let us not forget that in Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, he gives credit to the Rosenbergs for their "very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb."
No, Meeropol seeks not to prove a theory, but only to uncover truth—which is a particularly refreshing attitude in today's world of bombastic cockalorums like Michael Moore, who twists the truth and forces facts to fit ironclad presuppositions. Clearly not the attention hound that Moore is, Meeropol is uncomfortable and awkward in front of the camera: stumbling, hesitating, fidgeting, never quite sure of herself or, perhaps, the direction that her investigations will take her. She is not a skilled or talented interviewer, but she is an honest one, and the emotional impact of her journey cannot help but affect even the most staunch believer in the Rosenbergs' guilt. Can we blame Michael Meeropol for his childhood desire for revenge on the smirking David Greenglass (whose false testimony assured Ethel Rosenberg's conviction)? Can we help but be moved by Meeropol's tears of frustration at being unable to heal the rift that the Rosenberg trial caused within her family—who all refused to take in Julius and Ethel's two boys? Her father seems unsurprised, telling her that he doesn't mind that she's calling the extended family, but warning her not to expect "to make many friends." And can we not find ourselves in complete sympathy with the confusion and uncertainty that Meeropol is consumed by: faced with evidence that her grandparents were at least guilty of something involving espionage, if not clearly the theft of atomic secrets, and her attempt to reconcile that evidence with the picture of the Rosenbergs that emerges from interviews with friends and family. Both cannot be true. But both clearly are.
One of the film's most powerful sequences involves Meeropol's meeting with Darren Roberts: "This is the first relative I've met on the Rosenberg side," she explains. The grandson of Julius's brother David (who changed his name to Roberts in order to avoid the infamy then attached to the family name), Darren learns for the first time that his grandfather was among those family members who refused to take in Michael and David. He breaks down into a tearful apology at one point. Ivy tells him there is no need, but Darren is adamant: "Who else is left to apologize?" he says.
Ivy Meeropol's quest is to find the human story behind the Rosenberg trial, to connect with her grandparents on some level. Politics do not play a major part in the film, though there is the standard "Red Scare"-type footage meant to establish the fifties as a time of oppressive paranoia, despite the fact that it is now known that there was in fact a massive Communist conspiracy to infiltrate the United States—Venona files show some 350 informants within the U.S. government alone. Is it paranoia when they're really out to get you? The ambiguity of the Rosenbergs' guilt is brought into sharp focus by 103-year-old Harry Steingart, Julius's former boss. He breaks down into tears as he describes Julius and Ethel's sacrifice: going to the electric chair rather than signing documents implicating Steingart and 24 others in Communist activities. It's a bizarre sort of catch-22: if they were simply highly principled people, then of course they wouldn't sign false documents. But if they were really spies, then of course they would not rat out their fellow agents. And even if their sacrifice was made for the most noble reasons imaginable, it does not change the fact that they were willing to die to save 25 suspected Communists but were not willing to live to save their own children. "They gave their lives," Steingart weeps. "But they left two children," Ivy counters.
"It's difficult," says Greg Meeropol, son of Robert Meeropol. "Why didn't he say 'it was me and not my wife'?" Why, indeed. This question is never satisfactorily answered in the film, leaving us to draw some not-too-flattering conclusions.
Special features are included on the disc, including an informative and enlightening commentary by Ivy Meeropol, which presents added depth and context to the story of her struggle to understand her grandparents and their legacy. Also included is an interview with the slightly arrogant and bigoted Tony Kushner, who included a character based on Ethel Rosenberg in his play Angels in America (which has become an award-winning miniseries). I find Kushner to be revolting, smug, and caught up in a victim mentality, but you must draw your own conclusions. I will not comment further because I do not find him worthy of further comment. Much more interesting are the perspectives offered by Arthur Kinoy, a lawyer who attempted to secure a stay of execution for the Rosenbergs, and Bill Reuben, who first asserted the couple's innocence. Deleted interview footage presents an even more rounded perspective from some of the featured interviewees, who talk at length about their perspectives on the Rosenbergs and the difficult circumstances surrounding their trial and execution, the meaning of Communism, the Rosenbergs' perjury, the possibility of the evidence that has since surfaced supporting the Rosenbergs' guilt, and other engaging subjects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is quite understandable that Meeropol would wish to portray her maligned grandparents as loving people, but the movie might have benefited from an honest exploration of the ideological Communist fanaticism that spurred the Rosenbergs to choose martyrdom over love of family. Julius didn't have to go to the chair, and Ethel certainly didn't—the prosecution offered deals that would have saved them. Admitting the truth would have spared this family. Meeropol asserts that "because of the position my grandparents took, we get to live a life in which we're proud." But I don't know that there is anything particularly praiseworthy about allowing allegiance to a brutal, murderous dictator like Joseph Stalin to override their loyalty to their two children. Though the Rosenbergs may well have been "the first victims of American fascism," the plain fact is that nice people don't spy for tyrants and dictators. Meeropol says that her grandparents were "idealists with good intentions who sincerely believed the Soviet Union was a better way." And, as far as it goes, that may actually be the case, although I have my doubts that people as intelligent and compassionate as the Rosenbergs were supposed to be could willingly serve the Soviet cause through the enslavement of Eastern Europe. Miriam Moskowitz comments that, during the lean and hungry years of the Great Depression, "you had to be dead from the neck up not to feel radical change was necessary"—and she was right. But you would also have to be dead from the neck up not to realize that as Communism spread through the fifties, it was creating even more hunger, more misery and terror, more loss of hope and more loss of basic human rights…not to mention the matter of well over 100 million murdered innocents, which puts Hitler's 10 million murdered in grim perspective.
We are left, then, with two possible conclusions: that the Rosenbergs, far from being innocents and despite being the "nice people" that they are shown to be, willingly supported the terror, enslavement and murder that was the brutal policy of Stalin's Soviet Union; or they blithely and generously ignored the reality of what was going on in the Soviet Union so that they could cling to their so-called high ideals. Neither scenario generates much in the way of sympathy for the Rosenbergs, not in my heart. Because I can't get past the idea that they sacrificed not only themselves but the well-being of their two small children to their misguided cause, and I don't find anything noble about that at all. I'm sick of people who allow ideology to take precedence over humanity. Ultimately, regardless of what the Rosenbergs did or didn't do, regardless of whether history remembers them as traitors or martyrs, whether or not you believe that they were guilty of "atomic treason," they still make me mad as hell because they placed their ideals above the two people who needed them the most.
We may never know the full truth of the Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence, but that uncertainty weighs more on the family they left behind than it possibly could for the rest of us. Watching this difficult and emotional journey, as Ivy Meeropol attempts to understand the complex issue of who and what her grandparents were, I can only hope that the making of this film has brought her some sort of peace, some sort of resolution, and that the family can eventually overcome the pain and sadness of the days now long past. However, she has succeeded in putting a very human face on one of the most hotly debated events of the Cold War, and this stands as an interesting perspective on the Rosenberg trial.
Not guilty, even if the Rosenbergs were.
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