Freaking Out Squares

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


And the birthday wishes just keep on coming! Thanks to Ruth for the lovely package (three skeins of yarn, Stitch 'N Bitch Nation by Debbie Stoller, a DVD collection of female comedians, and a very odd ribbon featuring a picture of a penguin and the words "I Can Dress Myself." Why can't you reveal the source?). Thanks, too, to my great-aunt Dot, who I am sure is not reading this blog, but who continues to send me a birthday card every year, even though I'm a rotten great-niece and I never, even though I swear I will, send her a response in kind. No more!

I also got another book from my dad, which wasn't a surprise because he told me he was getting it for me, The Rosenberg Letters: A Complete Edition of the Prison Correspondence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg edited by their older son, Michael Meeropol. I've had, well, I guess you could call it a thing for the Rosenbergs for about five years now, ever since I saw this picture of the two of them kissing in the back of a prison van after their arraignment. People fall in love with couples all the time. Normal people fall in love with, oh, Brangelina or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. I happen to be in love with two executed alleged Russian spies. What does that say about ME? Go on, I can take it, motherfuckers!

Actually, the Rosenberg case has lapped at the edges of my consciousness since I was about thirteen. Having spent some of the most formative years of my life under Ronald "We begin bombing in five minutes" Reagan, I assumed that Communism was bad and Russians were bad and everyone accused of spying for Russia was guilty and of course bad, bad, bad. So when I read a little blurb about this couple, who were listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio when Julius was arrested, I thought a)how perverse, but then again, Hitler liked Mickey Mouse and b)obviously they're guilty. How did I know this? I didn't. But hey, if they were arrested and executed for stealing the secret of the atom bomb, they must have been guilty, right? (And I was supposedly a gifted child? How in the hell did that work?)

Over the years, my dad gradually worked on me, explaining that many innocent people are arrested, convicted, and even executed without benefit of a good defense attorney or a truly fair trial. He explained that an eye for an eye was not justice, as prosecutors claimed, and that there was no such thing as "closure," another word the DAs like to bandy about. I don't recall if he ever mentioned the Rosenbergs, but they were always there, lurking about in some kind of netherworld of fact and fiction. They were murderers; they were completely innocent. Ethel was the mastermind (I had no trouble believing this because of my own mother, an ace-jake manipulator whose abuse left me loathing and distrusting most women for longer than I care to admit); Julius was the guilty one. Somewhere in my early twenties, a fellow named David Greenglass seeped in, along with the famous Woody Allen line, "I love him like a brother, David Greenglass." I couldn't figure out why, if he'd lied at the trial, Ethel and Julius had still been executed. And then my dad got me a copy of The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair by Sam Roberts and I opened it up and saw a picture of that kiss and I just thought, that's it, they can't possibly be guilty.

But guilty of what? The common misconception is that the Rosenbergs were convicted and executed for treason, or for "stealing the secret of the atom bomb," whatever that means. They were not. They were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage, which is a crime technically punishable by death. However, they were convicted without any evidence save the testimony of David Greenglass, who freely admitted he lied about key points to save his own ass. Then, too, let us not forget Roy Cohn, the closet case assistant prosecutor who admitted to engaging in ex parte communications with J. Edgar Hoover (you know, what is it with these HUAC-era lawmen? Why were they all closet case drag queens, and what was their whole power trip about? Or did I just answer my own question?) about the trial, particularly the sentence of Ethel Rosenberg, which is patently illegal. On that basis alone, I think they should have thrown the whole case out. As for "stealing the secret of the atom bomb," well, as many have pointed out, there's no such thing. The atom bomb is a highly complex entity. There is no such thing as one secret, one pinpoint that says, "Hey! Here I am! Without me, there would be no V-J Day!" And assuming that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were, beyond a reasonable doubt, one hundred percent guilty of the crime with which they were charged, there were many others who were far more instrumental in transferring atomic secrets to the Russians. One was physicist Klaus Fuchs, a German-born resident of England who'd worked at Los Alamos during the war. The other was Ted Hall, a nineteen-year-old American physics whiz kid from Chicago who also worked at Los Alamos. By dint of UK citizenship, Klaus Fuchs was tried and convicted there, where anti-Communist sentiment was much, much lower. He received fourteen years in prison. Ted Hall was never charged or convicted of anything, although he all but admitted to espionage before his death in 1999.

And what about Julius and Ethel? Well, in the early 1990s, the government released the Venona papers, which were decrypted documents supposedly detailing the activities of several "atom spies" during WWII. One of them, code-named "Liberal," was alleged to have been Julius Rosenberg. Another, code-named "Kalibr," was alleged to have been David Greenglass. There was no code-name for Ethel, because she was not an espionage agent. Yes, that's right--Ethel, supposedly the mastermind behind this atom spy ring, was not herself a spy. And the government knew that all along. But they gave her the death penalty as "leverage" on Julius, in order to force him to confess. As for Julius, assuming the Venona documents are one hundred percent true and correct, it appears he was involved in some kind of low-level non-atomic espionage. The information he supposedly transmitted to his Soviet contact was of little or no value, and certainly not in the construction of the atom bomb.

I'm not even going to try to puzzle out David Greenglass. He admitted to lying under oath, with the government's consent. As I said before, that admission alone should have been enough to throw out the trial. Did he make up the entire story about passing "atomic secrets" to Harry Gold, the courier who visited him in Albuquerque in 1945? He claims not, but how can we trust him?

Obviously, the government has a lot to hide in this case. Surprise, surprise, the government has a lot to hide! Why else would Judge Kaufman, who presided over the trial, seal his private papers until 2026? Why are items taken from the Rosenbergs' apartment still in the custody of the FBI? What happened? That's all I want to know. Who did what and when?

As I write this, I'm wondering what kind of a reaction I'll get, assuming I'll get any. (Besides, of course, "Dude, how boring! Why did you write like ten pages about the Rosenbergs? Who cares?") It amazes me how many people are still convinced "they" were spies, as if the government's papers prove anything one way or the other. And it's always "they." "They" stole the secret of the atom bomb, even though it's clear that Ethel's role was to make coffee and serve sandwiches. Are people that reluctant to believe that the government could orchestrate such a nefarious cover-up? Adults, I mean, not dumb-ass thirteen-year-olds preoccupied with zits and Guns 'n Roses. (I speak of myself, you understand.)

To close out, Julius and Ethel's younger son, Robert Meeropol, is the executive director of The Rosenberg Fund for Children, a foundation dedicated to the financial and emotional support of children whose parents have been imprisoned, injured, or killed because of their political activities. Please check out their website and consider making a donation.


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Anonymous Sarito said...

Gosh, those "anonymous" comments are so wonderfully American. The old "communism vs. capitalism" thang. Especially in the context of this particular post, which I loved, by the way.

If anybody's the least bit in doubt about how deeply the government can contrive to support its campaigns of fear and loathing, look up "Tommy the Traveler" (who, as a police informant, actually orchestrated a few of the early and more spectacularly violent antiwar actions of the Vietnam era) ... and see how his modern-day incarnations are cropping up now that people are getting to be seriously opposed to the current war in Iraq.

Happy birthday chickpea. My only insight into the great divide of "30" ... is that now's the time to begin to realize that there are no such persons as "grown-ups" --only an age when one decides, finally, to pretend to be one.

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