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Ethel Rosenberg Was Collateral Damage In Soviet Spy Case, Sons Say


Two brothers want to clear their mother's name. Their mother was Ethel Rosenberg who was married to Julius Rosenberg, both of whom were charged with sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union.

MICHAEL MEEROPOL: They were members of the American Communist Party. And as all members did, they thought the Soviet Union was the beacon of the future. That was their attitude. And my father, in the middle of World War II, did what he could to help an ally win the war and protect Soviet Socialism. That's what we believe.

INSKEEP: Michael Meeropol and his brother Robert were left behind when their parents were executed back in 1953. Today, they've accepted the fact that their father was a spy for the Soviet Union, passing on military and industrial secrets. They still argue with historians who say that Julius Rosenberg gave the Soviets vital secrets to build an atomic bomb. They contend their mother was innocent.

What is it that you want from the president of the United States?

ROBERT MEEROPOL: We're asking for an exoneration. We're essentially asking President Obama, before he leaves office, to say Ethel Rosenberg's trial was a perversion of the judicial process. Any sort of verdict on that situation was unjustified. The sentence was wrongful, and the whole trial should essentially be nullified.

INSKEEP: Why ask for an exoneration only for your mother?

M MEEROPOL: Well, in our mother's case, she was collateral damage. She was arrested to be used as a lever to get our father to talk. That's documented in the FBI materials. They fabricated the evidence against her weeks before the trial just to get a conviction so that it would put pressure on my - our father. Then she was sentenced to death. That was a way to put pressure on both of them. And then, when neither of them would come across, the government killed the hostage. That's what happened. The government took her as a hostage and killed her. And we would like the government to acknowledge that.

R MEEROPOL: To follow up on that, the Seton Hall Law School center for research and public policy just released an analysis last week of the prosecution of Ethel Rosenberg. And this was an independent analysis. And their analysis was essentially what my brother just said - that she was collateral damage and that she not only should never have been convicted, she never should have been arrested in the first place.

INSKEEP: You don't accept the notion that she was helpful in some way to your father, that whether she deserved the death penalty or not, that she did something?

M MEEROPOL: Well, here's the point. We obviously can't prove that she didn't do anything, but what we can prove is that the government had no evidence against her whatsoever. And therefore, they had to fabricate the evidence that was used for conviction. And that should give us pause.

R MEEROPOL: But we don't want to imply by that that she was guilty. The fact that, in my mother's case, evidence was fabricated in order to facilitate the conviction in a capital case for political purposes - that is a threat to civil society in general.

INSKEEP: Would you speak, if you can, to people who might be listening to this and they may acknowledge that there's been this study that found that false evidence was presented at your parents' trial, but then they will say, well, your father was, in fact, a Soviet spy. Your mother was communist. There were secrets being stolen. There were even nuclear secrets being stolen, whether or not the Rosenbergs did. They're going to listen to this, perhaps - some people - and say, well, it sounds close enough for them. What do you respond to that?

M MEEROPOL: But it can't be close enough. Guilt by association does not work. You can be married to a serial killer and not be guilty of murder. And the idea that the government would take family members as hostage and murder them, this is an idea that comes out of the Middle Ages. One person commits a crime, and the entire family is killed. That's not modern, civilized society.

R MEEROPOL: Looking at the court system, we don't convict people for their knowledge and their ideas. We convict people for their actions. But there is an authoritarian mindset. And that authoritarian mindset is riding high today and is essentially saying - oh, yeah, we can have a democratic, free system as long as everybody keeps their nose clean and doesn't do anything controversial.

M MEEROPOL: There's a great line from a Bob Dylan song - Eisenhower was president, Senator Joe was king. As long as you didn't say nothing, you could say most anything.

INSKEEP: Robert and Michael Meeropol, thanks very much.

M MEEROPOL: Our pleasure.

R MEEROPOL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: The brothers, who were later adopted, took on different names, were just 6 and 10 years old when their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.