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Why Ethel Rosenberg Should Not Be Exonerated

Ethel Rosenberg sits in car as she starts her trip to Sing Sing prison, April 11, 1951. (Anthony Camerano/AP)
Ethel Rosenberg sits in car as she starts her trip to Sing Sing prison, April 11, 1951. (Anthony Camerano/AP)
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COMMENTARY

The former governor of Massachusetts and onetime presidential candidate Michael Dukakis recently lent his voice to a campaign urging President Obama to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg. Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, were executed in June 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. Several prominent newspapers have endorsed the call for exoneration, most notably The Boston Globe, which ran an unprecedented full-page editorial in favor of pardoning Mrs. Rosenberg.

President Obama should disregard their advice. The campaign on behalf of Ethel Rosenberg’s exoneration not only is constitutionally dubious — the Constitution grants no powers of exoneration to the president, only powers of pardon and commutation — but is also deeply misguided and disingenuous.

Contrary to assertions by Mr. Dukakis and sympathetic newspaper editorials, recently declassified archival evidence leaves no doubt that Ethel Rosenberg knowingly and eagerly abetted her husband’s espionage. The punishment for her was unjust — she deserved no more than a 10- to 15-year prison sentence — but she was hardly an innocent and is not deserving of exoneration. She was in fact guilty of the charges brought against her.

...recently declassified archival evidence leaves no doubt that Ethel Rosenberg knowingly and eagerly abetted her husband’s espionage.

Efforts to promote the official exoneration of Ethel Rosenberg have been orchestrated by her sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, who were orphaned after their parents were executed. The Meeropols in recent years have belatedly acknowledged that their father was a Soviet spy, but they have continued to insist that their mother was innocent. The Meeropols’ familial devotion to their mother is understandable, but they are deliberately misrepresenting and obfuscating the historical evidence.

The trial of the Rosenbergs was mishandled by the prosecution, but the reality is that the evidence brought against them at trial was sufficiently strong to persuade a jury to convict them. Moreover, the evidence against them could have been immeasurably stronger if secrecy considerations had not prevailed. In the mid-1990s we learned that the U.S. government in the early 1950s had at its disposal much more damning evidence against both Rosenbergs but chose not to use it, for fear of disclosing that the United States had been able to decrypt Soviet wartime intelligence communications in the so-called Venona project.

Michael (left) and Robert Meeropol demonstrate outside the White House on Dec. 1, holding a photograph of themselves demonstrating as children in 1953. (Courtesy Alan Heath/Rosenberg Fund for Children)
Michael (left) and Robert Meeropol demonstrate outside the White House on Dec. 1, holding a photograph of themselves demonstrating as children in 1953. (Courtesy Alan Heath/Rosenberg Fund for Children)

The Venona decryptions, which were declassified by the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency in 1995, showed that Soviet intelligence officers regarded both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as valuable assets. Julius was the leader of a Soviet spy ring, and Ethel actively and knowingly assisted him.

The documents indicate that Ethel played a crucial role in the recruitment of her brother, David Greenglass, who stole secrets for Julius about the Manhattan Project, the highly classified wartime program to build nuclear weapons. Those secrets were passed on to the Rosenbergs’ Soviet intelligence supervisors.

The documents also indicate that Ethel concealed money and espionage equipment for her husband, facilitated contacts with Soviet intelligence personnel, and offered appraisals of potential recruits for the Rosenberg spy ring. She was an eager accomplice in Julius’s espionage.

More recently, in 2009, extremely important Soviet intelligence documents were released by Alexander Vassiliev, a former Soviet KGB officer who transcribed immense quantities of Soviet espionage records from the 1930s and 1940s in eight notebooks that are now readily accessible in both the original Russian and English translation. Apparently, neither Mr. Dukakis nor the newspaper editorial writers have taken the time to look at the notebooks.

The Vassiliev notebooks provide further damning evidence about the espionage of both Julius and Ethel, underscoring the highly sensitive information about weaponry and military technology they turned over to Stalin’s intelligence services.  Their espionage continued until the time of their arrest in 1950. The notebooks also reveal that the Rosenbergs recruited not only David Greenglass but also another spy, Russell McNutt, in the Manhattan Project. The Rosenbergs smuggled huge quantities of documents to Soviet spymasters about conventional military systems, but clearly their espionage was also focused on nuclear weaponry.

At a time when Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is whitewashing history and spreading disinformation, the U.S. government must do everything possible to uphold historical accuracy.

Whatever one may think about the trial of the Rosenbergs — the conduct of it left a lot to be desired — the historical evidence overwhelmingly confirms that Ethel, as well as Julius, deserved to be convicted. An exoneration of her now, in the face of so much evidence from multiple sources, is wholly unwarranted. At a time when Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is whitewashing history and spreading disinformation, the U.S. government must do everything possible to uphold historical accuracy. It is worth remembering that the Rosenberg case prompted the first major Soviet propaganda and disinformation campaign after Stalin’s death, when Soviet officials in the spring of 1953 provided funding and political backing to groups around the world that were demanding the release of the Rosenbergs.

Rather than give in to today’s equivalent of the 1953 Soviet disinformation campaign, President Obama should leave the conviction of Ethel Rosenberg in place. Perhaps if the president wants to use his constitutional powers, he could commute Ethel’s death sentence to 15 years in prison, but anything more than that would be a travesty of justice. Ethel Rosenberg should and will go down in history as a Soviet spy.

Related:

Mark Kramer Cognoscenti contributor
Mark Kramer is director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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