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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
'Spy' trial that shocked America

By Matt Wells
BBC correspondent in New York

Robert Meeropol is now a contented middle-aged man running a charity fund for children, but 50 years ago this week, he was at the centre of perhaps the most infamous American criminal case of the last century.

Ethel Rosenberg and her brother David Greenglass
Ethel Rosenberg's own brother, David, was the key witness
"I think I knew after my parents' execution that they'd been killed - but my brother says I'd still ask: 'When are we going to see them?'"

His parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a young working-class Jewish couple who lived on New York's Lower East Side, who were executed in the electric chair at Sing-Sing prison.

Their deaths came just before sundown on 19 June 1953, as thousands gathered around the world, praying for clemency on their behalf.

If he [Julius] decided that was his contribution to the struggle, I don't know that I would judge him for being wrong in doing that
Robert Meeropol
They were found guilty of a conspiracy to hand the "secrets" of the atomic bomb to Russia, in early 1951.

A frantic but fruitless international campaign was then launched against their death sentence.

The couple pleaded their total innocence until the very end.

McCarthy's witch-hunt

Ethel took five jolts of electric current to die, because her head was too small for the leather cap which housed the deadly electrodes.

She and her husband left behind two sons: Robert, who was six, and Michael, who was 10.

Middle America was riding the wave of "McCarthyism" - the Senator notorious for his public attacks on those suspected of Communist sympathies.

Julius Rosenberg
Records suggests that Julius was giving information to the Soviets

The government was in the middle of the Cold War against its Soviet former war allies, and the establishment was determined to go on the offensive against Communist party members and their values.

Sam Roberts is a New York Times journalist who has written a book about the Rosenberg case.

He was six at the time of the executions - the same age as Robert Meeropol.

"People were afraid of the Russians, they were afraid of nuclear warfare," says Sam Roberts.

"This was the last time - until the 11 September - that we as a country felt vulnerable to an enemy attack.

"People assumed that Communists were about to take over the US. As it turns out, there were plenty of Communist infiltrators... but there was never a real threat to the integrity of the US Government."

False evidence

The Rosenbergs were certainly Communists, but the man whose evidence did most to convict them - Ethel's own brother - later admitted that he had fabricated his story to save his own skin.

David Greenglass
David Greenglass admitted to spying for the Soviets

The evidence against Ethel especially, has been utterly undermined.

However, records and testimony from intelligence sources in both America and Russia, suggests that Julius had been involved in giving some sensitive information to Soviet contacts, in support of the war effort against Hitler.

Robert is now agnostic: "If he [Julius] decided that was his contribution to the struggle, I don't know that I would judge him for being wrong in doing that."

"But also, given my childhood experiences, I know that by the time I had children... I was not going to engage in politically risky activity, possibly because I knew first hand, the damage it could have," he told me in his Massachusetts office.

'Coming out'

Robert and Michael were adopted by friends of their parents - the Meeropols - and given a stable and loving upbringing, with a new name.

They only "came out" as Rosenbergs when they decided to reopen the case publicly, in the mid 1970s.

Robert Meeropol (as he is still officially called in honour of his adoptive parents) was inspired in the late 1980s to create a charity called "The Rosenberg Fund for Children".

It provides financial support for the families of "targeted" political activists who are disadvantaged due to their parents political beliefs or activities.

He believes that post-11 September America is waging a war on terrorism in a way which is already eroding civil liberties and the principles of political tolerance.

"The United States Government [also] learned that it was going to be very leery of executing a husband and wife with young children, that's never happened since..."

"But the most important lesson that they didn't learn, is they didn't learn the lesson that would prevent it from happening again."


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