Democracy Dies in Darkness

Made by History | Perspective

How Donald Trump could use his pardon power for good

It's time to pardon Ethel Rosenberg.

June 19, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of supplying the Soviet Union with secrets about the U.S. nuclear bomb program. The husband and wife were executed at Sing Sing prison in New York, 10 minutes apart, on June 19, 1953 (AP)

It’s “a beautiful thing.”  That’s how President Trump recently described the power to pardon. He’s made headlines by pardoning Bush administration official Scooter Libby, right-wing pundit Dinesh Dsouza, and boxer Jack Johnson. He declared he’s looking at “literally thousands” of cases, promising that “there will be more pardons.”

The pardon, Trump contends, is an opportunity to “right a wrong,” as he explained in his posthumous pardon of Johnson, the African American boxing champion, for what the president called “a racially motivated injustice” (albeit a complicated one).

Today, on the 65th anniversary of her death, the president should pardon Ethel Rosenberg and right another American wrong. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. But only Julius was a spy, Ethel was not.

Ethel was instead the victim of early Cold War terror and paranoia. By shining a light on how fear of communism compelled government officials – both Democrats and Republicans – to take any and every action to avoid being labeled soft on communism, a pardon would help the country confront its Cold War past, and admit its excesses – including the unjust execution of a mother of two young sons.

During the early Cold War, fear abounded. By the early 1950s, the Soviets had the atomic bomb, China had transformed into a revolutionary communist state and American schoolchildren were learning to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear attack. The idea that communists at home might be aiding the global communist threat terrified Americans.

It was during this anti-communist hysteria that Ethel’s husband, Julius Rosenberg, was arrested for conspiracy to commit espionage. The charges were serious: he stood accused of passing the secret about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and causing the Korean War. They were also overblown: Julius couldn’t have given the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviets – there was no one “secret” of the bomb. And many factors – most importantly the encouragement and military support of China’s Mao Zedong – prompted aggression in Korea.

But it was easier to blame Julius Rosenberg. After all, he had funneled military secrets to the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1950 through his sizable spy ring. He was one of a few hundred spies operating in the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union, hoping to even the military playing field during and after World War II.

FBI agents arrested Ethel as leverage, hoping to prod Julius to name the dozen spies he worked with, a plan FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover endorsed at the time in an internal memo. Both Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy and found guilty by a jury. In an attempt to break Julius’s silence, the Justice Department chose a judge based on his willingness to impose the death penalty. After improper consultations with the U.S. Attorney and the prosecutorial team, that judge sentenced both Rosenbergs to death. Ethel’s sentence was meant to further pressure her husband; if Julius identified his fellow spies he could save Ethel’s life.

But Julius never named names. He and Ethel claimed their innocence even as they were strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953.

Executing the Rosenbergs orphaned their two sons, aged 6 and 10. While Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer and mentor who had served as a member of the Rosenberg trial prosecutorial team, claimed that Ethel “alone was the ringleader, who led Julius around by a leash,” he was wrong.  Yes, she knew about Julius’s work, but she didn’t even have a code name, something all the spies had. To pressure Julius, the FBI concocted a story – corroborated by Ethel’s brother’s perjured testimony – that she engaged in espionage, and Presidents Truman and Eisenhower saw no reason to question the FBI.

It wasn’t just blind faith in law enforcement, though.

As Truman and then Eisenhower faced a stalemated war in the Korea, they were eager to point to the Rosenberg case as a success at home. Both administrations also believed that the trial of two spies would demonstrate the superiority of the American judicial system. At the trial’s end, FBI Director Hoover called the case “a sterling example of our democratic processes in action.”

They were wrong. During the 26 months of appeals – while the couple waited on death row – a protest movement erupted in more than 80 cities in nearly 50 countries around the world. Petitions flooded in from Argentina to Australia, from Iceland to India, from Switzerland to South Africa.

Allies in Europe and the Americas questioned the apparent illegalities of the trial – including perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct – and the harshness of the death sentence, particularly for a young mother. Outspoken and powerful critics – including Pope Pius XII, Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel, artist Pablo Picasso and French President Vincent Auriol – spanned the political spectrum. All protesters argued that the death penalty, used for manipulative purposes, was a form of torture. Applied to Ethel, whose only crime was standing by her husband, it was an act of senseless violence, spurred by paranoid anti-communism.

These protests stunned U.S. government officials. They assumed the global population would support the tactics of the leader of freedom and democracy around the world. Eisenhower in particular, saw the executions as a display of strength and never fully understood how friends and allies could question America’s commitment to justice. The executions, particularly Ethel’s, tarnished America’s image abroad, creating a clear distinction between the rhetoric of the country that claimed to be defending freedom and democracy and its actual practices.

But the Cold War is now over, and it is time to make amends to citizens victimized during those years. Ethel’s sons admit their father was a spy, but want to clear their mother’s name. A full pardon for Ethel would forgive her for the crime of conspiracy. It would also allow the U.S. government to apologize for her execution, a cruel and morally repugnant travesty of justice.

Trump claims he is considering pardoning some 3,000 people because they “have been treated unfairly.”

If Trump really wants to boast that he has “strengthened American leadership, security, prosperity, and accountability,” he should use the pardon power to reclaim America’s position of moral leadership, aligning the United States with global community members who support ethical justice.

He should pardon Ethel Rosenberg.


Lori Clune is associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno, and author of "Executing the Rosenbergs: Death and Diplomacy in a Cold War World."

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