The execution of alleged husband-and-wife atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (right) 55 years ago (June 19, 1953) remains a source of controversy, even after the end of the Cold War. To conservatives and Cold War liberals (and a sizable segment of the American public), they were vile Red spies who compromised the security of the United States in the worst way imaginable. By contrast, leftists, communists, progressives and nonconformists championed the cause of freeing the Rosenbergs. And then there were a number of people who stayed out of the polarized debate. Over the years, there have been countless books about the Rosenbergs, from Walter and Miriam Schneir's sympathetic account Invitation to an Inquest (1965) to Ron Radosh and Joyce Milton's The Rosenberg File (1983), which concluded that Julius was guilty and Ethel was complicit in his actions. E.L. Doctorow's 1971 novel The Book of Daniel explored the case and the lives of the Rosenberg's sons from a fictional perspective. A gripping recent contribution was Sam Roberts' The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case (2003). Published on the 50th anniversary of the execution, Roberts dropped the bombshell that David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg and the man whose testimony carried so much weight in sending the couple to the electric chair, perjured himself on the witness stand (a fact that Greenglass openly admitted to Roberts during interviews for the book). The Brother is haunting, sad and painful to read.
A heartbreaking documentary (and, in my view, the best account of the Rosenbergs) was Ivy Meeropol's stunning 2004 film Heir to an Execution. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor: track it down and watch it right away. The film packs a punch as it shows how four generations of Rosenbergs (Ivy is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel and the daughter of their son Michael) coped with the execution of Julius and Ethel. By the time the credits on the film came up, I found myself emotionally drained after journeying with Ivy on this deeply personal tour of the past. And Ivy Meeropol is incredibly honest about the recent revelations in the declassified Venona Papers (secret Soviet messages intercepted by American and British intelligence in the 1940s) that point to Julius Rosenberg's involvement in atomic espionage.
There is still a great deal of emotion involved in the ongoing debates over the Rosenbergs. Many conservatives still defend the execution as justified and necessary (in particular, David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine routinely condemns the couple and supports their grim fate). To the left, the Rosenbergs remain martyrs, although a growing number of people who are sympathetic to the Rosenbergs and condemn their execution are starting to believe that Julius, indeed, was involved in some sort of espionage activity (for years, it was virtually verboten within the left to even wonder whether Julius was guilty). But there is also a sense among leftists that the punishment did not fit the crime, and the Rosenbergs were executed chiefly because, unlike David Greenglass, they refused to cooperate with the anticommunist inquisition.
For the past several decades, the Rosenberg's sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol (who took the surname of their adoptive parents) have kept the memory of their parents alive by speaking out against their execution as an unjust act. Watching Heir to an Execution reminds us of what a dark and painful moment this was in American history. Ivy Meeropol's masterpiece ought to be required viewing, especially for those who still laud the violent electrocution of the Rosenbergs over a half century ago. Even if Julius was guilty of participating in an atomic espionage ring, neither one of them deserved to meet such a barbaric end.