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Treason and Patriotism in Today’s America

Lawrence Bush
May 1, 2003

On the 50th Anniversary of the Rosenbergs’ Execution, Their Younger Son Reflects on the Implications of Their Case

by Robert Meeropol
As the 50th anniversary of my parents’ execution approaches, I am encountering far too many reminders of 1953.
President Clinton’s signing in 1996 of the Anti-Terrorism and More Effective Death Penalty Act may have been an early sign of the new McCarthyism, but it gathered momentum with George W. Bush’s appointment to the Presidency by the Supreme Court after the November, 2000 electoral farce. And it reached full force once the attacks of September 11th, 2001 provided the Bush administration with the excuse it needed to blatantly manipulate public fear and shove its authoritarian agenda down our throats in the name of national security.
I lived the first three years of my life on New York City’s Lower East Side, about a mile from Ground Zero. Initially I felt personally assaulted by the September 11th attacks, but within days I realized that Bush and Company, not Osama bin Laden, were the principal source of my siege mentality.
I was scheduled to give an address at the annual meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Raleigh, North Carolina at the end of October. The abolition movement has been exclusively focused on murder cases and many of its activists did not even realize that someone in this country could be executed for conspiracy, as my parents had been. The Coalition had asked me to provide attendees with historic perspective and introduce them to another kind of capital case.

After September 11th, I realized that my parents’ case was no longer merely of historical or educational interest, even though it was the lone modern case in which defendants who had been convicted only of conspiracy were ultimately executed. Since the mass murderers who hijacked the planes on September 11th were all dead, the government was likely to develop conspiracy cases against their colleagues and ask for the death penalty. I realized that Americans might soon face an unprecedented wave of capital conspiracy cases, and that these would present anti-capital punishment forces with a major new challenge.
Reaching this conclusion did not take much insight, given my personal history. It punched me in the face. I consulted with friends in the progressive legal community. They were alarmed by the mass detentions, talk of military tribunals, and the general attack on civil liberties, but perhaps it took my personal history to anticipate the likelihood of a new round of conspiracy cases involving the death penalty.

Touring in October and November, 2001 to sound the alarm about capital conspiracy had a different feel from my previous public speaking. I felt a mix of urgency and concern that bordered on fear. John Ashcroft and his cohorts appeared to be using George Orwell’s 1984 as a manual for controlling public opinion. Perhaps I was a bit paranoid, but I couldn’t help wondering if Big Brother was watching what I, personally, did. As the son of “Communist atomic spies,” I felt vulnerable attacking the government’s policies in wartime. Much of the country was undergoing a paroxysm of thoughtless patriotism, dissent was being equated with treason by Ashcroft and others — and for many citizens of the U.S., the names “Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” are synonymous with “traitor.”
In November, 2001, the ACLU and the Fund for Santa Barbara invited me to talk about capital conspiracy at the main branch of Santa Barbara’s public library. On my way into town from Los Angeles that morning, I stopped to do a radio talk show. About halfway through the program, a caller demanded to know: “Your father was a traitor; yes or no?”
“That depends on your definition of treason,” I countered. We sparred a bit, but soon the next caller turned the conversation in another direction. I worked for the next several days on developing a more satisfactory response. I knew I could have responded more narrowly that my parents were not charged with or convicted of treason. Furthermore, treason is defined as helping an enemy, but my parents were charged with conspiring to help the Soviet Union during World War II, when the USSR was an American ally. But such responses missed the heart of the matter.

The Founding Fathers of the U.S. recognized that “treason” and politics are inextricably entwined, and they defined the crime in the Constitution to minimize its potential abuse for political purposes:

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession of it in open court. (Article III, section 3)

This Constitutional definition revealed what I should have said to the caller. I should have read the definition to him and asked what he considered to be the greatest act of treason in U.S. history.
My answer is the Civil War, provoked by the Confederate States — a group that sought to destroy our nation by conducting a war within its borders that led to the deaths of over a million Americans. Despite its ultimate defeat, the Confederacy was by far the most massive and successful traitorous conspiracy in our history. Yet to this day the Stars and Bars flag, symbol of that great treason, is widely displayed, in some cases with official sanction. Some people who would be quick to call my parents “traitors” have confederate flag decals on the back windows of their vehicles! We’ve buried the treasonous nature of the Confederacy so deeply that the great majority of us would be shocked to hear it described that way.
One person’s “treason” is another’s “heritage.”

The definition of patriotism is also politically charged. The right wing in our country claims a monopoly on it. They equate love of country with blind obedience to authority and with the belief that our country is better than all others.
Could my parents be considered patriots? I grew up believing that acts to improve the quality of life for all of our nation’s inhabitants are the most patriotic acts. This was expressed best by my adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, in his patriotic song, “The House I Live In”: “but especially the people, that’s America to me.” Based on this understanding of patriotism, I believe that my parents acted patriotically, even if Julius Rosenberg was the non-atomic spy depicted in the previously secret transcriptions released by the National Security Agency in 1995.

Even if my birth parents were not guilty of any crime, however, many Americans would consider their communist politics unpatriotic. Ethel and Julius identified with poor and oppressed people in America and around the world rather than in a government that they believed served the will of a privileged few. Ethel and Julius believed that the defeat of fascism and the rise of communism would help Americans and the world. Any actions they may have taken sprang from their love of humanity and their interpretation of America’s core values.
My parents were arrested shortly after the start of the Korean War. They were executed shortly after the armistice was signed in 1953. Just as that war gave political “cover” to the state’s unprecedented execution of two people on conspiracy charges, so is the Bush administration’s wartime backdrop giving cover to its repressive and relentlessly conservative domestic agenda. War brings forth intense passion about what constitutes treason and patriotism. The dying of American soldiers in Korea at the rate of 1,000 per month was a root cause of why few looked closely at the fairness of my parents’ trial and why those who supported their execution carried signs that read, “Fry the traitors.” The 2,800 people who died in the World Trade Center attack provided the ultimate rationale for New York City’s refusal to grant the half-million participants in the February 15th anti-war demonstration their First Amendment rights to march in protest.
The anti-war movement has faced a grave crisis since American troops invaded Iraq. Cries that we are aiding the enemy have escalated dramatically. Our dissent has been labeled unpatriotic and even traitorous. More police officers have equated demonstrators with the enemy and acted accordingly, and the courts are more likely to mock the Constitution in the name of “protecting our way of life.”
Many of the millions of people around the world who are against this war share a worldview that is fundamentally different from the view of those who would follow the U.S. government into the abyss. Many of the anti-warriors identify first as human beings and only second as citizens of their respective nations, or as members of a particular race, religion or ethnic group. Theirs are essentially the same sentiments that informed the politics of my parents and their comrades.

The anti-war movement must address the same volatile issues that arose during my parents’ case, because they dominate the political debate surrounding the war and its aftermath. We must publicly equate national security with global security, patriotism with love for humanity, and domestic constitutional rights with human rights all over the world. We must convince as many of our fellow human beings as possible that none of us can truly “secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” if we do not take concrete steps to bring these seemingly unreachable ideals closer to reality for all citizens of the world. In the modern era’s globalized political environment, helping humanity in general is the best way to improve our own national security. Our government’s attempt to control and profit from the rest of the world will never make us more secure. I can conceive of no more patriotic acts today than to organize resistance against military adventurism, racist profiling and attacks on our Constitutional rights.

Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Robert is the Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC). He founded the RFC in 1990 to provide for the educational and emotional needs of the children of targeted activists in this country. On June 19, 2003 the RFC will present a 50th anniversary commemorative performance of “Celebrate the Children of Resistance” at New York’s City Center. This essay is adapted from the epilogue to his forthcoming political memoir, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey, to be published in June by St. Martin’s Press.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.