Trump Gets the Rosenbergs All Wrong
Not only does the president’s citing of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg as an example of treason show his lack of historical knowledge, it gives ammunition to their apologists.
Certainly, some Democrats went way overboard when they said, as did one prominent Democrat, that Donald Trump Jr.’s secret meeting with a Russian lawyer—to which he brought along Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner—smelled of “treason.”
It revealed that the Trump campaign was ready to receive information likely coming from Vladimir Putin’s government if it would damage Hillary Clinton and hurt her chances of winning the White House. It might be collusion, but it is a far cry from committing an act of treason.
But on Thursday, during his angry, rambling, and long press briefing in Paris, President Trump, obviously referring to those Democrats who were suggesting his son and campaign staff may have committed treason, made the following statement when asked about the charge of collusion by his campaign with Russia:
Hey, now it’s shown there’s no collusion, there’s no obstruction, there’s no nothing. Honestly, the whole thing, it is really a media witch hunt. It’s been a media witch hunt. And it’s bad for the country… And I think what’s happening is, as usual, the Democrats have played their card too hard on the Russia thing, because people aren’t believing it. It’s a witch hunt and they understand that. When they say “treason”—you know what treason is? That’s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the atomic bomb, OK? (my emphasis)
In making that claim, Trump—like some Democrats—has shown that he too does not understand the definition of “treason.” An individual can be convicted of treason by a confession in an open court, or if the defendant committed an overt act of treason that was witnessed by at least two people. That requirement was put in the law precisely to prevent an innocent person from being accused and convicted of treason, and to prevent the very carrying out of a witch hunt by a political adversary.
In citing as an example of treason the 1951 conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which led to their execution at Sing Sing prison in New York on June 19, 1953, Trump showed once again that he knows little history, and that he gets things wrong.
The Rosenbergs were charged and found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage,” which requires a commission of one overt act, to be found guilty by a jury. While everyone now, including Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ sons, acknowledge that their father was a Soviet agent and had put together a spy network, they also claim that their mother, Ethel Rosenberg, was completely innocent and only indicted and eventually executed as a vehicle to pressure their father to confess.
Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to their deaths affirming their innocence and proclaiming their guilt to have been the result of a witch hunt against “progressive” Americans who only wanted peace with the Soviet Union.
The reality is, as John Schindler writes, that recently uncovered Soviet documents conclusively prove that Ethel Rosenberg too was guilty.
She knew of her husband’s work as a spy. She helped the KGB recruit members and identified potential people to recruit. She participated at critical meetings in which her husband was present and conversation was held about how to get her brother, David Greenglass, to be recruited to spy at Los Alamos, where as an Army sergeant he worked as a mechanical engineer on the detonator that would be used on the first atomic bomb.
Indeed, Ethel was the one who urged David’s wife, Ruth, to act quickly to recruit him and earlier had suggested that Ruth be made part of the network.
What she did is succinctly summed up by science writer Steven Usdin, who has written a book about members of Rosenberg’s network. Usdin states:
She met with at least three of the Soviet KGB officers who Julius reported to, served as a “cut out” for communications with a KGB officer on at least one occasion, and she recruited her brother to become an atomic spy. KGB documents indicate that Ethel knew of her husband’s activities, knew he had recruited several of his comrades to spy for Stalin, and that the Soviet intelligence agency trusted Ethel.
The irony is that Trump’s false claim that the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason will now be used by the legions of American leftists, including the Meeropol brothers, to bring new energy to their years-long campaign to have their parents exonerated.
Since the couple’s trial, the left has portrayed them as martyrs for civil liberties, righteous dissenters whose chief crime was to express their constitutionally protected political beliefs. In the end, the left has argued, the two communists were put to death not for spying but for their unpopular opinions, at a time when the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were seeking to stem opposition to their anti-Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War.
In October 2016, 60 Minutes ran a two-part special segment, “The Brothers Rosenberg,” meant to give the Meeropols’ campaign support and to generate sympathy for their effort to declare their mother innocent.
At that time, the Meeropols held out high hope that before leaving office, perhaps at Christmastime, President Obama would posthumously pardon them and announce that Ethel was wrongly convicted and was innocent. Obama chose to ignore their many appeals.
Thereafter, they acknowledged that their failure was their last hope and that the record would continue to describe her as guilty.
Now, with Trump’s ill-chosen words that the Rosenbergs were guilty of “treason,” the Meeropol brothers will have been given a new bounce to restart their campaign. Easily able to prove that their parents were legally not convicted traitors, the public will again think their conviction was erroneous and that not being guilty of “treason” proves that they were innocent.
They will also be able to show that others, especially physicists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, had given atomic information far more developed than that handed to the Soviets by the Rosenberg network.
How ironic that Trump, because of his lack of historical knowledge and his tendency to present inaccurate historical statements as the truth, has given the sectarian American old and new left—led by the Rosenbergs’ two sons—new ammunition to restart a campaign that was on its last legs.