Son of executed 'atomic spies' speaks on civil liberties

Son of executed 'atomic spies' speaks on civil liberties

His parents, the "atomic spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed during the Red Scare of the early 1950s when he was just 6. Now, Robert Meeropol wants to raise awareness that similar tactics are creating a "Green Scare," which he sees as the lumping of eco-radicals under the heading of terrorism.

In a talk at Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, Meeropol, now a Massachusetts lawyer and executive director of a foundation that supports children of leftist activists, will caution that it's never good to repeat the mistake of the McCarthy era, "putting civil liberties in the back seat in the name of national security."

Meeropol, in a phone interview, said his parents' 1953 deaths in the electric chair impacted his entire life, led to decades of living covertly, then, with the liberalizations of the '60s and '70s, publicly protesting the case — and finally coming to terms with it by running the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

Although the highly publicized case against his parents was "absurd on its face," Meeropol said, "I'm not here to re-try that case or to say they were totally innocent. I'm trying to point out the injustice that was done and the lessons that need to be learned from it."

Once a group or movement is painted as a menacing international conspiracy, as with the Communism of the mid-20th century or the terrorism of today, it is easy to lump undesirable people in that group and begin taking away their Constitutional protections, he said.

"If you fast-forward 50 years from the McCarthy era, you see environmental activists, who are charged with destruction of property, being painted as terrorists. It isn't terrorism," he said. "You may have questions about people burning a bunch of SUVs, but it's little different than the Boston Tea Party, where colonists were destroying property to convey a message."

Meeropol's parents, accused of passing America's atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in New York State. He and his brother were raised by Abel Meeropol, who wrote the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" made famous by Billie Holiday.

"Since then, I've learned how to make something good and positive come out of it. That's the important thing," he said. "The Constitution, Bill of Rights and our rule of law are worth supporting. My beef with the government is that it's subverting those and we have to go back to tried and true principles and bring it back on course."

The Bush administration's use of torture, wiretapping and imprisonment without charges of people designated as enemy combatants is "a travesty — it's going back to the McCarthy era," he said.

Americans today are being given the same choice as in the 1950s, between being secure or being free but Meeropol said it's a "false choice — we are not more secure because we lock up those people in Guantanamo. It just gives more fuel to the fire for the terrorists."

However, he added, Americans in the past few years are having second thoughts because "they realize it's not helping us catch more terrorists and also people are realizing you don't know who's going to be in the crosshairs next."

Meeropol's parents were members of the Communist Party and, though the trial evidence has been much disputed in recent years, they were viewed almost entirely negatively in the 1950s press, something he says is happening now with "monkey wrenchers," a term author Edward Abbey popularized in 1975 with his novel about environmental sabotage, "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

"In the public mind and government news releases, my parents were painted as master spies who stole the secrets of the atom bomb," Meeropol said. "It's absurd on its face. Atomic scientists later said it was ridiculous and these weren't the secrets. It (making nuclear weapons) was an industry, not a recipe."

The lesson for today — and with monkeywrenching cases — is, "Let's let calmer heads prevail. Everyone's entitled to constitutional protections, even if they're Muslims or eco-saboteurs. They should have fair trials."

As the child of parents whom he feels were charged for political reasons, Meeropol says, "My childhood experience gave me my life mission, not to re-try my parents' case but to help children and to help us, as a country, to stick to our highest ideals."

Meeropol will be joined in the talk by Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene.

The presentation, entitled "McCarthy Era Lessons for Bush's America — From Communism to Environmentalism," is at 7 p.m. tonight at the Unitarian Church, Fourth and A streets.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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