Workers Vanguard No. 1026
14 June 2013
From the Archives of Marxism
19 June 1953: The Cold War Execution of the Rosenbergs
Militant, 29 June 1953
Sixty years ago this month, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish Communists from New York, were murdered by the U.S. capitalist state for the alleged crime of spying for the Soviet Union. Against the backdrop of bloodcurdling cries to “fry the Reds,” the Rosenbergs were subjected to a grotesque show trial on charges of “conspiring” to pass the “secret of the atomic bomb” to the USSR during World War II. The frame-up featured perjured testimony and concocted evidence as well as the stoking of anti-Semitism. With the trial coming at the height of McCarthyite anti-Communist hysteria, this was enough to secure a conviction.
Judge Irving Kaufman consulted with the prosecution before condemning the Rosenbergs to death. During sentencing, he took the opportunity to accuse the Rosenbergs of treason—defined by the Constitution as giving aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime—even though the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. during World War II! While liberal and social-democratic apologists for the government have come forward over the years claiming to “prove” the Rosenbergs’ guilt, these attempts have all fallen apart under the slightest scrutiny.
As the Militant (27 October 1952), published by the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), wrote in an editorial following the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the conviction: “The Rosenberg decision above all else was an act of ruling-class terror by a state that is preparing a war of world conquest, a war directed primarily against the Soviet Union.... It was far more a political than a spy trial. There is no other way to explain why the Rosenbergs, who were charged with playing the least important role of all those involved in the atomic espionage, should alone have been given the ultimate sentence.”
For Marxists, the central issue in the Rosenberg case was the defense of the Soviet workers state against imperialism. The U.S. had emerged from World War II as the predominant imperialist power, with a monopoly on atomic weapons. The main impediment to its world designs was the Soviet Union, which had issued out of the 1917 seizure of power by the Bolshevik-led working class in Russia. Despite its subsequent degeneration under Stalinist bureaucratic misrule, the USSR continued to embody key social gains of the October Revolution, centrally a planned economy and collectivized property. It was an urgent task of the working class to defend the Soviet Union—just as we Spartacists today defend the bureaucratically deformed workers states of China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.
Julius Rosenberg was arrested less than a year after the first Soviet A-bomb test threw the U.S. rulers into a frenzy. As we wrote in “They’re Trying to Kill the Rosenbergs All Over Again” (WV No. 340, 21 October 1983):
“Those who helped the Russians achieve nuclear capacity did a great service for humanity. Had U.S. imperialism maintained a nuclear monopoly, it would have meant historic defeats for the international proletariat. It would have meant nuclear destruction from Southeast Asia to Latin America. Who can doubt that U.S. imperialism would have destroyed Vietnam totally with nuclear weapons if they did not fear a retaliatory Soviet strike? Would Cuba exist today if the U.S. had a nuclear monopoly?”
The late 1940s and ’50s in the U.S. was a time of widespread persecution of Communists, labor militants, other leftists and also some liberals classified as “Communist sympathizers.” Witchhunters such as Senator Joseph McCarthy destroyed the careers of such “subversives” in all walks of American life, but especially the labor movement. Some 25,000 union members, many of them key leaders of the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s, were purged, in some cases leading to the destruction of whole unions. Thousands more were tracked down by the FBI and driven from their jobs, only to continue to be hounded and witchhunted due to employer blacklists.
While belatedly coming to the defense of the Rosenbergs amid the Cold War atmosphere of repression, the SWP correctly recognized the centrality of the Soviet Union in the Rosenberg case and hailed the USSR’s nuclear capacity. In contrast, most of the rest of the left in the United States refused to defend the Rosenbergs. This included their comrades in the leadership of the Communist Party (CP), who did not even mention the case until after the trial was over and the death sentence had already been handed down. When the CP did take up the case, it neither denounced the political frame-up nor defended the Rosenbergs as victims of the capitalist state. The Daily Worker (6 April 1951) merely accused the government of “bad faith” similar to its refusal “to negotiate peace in Korea,” where the U.S. imperialists and their allies were fighting a war against the North Korean and Chinese workers states.
In recent years, the American nuclear cowboys have raised a hue and cry over the efforts of North Korea to develop and test nuclear weapons and adequate delivery systems—capacity that Marxists support. The U.S. imperialists have also played up Iran’s alleged nuclear program to impose withering sanctions to the detriment of its working masses and poor. In fact, possession of nuclear weapons is the only true measure of national sovereignty in today’s world, as Saddam Hussein, who did not possess “weapons of mass destruction,” learned the hard way.
The article we reprint below appeared in the Militant (29 June 1953) following the Rosenbergs’ execution. It highlights how the anti-Communist trade-union bureaucracy, which sealed its hold on the labor movement through the red purges, was deaf to appeals on behalf of the Rosenbergs. Following in their footsteps, today’s labor statesmen widely embrace the “war on terror,” the latest crusade undertaken by the capitalist rulers after the fading of the “Red menace” with the 1991-92 counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR. The vast expansion of the repressive powers of the state in the name of fighting terrorism is, as with the anti-Soviet McCarthyite frenzy, ultimately aimed at the working class, the potential gravediggers of the capitalist system. For more on the case, see “Hail the Heroic Rosenbergs!” (WV No. 923, 24 October 2008).
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The smell of the auto-da-fe—the burning of heretics—hangs over the land. With the legal murder on June 19 of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the modern inquisition has sent its first two victims to the stake.
Their inquisitors kept the Rosenbergs on the wrack for weeks and months, offering the condemned couple their lives in return for “recantations” and “confessions.” The Rosenbergs declared their innocence to the end. They refused to “abjure” themselves and spurned the role of stoolpigeons and perjurers as demanded by the Eisenhower administration, with its Department of Justice and FBI.
Enraged that their odious compact was refused, the witch hunters in obscene haste shoved aside a last-minute stay of execution granted by Justice Douglas and claimed their blood-victims.
The whole prestige and authority of the U.S. government was mobilized to give the odor of legal sanctity to the burnings. Eisenhower and the Supreme Court themselves, in effect, pulled the electric-chair switch. A cold-blooded six-to-three decision of the hastily reconvened Supreme Court vacated Justice Douglas’ stay, granted the day before. A few hours later Eisenhower denied executive clemency, thus sealing the Rosenbergs’ doom.
Eisenhower prated about the “fullest measure of justice and due process of law” allegedly extended the Rosenbergs. Only the most gullible really believe that. This was a political assassination. That is how virtually the entire world views it. This is shown by the wave of outrage and revulsion that has swept the globe at the sadistic haste with which the Rosenbergs were rushed to their death.
The protests were most widespread and vocal precisely in those countries of Western Europe where American influence is reputed to be greatest. All sections of the French union movement—including the Catholic right—called for clemency to the Rosenbergs. All the Italian unions strongly voiced similar demands. Some of the leading conservative British trades unions, most notably the huge Transport and General Workers Union with 1,300,000 members, openly joined the protest movement.
In addition, the closest allies of the American capitalists—from the Pope himself to the president of France—warned against carrying through the execution because of the blow it would deal Washington’s already shaky prestige among the masses of Western Europe.
Thousands among scientific, cultural, educational and religious circles here and abroad addressed appeals to Eisenhower for clemency. Some 2,800 Protestant clergymen in America voiced their opposition to the death penalty for the Rosenbergs. Eminent atomic scientists Dr. Albert Einstein and Dr. Harold C. Urey (who, incidentally, ridiculed the notion that the accused and the informer against them could have understood or conveyed atomic information) denounced the conviction of the Rosenbergs as well as their sentence.
But the one progressive force that might have prevented the murder of the Rosenbergs was shamefully silent. The 17,000,000-member American trade union movement uttered no word of protest or indignation at the witch-burning. With the notable exception of Hugo Ernst, head of the AFL Hotel and Restaurant Employees, not one leading American trade-union figure had the simple human decency and political intelligence to speak out against the political killing of the Rosenbergs.
It is inconceivable that the labor leaders did not know the tissue-paper flimsiness of the government’s case against the Rosenbergs and the atmosphere of the anti-communist witch hunt that made a fair trial for them impossible. Yet they were too cowardly, too opportunist, too eager to demonstrate their subservience to the capitalist government and their own rabid anti-communism to demand justice and clemency for the Rosenbergs.
For their blind treachery they themselves may yet pay a terrible price at the hands of the witch hunters, whose ultimate objective is nothing less than the crushing of the American labor movement. The smell of the blood of the Rosenbergs will undoubtedly excite the appetites of the McCarthyites and embolden them to seek bigger and juicier prey—including and especially the trade-union leaders.
Why has the case of the Rosenbergs raised such an outcry everywhere that free opinion still finds room to express itself? Why do many who remained silent while U.S. imperialism burned alive several million Koreans or annihilated two whole Japanese cities with atom bombs now cry out at the spectacle of two obscure Americans being killed after what appear to be exhaustive legal proceedings?
Deaths in war seem impersonal and are frequently excused as the regrettable but unavoidable hazards of military struggle. But the Rosenberg case spotlights the nature of U.S. capitalism in all its brutality and vindictiveness. This was deliberate, premeditated murder intended to intimidate into silence all who would oppose American imperialism in any way. It is a symbol of all that the world has come to hate of the ruthless arrogance and aggressive drive of the American ruling class.
Their pretense that the Rosenbergs got all the benefits of the law makes the actions of Eisenhower and the Supreme Court seem all the more hypocritical. As Justice Black pointed out in his strong dissenting opinion, not only is “judicial haste…peculiarly out of place where the death penalty is imposed,” but the Supreme Court “has never reviewed this record and has never affirmed the fairness of the trial…” Indeed, the court refused on a number of occasions to review the central question: Did the Rosenbergs get a fair trial?
Could a fair trial have been possible in the witch-hunt atmosphere and with the whole capitalist government lined up to burn the Rosenbergs, regardless of their guilt or innocence, to make of them a terrifying example?
The Eisenhower administration feared to wait any longer the test of public opinion. It feared that each day would see the protest and indignation grow, not only abroad but at home. The juridical case against the Rosenbergs was coming apart at the seams. It was becoming known that the Rosenbergs were actually charged not with committing espionage, but with mere “conspiracy”—agreement to commit—such acts. No tangible evidence was put forward even for this nebulous charge except the claims of a single informer who feared his own neck was at stake if he did not testify as demanded by the FBI. They rushed to kill the Rosenbergs precisely because the case could not stand up under further close public examination.
Act of Class Hate
This was a deed of class hate and class vengeance. The brutal American capitalist class has sadistically vented on the helpless bodies of the Rosenbergs its rage and frustration at the setbacks it has received abroad from the forces of the colonial and socialist revolutions and for the impediments raised by the revolutionary masses on all the continents to its schemes of world conquest.
The murder of the Rosenbergs shows how far the witch hunters are prepared to go to suppress free thought and political freedom in America. It is the extreme expression of a system of terrorism that has already put a gag over education, literature, the arts and sciences and public service that has sent hundreds to prison for their political views and cost thousands their jobs. It has placed shackles of fear on the American mind. And it will not be halted until the American labor movement—ultimate target of the witch hunters—stands forth with a mighty fist in the face of the witch hunters and declares: “Not another step!”