Menu

A Child’s Tale of the Red Scare

Don Ogden Apr 21, 2004

An Execution in the Family : One Son’s Journey
By Robert Meeropol
St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Review By Don Ogden

As one of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed as spies by the U.S. government, Robert Meeropol brings to us a longawaited personal account of how life was for survivors of those targeted for death during the McCarthy era.

Though Robert was only 6 years old at the time of their death on June 19, 1953, a dark shadow was cast over him and his older brother Michael. As a boy he knew “something dangerous was out there lurking near enough to strike again.”

I am a contemporary of Meeropol’s and a fellow New Yorker, but born of white bread, anti-Semitic Republicans. I found my history reflected in Robert Meeropol’s world. When Robert was a boy navigating a vicious storm in the sea of hatred and ignorance, I was moving in the calm shallows. The evening his parents were being electrocuted in Sing-Sing Prison outside New York City, not far from my house, I lay in bed wondering if the hall light would blink when the executioner pulled the switch. Meeropol has no memory of that awful evening.

Indecipherable as politics may have been to us kids in that 1950s suburban neighborhood, a sense of danger loomed just beyond our understanding. Television shows like “I Led Three Lives” led us to believe that commie cells planning mayhem might lurk behind the mundane facade of most any neighbor.

Our voices hushed as we passed the Blairs’ house-because Mr. Blair was a Democrat! For some of our parents, Democrats may as well have been communists. It was even worse a few blocks away, by Debbie’s house. Rumor was that her father had to go before the House Un-American Affairs Committee. Of course, we had no clue as to what HUAC was, but we knew that if you were called before it you were probably guilty and that it was “better to be dead than red.”

Fueled by “duck and cover” drills that found us huddled under desks or in the halls at school, and vaguely intelligible anti-communism propaganda from our parents, the children on the opposite side of the Rosenbergs had fears as well, albeit safe, sanctioned and packaged by the state. But kids can’t tell which fears are manufactured and which are genuine.

Obviously, children of “respectable Republicans” never had to worry about having our p York City cops using us as political pawns, or about vengeful judges deciding our fates. The Rosenbergs, on the other hand, as Meeropol’s book clearly explains, were at the paper-thin mercy of anti-communist hysteria.

Were it not for a good lawyer and one sympathetic judge, Robert and his brother might have fallen into cruel hands after their parents’ execution, rather than into the nurturing hands of Abel and Anne Meeropol. Referring to that turn of events, Robert Meeropol says: “I can’t help feeling I gained as much as I lost those years.” The positive
input of the Meeropols and others became both a personal and political victory for Robert. “Those who tried to have us taken from the Meeropols were not satisfied with killing our birth parents; they wanted to kill the Rosenberg’s legacy as well.”

Even with that help, Robert Meeropol had to contend with the phantoms of denial, anger and revenge. His journey took some remarkable turns, replete with self-discoveries and ironies perhaps best described as life-affirming. Meeropol avoided the endless spirals of revenge, transforming it with the creation of the organization he now directs:

“Viewing the Rosenberg Fund for Children as avenging my parents’ execution may seem farfetched. Almost all those responsible are now dead. But a system, not just individuals, killed them. I created the RFC not only to help children who suffered as I did, but also to be part of the movement to change that system.”

Readers looking for some sort of definitive moment in the guilt or innocence of the Rosenbergs will not find it. What they will find is the story that the mainstream media failed to cover. The release of the so-called Venona transcriptions in 1995, said to prove his parents’ guilt, became a classic example of media bias.

Meeropol notes: “…major newspapers and television and radio networks not only accepted every word contained in the material at face value, they also repeated the government’s spin that it proved my parents’ guilt. My comments had been dismissed as those of a dutiful son unwilling to accept reality.”

In his case, critical facts were disappeared by the corporate media. “I find it astonishing that the strongest argument for accepting that the transcriptions contain some validity is the fact that they contradict, rather than support, the core of the government’s case against my parents.”

Meeropol brings his story to the present. Reflecting on the new wave of hysteria, he asks, “Was September 11 the first day of a new McCarthy era?”

I usually avoid memoirs because they fuel the cult of personality pervading most of Western culture. However, if someone must write a memoir it should be a person like Robert Meeropol. In his hands, the memoir becomes simply a story of a life and times, rather than an advertisement for himself.