The Rosenberg File, 60 Minutes style (1)

60 Minutes broadcast its review of the Rosenberg spy case this past Sunday in “The brothers Rosenberg” (the brothers being Michael and Robert Meeeropol). In the hands of 60 Minutes and reporter Anderson Cooper, the case becomes a sob story starring the surviving children of the American leader of a network of Communist spies who sought to facilitate Stalin’s development of atomic weapons. John Schindler exposes the 60 Minutes story’s manifest shortcomings in the New York Observer column “Rosenberg lies never cease.”

Julius Rosenberg — the father of the Meeropols — was the leader of the spy network that gave rise to the case. Ethel Rosenberg — the mother of the Metropolis — assisted her husband in recruiting spies to the network. Rather than tell the truth about their activities and betrayals, they told their kids they were innocent and left their kids behind as they went to their deaths by the electric chair in 1953 following their convictions.

The Rosenbergs are an eternal cause of the left. The Communists proclaimed their innocence and many believed it. Ron Radosh was one such believing leftist until he immersed himself in the evidence and interviewed witnesses to write The Rosenberg File with Joyce Milton, published in 1983 (second, revised edition 1997). Reviewing the evidence, Ron was shocked to find Julius Rosenberg guilty as charged. (He found Ethel Rosenberg a more complicated case whose guilt as an accomplice has become clearer as additional evidence emerged in the 1990’s.)

60 Minutes revisits the case as a soap opera. It does so expressly in the context of the petition seeking the exoneration of Ethel Rosenberg. In the world according to CBS News, it appears that Ethel Rosenberg is still innocent after all these years. If not exactly innocent, at least she is not guilty. Her children are therefore victims of the United States government and America’s Cold War hysteria.

In the interest of balance Ron Radosh makes a cameo appearance as the historian who wrote the book on the case and was ostracized by the left for his findings. Thanks to Ron and others, the evidence of espionage can no longer be talked away, but “new information” supposedly also leads to the petition for exoneration.

Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiring to provide atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, Ethel wrote a letter to their sons Michael and Robby saying, “always remember that we were innocent.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that when the boys grew up, they wanted to try to clear their parents’ names. What is surprising is how much new information they and independent historians have been able to uncover over the years — secret messages, intercepted cables, long-forgotten files from the archives of the FBI, the CIA, and the KGB. The new information has changed the way this chapter of American history is viewed, which is why the brothers are now asking President Obama to exonerate their mother.

If the evidence of espionage cannot be talked away, it can be discounted and mitigated:

There’s now plenty of evidence that Julius Rosenberg’s spy network stole important technology for jet fighters, radar, and detonators. But the one thing he and his spies didn’t do a very good job of stealing was atomic secrets – the heart of the prosecutors’ case. Most historians agree that the Soviets got the most important atomic bomb-making information from Los Alamos scientists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, who belonged to a different Russian spy ring.

The evidence introduced against Ethel Rosenberg by her brother at trial may well have been perjurious in part, because the government chose to protect its breaking of the Soviet code leading to decryption of the messages that implicated her. Ron Radosh puts it this way: if you want to say the government framed the Rosenbergs, “they framed guilty people.” John Schindler has much more on this point in the column linked above.

60 Minutes gives the last word to Robert Meeroopol: “Our mother was killed for something she did not do. She was taken away from us. That’s as personal as it can get. But, the fact that the government facilitated the invention of evidence in order to convict someone of a capital crime, that is something that should concern everybody.”

60 Minutes’ story on the Rosenberg case gives Robert Meeropol the last word and otherwise lends credence to the Meeropols’ cause. It leaves critical parts of the story out or on the cutting room floor to do so. That makes it a sad story in more ways than one.