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Guilt of the Son By: David Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 23, 2003

Last week frontpagemag.com posted an “Open Letter to the Rosenberg Son,” written by Ronald Radosh in response to the newly published memoir -- An Execution in the Family --- by Robert Meeropol who has kept the name of the adoptive parents who raised him after the death of his own. Among the adverse reactions to Radosh’s article was an email from Harold Meyerson, editor of The American Prospect, Bill Moyers’ vanguard publication for the Democratic Party’s socialist caucus. In the “Open Letter,” Radosh had written:

In the end the truth remains that your parents were traitors who betrayed their country and their sons for an illusion. They acted with courage, but for a cause that was corrupt. By recognizing this you would restore their humanity, and perhaps heal the wound you obviously still feel. Instead, you have chosen to continue the charade, pretending that their cause was noble and that they were heroes of an American “resistance.” To what?

This challenge was apparently too much for Meyerson, who wrote to Radosh:

Ron -- I can’t even begin to fathom the callousness of your letter. If you had this argument with anyone else but Robert, it would be fine, and I know your take on the Rosenbergs is the right one. But to hector their son this way, publicly, really is industrial-strength insensitivity. How
would you like it if I wrote an open letter to your son hectoring him to publicly acknowledge that his father is an insensitive jerk? An assertion I fear, that is as hard to deny as the Rosenbergs’ guilt.


In tone and posture -- self-righteous and self-regarding and wholly myopic -- this response is typical. It also mirrors the response of the Rosenberg son (as recorded in his book) to the events that overwhelmed his life and which on this fiftieth anniversary of his parent’s execution he attempts to inflict on us one more time.

There is a truth in Meyerson’s letter, just as there is a truth in the Meeropol book, and in fact in almost every argument made by the left. But it is a small and partial truth in relation to the big truths they engage, and the attack on Radosh is both indefensible and misplaced.

In his private life, Robert Meeropol, appears to be a nice man. I met him once and it was immediately apparent that he was a shy, gentle person, not comfortable even with the public aspect of the small event I attended. His brother, who was also present, did all or most of the talking, laying out his conviction that their parents had been framed by a vindictive government, that no one could respect. Afterwards, I approached the silent son to ask him a question. Responding to his diffidence, I found myself hesitant and tentative in framing my words, although I was already having “second thoughts” about my own progressive commitments. By then, I knew in my heart that what his parents – and mine – had done in devoting their lives to the Communist Party and the Soviet Union was wrong. Terribly wrong. Gingerly approaching the subject, I asked him whether he could entertain the possibility that his parents were in fact guilty of atomic spying for the Soviet Union. I found it an especially affecting and appealing moment when he said that he could.

I have retained a soft spot for Robert Meeropol ever since, and was particularly curious to read his memoir. Unlike his brother, Robert did not seem ideologically hardened. He genuinely seemed to have a private side that he was anxious to protect and which I knew he would be writing about in his book. In my own memoir I had wrestled with the issues of an individual life that becomes enmeshed in political abstractions like his, and I was especially curious to see what he had to say.

As I turned the early pages of his book, I was not disappointed. In his own account, Robert Meeropol emerges as a sensitive and self-conscious individual, concerned to preserve his anonymity and protect his own life from the forces bearing down on it from all sides. As a young parent, he is preoccupied with family, in particular with providing his young children the stability and shelter that was traumatically lacking in his own. He is in these phases of his life a figure of sympathy. He writes disarmingly of his insecurities, his lack of physical and moral courage, his inability to find himself or to establish an adult life. He and his wife seem to have lived for an exceptionally long time as college students, both literally –extending their schooling into their thirties, teaching courses half-heartedly while working on the Rosenberg case – and metaphorically, finding paying jobs that are in one way or another related to their progressive political community and its agitational causes. When Robert finally obtains a law school degree he comments, “I was a bit concerned that at thirty-seven I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up.”

At first the answer appears to be “estate planning,” which has obvious and poignant resonances for himself, and aptly expresses his lifelong quest for healing. But he cannot find a “leftwing estate-planning firm,” and finds himself doing business law instead. When his apprenticeship is complete, and the firm gives him adult responsibilities, they prove too much for his fragile psychology. The pressures of making decisions and “closing deals” soon overwhelm him and he has a nervous breakdown. Surviving on doses of Xanax in the daytime and Halycon at night, he eventually decides to leave.

Even an opponent of his politics like myself would agree that only a flinty heart would flush this troubled soul from its hiding place to attack him for him parents deeds.

This is the partial truth on which Meyerson makes his case. But it is also a small truth that will not sustain it. This is because more than thirty years ago, before he entered law school, Robert Meeropol made a crucial decision to turn his private life into a public cause. In 1974, he and his brother Michael published a book, We Are Your Sons, proclaiming their parents’ innocence. Emerging for the first time as public figures, they threw their energies – as organizers, fund-raisers and spokesmen -- into the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case. This effort and its offshoots have – by Robert’s own account -- been the main activity of both their lives ever since.

Nor is their crusade – and that is the only way to characterize it – confined to the question of their parents’ innocence. A man’s effort to prove his own parents innocent of a crime they did not commit and for which they were executed could almost be seen as a private matter. He might even have to make himself a public figure to do it, but the quest itself can still be understood in individual terms. In fact, this is one of complaints of Robert’s book – that his quest to prove his parents innocent has often been discounted by others – reporters in particular – as the understandable quest of an orphaned son. But this is not Robert’s quest – or at least not what his quest has become:

I used to hope that when we finally got to the bottom of what really happened in my parents’ case, the facts would show their unequivocal innocence. I no longer feel that way. Now I’d rather my parents had been conscious political actors than innocent victims.

What Robert can only mean by this is that he wishes his parents had committed the crime they were charged with -- because it was a “crime” only in the eyes of their persecutors; the cause in whose service they committed it – the socialist future – was just. Robert Meeropol is not a defender of his parents’ legal innocence, but of their Communist cause. The entire enterprise of the Meeropol brothers – the art shows and memorials and the literary and film productions they have sponsored – are an effort to establish their parents as political martyrs, whose Communist cause is just.

Appearing on stage as featured “performers” at the recent 50th anniversary “celebration” of their parents’ death, for example, the Meeropols included the son of Mumia Abu Jamal, the Panther radical convicted of murdering a Philadelphia policeman in cold blood. Robert Meeropol finds an unproblematic parallel in his own parents’ trial and martyrdom and Mumia Abu Jamal’s. His explanation of this affinity and his support for Mumia is more than interesting: “Like my parents before him, Mumia was not the typical death-row inmate, because regardless of what he had done, his most dangerous crime was his articulate resistance to the dominant forces of our society [emphasis added].” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether Mumia Abu Jamal emptied his gun into the prone body of the 26-year-old police officer Daniel Faulkner, any more than it matters whether Robert’s parents actually stole the plans for American jet fighters or the trigger of the atomic bomb, as they are accused of having done. What matters is their “resistance to the dominant forces of our society.” What matters, in other words, is that they were self-declared enemies of the government of the United States and its ruling class. This resistance makes them “progressives,” and worthy of the cause, and above morality and the law. The same might be said for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s own hero, Stalin.

An Execution In The Family turns out to be the story of a son’s discovery that he is his parents’ child – or more accurately of a son who wants to be his parents’ child. Long before entering the law firm, Robert tells us that he had joined Springfield’s junior chamber of commerce “in preparation for my proposed urban anthropology dissertation about the impact of businessmen’s decision-making networks on public policy.” This suggests to Robert the following questions: “Where did my recurring desire to burrow into the bowel of American business come from? Was there something about what happened to my parents that made me want to spy on my enemy and learn his tricks?”

A question he does not ask himself is:  why was business his enemy? Did American business kill his parents? Robert Meeropol’s enmity towards business is not the result of anything business has done to his parents (or him), but is an expression of the way he has adopted his parents’ Communist agendas and Marxist demons. This involves an irony he fails to appreciate, because the reality is quite the opposite. It was his parents’ irrational belief that American business was their enemy that made them Communists, and caused them to become involved in the conspiracies that brought about their death. But to explore these avenues of reflection would strike to the heart of a series of possibilities that are too daunting for him to imagine – that his parents sacrificed their lives on the altar of a political prejudice and in the service of a superstitious faith. It is Communism that killed his parents.

After leaving the law firm, Robert Meeropol finally found an adult occupation. He created the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he serves as Executive Director and which has become his life’s work. But it is not really a fund for “children.” It is not even a fund for the children whose parents are the victims of miscarriages of justice. This would connect it to a personal tragedy the healing of personal wounds, and by this time in his life Robert has lost all touch with what the personal might be. Instead, the Rosenberg Fund for Children is a self-described support group for the children of “political prisoners.” In Meeropol’s own words of explanation of how he came to create the Fund: “I was startled to learn how many children today were vulnerable to the same kind of nightmares I endured after my parents’ arrest. I learned that our country held over more than one hundred political prisoners (Black Panthers, American Indian Movement members, Puerto Rican Nationalists, and white revolutionaries like the Ohio Seven).” But the very concept of a “political prisoner” is unintelligible outside leftist mythology, since there are no such prisoners in the United States.

The first beneficiaries of the Fund, for example, were the children of “The Ohio Seven,” a group of radicals who had formed a “revolutionary” cell and had been “convicted of carrying out bombings against multinational corporations that invested in apartheid South Africa during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and of robbing banks to support their clandestine lifestyle.” Meeropol is no more interested in whether these individuals were innocent of the crimes with which they were charged, than he is in his parents’ innocence or Mumia Abu Jamal’s (whose son is another beneficiary). What makes these prisoners “political” is that they committed their crimes in the name of a leftist cause. Another group of early beneficiaries were the children of members of the Communist Worker’s Party, a Stalinist sect whose leaders had entered the community of Greensboro, North Carolina to urge people to “Kill the Klan” and were chanting “Death to the Klan” in a public square when they were fired upon and killed themselves. To present themselves as innocent victims and  make their cause support-worthy, the revolutionary survivors of this absurdist tragedy have called the episode, “the Greensboro Massacre,” a tradition that Meeropol preserves.

By the time he had created the Fund, in his forties, Robert Meeropol had become an un-self-reflecting member of the neo-communist left, at war with America and actively supporting its radical enemies. But Robert Meeropol had really been a communist all his life. Only his diffidence and fears prevented him from linking his parents’ causes and his own. The couple who adopted him were die-hard Stalinists who were unaffected by the revelations in 1956 by the head of the Soviet Communist Party that Stalin had indeed committed the monstrous crimes that conservatives and other despised anti-Communists had claimed. These revelations caused the majority of American Communists to leave their party and many to abandon their Communist faith. But not the Meeropols.

By his own account, Robert “had never felt so isolated” as he did during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the nation teetered on the brink of nuclear war. His feelings of isolation were due to the fact that he identified with Communist Russia, rather than his own country under attack. Robert had already soaked up most of the Communist creed and was devoted to his boyhood idol, the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

[In school] we were supposed to underline the passages [in the newspapers] we felt were most important and discuss them during the current events period of the school week. Although I still had some difficulty reading, and was embarrassed at how poorly I read aloud, for the entire school year I read, cut out, and underlined every article about Fidel and the Cuban revolution published in the New York Times. I taped each clipping into a scrapbook that soon bulged and had pieces of articles protruding from it at all angles. In Fidel I found my contemporary hero.

Other events shattered the coalitions of the Communist left -- the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Communist genocide in Cambodia. But Robert Meeropol’s political faith never wavered. In the 1980s he and his wife became organizers of a chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – an organization set up in the United States by Cuban intelligence operatives to aid the Communist guerillas in Central America. “The United States,” Meeropol parrots Communist propaganda, “funded and equipped the contras’ terrorist campaign to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.” Nowhere does Robert consider that the Nicaraguan dictatorship was modeled on Castro’s and armed by the Soviet police state or that when the international community imposed elections on the Sandinista dictators, the contra-supported candidate won by a popular landslide. Indeed, there is not a hint of serious reflection in this entire book on the failures and crimes of the movement to which the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had become wedded.

This is most striking in its failure to even mention the epoch-making events of 1989-1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the collapse of Communism itself. For here was revealed the bankruptcy of everything his parents had worked and died for. It was all a monumental lie. Yet, the self-destruction of his parents’ dream, the revelation that tens of millions of innocents had been killed, the exposure of socialism’s economic vacuity – his parents’ paradise had been revealed to be one of the most impoverished states in the world -- had no visible impact on Robert Meeropol at all. This is a lacuna impossible to explain except by the religious nature of his progressive faith.

Along with his parents’ discredited and destructive beliefs, Robert Meeropol has acquired their selective blindness and hypocrisy as well. Of course it matters whether the Rosenbergs were innocent or not. They chose to die rather than admit they had lied. They chose to orphan their sons rather than confess their guilt. If they were guilty, then they are guilty not only of treason against their country and their countrymen, but against their sons as well. Why not admit the truth, if it was the truth? The fact that their innocence is no longer a crucial matter for Robert Meeropol, speaks volumes about his own corruption at the hands of a political bad faith. If the ends are just in the eyes of the followers of this faith, then the means don’t matter. Individual lives count for nothing. The cause is all. But if the cause is all, why care about the Rosenbergs themselves? All that matters is their preservation as symbols of the revolutionary cause.

Thus has Robert Meeropol’s own conscience been extinguished by the decision to adopt his parents’ faith. He has betrayed his original mission to establish their innocence and in so doing he has betrayed himself. Early in his text he confesses to a very human desire for revenge. In high school he fantasizes the victory of a Communist revolution in the United States and wishes to be the hanging judge who sentences his parents’ executioners to death. But, later when he has undertaken his mission to exonerate them and has studied the case, he has second thoughts. Because he is willing to entertain the possibility of his parents’ guilt he is forced weigh the actual evidence in the case. The record impresses him with the risks of human error. “Almost all of us accept that humans are imperfect beings. We make mistakes. Sooner or later all the safeguards in a human-built system will fail. It is unrealistic, therefore, to expect a mistake-proof justice system. A large majority of people will readily agree that capital punishment allows no room for error. It is, therefore, inevitable that mistakes will be made and innocent people will be executed. Once someone has been executed you can’t say ‘Oops’ and take it back.” This reasoning makes him an opponent of capital punishment. It is a passion with him. He refers to the current President of the United States as “Governor Death,” because of Texas’ record on capital punishment. But the passion has a limit. It applies only to the capitalist enemy. Robert Meeropol is silent about the many executions undertaken by his progressive hero, Fidel Castro, including the capture, trial and execution of three black Cubans in a single week, whose crime was not stealing atomic secrets but trying to escape from Fidel’s island prison. Like every other personal, private, and moral insight in Robert Meeropol’s book, this is one is subordinated to the political cause.

What began as a Rosenberg son’s failed effort to rehabilitate his parents has become a successful quest to re-inhabit their lives, and thus to reinvent their myths. By sinking his roots in the community of the neo-communist left, he has hermetically sealed not only his own life but his family’s, within the circle of the progressive illusion. In doing so he has ensured for them and himself the reproduction of his parent’s political world and the “mistakes” and crimes that that entails. Despite its epic cruelties, is still today a big world, international scope. It has been reconstructed by narratives like this one -- through books, movies, plays, and the memories of like-minded comrades. Already in 1974, when the Rosenberg sons’ first volume appeared, the support for their parents’ martyrdom was impressive. ABC Television aired a dramatization that in Meeropol’s words, “left the impression that something was dreadfully wrong with my parents’ trial and execution.” This was followed by PBS’ broadcast, The Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which also supported the Meeropol’s cause. And even though the opening of the Soviet archives and the release of the Venona decrypts between Soviet intelligence officers and their American agents has put to rest the possibility of the Rosenbergs’ innocence, the reception of Robert Meeropol’s new book, follows this receptive pattern -- reflecting not only support for the impossible personal cause, but for the impossible (socialist) dream as well.

“In 1997, a documentary filmmaker interviewed both my children,” Robert writes. “My daughters reported that the interviewer seemed surprised when they told her that being a granddaughter of the Rosenbergs was more boon than burden. Their pride in their heritage placed them within an international community of support…. Understanding the choices made by both their grandparents and their parents helped form their worldview and gave them a clear sense of right and wrong.”

This is the secret of the left’s longevity, its ability to withstand the discrediting of its idea, to ignore the millions of its victims, and thus to renew itself in the next generation. It is the mythology communicated in books like this that sustains the community of the progressive faith. Imagine. The year is 2003, and one can still take pride in one’s heritage at being the heirs of Communists and spies! And one can call the support of Communist mass murder and progressive crimes as coincident with “a clear sense of right and wrong!”

Early in his book, Robert Meeropol offers this insight about himself. “I often put myself in others’ shoes. This sense of understanding what others felt led me to sympathize with those were picked on.” It’s a nice sentiment. But there is not a single sentence in this book or act in Robert Meeropol’s life that suggests he ever looked into the shoes of those whom his parents’ betrayed, or whom he demonized, or whom his friends and heroes actually killed, nor that he ever extended sympathy to them.

An Execution in the Family is the story of a man whose adult life began as an effort to rehabilitate his parents for a crime he believed they did not commit, but ended as a crusade to justify the crimes they did. In writing this book, Robert Rosenberg Meeropol has made himself complicit in those crimes and a worthy subject for judgment himself.

David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.

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