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THE ROSENBERG LETTERS

To the Editors:

I want to thank and commend David Thorburn for his thoughtful review of The Rosenberg Letters (Boston Review, February/March 1995). I am especially grateful for the fact that his review uncovered the seriously damaging editing to which my father's July 4, 1951 letter was subjected. As Thorburn rightly points out, this letter was the example used by Robert Warshow in his influential assault on my parents, "The `Idealism' of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg" (Commentary, 1953). When I read Thorburn's review, I was struck by two conflicting emotions, chagrin that I hadn't discovered the discrepancy between the original and the Death House Letter, and pleasure that even at this late date, the record is being set straight.

My chagrin is particularly acute because The Rosenberg Letters is not the first time my brother and I have worked with my parents' correspondence. In 1975, we published We Are Your Sons (a second edition was issued by University of Illinois Press, 1987) which wove approximately 140 letters into our own stories to produce an autobiography of all four Rosenbergs between 1950 and 1953, and then carried our own stories up to 1973. In selecting from over 520 letters it happened that we did not include the July 4, 1953 letter. Because we knew the original Death House Letters had been edited we worked from retyped versions of the originals. Because we were focusing on interweaving our own stories and in engaging with our parents through their letters, we did not revisit the Death House Letters and thus did not discover the damage done to the July 4 letter. Neither did we read Warshow's essay. With 20-20 hindsight, we should have done both.

This time around, the task of meticulously retyping every original was daunting. I quickly decided that my major responsibility was to get every letter out before the public in a presentable edition. Thus, I did not systematically check through the Death House Letters to identify significant editorial changes (there are one or two mentions of some changes I just happened upon). The source of the omission remains the fact that I had never read Warshow's article. This is a useful caution to all researchers that the old saw, "exhaust your sources" should always be followed.

This chagrin is more than outweighed, however, by my great pleasure in seeing the value of this complete edition immediately discovered by David Thorburn in his excellent review. The field is now wide open for cultural studies experts, historians, biographers, novelists, and playwrights to re-discover my parents as complete human beings. David Thorburn's analysis takes one giant step.

Michael Meeropol

Springfield, MA

To the Editors:

David Thorburn's article adds a new dimension to our understanding of the tragic Rosenberg case. As Director of the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case for the past 15 years, a committed worker for these almost 45 years, may I add some background to Thorburn's thoughtful account.

Thorburn is right in stressing the extra-legal effects of the war in Korea on the atmosphere of the trial and on its outcome. In August 1993, the American Bar Association at its annual convention, staged a Moot Trial of the Rosenbergs. A sitting U.S. trial judge presided with professional prosecutors and defense counsel arguing the case before two 6-member juries. They unanimously voted a not-guilty verdict for both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

The anti-communist hysteria of the period affected every aspect of the Rosenberg case, even corrupting the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case. Joseph Sharlitt's important recent book, Fatal Error: The Miscarriage of Justice That Sealed the Rosenbergs' Fate, provides an illuminating history of that court's supine role. It refused to review the trial, despite the fact that two of its most respected members, Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter, pleaded for review from the very beginning. The affirmative vote of four justices are required for review. Normally, Sharlitt reminds us, if even a single justice feels strongly about the need for review, he (or today, she) is granted that courtesy. Even in the final stages of the case when William O. Douglas joined Frankfurter and Black in urging review, a fourth justice could not be found to join his colleagues.

Sharlitt makes clear that the Court's performance in the Rosenbergs' final days was overtly corrupt. It had adjourned for its summer vacation on June 15, 1953, just three days before the scheduled electrocutions. Tired of the bitter internal haggling about the Rosenberg case that had persisted through that term, the Court accepted a highly unorthodox "Gentleman's Agreement:" Should anyone raise a new motion in that case, regardless of its merits, all the judges would refuse to hear it.

Shameful? No need to worry. On June 17, when two new lawyers appeared before Justice Douglas with powerful new arguments, Douglas broke the Gentleman's Agreement: human lives and conscience took precedence. The new motion argued that the wrong law had been used at the trial. Had the proper law been used, even if the Rosenbergs had been found guilty, the maximum sentence permitted by law would have been twenty years. With the executions scheduled for the following evening, Douglas had no choice but to grant a stay of execution. Because the case would now have to go back to the lower courts, even if the appeal were unsuccessful, the Rosenbergs would have gained at least two more years of life.

This outcome was thwarted, however, by unlawful, extra-legal collusion among Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Justice Robert Jackson, and the Attorney General of the United States, Herbert Brownell. According to Sharlitt, Jackson had learned on June 16th of the new motion to be presented to Douglas or Frankfurter the following day. At that time, one day before the new motion was argued and two days before the scheduled executions, Jackson warned the Chief Justice about the new motion and how that might affect the scheduled executions. He urged the Chief Justice to meet with the Attorney General.

The two met secretly -- in effect, the judge and the prosecutor -- and decided that if a stay of execution were granted, Vinson would call the Court back from its summer vacation to meet the following day to overturn the stay. As it happened, Vinson did recall the Court for a special session, without consulting his fellow Justices. The full Court reconvened on June 18, and dutifully overturned the stay of execution. Because the session lasted too long, possibly owing to the vigorous dissents from Black, Frankfurt, and Douglas, the executions had to be delayed until the following historic day -- June 19, 1953.

Aaron Katz

New York City

FAITH AND POLITICS

To the Editors:

Many of the precepts put forward by Jim Wallis' "Prophetic Vision" (Boston Review, February/March, 1995), his call for a new covenant, have the rhetorical power of truth. But I wish to make a few observations to guide us away from rhetoric and toward, as Wallis so gracefully writes, "a return to our spiritual identity as children of God." It is my view this new covenant will not be a "politics of community," an oft-used and by now vague term, but faith witnessed in resistance to the militarized community we, our parents, our children, and our neighbors are presently paying for, complicitous with, and imprisoned by.

Midway through "Prophetic Vision," Wallis seems to follow the logic of rhetoric and grammar more than the logic of faith. He asserts "when politics loses its vision, religion loses its faith." This sounds like the truth, but it is not. Earlier in the essay, Wallis asserts, rightfully I believe, that faith is the realm of vision. Either way, to assert that political vision determines faith is simply wrong. Faith is defined, at least in part, in opposition to politics; and faith is diminished by politics only when faith tries to become a political outlook.

This is not to say faith and politics do not or should not mix. Jim Wallis' call to connect personal values to political morality is not new. Thich Nhat Hanh, Daniel Berrigan, and others continue to call for a spirituality of nonviolent political action, but it is with Jesus and the Gospels that we first and clearly hear this call to connect our public actions with the truths we discern in private meditation and prayer.

The prophets Isaiah and Jesus did not hold forth on political issues of equality, gender, or race, but they spoke against power and against judgement. Jesus' teaching did not define a "politics." On the contrary, Jesus' teaching, his primary teaching, was that the spiritual life is a life that abstains from power.

Jim Wallis' "Prophetic Vision" is in danger of calling for spiritual individuals to assume power in our communties. This would be a grave error. "The alternative vision" Wallis seeks should not be to create new centers of power, prone as they are to corrupt, swallow, or darken the human soul, but to resist, in action and prayer, The Powers that exist -- and to strip power of its threat of ultimate death, wearying taxation, and class exclusion.

The powers, which Wallis identifies in Jesus' time as concentrations of wealth, military power, and technocracy, continue to create a grotesque consummation of war, plague, catastrophe, holocaust, and chaos. The powers are, literally and in a Biblical reading, the agents of death.

Our leaders are, literally and Bibilically, insane, in the meaning of insanity as loss of conscience or moral disability. This is not to say Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, for example, are deranged; but the compromises demanded by power, the vanity shaped by power in the individual, lead to acts of gross injustice and moral blindness, and to conduct that results in massive suffering and death. The deep irony is that many of our leaders lay claim to faith. This only further proves that the hypocrisy and corruption of power is complete, an abuse of God. Whatever actions we take, we must include calls for impeachment.

The idea of a perfectable, political citizen whose identity is based in the social contract has defined the Western Tradition. Such citizens see human nature as, essentially, free and able to accept social responsibility. This Western political tradition has succumbed, in our present crisis, to an older truth, the Judeo-Christian truth: we are fallen beings. We live in the broken world of time. Whether this knowledge of the fallen state is The Truth, or merely a truth of our times, is not decisive. What is important is the acknowledgement that the ethical and spiritual foundations of our humanness, the eternal questions, the call of the eternal, as opposed to fallen time, are suddenly rising up around us. Why?

The Cold War, the threat of nuclear holocaust, has enveloped the world in the shadow of death, death not as a return to God, but death as ultimate end. The so-called end of the Cold War has not alleviated our fear. In the first year of the Clinton administration, the United States sold or gave $31 billion in arms or training to 140 nations. That figure is up sharply from the $55 billion in US arms exported between 1988-92. The fact that Bill Clinton prays and recites the Psalms does not change the horrendous fact: Our state, which Mr. Clinton presently presides over, is the primary agent of death in this shadowed world. We facilitate the senseless killing of the young, the noble, the strong, the weak; we are all complicitious, sheepishly living in this fearful space in which death is not seen as the transmutation of flesh to spirit, but an ultimate death, the sanction of the state.

A National Health Care bill will not repair the damage. The eschatology of the Cold War has wearied the soul, and stolen from us the primary means of rebirth and resurrection -- that is, death as the return to God.

By not stating clearly that the ancient prophets taught abstention from power, and the modern prophets teach nonviolence, Wallis' call for "Prophetic Vision" to unite politics and faith runs the risk of justifying the state in the name of God.

Theology is the workings of God in common history. The Old Testament is the story of Israel. The New Testament is the story of Jesus and the apostles. There is a huge danger in forcing Biblical truths, as they are revealed in stories, miracles, and parables, into political argument. Faith is our narrative truth, our story, our witness to suffering at the hands of The Powers. The danger of mixing the eternal strength of Biblical truth with politics becomes grotesquely precarious when we use God to absolve ourselves of or distance ourselves from The Crisis we find ourselves in. This abuse of God to define their own righteousness is something the Christian Coalition does well. It's also an argument used to justify the ongoing wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Recently, on a car outside one of Boston's fancy hotels, I saw a bumper sticker that read, "worship the creator not the creations." I felt hopelessness rise in my heart. The emergence of faith in America has not only debased God to a bumper sticker slogan, but utterly and painfully reversed his teachings: No! We worship creation. The creator is the unnameable, the mystery, the cloud of unknowing, about whom all we might say is, "alleluia, we shall see his face."

After seeing that bumper sticker, I came to the grim conclusion that the first profession of faith in this heiroglyphic, darkened world would be the profession, not that I am the rightful child of god, but that "I am the crisis of faith."

As I write it is the Tuesday after President's Day. I spent President's Day weekend at the Block Island cottage of Daniel Berrigan, where I had retired to paint walls, rebuild block walls, read and pray. In short, I read Wallis' "Prophetic Vision" after returning from a short retreat to escape the crisis my life cyclically and without fail lands me in.

My retreat to Block Island is not unusual in itself. I take these trips to deepen my own spiritual practice, to afford exposure to those I consider holy men, but also in pale support of the ploughshares actions against the military/industrial complex that my lifelong friend James Reale continues to organize and execute. Because of this I agree with Jim Wallis' assertion that there are already communities of political action, founded by religious principle, in America and the world over. But I disagree that these communities seek "political influence" or a "politics of community." If they are true to the prophets, they exist, largely, to lay claim to a realm of faith not enslaved by the politics of death.

Mark Wagner

Cambridge, MA

Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review



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