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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The ultimate sacrifice?

Today is what would have been the 95th birthday of Ethel Rosenberg , the American woman who was charged with conspiracy against the US government in her "involvement" in selling secrets of the atomic bomb to the Russians. She and her husband, Julius, were executed in 1953. She was 37 years old.

Being a history buff, I've always been somewhat morbidly intrigued with the Rosenbergs. The other night I was surfing and somehow ended up in the black hole of Wikipedia searches that led back to these two. They were devout Communists, involved in the web of spying and espionage through her brother David Greenglass, who worked at Los Alamos on The Manhattan Project. David's wife, Ruth, was the one who encouraged her husband and Julius to get involved, and so it began.

In the end, both David and Ruth ultimately betrayed the Rosenbergs, implicating her as having more involvement in the whole thing than she probably did. David later admitted that he doesn't remember who did what, but Ethel had no involvement in it - and both he and Ruth gave false testimony if only to save themselves (and claimed they were encouraged by the prosecution to do so). To this day, he still says he has no regrets whatsoever in betraying his own sister, and says he would not sacrifice his wife and children, even though his own sister did so. Arguably if anyone "deserved" the electric chair for their involvement, it was David and Ruth Greenglass.

One thing that touched me in this story was how Ethel was a mother to two boys, who were only 3 and 6 at the time. The same age as two of my children. I pictured her giving birth to these boys, the glimpse of her fate only a distant glimmer. She probably breastfed them, diapered them and chased them around not much differently than you or I. I pictured her mother giving birth to her, and wondered, as many parents probably do, if she ever thought, Would my children grow up to do something wonderful? Horrible? While it was confirmed that Julius was guilty, people still speculate on Ethel's involvement. The fact remains, though: she knew about her husband's involvement in the spy ring and did nothing to stop it. The impact of selling atomic weapons secrets to the Soviets could (still) put millions of lives in danger - Russia has sold , or at least attempted to sell, military weaponry and nuclear technology to Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Syria, and perhaps even Venezuela. Did the Rosenbergs, and others like them, have any idea of the long-term implications of what they were doing?

The young Rosenberg boys read of their parents' stay of execution

I wondered how two people could become so involved in a thing that would endanger their families so much. Surely they had to know that at some point, one or both of them would be caught. Once they finally were implicated and charged, the boys went to live with several relatives, an orphanage, and finally were adopted by another couple who were also Communist. Both boys grew up with normal, happy childhoods despite the pressure of being the children of such hated, reviled people in American history. Both were well-respected in their academic fields, and one son even applauds his parents for standing up for their beliefs and not "betraying their friends" by giving away the names of people they worked with (unlike their uncle, unfortunately).

Not betraying their friends? That struck me. What cause would I believe so deeply in that I would sacrifice my life and leave my children motherless? Even my belief in Jesus Christ, admittedly, might not even cause me to do that - even though the Bible says that believers should love him more than their own children. But based on my beliefs, somehow the rewards in Heaven for having done so far outweigh the perceived good of spreading communism, which has never worked and probably never will. No references I could find said specifically why the Rosenbergs believed so deeply in the cause, or why they got involved in the spy ring in the first place. While admittedly there was, no doubt, anti-semitism running amok in this country and elsewhere, the execution came less than a decade after many Nazi death camps had been liberated. Without trying to sound too crass, I think Ethel and Julius would have been better off leaving the Horn of Plenty that is the United States and defecting to Russia if they thought it was so great. Communism did nothing but essentially destroy Russia in the end, and isn't doing a whole lot for Cuba right now, either. What personal freedoms and quality of life do Cubans have in comparison to even the poorest people in the United States? If communism is so wonderful, why do Cubans still attempt to defect to America?

Some still despise the Rosenbergs for their actions, and others hail them as heroes for their cause. While in the beginning of her trial I doubt she thought she would actually be executed, as the date drew nearer she had to have known it was inevitable, and yet still did not speak up. An extreme case of loyalty? Hubris? Who knows. I wonder if it was all really worth it.