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Michael Dukakis asks Obama to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg

Rosenberg was executed with her husband in 1953, but mounting evidence indicates she was not a Soviet spy.

Michael Dukakis (left) called on President Obama to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg (right), an alleged Soviet Union spy executed in 1953. Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe, AP photo

Michael Dukakis wants President Barack Obama to officially exonerate an alleged Soviet Union spy, who was executed more than 60 years ago.

Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, were put to death in 1953 for allegedly passing along secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. But an Easthampton-based campaign by the Rosenbergs’ sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, hopes to get Obama to proclaim their mother’s innocence.

And now they have a former presidential nominee and Massachusetts governor on their side.

Citing “an enormous body of evidence,” Dukakis said in a statement—released Friday by the Meeropol’s Rosenberg Fund and first reported Monday by the Springfield Republican—that the U.S. government knew Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy and that the charges against her were intended to intimidate her and her husband into cooperation.

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She was ultimately sent to the electric chair anyway.

The campaign by the Meeropol brothers, who have conceded their father was likely a spy, to clear their mother’s name was recently featured on CBS’s 60 minutes. Last month, their calls were echoed by The Boston Globe‘s editorial page.

As the Globe recently reported, none of the evidence used against Ethel Rosenberg appears to stand up upon review.

Her brother, David Greenglass, whose trial testimony helped convict her, admitted in a 2001 televised interview that he lied on the witness stand to protect his wife, Ruth Greenglass. He said he was coached to lie by prosecutor Roy Cohn, best known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his unbridled hunt for Communist sympathizers.

Then last year, grand jury testimony unsealed after Greenglass’ death corroborated the claim because his grand jury statement did not match his trial testimony.

In their quest to prove their mother was not a spy, the brothers point to the fact that she did not have a KGB code name, while Ruth Greenglass did, and a communication from the KGB to someone in the United States stating Ethel Rosenberg “does not work,” a phrase signifying she was not a spy.

Dukakis artributes her conviction to the prevailing prejudices of the early Cold War era.

“The Rosenberg case provides a compelling lesson about the denial of justice and due process in times of hysteria, and the abuse of government power against politically unpopular groups – a lesson that remains alarmingly relevant today, with Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism still infecting our criminal justice system, electoral politics, and public policy,” Dukakis said.

The former governor noted how in 1977 he issued a proclamation that two Italian anarchist immigrants, who had been executed 50 years earlier on murder charges in Massachusetts, received unfair trails.

“Today, I urge President Obama to take similar action; heed the request of Robert and Michael Meeropol, the sons Ethel Rosenberg; acknowledge that Ethel’s conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful; and issue an appropriate Presidential proclamation to that effect,” the former governor said.

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Read Dukakis’s full statement below:

On July 19, 1977, as Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I issued a proclamation stating that “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from the names of their families and descendants, and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and I hereby call upon all the people of Massachusetts to pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome the rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.”

I took this unprecedented step because “the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti should serve to remind all civilized people of the constant need to guard against our susceptibility to prejudice, our intolerance of unorthodox ideas, and our failure to defend the rights of persons who are looked upon as strangers in our midst.”

Today, I urge President Obama to take similar action; heed the request of Robert and Michael Meeropol, the sons Ethel Rosenberg; acknowledge that Ethel’s conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful; and issue an appropriate Presidential proclamation to that effect.

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Ethel’s execution occurred amidst a climate of intense national fear that cost countless individuals their reputations, livelihoods, and in the case of Ethel Rosenberg, her life itself.

An enormous body of evidence – including U.S. government files, grand jury testimony, and other third-party sources – demonstrates that Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy, and that the government knew this at the time of her trial and execution. The charges against Ethel and the threat of the death penalty were meant to intimidate her and use her, in the government’s own words, as “a lever” to force her husband to cooperate with the prosecution.

The Rosenberg case provides a compelling lesson about the denial of justice and due process in times of hysteria, and the abuse of government power against politically unpopular groups – a lesson that remains alarmingly relevant today, with Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism still infecting our criminal justice system, electoral politics, and public policy.

A presidential proclamation or other action making this connection would not just provide a measure of justice for Ethel Rosenberg and her family, but would make this important political point at a particularly crucial moment in our history. At a time when there is discussion of using the internment of Japanese-American citizens as a model for a national Muslim registry1 ; and when “watchlists” of “academic” 2 and “political enemies” 3 are being publicly touted, the echoes of the McCarthy era are unmistakable, and the dangers of allowing these sentiments to go unchallenged and unchecked are grave.

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It is for all these reasons that I join Congressman Jim McGovern (2nd District, MA) and nearly 45,000 other people who have signed a petition in support of Michael and Robert Meeropol’s request. I urge President Obama to act in the interest of justice by exonerating Ethel Rosenberg.

-Michael Dukakis, December 9, 2016

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