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Early Cold War (1949-1954) Robert Meeropol, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003)

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Early Cold War (1949-1954)

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robert meeropol an execution in the family one son s journey new york st martin s press 2003
Robert Meeropol, An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003)

“I WAS SIX YEARS, ONE MONTH, AND ONE DAY OLD ON MONDAY, JUNE 15, 1953—four days before my parents’ execution. That hot June my ten-year-old brother, Michael, and I were living with friends of my parents […] in Toms River, New Jersey […] I was finishing my kindergarten year at Toms River Elementary School […] I played a lot of Monopoly while I lived in New Jersey […] I have surprisingly sharp memories of much of what I did and even of some of the world-shaking events that swirled about me during the week of June 15 […] We’d been watching a ball game on TV around suppertime when news flashed across the screen that plans for the executions were going forward. I could not read the words and do not recall Michael’s reaction, but he remembers moaning, ‘That’s it, good-bye, good-bye.’ Michael’s reaction and the urgency behind the adults’ decision to send us outside gave me the sense that something especially bad was happening […] I doubt I fully comprehended that my parents had just been killed, but I feigned complete ignorance to avoid the commotion, and went to bed […] I pretended not to understand what was going on so adults would not fuss over me.” (pp. 1-6)

strange fruit
Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruitBlood on the leavesBlood at the rootBlack bodies swinging in the southern breezeStrange fruit hanging from the poplar treesPastoral scene of the gallant southThe bulging eyes and the twisted mouthThe scent of magnolia sweet and freshThen the sudden smell of burning fleshHere is a fruit for the crows to pluckfor the rain to gatherfor the wind to suckfor the sun to rotfor the tree to dropHere is a strange and bitter crop

Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)Originally sung by: Billie Holiday

YouTube - Billie Holiday - Strange Fruit

the rosenberg case
The Rosenberg Case

July/August 1950: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg arrested, charged with passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union, charged for conspiracy to commit espionage

March 1951: conviction and death sentence under Section 2 of the 1917 Espionage Act, which prohibits transmitting or attempting to transmit to a foreign government information "relating to the national defense"

June 19, 1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed despite worldwide protests (including Pope Pius XII’s clemency appeal to President Eisenhower)—the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War

1953: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter characterized the Rosenberg trial as “the most disturbing single experience … during my term of service on the Court” and concluded that the Rosenbergs “were tried for conspiracy and sentenced for treason.”

Controversy: Venona transcripts support espionage allegations for Julius Rosenberg, but not for Ethel Rosenberg; political climate of the time prevented fair trial; sentence too harsh (in comparison to atomic spy Klaus Fuchs)

mccarthy era 1950 1954
McCarthy Era, 1950-1954
  • February 1950: Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy announced a list of 205 communists working for the State Department (although he never named any names)
  • At the height of his influence, polls showed that McCarthy had half the public behind him
  • Army McCarthy Hearings (nationally televised): led to McCarthy’s downfall in 1954 when he questioned the military’s and President Eisenhower’s anticommunism [Source:U.S. Senate: Reference Home > McCarthy Hearings Published]
  • McCarthyism: denotes character assassination, guilt by association, and abuse of power in the name of anticommunism
  • Anticommunist Legislation:

1950: McCarran Internal Security Bill: “subversive” groups had to register with government, their passports could get denied (example: Paul Robeson’s travel ban, 1950-1958 [Source: Paul Robeson Home Page]) and their deportation or detention authorized on presidential order

1952: McCarran-Walter Act: immigrants identified as communists could be deported even if they had become citizens

judge irving kaufman s statement upon sentencing the rosenbergs
Judge Irving Kaufman's Statement Upon Sentencing the Rosenbergs

“Citizens of this country who betray their fellow-countrymen can be under none of the delusions about the benignity of Soviet power that they might have been prior to World War II. The nature of Russian terrorism is now self-evident. Idealism as a rational dissolves ... I consider your crime worse than murder ... In committing the act of murder, the criminal kills only his victim … But in your case, I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country …The evidence indicated quite clearly that Julius Rosenberg was the prime mover in this conspiracy. However, let no mistake be made about the role which his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, played in this conspiracy … She was a full-fledged partner in this crime. Indeed the defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg placed their devotion to their cause above their own personal safety and were conscious that they were sacrificing their own children, should their misdeeds be detected--all of which did not deter them from pursuing their course. Love for their cause dominated their lives--it was even greater than their love for their children.“

Sources: Judge Kaufman's Sentencing Statement in the Rosenberg Case

Government Views of The Rosenberg Spy Case

Julius Rosenberg:

“This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets. And there had to be a dagger thrust in the heart of the left to tell them that you are no longer gonna give five years for a Smith Act prosecution or one year for Contempt of Court, but we’re gonna kill ya!”

Source: Robert and Michael Meeropol, We Are Your Sons (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975), p. 326.

the korean war 1950 53
The Korean War, 1950-53

January 1950: Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s National Press Club speech declared South Korea outside U.S. “defense perimeter”

June 25, 1950: North Korean surprise attack on South Korea

June 25-27, 1950: Truman’s surprise--2 UN resolutions to send U.S. armed forces to Korea, but no U.S. declaration of war from Congress

October 7, 1950: UN forces crossed 38th parallel into North Korea (based on U.S.-written UN resolution)

October 8, 1950: Mao Zedong mobilized Chinese troops

October 19, 1950: 260,000 Chinese troops moved into Korea

November 30, 1950: Truman mentioned potential use of atomic bomb in press conference; Mao was reportedly not impressed

January 4, 1951: Communist forces captured Seoul

March 1951: fighting stabilized roughly at prewar boundary

April 11, 1951: Truman dismissed General MacArthur; MacArthur called for the impeachment of Truman and Acheson

July 27, 1953: cease-fire agreement ended the Korean War

Casualties: 54,260 US soldiers died

600,000 Chinese soldiers died in combat

2 million Korean soldiers and civilians died

Map: CNN - Cold War

the korean war debate

The Korean War Debate


Gaddis: Stalin started Korean War by authorizing North Korean invasion

LaFeber: both superpowers trapped in a bloody civil war between left-wing and right-wing Koreans (that had claimed 100,000 lives between 1946 and 1950)


Gaddis: U.S. refrained from using atomic weapons; both super-powers covered up direct military engagement of Soviet and American fighter planes over Korean peninsula

LaFeber: U.S. invaded North Korea replacing ‘containment’ with ‘liberation’; Cold War turned global (shift from Europe to Asia)


Gaddis: shock of North Korean attack almost as great as Pearl Harbor, its consequences for Washington’s strategy at least as profound

LaFeber: NSC-68, U.S. defense spending tripled, Germany rearmed, US military commitment to Vietnam and Taiwan, McCarthyism, increase in presidential power, change in UN mobilization (“Uniting for Peace”)

Sources: John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History (New York: Penguin Press, 2005); Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006).

national security council paper no 68 nsc 68 1950
National Security Council Paper No. 68 (NSC-68),1950

“… the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore become endemic and is waged, on the part of the Soviet Union, by violent and non-violent methods in accordance with the dictates of expediency. With the development of increasingly terrifying weapons of mass destruction, every individual faces the ever-present possibility of annihilation should the conflict enter the phase of total war…

The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself. They are issues which will not await our deliberations. As for the policy of ‘containment,’ it is one which seeks by all means short of war to (1) block further expansion of Soviet power, (2) expose the falsities of Soviet pretentions, (3) induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence and (4) in general, so foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system that the Kremlin is brought at least to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards.”

Source: "A Report to the National Security Council - NSC 68"

why was nsc 68 so apocalyptic
  • NSC-68 classified top secret until 1975
  • Context: Soviet atomic bomb (1949)

Communist victory in China (1949)

McCarthyism (1950-55)

Berlin Blockade (1948-49)

Korean War (1950-53)

  • Result: US defense spending jumped from $13 billion in 1950 to $50 billion in 1953 (hydrogen bomb, 1952)
  • Kennan opposed: NSC-68 as shift in goals from “creating strength in the West” (defensive containment strategy) to “destroying strength in Russia” (offensive liberation strategy)
  • Even Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson opposed: fear of bankruptcy
  • Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his aides later agreed, “Korea came along and saved us.” [quoted from LaFeber’s America, Russia, and the Cold War]
cultural cold war
Cultural Cold War
  • National security agencies asked Hollywood to produce anti-communist movies such as “The Red Menace” (1949) and “I Married a Communist” (1950)
  • State Department libraries overseas banned authors and artists such as: Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, Lewis Mumford, Charles Beard, Henry Wallace, W.E.B. DuBois, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Congress for Cultural Freedom: Left-wing anti-communist intellectuals (such as Sidney Hook, Arthur Schlesinger, Arthur Koestler) secretly subsidized by CIA
  • CIA funded the Museum of Modern Art and promoted the abstract expressionist New York school of painters, led by Jackson Pollock

[below: Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”, 1950]

recommended readings
  • Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, 2 vols. (1981-1990)
  • John Mueller, Retreat From Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (1989)
  • David Oshinksy, A Conspiracy so Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (1983)
  • Chester J. Pach, Jr., Arming the Free World: The Origins of the United States Military Assistance Program, 1945-1950 (1991)
  • Michael Parrish, “Cold War Justice: The Supreme Court and the Rosenbergs,” American Historical Review (1977): 805-842
  • Richard Pells, Not Like Us (1997)
  • Ronald Radosh, The Rosenberg File (1997)
  • Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998)
  • William Stueck, Rethinking the Korean War (2002)