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Rosenbergs' Son Robert Meeropol's Life of Activism

Robert Meeropol, one of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, killed in 1953, has written an autobiography, An Execution In The Family: One Son's Journey, St. Martin's Press, N.Y. He is now in California speaking about it.

For 20 years after their parents' deaths, the boys were able to keep their identities secret, thanks to the surname of their adoptive parents, Anne and Abel Meeropol, the latter the author of the great songs, "Strange Fruit" and "The House I Live In."

In consequence, Robert, as student in private and then public high schools in and near New York and then at the University of Michigan, was a typical 1960s activist of the red-diaper-baby variety. Only six when his mother and father were executed, he got no politics from them, and not too much in depth from the Meeropols, who were Communists of the gut rather than the intellectual variety.

Not surprisingly in the light of Abel's fine songs, "I was raised with an overtly anti-racist ethic" and "the most profound and abiding respect for people who placed themselves in harm's way for the good of others." He argued with his parents (he regards both the Meeropols and the Rosenbergs as parents) when they forbid him, on the grounds that he was too young, to picket Woolworth's with his older brother with signs: "Southern Woolworth's Segregate." At the leftist Elizabeth Irwin High School they sent him to, Socialist Norman Thomas shaded John F. Kennedy in a poll just before the 1960 presidential election, 72 to 70, with Nixon getting two.

The thinking that marked the beginning of 1960s New Leftism in Robert came when older brother Michael came home from college, where he had learned about the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, upon which the U.S. Communist Party stopped criticizing Hitler. Abel disagreed with Michael's criticism of the Party, but Robert agreed.

When Castro took power in Cuba, he became Robert's hero. Robert immediately latched on to the new music of 1962, "understanding the positive political impact of Bob Dylan."

He defended a current No.1 hit, "Running Bear," when his mother, a talented singer, attacked rock and roll. He loved a protest musical, "Viet Rock," but she called it just noise.

When the Cuban missile crisis occurred in the fall of 1962, Robert was in a public high school in Hastings, a tony suburb where they had been able to buy a house because Abel had won a hefty plagiarism settlement from a top star in France. Robert displayed truly rare political intelligence when classmates predicted that nuclear war was imminent. "I dismissed such fears, saying that both sides would bluff, but that there would be no shooting." In my own autobiography I describe how the country at large thought as his classmates did, totally paralyzed with helplessness and fear, and my own use of connections to reach Bobby Kennedy and his brother's National Security Advisor with a proposal highly similar to that finally adopted, which I also wired to Khrushchev, reformist successor to Stalin.

Robert's move from his '30s parents' thinking was furthered by the Soviet rift with China and "Soviet anti-Semitism," also typical of the New Left a-borning. In 1963 he was on a chartered bus to Washington when Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. John Kennedy was no hero to him, because he gave the go-ahead to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (planned under Republican Eisenhower, who had refused to commute the Rosenbergs' death sentence, something my 13-year-old daughter was very boldly active soliciting telegrams for at a subway station and from local rabbis, although the latter refused.)

At this point, Robert's activism was limited to a very few friends and a little discussion in class. But "McCarthyism was fading fast by 1963" and "By 1965 we started wearing peace or antiwar buttons to school." But in 1963, three voting-registration volunteers were killed in Mississippi (one of my sons was down there), "and all we could do was tearfully sing 'We Shall Overcome'."

When the Vietnam War began, Robert's really exceptional political sobriety manifested itself again. A leftist girl friend "predicted that Russia and China might enter the war, and that it might become nuclear. I always rejected such pessimistic projections, but a lot of my anti-war friends in Westchester worried that the way things were going we might not live all that much longer."

I had to combat that thinking uninterruptedly for the first thirty of my years broadcasting on Pacifica, from 1958 on, to the point of letters such as one from parents of a girl about to enter college who wanted my opinion as to whether their efforts and financial sacrifice would be worthwhile in view of the probability of nuclear war.

Robert entered a small Indiana college, conservative despite its Quaker sponsorship, in 1965. His pacifist roommate and he quickly posted an announcement of the founding meeting of the Earlham Committee to End the War in Vietnam. A request for a parade permit to the town officials was turned down. He posted a vitriolic attack on their suppression of dissent and quickly became known as a firebrand.

A busload of students to attend a march against the war in Washington was organized. Robert and a carload went early to attend the founding convention of the National Committee to End the War in Vietnam. He found the discussion exhilarating. He learned of the SDS concept of participatory democracy and was "enchanted" by it, also convinced that it would "resonate well on college campuses." Meanwhile, at Earlham, there were rules that shackled his personal as well as political activities. Women's dorms were locked up at 10:30pm. On these matters, too, he came to a conclusion characteristic of the 60s: "The administrators acted like our parents, but we observed that many in our parents' generation appeared to lead unhappy and empty lives. The generation before us screwed up their own lives, so why should we let them mess up ours?"

Another profound conclusion: "I knew that the American Left had been isolated for decades. If we who were in political rebellion could reach out to the rapidly increasing numbers of those who were in cultural rebellion, we could build the first left-wing mass movement the nation had seen since the 1930s....We grew our hair, dressed as we pleased, and refused to abide by the administration's social rules that prevented women from visiting men in their dorm rooms."

Robert transferred to the University of Michigan which, with UC Berkeley, U. of Wisconsin, and Columbia, were the key centers of student activism in the '60s and the rise of the New Left. In the fall of 1967 the U. of Mich. SDS had 150 members. Unusually, it elected a woman, a friend of Robert's, as president. SDS' first action was to help university service workers who had gone on strike for a living wage. They stayed up all night to make sure no deliveries were made then. They won. "I was engaging the real world and helping people to earn a living wage....I was already sipping the wine of a student-worker coalition victory."

I got a sense of satisfaction in passing the torch when I read that one of his professors, with whom he became a lifelong friend, is a man who had been a Mandel groupie when studying in the Bay Area and listening to me on KPFA. Not pertinent, but curious, is the fact that Elli, who very shortly became his wife, had spent the fall at the Calif. College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, which is five minutes walk from where I now live. His comment on the early part of their marriage is good writing: "We wore our rough edges smooth as we tumbled and bounced against each other through the white-water rapids of relationship building."

One of Meeropol's qualities is his ability to see consequences where others act on emotion. Chicago police had beaten Eugene NcCarthy's supporters outside the Democratic Party's national presidential nominating convention. This caused students to want to respond with action. A welfare rights organization asked the U. of Mich. students to support their demand for an increase in the winter clothing allowance for each child. Students wanted to sit in at the county building to enforce the demand. He opposed this, holding they should demonstrate and be disruptive but leave before the police came so they could return and repeat their effort the next day. He was voted down. 200 sat in. They, including Elli and he, were arrested. ACtually, the action won an increase in the clothing allowance.

Here, too, I was reminded of a personal experience a couple of years earlier. I am one of a tiny handful of '30s activists who became part of the '60s movement, in my case because of the popularity of my HUAC testimony of 1960 and, more important, because I understood immediately that the mass student activities beginning when they were washed down the stairs of San Francisco City Hall that day marked the beginning of a new movement. In consequence, I was elected to the executive committee of the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-5, although I did not yet have any association with the university. When the issues came to a head, we debated whether to sit in or call a student strike. I favored the latter because I knew the former would mean mass arrests and immense efforts to raise money for legal defense. It turned out both proposals were necessary. The sit-in occurred, 700 were arrested, but that moved the majority of the immense student body to strike.

At U. of Mich. similar debates continued. Bill Ayers, later a founder of the Weathermen, came to Michigan. The argument now was whether to support a referendum on whether research in counter-insurgency weapons should be barred from campus. Ayers was against any referendum, on the grounds that Michigan students had no right to vote on whether Southeast Asian jungles should be destroyed by American ordnance. Meeropol outlined "a middle position between the reformism of Eugene McCarthy and revolution, which I said was still a long way off."

This review is already extraordinarily long, and has not touched at all on the two things I am informed Meeropol has dealt with in the portion of his national book tour that has now brought him to California: the question of his birth parents' guilt and the work of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he founded and has headed for the past 13 years. I have chosen to focus on his activities in the 60s partly because I do think his 55 pages on that subject are the best description of that era I have read. A second reason is that no other review -- I have been sent a packet -- has dealt with this. A third and most obvious is that people will go to hear him precisely about the Rosenberg Case and will be open to what he has to say about his present work, which I assure you is as well-reasoned in the book and as far-seeing as the thoughts and activities I have described. The last is that I wanted you to see Robert Meeropol not as an icon, not as a symbol of an event of fifty years ago, not as a sufferer, all of which represent my attitude before I read the book, but as a specific individual with his own life and thoughts, and therefore all the more interesting to read about.

This is truly a great autobiography, by which I mean a book in which the author takes you deep into his own soul while recording his life in the context of his times.

Note: For more information about Meeropol, please visit the Rosenberg Fund for Children website.

The title of my autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER (Introduction by Howard Zinn), is based on the fact that my testimony before Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1953 had such impact that an excerpt was performed 35 years later in a long-running play, and my 1960 HUAC testimony has been shown in six documentary films. The most moving chapter is titled: "We Bury the Rosenbergs." The book is a history of how the American people fought to defend and expand its rights since the 1920s (I'm 86) employing the form of the life of a 30s AND 60s activist, one who was involved in most serious movements: student, labor, 45 years of efforts to prevent war with the USSR and Cuba, civil rights South and North, women's liberation [my late wife appears on 50 pages], 37 years on Pacifica Radio [where I reinvented talk radio, of whose previous existence I had been unaware], civil liberties, and opposition to anti-Semitism and to Zionism. You may hear/see my testimonies before McCarthy and, later, HUAC on my website, I am the author of five books in my academic field, have taught at UC Berkeley, and earlier held a postdoctoral fellowship, by invitation, at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The book may be ordered through all normal sources. For an autographed copy, send me $24 at 4466 View Pl.,#106, Oakland, CA. 94611

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