Professor Phillip Deery – ‘A Short American Journey’

Professor Phillip Deery is Emeritus Professor of History at Victoria University, where he was Director of Research and Research Training in the College of Arts. He is an internationally recognised scholar in the field of Cold War studies, specialising in the social and political impact of the Cold War in Australia, Great Britain and the United States.  He is also a specialist in Australian communist and labour history. Professor Deery has shared ‘A Short American Journey’ with us:

In mid-May 2017, I caught the Poughkeepsie train out of Grand Central station and travelled up the picturesque Hudson Valley. My destination was the small village of Cold Spring. There, I was to meet Michael Meeropol, the elder son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. I was researching the story of Morton Sobell, the co-defendant of the Rosenbergs, sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in 1951 by Judge Irving Kaufman for “conspiracy to commit espionage”, and Michael knew “Morty” well after his release in 1969. What I never knew were the historical landmarks along that Metro-North railroad. Three stations before Cold Spring was Ossining. Looking upwards through the train window, I could see the guard towers and barbed wire atop the long, dark, forbidding high walls of Sing Sing Federal Penitentiary. It was there, on 19 June 1953, all legal appeals exhausted, that Ethel and Julius were electrocuted. The a 10-year old Michael Rosenberg travelled here in 1952 and 1953.The last visit he made, accompanied by his six-year old brother, Robert, and the Rosenbergs’ lawyer and their temporary guardian, Emmanuel (“Manny”) Block, was on 16 June 1953.

Michael, Manny and Robbie at Sing Sing prison
Robbie and Michael the day before the execution


The next stop on my brief journey into America’s Cold War past was Peekskill. The year before the Rosenbergs were arrested, on the Saturday night of 27 August 1949, an open-air concert to benefit the left-wing Civil Rights Congress (then defending the Trenton Six) and featuring Paul Robeson was scheduled. It became a riot. Hundreds of locals drawn from Westchester County – in which the American Legion, Catholic veterans’ groups and, especially, the Ku Klux Klan were still strong – terrorised concert goers with verbal and physical abuse: epithets of “dirty kikes” were hurled, rocks thrown, baseball bats wielded, chairs broken and 13 people seriously injured. An effigy of Robeson was lynched and a cross was burnt. The local police arrived late and did little. The concert was aborted. On 4 September, a second concert was held, and Robeson sang. Security was organised by the Communist Party and hundreds of left-wing unionists, who formed a “human wall” of defence around the entire concert ground. About 25,000 attended, including, I just discovered, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. However, in a frightening display of organised violence, a mob of about 500 assaulted the exiting cars and buses of concertgoers with rocks shattering windscreens and sending many to hospital. William Patterson, an African-American communist, wrote in his forward to Howard Fast’s Peekskill: USA (1951), that these two dates, 27 August and 4 September 1949, “are fixed upon the calendar of a free America.”


Morton Sobell, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951

Two train stops later, I arrived in Cold Spring. Michael took me on an historical walking tour of this picturesque village, once redneck, now “green”. Along the way, and afterwards over lunch, he provided me with invaluable insights into the Rosenberg-Sobell case, and its legacies. As is so often the case with face-to-face conversations, I learnt much that was not in the public domain.  He confronted my ambivalence towards Sobell (based on examination of his personal papers) with: “but Morty never ratted on my father”. This was true. Despite enormous pressure, and legal inducements, from the FBI and others to incriminate Julius, especially during his first two years (1952-3) in Alcatraz federal penitentiary, Sobell remained silent and did not confess until 2008.

The next stop after Cold Spring is Beacon, 100 kms north of New York City, and was the home of Pete Seeger, one of the 20th century’s musical icons. Seeger opened the second Peekskill concert. Over the years, he performed at many of the concerts and rallies commemorating the Rosenbergs. (I attended, memorably, one of his concerts: his milestone 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden.) Seeger had been a close friend of Michael’s adopted father, Abel Meeropol, who wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” in 1939 (named by Time magazine in 1999 as “the song of the century”). In 1940, Meeropol, a schoolteacher, was investigated by the Rapp-Coudert Committee, which in many respects foreshadowed the House Un-American Activities Committee. He perjured himself, denied he was a communist and kept his job. Pete Seeger also denied membership of the Communist Party despite the best efforts of the FBI to prove otherwise. He died in 2014, and his friends and neighbours, Michael Meeropol among them, attended his wake in Beacon.

So this train line, which passes through four near-consecutive stations – Ossining, Peekskill, Cold Spring and Beacon– on its way to Poughkeepsie, holds some unexpectedly interlocking stories from America’s Cold War history.

NB: Images are courtesy of the author and Creative Commons.


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