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When Harry Truman Passed the Buck

September 30, 2013


President Truman kept a sign on his desk which announced “The Buck Stops Here,” and he had a well-deserved reputation for facing rather than avoiding problems.  Mere conformity to principle should have been sufficient cause for him to consider the Rosenbergs’ request for executive clemency.  Besides, he did not like capital punishment and had even commuted the death sentence of Oscar Collazo, the Puerto Rican nationalist who had tried to assassinate him in 1950. Surely he would show mercy to the parents of two young boys.  Surely he would not permit the United States government to execute a woman.


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and were facing the electric chair even though none of their co-conspirators had even received a life sentence.  Because they would not admit their guilt, the Rosenbergs became the first Americans in peacetime to receive the death penalty for espionage. 


When Eisenhower became President, he too refused to commute their sentences.  The Soviet archives have since revealed that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy.  Even his children have conceded this fact.  Eisenhower and many others believed Ethel was the driving force behind the Rosenbergs’ betrayal of their country.  Three days before their execution, in a letter to his son, Eisenhower wrote: “…it is the woman who is the strong and recalcitrant character, the man is the weak one.  She has obviously been the leader of everything they did in the spy ring.”


Historians have become uncertain about Ethel Rosenberg’s role in the conspiracy.  Some believe she was not the leader but still knew of her husband’s crime.  Even so, in the aforementioned letter, Eisenhower made a second point: “…if there would be any commuting of the woman’s sentence without the man’s then from here on the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women.”

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