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Of the Rosenbergs’ Unjust Execution, Roy Cohn’s Power Madness, & Trump’s Affinity for Cohn

A further warning about the dangers of Donald Trump

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I was born in 1963, while the Cold War still raged, and only five months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. McCarthyism had only weakened nine years before my birth. Ten years before I was born, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, after their sentencing judge relied, apparently erroneously, on how the Rosenbergs’ actions brought the Soviet Union closer to having the atomic bomb and concomitantly emboldened the Soviet Union to encourage North Korea into war against South Korea. (See a panel discussion of the Rosenbergs here.)

The Cold War and the rapidly developing and chaotically bloody Vietnam War seemed like surreal events worlds away from the mostly unexciting and Groundhog Day-esque suburban routine of my Fairfield, Connecticut, hometown. However, I needed to look no further than my grandmother’s brother Alex Redein for a connection to a victim of Cold War blacklisting (Zero Mostel), and the Vietnam War draft and body bags of course included men from my town and nearby.

My renewed interest in learning more about the Rosenbergs’ prosecution and death sentence arose from the recent Washington Post article about Donald Trump’s close relationship with the despicably amoral late lawyer Roy Cohn, who managed to charm and impress Communist witch-hunter senator Joseph McCarthy, Alan Dershowitz, Barbara Walters, William Safire and a whole host of other influential characters from across the political spectrum.

Whether or nor the then-dying Cohn overstated to his autobiographer his influence in getting the Rosenbergs executed — including Cohn’s claim to have finagled his friend Judge Irving Kaufman into presiding over the case, and then having ex parte communications galore with Kaufman as the case proceeded — it does seem that Kaufman ordered the Rosenbergs executed only after having sought the ex parte prosecutorial input into the sentence (see here and here), and only after having apparently erroneously concluded the importance of the Rosenbergs’ actions to bolstering the Soviet Unions’ gaining the atomic bomb and subsequent urging of North Korea into war against the south.

If such broken criminal court proceedings could have happened in the federal courthouse — whose judges had to get vetted by the Senate — and in Manhattan, where some of the world’s better journalists worked, one is left to wonder how broken was the rest of the nation’s criminal justice system at the time in smaller cities that escaped the radar of better journalists from well-financed news organizations.

The appointment of Jewish judge Kaufman and inclusion of Jewish prosecutor Cohn did not at all lessen the injustice of the execution of the Jewish Rosenbergs, rather than make the whole affair all the more bizarre at best.

Cohn proceeded after the Rosenberg prosecution to win out against Robert Kennedy to become Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, and subsequently presumably earned a bundle of money as a New York lawyer power-broker before he got disbarred. Did such clients as the Studio 54 founders know or care about Cohn’s past in the Rosenberg prosecution and with McCarthy, as Cohn and Trump partied away at their nightclub?

After the Rosenberg trial, judge Kaufman proceeded to flourish in his career, getting elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is among the two or three most prestigious federal appellate courts, but facing the resolution of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to stay on the court long enough for Kaufman to be deemed too old to replace Frankfurter on the so-called Jewish seat on the court.

Kaufman and Cohn are deceased. Donald Trump may be but one of a parade of those who fawned over Cohn and joined him at Studio 54, but Nixon apparently was the only president who may have held Cohn in high esteem. We don’t need another president who so mirrors Cohn’s amorality and power-hungriness as does Trump. Cohn and his approach to power and its abuse needs to be relegated to history’s dustbin.