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Preview: The Brothers Rosenberg

Being the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was “like being Osama bin Laden’s kids…after 9/11,” says son

The sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tell Anderson Cooper what it was like to be the children of infamous Communist spies during the McCarthy era, in a story that sheds new light on one of the most dramatic espionage cases of the Cold War  -- the execution of a husband and wife, leaving their two little boys orphans. Michael and Robert Meeropol speak to Cooper on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

In 1950, they were Michael and Robert Rosenberg, 7 and 3-year-old boys, whose world came crashing down when their parents were arrested for conspiring to provide atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their parents’ case was so high-profile that relatives were afraid to take them in. One town blocked them from attending its schools. Michael remembers denying that he was related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg:  “I really hated myself…I was too scared to admit my parents were my parents,” he recalls.  Says his brother Robert: “We were the children of Communist spies. Being the Rosenberg’s children in 1950 was almost like being Osama bin Laden’s kids here after 9/11.”

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Michael, left, and Robert Meeropol

CBS News

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair of Sing-Sing prison in 1953.  The boys changed their last name to Meeropol when a couple adopted them, seeking to shield the children from the ostracism they were subjected to because of their parents’ conviction.

“We were the children of Communist spies. Being the Rosenberg’s children in 1950 was almost like being Osama bin Laden’s kids here after 9/11.”

Cooper asks the brothers whether they were disappointed in their father, who they now admit was a Soviet spy. They say they were not disappointed but acknowledge he broke the law. “I think that if he’d been arrested and given a five or 10-year prison sentence – we would have nothing to complain about,” Robert says.

As for their mother, Michael argues she was “collateral damage” – framed by prosecutors for a crime she did not commit in an effort to get their father to cooperate with FBI investigators. Citing evidence that has come out since their parents’ trial, the brothers are calling upon President Obama to proclaim their mother was wrongfully convicted and executed. “Our mother was killed for something she did not do, she was taken away from us,” Robert says.

But historian Ron Radosh, who also appears in the story, opposes such a measure, arguing there’s evidence Ethel helped her husband even if she wasn’t a spy herself.  “She was an accessory to spying,” Radosh tells Cooper, “by helping, identifying people, urging people to be recruited, suggesting that her own brother be recruited, this is aiding those who are spying.”