A most unlikely interlocutor
With slicked-down hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Fyke Farmer looked the part of a small-town lawyer. But this Nashville attorney had big ideas — if not universally popular ones. Farmer hardly started out on a radical path, joining Bass Berry & Sims straight out of Yale Law School in 1925. But as time went by, this Belle Meade resident became a tax protester and attended conferences in Europe devoted to "World Government," publishing numerous pamphlets and articles on those topics.
Farmer even contrived to meet with President Truman, and tried to meet with Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, to discuss world peace. At the White House, just two months after Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan had ended the war, Farmer warned that the U.S. could not hope to keep nuclear materials to itself and nuclear secrets away from its enemies indefinitely. "That is true," the president conceded. "But we alone possess the physical resources and organizational skill to do what has been done."
This week in 1953, Fyke Farmer changed the course of history — or so it seemed for a brief while — by once more inserting himself into a situation involving nuclear proliferation.
The nation was fixated on the impending execution of "atom spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had failed in six appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. As the Rosenbergs bade farewell to relatives on Sing-Sing's death row on June 17, the news arrived: An unknown Tennessee lawyer had obtained a stay of execution from Justice William O. Douglas. The condemned couple and supporters wept in relief.
Farmer, working at no charge against the opposition of not only the government but also the Rosenbergs' legal team, had showed up at Douglas's chambers without an appointment, on the day after the high court adjourned for the term. Farmer convinced the jurist that the Rosenbergs had been tried under an invalid law. If they could be charged with any crime, he asserted, it would have to be a violation of the Atomic Energy Act, which did not carry a death penalty, rather than the Espionage Act of 1917.
As news of the stay swept Washington, one outraged congressman immediately introduced a resolution that Justice Douglas be impeached.
The Rosenbergs now expected another year or more of legal maneuvers — with the possibility that they might yet walk free. On June 18, however, the full Supreme Court returned hastily from summer recess to reconsider the stay. The Rosenbergs' lawyers presented a strangely half-hearted argument, moving Justice Hugo Black to ask in puzzlement why they were not more energetically addressing the legal issue Farmer had raised. By the time the other attorneys had finished their presentation, only 17 minutes of the defense's allotted hour and a half remained for Farmer to plead his point. He failed to sway the court, which vacated Douglas's stay by a vote of 6-3.
On June 19, the Rosenbergs went to their deaths in Sing-Sing's electric chair.
(Drew Pearson, "Merry-Go-Round," Washington Post, 20 October 1945; Nashville Tennessean, 17 June 1953; Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for Truth [Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983].)
Birthdays of note this week: