November 23, 2010
Mark Stout, SPY Historian
History News Network has an interesting review of a play now running in New York that addresses the issues of espionage and lying. The play, “After the Revolution” focuses on a young woman of relentlessly liberal persuasion who is appalled to learn that historians have just determined that her grandfather, an icon of the American left for having stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee had, in fact, been a spy for Stalin. In the words of the reviewer, Dr. Bruce Chadwick who lectures on history and film at Rutgers, the play asks whether the fictional Grandpa Joe Joseph was a “truly great man who did one thing wrong,” or “a spy who betrayed his country?”
As art, the play is apparently a bit flawed—Chadwick calls the dialogue “tepid” and another reviewer calls the main character “a blubberer and a bore”—but it portrays a situation that is all too real, one fraught with emotional pain. Alger Hiss went to his grave denying that he had spied for the Soviets. In so doing he deceived and exploited many well intentioned people who had vigorously defended him. The documents now available, not least the Venona decrypts, make this clear.
I witnessed such a phenomenon in the spring of 2009, at a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center about Soviet espionage in the United States from 1930 to 1950. (See here and here.) Much of this conference revolved around the so-called “Vassiliev notebooks” and Spies, the monumental book by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev that used the Vassiliev material. One of the subjects of Spies was I. F. Stone, the legendary radical journalist in whose honor Harvard University offers the “I. F. Stone Award for Journalistic Independence.” Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev convincingly demonstrated that Stone had worked for the KGB from 1936 to 1938. However, one of Stone’s admiring biographers was present and he mounted a spirited defense of the journalist, arguing that he had only shared political gossip with the Soviets and that this amounted neither legally nor morally to espionage. While the biographer’s persistent and increasingly disruptive comments were annoying, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him as his hero was discredited. How much greater must be the pain when the accused is a beloved family member.
Every spy assumes great risk. Even aside from the risk to life and limb, however, is the risk that the spy will choose the wrong side of history and that his (or her) friends and family will be left holding the bag.