Tuesday, October 4, 2016
October 4, 2016: AmericanStudying The Americans: Spies like Us
[Earlier this year, I belatedly but excitedly got into The Americans, the FX drama about two KGB agents (the great Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) living in deep cover as a married couple in Reagan’s 1980s America. It’s a wonderful and very AmericanStudies show, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy five issues and themes to which the show connects. Leading up to my latest Guest Post on another set of pop culture texts and questions!]
On what we don’t know about two high-profile spying controversies—and why it doesn’t matter.
While the protagonists of The Americans were born in Russia, many of the Soviet spies with whom they work in the course of the show are native-born Americans who have been “turned” and are now spying on behalf of the USSR. 20th century history offers a number of prominent examples of such spies, but in most cases the evidence remains murky at best, and thus produces more questions than answers about these cases and what we make of them. Few examples better illustrate the stakes of such historical interpretations and analyses than the cases of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. At one extreme—but, to be clear, an extreme that could be argued within the bounds of serious historical inquiry—each case could be seen as at least a partial vindication of McCarthyism, as evidence that communist spies and sympathizers were indeed operating within the U.S. government and society. At the other, equally arguable extreme, these three Americans embody the worst of that era, and particularly its persecution and destruction of innocent lives in service of paranoia, fear, and the creation at all costs of the “us vs. them” mentality about which I wrote in Monday’s post.
Perhaps in time sufficient evidence will be unearthed or released that historians will be able to come to more conclusive perspectives on one or both of these prominent cases—although so far key details have not only remained secret but also have been legally reinforced in that state. To date, at least as far as this AmericanStudier understands it (and as I analyzed from a different angle in this post), the available evidence seems to implicate Julius Rosenberg as a Soviet spy, to cast serious doubt on the guilt of his wife Ethel, and to remain entirely inconclusive when it comes to Alger Hiss. Yet while the guilt and innocence of these individuals are no small matters—not least because the Rosenbergs were executed for their alleged crimes, while Hiss lived the remaining forty-five years of his life under the cloud of suspicion as well—it’s also possible, and important, to analyze the cases in other contexts regardless of such ambiguities, to consider what these histories and lives can reveal even if their deepest secrets might never see the light of day.
To my mind, one clear and important way to consider all three accused spies is to recognize the range of American identities and experiences to which they connect: Julius for example as the son of Jewish immigrants who settled in New York’s East Side neighborhoods; Ethel for another example as a New York New Woman who initially pursued a career as an actress and singer before moving into those iconic mid-20th century roles of wife, mother, and homemaker; Hiss for a third example as the product of a declining Maryland family, surrounded by tragedies including his father’s and sister’s suicides, who worked his way to Harvard and a prestigious career in law and politics. Which is to say, whether they spied or not, whether they were traitors or victims, these are American stories and histories and identities, lives and worlds no less (and no more) a part of our national narratives than those of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and their other accusers and adversaries—or, The Americans would argue and I would agree, than the American stories of spies like Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Whatever the truth, the simple fact is that there’s no us vs. them—it’s all us.
Next AmericansStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other AmericanStudies shows you’d highlight?