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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Russian Spies and American History

Sam Wineburg at The Los Angeles Times writes that American history textbooks downplay Soviet espionage.
Two years before American scientists tested the atomic bomb in a New Mexico desert in 1945, Igor Kurchatov, father of the Russian atomic program, was already examining hand-drawn sketches smuggled out of Los Alamos and ferried 6,000 miles to his Moscow laboratory. These diagrams spelled out the principles of implosion, a theory so new to Soviet scientists that they used the phrase “explosion toward the inside” because no word existed for it in Russian.

My students’ textbooks mute this story. “American Pageant,’ one of the most widely used texts for Advanced Placement history, offers this lone sentence: “Soviet agents did infiltrate certain government agencies, though without severely damaging consequences, and espionage may have helped the Soviets to develop an atomic bomb somewhat sooner than they would have otherwise.”
“May have”? Scientist Kurchatov saw things a bit differently. Writing to superiors in 1943, he described American secrets as having “a huge, invaluable significance for our state and science.”
More lopsided is “The Americans,” another leading textbook. A lengthy section on McCarthy’s slimy Red-baiting tactics dominates a chapter on the Cold War. Tacked at the end is a sentence about newly released Soviet cables that implicated Alger Hiss, a State Department official, which “seemed” to prove his guilt as a spy. Students, however, never learn about a second cable (KGB File 36857) that named agent “Alger” and explained his role in procuring documents for the Soviets.

“Well, let’s face it,” historian Maurice Isserman wrote in 1999 in reference to Hiss’ guilt, “the debate just ended.”

None of us can be completely objective. What matters is what we do when our preconceptions collide with new evidence.

This happened to Walter and Miriam Schneir. In their 1965 book about the Rosenbergs, they sought to prove that allegations of spying were baseless. Confronted with new evidence 30 years later, the husband-and-wife team reassessed their lifework. Their efforts to establish the Rosenbergs’ innocence had been in vain — a realization that was “painful news for many people, as it is for us,” they wrote.

When the evidence changes, so must the story.