At Least He Isn't a Traitor to His Class
The all-too-familiar story of W. Kendall Myers.
Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By SAM SCHULMAN
The W. Kendall Myers treason story--the retired State Department gent and never-published scholar whose 30 years of skillful espionage on Cuba's behalf has recently come to the notice of the authorities--has already produced one great benefit. Not for some years have we seen newspaper writing like this in the Washington Post:
He was a courtly State Department intelligence analyst from a prominent family who loved to sail and peruse the London Review of Books. Occasionally, he would voice frustration with U.S. policies, but to his liberal neighbors in Northwest D.C. it was nothing out of the ordinary. "We were all appalled by the Bush years," one said.
Mary Beth Sheridan and Del Quentin Wilber in only a few Updikean brushstrokes paint the character of W. Kendall Myers (age 72) and his wife Gwendolyn (age 71).
Until he retired in 2007, Myers was an official at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), a group within the State Department that scrapbooks intelligence supplied by the 18 federal and military agencies that actually do legwork and plops it on the desk of the secretary of state. Myers is also one of some 130 "professorial lecturers" at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, a title he has held since 1979. Although Myers is a Ph.D.--his 1972 Hopkins dissertation defending -Neville Chamberlain was titled "A Rationale for Appeasement"--his SAIS rank is really nonacademic, shared by a floating crew of 130-odd part-time lecturers, mostly State Department employees and other diplomatic professionals who give classes from time to time. Mrs. Myers was an executive in the computer department of Riggs Bank--a bank often said to have cooperated with the CIA. And since 1979, the government believes that the Myerses have been passing classified information to the Cuban authorities. The couple told FBI agents that they are passionate and committed supporters of Fidel Castro and the transformation he has wrought upon Cuba.
It is astounding to the Washington Post team and to the neighbors and former colleagues they interviewed that a man of Myers's breeding, education, and charm could have dedicated himself to the enslavement of the Cuban people. A colleague from State was particularly astonished because Myers never spoke about Latin America at all, much less Cuba, "ever, ever." It is depressing that our striped pants brigade expects so little of what John le Carré calls "tradecraft" from our spies. Did they imagine the Myerses would wear Che T-shirts and hang souvenir Venceremos Brigade machetes on the walls of their offices?
Myers's academic colleagues are also stunned. SAIS professor David P. Calleo, who often invited Myers--despite his lowly rank--to co-teach with him, thinks Myers's treachery is "out of character." He told the Post that Myers "has this amazing intellectual curiosity" and is "open to all kinds of ideas." This description is high praise, since Calleo is himself open to all kinds of ideas. One of these ideas is that disloyal American Jews have mesmerized the United States through their control of the media into supporting a friendly power that really ought not to exist at all.
Despite his learning and his intellectual curiosity, Calleo is unaware that some of the greatest traitors to the Western democracies were notable for their intellectual curiosity. The KGB spy Guy Burgess, for example, was the "most brilliant, compelling, promising human being" that his Cambridge peer Noel Annan had ever met. Myers, too, has a high opinion of Burgess and the Cambridge Ring of traitors. According to Tom Murray, a SAIS student in the 1990s who looked up his lecture notes when Myers was arrested, "Myers suggested they were called by their sense of duty to 'save' Europe (rather than the British Empire), and that U.S. and U.K. policies 'turned them into' spies." Murray was also impressed by Myers's "dapper Anglophile" wardrobe and sense of style.
Myers didn't charm everyone at SAIS. Another colleague remembers Myers in a different way: "droopy mustache, air of fey, bemused irony, obvious condescension about the petty follies of U.S. foreign policy, love of Europe, unexpressed but evident disdain for America"--in other words, a man with no curiosity at all who feels taking in new ideas is beneath him. One begins to see the truth in Fielding's observation that it requires an unusually "penetrating eye to discern a fool through the disguise of good breeding."
To the amateur of treason, there is something wonderfully familiar about the Kendall Myers saga--and it has nothing to do with his ideas or his teaching. Rather, it is the class markers--markers that make a spy-hunter of the old school feel like it's the first day of grouse season. Myers's patrician upbringing and manners disarmed suspicion. But they also injured him in a way that could only be healed by personal attachment to the ill-mannered man who turned Cuba into a charnel house.
A decade ago, Edward Luttwak declared that "snobs made better spies." In America, we have our own set of patrician disloyalists and admirers of mass murder. The Communist party, famous in the 1930s and 1940s for having the best-looking girls, commanded the enthusiasm of some very well-tailored men and chic women: Frederick Vanderbilt Field of Hotchkiss and Harvard, Corliss Lamont (Exeter and Harvard), Ralph Ingersoll (Hotchkiss and Yale), Alger Hiss (Hopkins and Harvard Law), Michael Whitney Straight of Dartington Hall and Cambridge (and son of Dorothy Payne Whitney), Martha Dodd (Vassar), Donald Ogden -Stewart (Yale and the Algonquin Round Table), Molly Day Thacher of Vassar (Mrs. Elia Kazan and the daughter of a Yale president). Et in Chicagoland ego: Ernest Hemingway and Bill Ayers.
To these gentlemen and ladies, Myers is about as close as Gatsby gazing over from West Egg at the Buchanans in East Egg. Although the Post's Sheridan announced on NPR that he was a "man from one of Washington's most prestigious and storied families, a prep school background, elite universities," she neglected the crucial point. Myers's accomplishments were deeply mediocre measured against what his family and he himself must have expected.
On his mother's side, he was the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. His grandmother married into the Grosvenor-Hubbard dynasty, which organized Bell Telephone and founded the National Geographic Society (and still chairs its board). Myers's mother married a soon to be successful Washington cardiologist, Walter Kendall Myers (Princeton and Johns Hopkins). Until 2009, journalists could always get a paragraph out of the Bush dynasty and their Skull & Bones memberships. Myers's great-uncle Alphonso Taft, father of Willam Howard, founded Bones.
And Kendall himself? Like Henry Adams in his Autobiography, "no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. He could not refuse to play his excellent hand." But something went badly wrong. Instead of a first-rate New England or Delmarva prep school, Myers attended the third-tier Mercersburg Academy in his father's Pennsylvania hometown. He went to an Ivy League college, but it was Brown (don't scream, Gen-Xers, long before you were born or attended Brown or desperately wanted to or pretended that you had, it was, in the 1950s and 1960s, known as the "armpit of the Ivy League").
There were also emotional issues: After his father's death in 1964, Myers stopped being Walter Jr. and styled himself as W. Kendall. His Johns Hopkins doctorate earned him an assistant professorship at SAIS from 1972 to 1979, but for some reason--probably having to do with the eternally unpublished dissertation (you can find it cited in scholarly books for decades as "the yet-unpublished writings of Kendall Myers")--he did not discern tenure in his future. According to the Post's narrative, based on the accounts of his friends, "his life was rocked by tragedy and difficulties" in the mid-1970s. In 1975, "Myers was driving a car that slammed into a 16-year-old girl in Northwest Washington, near his childhood home, killing her. Myers felt terrible about the crash." In 1977 he divorced his first wife, Maureen Walsh. On the basis of her name alone, it seems likely she had not fit well in the Grosvenor world. Myers's second wife, a South Dakota divorcée called Gwendolyn Steingraber Trebilcock would have been just as unwelcome at Wildacres, the Grosvenor estate near Bethesda.
Myers went to Cuba in 1978 at the invitation of the Cuban mission to the U.N., according to the Post. "[T]he son of privilege fell in love with the communist revolution." But like many chic radicals, Myers must have felt inwardly that he was not a legitimate son of privilege. His academic failure--the dissertation only in the beginning of its long career of nonpublication, the disappointing academic career, his inability to play up and play the game--made him ready for conversion.
In a diary entry made during his Cuban idyll in 1978, we can see this child of privilege projecting his sense of self-disappointment onto his country. The robber barons disappoint him--but so do their victims:
Cuba is so exciting! I have become so bitter these past few months. Watching the evening news is a radicalizing experience. The abuses of our system, the lack of decent medical system, the oil companies and their undisguised indifference to public needs, the complacency about the poor, the utter inability of those who are oppressed to recognize their own condition.
Myers's indictment of the state of the American polity under Jimmy Carter is a cliché. But his admonishment of the poor for not being able to recognize their own misery and failure is rare, though also familiar. Imagine how his parents must have admonished him when he didn't get into Groton or Princeton (or wherever he actually was supposed to go), when he brought home to his Presbyterian Colonial Dame of a mother an Irish bride, when he chose not to be a professional man but a tweedy professional advocate for Neville Chamberlain--when he failed to play the hand he was dealt.
It seems that Myers chose soundly just once--when he chose no longer to allow himself any more choices. Within six months of his return to America, he was in South Dakota living with Gwendolyn, and--as Clarice Feldman shrewdly guesses in a long piece at TheAmericanThinker.com--some gunsel in the Cuban mission on Lexington Avenue drew the short straw and traveled to South Dakota to enroll the eager couple as traitors. Signing up with Fidel solved Myers's problems. From that moment, everything that the couple would do--where they lived, when they moved, where they worked--or attempted to work (the poor fellow failed the CIA entrance exam in 1981)--would no longer be their choice, but would serve the cause of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban people unburdened Myers of his freedom to fail. And no doubt Myers is still grateful for that gift of captivity.
And for us--it's nice to know that we can look forward once again to watching the life and lies of a WASP traitor unfold in the next months, even if he's only a third-tier sort of WASP traitor.
Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, was publishing director of the American and publisher of Wigwag.