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Black and White and Red All Over

The ‘New York Times’ can’t handle the truth.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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Hence, it is no surprise that the Times’s critic misses the main point of After the Revolution. It was not, as Isherwood writes, inspired by the Rosenberg case, but rather by events touched off with the 1999 publication of our book Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. The family dispute erupts when a “friend at Yale Press” (which published our book) informs a member of the family that a forthcoming title will name Joe Joseph as a Soviet spy. Playwright Amy Herzog confirmed to us that her father’s stepfather was Julius Joseph, identified in our book as a Soviet spy. 

In the play, Joe’s granddaughter Emma is horrified to learn that the man whom she was raised to idolize as a principled and honest radical actually betrayed his country. She is even more disconcerted because as a recently minted lawyer, she has founded and heads a legal defense fund named for him that is devoted to defending political prisoners, most notably the convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Her subsequent conflicts with her family members and boyfriend over whether she should close down the fund and return its donors’ money is the result of her shock at learning that the political legends that had fed her youth were lies.

And how does Isherwood deal with this dilemma? In the only critical comment he makes about the play, he complains that Emma’s “unbending rectitude” stalls the action as she engages in a “long temper tantrum, ignoring the pressing needs of the fund.” In other words, the question of whether Mumia is as guilty as her grandfather is a distraction from the real concern, which, according to Isherwood, is “the atmosphere of fear that pervaded liberal circles during the witch-hunt years.”

Amy Herzog and her play, which grapples seriously with the ethical issues raised by her grandfather’s espionage, deserve better. So does the historical record. 

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are coauthors, with Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).

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