During the 1950s, US lawmakers and government officials claimed that since homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and shameful, communists would threaten to expose gay and lesbian US government employees if they didn't agree to spy for the Soviet Union.
"Sex Perverts in Government Said Weak Link as Spy Prey," read one headline at the time.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared, "Homosexuals must not be handling top secret material."
But a new documentary, The Lavender Scare, explores how US officials actually became blackmailers and extortionists as they tried to root out gay men and lesbians from the ranks of the civil service. An executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, signed 60 years ago this Saturday, touched off what the filmmakers describe as "a witch hunt" that ended the careers of thousands of people, who were threatened with public exposure if they didn't quit their jobs. But unexpectedly, the purge also set in motion a protest by a few individuals that helped start the modern LGBT rights movement.
From a national security perspective, it's remarkable how this whole paradigm has flipped. Today, in a society that's vastly more accepting of gays and lesbians, people are considered more trustworthy and less prone to blackmail if they're out of the closet. People who have nothing to hide are harder to turn. I've never heard of someone being asked during a background check whether he or she sleeps with men or women. But over the years, many intelligence officials have remarked to me how, when they began their career, being gay or lesbian was dangerous, but that it's just no longer the case. (An exception: If you're an intelligence officer serving in a region that regards homosexuality as a crime, you'd probably keep your orientation private.)
You can watch a trailer for the film here. The producers are running a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the production. Full disclosure, a close friend of mine, who has written for The Washingtonian, is an executive producer. But even if he weren't, I'd be drawing attention this movie. This period in history is remarkable for the confluence of human rights, national security, and Cold War paranoia.
Here are some upcoming titles that have caught my attention in the past few months. Pub dates given if available.
Untitled book by Andrew Cockburn (Times Books)
The author of Rumsfeld, and future father-in-law to SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, is working on a true story about drones and assassins.
We Will Not Be Silent: How the White Rose Student Resistance Movement Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman (Clarion)
A story about a small group of university students who distributed anti-Hitler leaflets and condemned his policies.
Untitled book on Russian protest group Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
The author of The Man Without a Face, about the rise of Vladimir Putin, has an untold story of Russia's most famous dissidents.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Untitled book by Karen J. Greenberg (Crown)
Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, is writing a narrative account described as "how the power and legitimacy of the Department of Justice have been radically challenged in the wake of 9/11."
Casablanca by Meredith Hindley (Public Affairs)
A narrative history of the famous North African city, against the backdrop of the French resistance, Gestapo, Vichy agents, and American spies battling for control.
The Russian Revolution by Sean McKeekin (Basic)
Billed as "a revisionist account of the Russian Revolution" based on new information from Soviet archives.
Pub date: 2017
CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and why CIA Agents Conspired to Kill JFK and RFK by Patrick Nolan (Skyhorse)
An investigation of "CIA involvement" in the assassinates of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Timed for release with the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
Pub date: Fall 2013
Rogue Code by Mark Russinovich (Thomas Dunne Books)
The third novel in a thriller series about cyber-expert Peter Joseph. The first two books were Zero Day and Trojan Horse.
Untitled book by Adam Segal (Public Affairs)
Segal, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and heads up their cyber security initiatives will write about "the geopolitics of information and what diplomacy looks like in the age of big data."
Forty-Seven Days by Mitchell Yockelson (Caliber)
How Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing led the Army and helped it come of age in World War I, with the service of soldiers such as George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Harry Truman.
Pub date: Summer 2015
Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio are teaming up for a new biopic about former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
"Gorbachev serves as a consultant on the project, which captures the dissolution of the USSR through his eyes. ... The movie, written by former Hell On Wheels showrunner John Shiban and executive produced by DiCaprio, Jennifer Killoran, Hanks, Goetzman and Industry Entertainment’s Keith Addis, stems from DiCaprio’s relationship with Gorbachev. The two met when the Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner appeared in DiCaprio’s environmental movie The 11th Hour."
Also of note, former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief David Hoffman will be serving as a consultant on the film. Hoffman's tremendous book Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the Pulitzer Prize, would be essential material for anyone making a film about the Soviet Union in Gorbachev's time. It's good to hear that Hoffman will be involved with the production.
When Ash Carter, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, was a 32-year-old associate professor at Harvard, he was asked to accompany a US arms control delegation to Moscow. The Reagan administration wanted to examine a new laser system that the Soviets claimed would be used to research the surface of Mars, but that might also be deployed as an space-based anti-missile system.
Carter had studied physics and had once worked as a missile-defense analyst. He was expected to give his analysis (the delegation later concluded the Soviet laser could violate a ballistic missile treaty that had been in place for 15 years), but he didn't expect his contribution to carry much weight.
"I was a nobody," Carter said at a dinner in Washington on Tuesday, honoring Brent Scowcroft, who was then a leading thinker on US-Soviet nuclear relations, and would, in a few years, be the national security adviser to George W. Bush. "Brent listened to me. He treated me as an equal." It was the beginning of a mentorship that, as Carter tells it, led to his advising a string of secretaries of defense, and now to his own position as the No. 2 at the Pentagon.
"The influence of Brent Scowcroft stands before you: Me."
When a protege talks about of his mentor, at the end of his career, the tone inevitably gets eulogistic. Scowcroft is 87. He has been out of government for two decades, though he remains an eminence grise in national security and business circles. And while Carter hardly gave a valediction, there was a certain wistfulness--how could there not be?--in saluting an aged Cold Warrior.
"We were closer to war with the Soviets than anyone, except Brent, might have realized," Carter said. "As you go to sleep tonight and reflect on this evening, remember it all could have been very different if not for [him]."
When it came time for Scowcroft to talk, he made no pretense of his utter bafflement at the complex state of global affairs today. In the Cold War, he said, "The threat of a thermonuclear war...was just over the horizon." But in the possibility of annihilation there was a certain clarity. "The world was given to us. Our strategy was containment. ...That made things a lot easier." He shook his head. "But not today. There is no overarching strategy." It was not a critique of any administration. Just an observation that, in his day, things were somehow simpler.
Scowcroft, smiling tenderly, turned to his pupil: "Ash Carter, thank you for taking time off tonight from problems I wouldn't wish on anyone."