Friday Reads: The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage by Louise Robbins

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In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy declared that the State Department was a haven for communists and traitors. Among famous targets, like Alger Hiss, the senator also named librarian Mary Jane Keeney and her husband Philip, who had been called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to account for friendships with suspected communists, memberships in communist fronts, and authorship of articles that had been published in leftist periodicals. Conservative journalists and politicians had seized the occasion to denounce the pair as communist sympathizers and spies for the Soviet Union. If the accusations were true, the Keeneys had provided the Soviets with classified information about American defense and economic policies that could alter the balance of power between those rival nations. If false, the Keeneys had been shamefully wronged by their own government, for the accusations tumbled them into grief and poverty.

In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy declared that the State Department was a haven for communists and traitors. Among famous targets, like Alger Hiss, the senator also named librarian Mary Jane Keeney and her husband Philip, who had been called before The House UnAmerican Activities Committee to account for friendships with suspected communists, memberships in communist fronts, and authorship of articles that had been published in leftist periodicals. Conservative journalists and politicians had seized the occasion to denounce the pair as communist sympathizers and spies for the Soviet Union. If the accusations were true, the Keeneys had provided the Soviets with classified information about American defense and economic policies that could alter the balance of power between those rival nations. If false, the Keeneys had been shamefully wronged by their own government, for the accusations tumbled them into grief and poverty.

This book draws on a wide range of archival materials, especialy FBI files, interviews, and extensive reading from secondary sources to tell the story of Philip Olin Keeney and his wife Mary Jane, who became part of the famed Silvermaster Spy Ring in the 1940s. It paints a picture of two ordinary people who took an extraordinary path in life and, while they were never charged and tried as spies, were punished through blacklisting. It also reaveals the means by which the FBI investigated suspected spies through black bag jobs, phone tapping, and mail interceptions. Spies compromise national security by stealing secrets, but secrets can be defined to suit individual political designs and ambitions. Philip and Mary Jane Keeney constantly tested the boundaries of free access to information – to the point of risking disloyalty to their country – but the American government responded in a manner that risked its democratic foundations.

May 26th, 2017 by
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