When NOVA asked me to make a film about American code breakers who read secret spy Soviet messages, I was not prepared for the remarkable people I would encounter, in particular, the children of Americans who spied for the KGB. These men and women are now middle-aged, with children of their own and they have remarkable stories to tell.
Michael and Robert Meerepol's parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were electrocuted for conspiracy to commit espionage and accused of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb. Soviet espionage cables reveal that Julius was a busy KGB spy but suggest that Ethel was only a minor figure. Michael and Robert remain incensed at the way the government handled the case. As Michael explained, "They arrested a small fry spy ... took his wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, 'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.' And when he wouldn't talk, they murdered her in cold blood."
Only after their interviews did I realize that this was the first time either brother had ever admitted in public that their father, Julius, was a Soviet spy.
Ruth and Sarah Hall also champion their parents. Their father, Ted Hall, the youngest physicist working at Los Alamos, passed vital atomic secrets to the Soviets. Shortly before he died in 1999, Ted Hall told his daughters what he'd done. They applaud his actions. They consider him a hero who helped save the world from the perils of nuclear monopoly.
Boria Sax has a very different outlook. His father, Saville Sax, was Ted Hall's KGB courier. Boria views his dad as a tragic figure, a lost, confused young man who was swept along by currents he couldn't control. When his father confessed to him in the 1970's that he'd helped steal atomic secrets, Boria did not believe him.
Perhaps the most moving story of all is that of William Weisband, Jr, whose father betrayed US intelligence secrets to the Soviets. Bill was eleven years old when his father died from a heart attack as they were driving together in a car. He found out about the spying two years later, by accident, when he came upon his dad's picture in a book about Soviet spies. Ever since, he's been trying to come to terms with the man he loved being the spy who caused what one expert calls "the greatest intelligence loss in U.S. history."
Bill expresses his internal struggle in a song he performed for NOVA:
There was a time after the war, we were afraid the Communists were trying to take over.
It wasn't just the lies, the truth could make you blind,
That was my father's crime.
After meeting these adult children of spies, I'm reminded that the greatest secret of all may be that which goes on inside the human heart.
(Next page: More about the NOVA special, "Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies")
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