06.09.09 6:40 AM ET
My Professor, the Spy
From admiring lectures about Soviet double agent Kim Philby to coffee at my school’s Alger Hiss Café, hints abounded that my professor, accused Cuban spy Walter Kendall Myers, might be a communist spook. But neither I, nor his old boss—Paul Wolfowitz—took notice.
Professor Walter Kendall Myers stood out as a dapper Anglophile in a city, Washington D.C., dominated by blue button-down shirts and khakis. As his student in the spring of 1992, I remember his woolen sweaters and an umbrella, and perhaps even a shepherd's hat. None of those physical images squares with what the government now says is the truth: While teaching me British politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Kendall Myers was also a spy for Fidel Castro.
According to my notes, Myers suggested that Philby and his fellow double agents were called by their sense of duty to “save” Europe, and that U.S. and U.K. policies “turned them into” spies.
These new accusations probably shouldn't have shocked me as much as they did. Looking for some insight into a man I thought was as establishment as they come—his great-grandfather was telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell—I dug through my parents' basement for my class notes, and came across lectures that, in retrospect, contained chilling information: Myers expressed high regard for the notorious Kim Philby and two other Brits—Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess—who became Soviet double agents during the Cold War. According to my notes, Myers suggested that 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.
In fact, the more I reflect back on my class with Myers, the more the clues—and the ironies—pile up. Johns Hopkins is based in Baltimore, of course, but SAIS has always been in Washington, and throughout its history dallied with those in the "business." Students at the school's Bologna Center, where I spent my first two semesters, accepted as fact that our program had been founded in the mid-1950s as a front for CIA operatives keen for a legitimate perch at the capital of Italy's "red" movement.
While I was as SAIS, the student newspaper staff ran a coffee shop in the basement of one of the school's two buildings, which they named, tongue firmly in cheek, The Alger Hiss Café. Everyone in the school dropped by for a drink or nibble occasionally, surely including a man, the government says, who spent 30 years practicing what Hiss was accused of. While numerous SAIS graduates and faculty continue to contribute in remarkable ways toward shaping our country's domestic- and foreign-policy agenda—Treasury's Timothy Geithner being the most visible lately—it is easy to imagine that these success stories only represent the public-facing tip of a submerged, cloak-and-dagger iceberg.
Speaking with fellow SAIS alumni, including a couple of other European Studies students who took his course, I was struck by how few were able to remember him. As best I can tell, he was an enigma, which I presume to be a notable job qualification for a good spy.
Among those who remember him, Myers was relatively well-liked. A friend from that period remembered his scholarly decorum, and the manner of sophistication in which he carried himself. We laughed approvingly about his bushy mustache, the same mustache the papers now say he twirled round his finger as he read the charges brought by the government against him. This friend specifically remembered how Myers sympathetically coached her after she blurted out a moment of academic enlightenment, prompting the class to laugh at her. "That kind of enthusiasm," said Myers, "is why I entered teaching."
Myers favored the underdog, according to my notes. Besides his admiration for Soviet double agents, he was a Neville Chamberlain man. While he compared Winston Churchill to the liberals' boogeyman of the early 1990s, Jesse Helms, Chamberlain was "saavy, knowledgeable" and "faced the situation as best he could," despite the obviously flawed outcome.
In the end, I can’t blame myself too much for not putting the clues together. Myers’ boss shortly after I left was someone who supposedly knows a lot more about faulty intelligence than I do: Paul Wolfowitz.
As interesting as it was to hear a highly contrarian take on history, I was personally underwhelmed by the surface level nature of his course, Modern British Politics, in part because a schedule conflict kept me from taking a more highly regarded equivalent course while in Bologna the prior year. I recall that Myers gave me an A, but only after he went AWOL at the end of the quarter. I remember being disappointed or frustrated (I can't recall which) at the lack of a coda to the class, and never did learn what he specifically thought of my final paper (a grade, yes, but not the all-important red marks and edits). It is probably too much to imagine that he cut out early for mojitos on Havana's Malecon—but it makes more sense now than it did then. Did that essay I wrote on British-Japanese national business partnerships somehow influence Cuban trade policy? Am I going to get a "knock on the door" asking me to explain how Fidel's proletarian paradise knew so much about the Poll Tax?
In any event, the transcripts from the charges levied by the government at Professor Myers suggest that he did not always view his students as a group worthy of partnership anyway, stating that he declined a request from his handlers to involve his students since he didn't "trust any of" us.
In the end, I can't blame myself too much for not putting the clues together. The intellectual center of the neo-conservative movement—including Professor Eliot Cohen, who like Myers shared a State Department role while at SAIS, and Professor Michael Mandelbaum, who recently made a case for the role of America as world hegemon—realistically had much greater access to Myers than I did. And Myers' boss, the school’s dean, shortly after I left was someone who surely knows a lot more about faulty intelligence than I do: Paul Wolfowitz.
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