A meticulous legal examination of the evidence against famous espionage and terrorism defendants.
The majority of Roberts’ debut study focuses on post–World War II America: the era of Cold War paranoia, real and perceived Soviet threats, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Using a large dose of common sense, the author analyzes testimony from espionage cases involving U.S. government employees Alger Hiss, David Zablodowsky, Oliver Edmund Clubb, Harry Dexter White, William Remington and Judith Coplon. The most compelling passages zero in on Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, two colorful characters who confessed to acts of treason and then testified against their alleged accomplices in order to avoid prosecution. Roberts suggests that the FBI and other authorities had invested so much in these unreliable witnesses that they went to great lengths to prop up their veneers of respectability—despite the witnesses’ odd behavior and questionable claims. Toward the end of the book, the author abruptly shifts to the Irish Republican Army bombings in Britain during the 1970s and the suspects referred to as the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six. Here, he continues to attack official versions of events by underscoring their flawed assumptions and logistical improbabilities. However, he doesn’t explain his rationale for including such disparate historical contexts until the final chapter: “Both countries, and both periods, are linked by the fact that in each there was an urgent need to find someone who was guilty; and that in both, stories of the most preposterous kind were believed.” Thus, readers might want to begin with the last chapter to contextualize the interwoven tales of intrigue recounted in the rest of the book. Fortunately, the author provides a helpful index of the myriad figures, organizations and themes that resurface throughout the text. As debates about the guilt or innocence of these individuals rage on, this book will certainly stoke that fire.
An engaging look at controversial defendants from the 1940s to the ’70s.