‘The Americans’ & the New Cold War
Air Date: January 7, 2017
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, you’re host on The Open Mind. Today’s show is a special treat. A most timely guest joins us again. I say again because this masterful spy novelist appeared with my grandfather nearly a decade ago.
A former CIA operative, Joe Weisberg is the creator of the brilliant, Emmy-nominated series The Americans, a riveting, psychological thriller of Cold War history. For those of you who haven’t followed this tour-de-force- I implore you to binge the first four seasons.
The basic plot is two Soviet intelligence agents- so-called illegals- pose as a married couple to spy on the American government. Meanwhile, their neighbor is an FBI officer. With each episode and daring assignment, the potential for a biological Armageddon is at the forefront of our concern.
But Weisberg also immerses us in a marriage like no other- a secret, Soviet sub-culture and the quest to normalize, humanize, harmonize, the evil empire with our own shining city on a hill.
I am particularly grateful to Joe for accepting our invitation. As the story line of Russian aggression has surfaced with newly chilled relations- what our intelligence agencies are declaring a war of cyber espionage against us. Joe- it’s a pleasure to meet you.
WEISBERG: It’s so nice to be back.
HEFFNER: Are you surprised about this real life turn of events, just in the course of the last year or so?
WEISBERG: Well, the whole thing is mind-boggling. You know, when we started the show, the U.S. and the Soviets- Russia- were doing fairly well. They were not, sort of, enemies at that point- everybody was getting along- the Cold War had ended- things were peaceful- and part of the idea of the show was to sort of take a look and say, let’s look at enemies- the whole idea of enemies- and explore it and kinda humanize the enemy. And it was easy to do, because when you’re getting along with a former enemy, it’s kind of easy to kind of take a different look at things and think about it and say yeah, they seem just like us.
Well, a couple years after we started the show, things started getting ugly. And they’ve gotten uglier and uglier and uglier since. And that makes it harder- it’s not as easy for people to look at a nation where things are very hostile and kind of look in a friendlier way.
And as you say, even now, it’s almost a day to day thing where it’s getting worse and worse and worse and people are saying oh the Cold War is back, and you have people talking about, you know, there could be, literally people- some people in Russia are saying we could be on the brink of war. It’s both terrible and- and insane.
HEFFNER: Do you think, under the skin, though- there were these tensions that had the potential to be boiled over again, or- or is it really a unique set of loyalties in the Syria conflict region that played out in such a way to make that happen?
WEISBERG: I- I find it so bizarre that I think it has to be a little bit of everything. I don’t think there really is too much strategically between the United States and Russia that requires the two nations to be at each other’s throats like this.
I mean, I guess you could look at Syria and say that maybe there’s a strategic difference there, but not to create this level of conflict. I think there are more sort of deep, psychological wounds, dating back to the Cold War, that both countries are kind of unable to get over. And this is kind of bubbling up. But it seems unnecessary to me.
HEFFNER: You have been reversing in some ways the evil empire image in your portrait of this family. Why do you think that we are so quick to revert- you know- quick to revert back to those stereotypes and, and norms that were established in the 1980s?
WEISBERG: It’s probably easiest for me to- you know, rather than say why we do it, which is a tough question- I don’t know for sure why we as a society want to- want to do that, but I can look at myself and say why I wanted to do it because I used to- very much believe in the kind of fairy tale of the evil empire. I was brought up on that. Not so much in my family, because I don’t think my family necessarily thought that way, but in our country, I- I- as a kid, uh- listened to Ronald Reagan saying that’s an evil empire. And I thought that’s right- I agree with that- I feel that same way.
And I was fed on a kind of steady diet of news and stories and information that was almost exclusively everything wrong and everything sick and everything bad about the Soviet Union. Uh- and a lot of it was true- maybe even, maybe even most of it was true.
But it was one-sided. That was all that we heard, that was all that was presented were the ills of that society. So, imagine if- and you don’t have to imagine it, because I think it happens in other
societies, too, if you only took the things that were wrong and the things that were sick and the things that were I’ll about our society and you continuously pumped them in to the brains of people in- in a- in another country- what would they think about us?
So that was the effect that it had on me. I only knew what was wrong with the place. And eventually, after enough of that, when somebody started saying that’s an evil empire, I thought, of course. That’s right. That’s a place that puts people who speak their minds in jail. That, you know, at a somewhat earlier stage in its history from when I was there had gulags that huge percentages of the population uh, went to, uh- that won’t let anybody leave. It’s like a giant prison camp, and sure- that’s an evil empire.
Um- so- you know, I could give you a whole different set of explanations, but that’s one way to look at it for how an individual might start to- start to think that way- and you lose all nuance and you lose all dimensionality about how to view a society.
HEFFNER: In a recent Q&A that you did, um, there was a question that- I’m often struck by the relevance of themes from the show- and you say we work hard to keep ourselves in a bubble so we don’t write to modern day themes.
Now, with the ongoing efforts of cyber espionage and what has been deemed by our intelligence agencies as not just a credible threat but the ongoing, underground cyber warfare- it seems inevitable that in some way the show now is going to resonate with folks in a much more um- moment to moment sense.
Is that affecting at all the way that you and your colleagues are writing it?
WEISBERG: I hope not. I think it’s OK and even good if it resonates for people in terms of what’s happening in modern times. But what I think is important is that as we write it and as we think about it, that we don’t let the present intrude. So that’s the thing about a bubble.
You know, we have an office over by the Gowanus Canal, and uh, we have a big board that occupies an entire wall that we have covered with sort of news clippings and photos of things from the- from the 1980s. And we really try to live in that space.
I mean, we don’t quite- we don’t quite dress in 80s clothing- we’re not like method actors, we’re not maniacs about it, we read the newspaper- but what we try not to do is- ever- when breaking a story or thinking about the themes of our show, we try never to say or to think oh, this will resonate with what’s happening today or this would be a great metaphor with what’s happening today, because we really want it to exist in that period bubble and not let the present intrude because it would make- it would make the stories of the 80s false.
WEISBERG: You know, it would seem that there were a writer creating that and trying to- trying to think from the future in a sense.
HEFFNER: Right. In some sense, subconsciously, you may have some thoughts that register, but you don’t want it to influence the integrity of the story and the storylines today- this is the fifth and sixth season.
HEFFNER: The fifth season premiering March of 2017. When will they be set, or is that to be determined?
WEISBERG: You mean what year?
HEFFNER: What year. As this story is evolving from sort of early to mid-Cold War.
HEFFNER: Fifth and sixth seasons are approximately when time wise?
WEISBERG: Well, the- we’re- we’ll be in 1984 as we come up to the fifth season. But we don’t know yet about the- about the sixth season, exactly when it will be. We’ve been surprised by how slowly it moves. You know, we started out I think in- I can’t remember if it was ‘80 or ‘81, but I think- when we started out, if you had asked us, we would have said well, we may make it to the fall of the wall by Season 5. Who knows? But in fact, it turned out that our storytelling just moved slowly- we move a week per episode sometimes. So a season may only cover a couple of months.
So- and we tend not to take big leaps between seasons. We did one big leap in uh- Season 4, where we traversed- we just- we did a time jump that covered about, I think, seven months or so, but except for that, we seem unable to traverse large jumps of time.
HEFFNER: So you will be honing in on the continuing proliferation issue- nuclear proliferation as opposed to the cyber issues, but I must ask you-
WEISBERG: Right. We’re not going to get to cyber issues. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: But I must ask you-
WEISBERG: Or the word- I don’t know if the word cyber was even around.
HEFFNER: Right. Given the feuding that’s occurred over the last several months- over the last year, really- would it surprise you if there are Russian agents who are in the clothing of Americans attempting to influence Boards of Election?
WEISBERG: That would surprise me. Um. There’s nothing in the history of uh- Soviet Espionage- that I’ve ever seen to suggest that capability. Um. A lot of the history of Soviet espionage involves, um, illegals and also KGB officers in embassies um, trying and wanting, around the world, to do things like that, but not having the capability.
Because if you think of what it would take for a foreign agent to have that ability, it’s- it’s pretty amazing what they’d have to be able to do. I mean, think about- think about an American being able to have that capability- what they would have to do to put themselves in a position to actually influence a ballot box. It- it’s pretty incredible.
Now think about a foreign agent being able to have the sort of- both cultural awareness and understanding and ability and power and influence to put themselves in that ability, or that position. I-
I just- there’s no story of a- of a Soviet Agent that was ever able to get themselves in that position. There are a lot of stories- almost endless stories- of Soviet intelligence officers who reported back to Moscow how they did influence elections, and uh- influenced events in foreign countries. Because they wanted to make themselves seem important. Uh. It was less often that they had influenced a ballot box. It was much more often that they had successfully placed items in the foreign press, had uh- gotten agents of theirs who had influence in politics to talk to a person or vote this way or do this or that, which they then claimed had tremendous influence on events and elections around the world.
Um- but these were universally enormous exaggerations of very small things they did that probably had very little consequence. So I- I cannot imagine, uh- a situation like that.
HEFFNER: In the show, one example of that is bugging- wire-tapping- the home of an American dignitary.
HEFFNER: Someone affiliated with the CIA or the State Department. Um- so that kind of activity likely occurred in real life.
WEISBERG: Well again- we don’t- you know, one of the tricky things about intelligence is we don’t know what we don’t know. Um. The historical precedent for that that sort of inspired that story was there was one incident where uh- Soviet Intelligence Services somehow managed to get a bug inside a Congressional office. Uh- I can’t remember exactly what type of Congressional office- but it was somewhere, somewhere in Congress. And it was discovered the next day.
So I don’t know how to answer your question. I- I- you know, the Soviet archive- the archives of the KGB miraculously- almost the entire archives- were stolen and smuggled out to the west. A guy named Mitrokhin, who was the KGB archivist, uh, over-
HEFFNER: It sounds like a kind of reverse WikiLeaks.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. That’s exactly right. This is- this could only happen in reality. This could not happen in fiction. The guy they gave the job of moving the archives when the KGB was moving their headquarters- uh- spent- I think he was given, I don’t know. Maybe ten years to do it. It was a big job.
And as he did it, he- on little tiny notecards, copied the entire archives. It’s incredible. Right? I mean, imagine how vast these archives were. And then every weekend he took these little notecards and he took them out to his summer dacha and hid them under the floorboards. And after a decade, he defected and took the whole thing to the west.
So the west has the archives of the KGB. There are- I don’t believe they’re 100 percent complete, but they’re very- very extensive. And that’s how we know a lot of what we know about illegals, and a lot of what we know about the history of the KGB.
Um- there is nothing in there about top officials homes being bugged or things like that. Um. These homes have security, you know, for- people like Caspar Weinberger, when they are, you know, working the cabinet, so it would be a very hard operation to pull off, even though- even though we did it in the show. Um. But again- we don’t know what we don’t know.
HEFFNER: Why do you think it doesn’t hit us in the gut when John Podesta’s emails are stolen? I don’t know- what- if you call that amnesia too, some Cold War amnesia that leads us to kind of forget that rivalry.
WEISBERG: I don’t know. I have another thought about it, although I’m- I haven’t fully decided if I actually feel this or not, so I just toss it out there as a trial balloon, but one thing that has occurred to me is that maybe this is how the conflict plays out now and it’s just this. And in a way, that would be great.
What if the conflict now is just cyber warfare? Well, that’s an improvement. You know? If we just attack each other’s emails and steal information and make each other look bad and that’s where it stops, that would be great.
I mean, as bad as it is, OK. I’ll take that. People aren’t doing proxy wars all around the world where people are killing each other. I mean, granted, I first thought this before things started going so badly in Syria.
But you know, I think there’s some level on which it’s just not that bad.
HEFFNER: What about the potential for economic ramifications? But if you think about the hacking of our democracy in the candidacy of Donald Trump, uh, there is something more injurious to the American character than just snark- which is a lot of the email story?
WEISBERG: Right now, we are sort of the global leader in a multi-national movement to impose sanctions on Russia. Right? Those are economic sanctions which are very injurious to their economy and causing a lot of real grief and pain in that country.
It’s not a war where people are killing each other, but it has real consequences. Now- let’s- it’s hard- you get in this sort of never-ending question of who started it, which is one of the problems of international politics and one of the problems with trying to deal with what…we were talking earlier about, sort of, what is this battle, and what is this thing- how did it happen? And you were saying is it- does it go back to- we were talking about- does it go back to the Cold War and just these sort of psychological things, or is it Syria? It’s impossible to answer.
WEISBERG: So I’m not actually suggesting that some of the things were not going on before the sanctions- some of them were. But they weren’t quite as bad. They’ve- they’ve gotten stepped up and they’ve gotten a lot worse.
So let’s look at some of the things we did and some of the things they did. All right? So we imposed these sanctions, which is a really- really heavy thing to do. Right? That’s a serious action against another country.
So let’s say that some of this is retaliation for that. But as retaliation- it’s mild compared to that. You say, they’re interfering in our elections- well, that’s a horrible thing to do. They’re undermining our democracy. But we are attacking their economy, which can handle it a lot less than our democracy can handle that. Right?
They- they are- they already have a struggling economy and we’re undermining the sanctions. So as retaliation, I don’t know, I’m not sure that’s so- that’s so horrible. But now- let’s go back a step further. What are the sanctions about?
Well, the sanctions are about their actions in Ukraine. OK. I don’t even know what to say about that. You know, forget my opinion, I don’t even know if I have an opinion. You get ten different people, you’ll have ten different opinions about whether or not our sanctions are reasonable, unreasonable, make any sense as a retaliation for what’s going on in Ukraine, or whether or not- and I guess this is probably the closest thing to my opinion- whether or not we have standing to retaliate against them for what’s going on in Ukraine.
And you can just keep going back and back and back and back forever and this becomes a story of how two nations end up in a conflict that I don’t think they even need to be in.
HEFFNER: Right. And interestingly, needless is what Donald Trump has suggested that this conflict is, on the one hand, he’s really said we don’t need this.
WEISBERG: There happens to be a total of one thing that I agree with Donald Trump on. One thing. That’s it.
HEFFNER: Right. And I asked you the question before about the possibility of these illegals at our poll sites because in the show, the two protagonists immerse themselves fully in American culture as travel agents. And everyone except- well, you’ll watch, I don’t want to spoil the first four seasons- but nobody really knows who they are except, you know, who finds out. [LAUGHS]
Um- and, and so that is what led me to the question about, you know, whether or not it was possible that those kinds of agents could be in the field as polling officials or U.S. government officials in some way. Attempting to influence the election. But..
WEISBERG: I see. You were saying for example, look at those ten illegals. Could one of them have gotten a job at a polling place.
HEFFNER: Right. Right. And meanwhile, it seems like from Ukraine or Russia, these operatives- the cyber operatives- are able to download the lists of American voters, I believe it’s over 40 to 45 states in this last election cycle requested the Department of Homeland Security’s assistance in protecting the integrity of the vote, so that’s- that’s- those are enormous stakes in terms of the integrity of our democracy and any Russian covert or overt attempts to undermine American democracy.
But what is interesting to- to think about in the context of the show and how you put forward ‘84 to ‘88, which is considered a different Reagan foreign policy, a kinder, gentler, sweeter Ronald Reagan-
HEFFNER: Concerned with nuclear proliferation and using the vehicles of diplomacy. This is relevant now because the Democrats are accusing the Republicans of McCarthy-ite tactics. The Republicans are accusing the Democrats of the same kind of McCarthy-ite tactics. Um. Who’s red? I’m just wondering what your insights are in to this.
WEISBERG: You know, it’s- we think and talk about Reagan all the time over- over at the offices. And it’s interesting also to watch who they’re- you know- how they think and talk about him all the time in modern- in modern political circles. My brother just wrote a great book about Reagan- a really wonderful biography of- of him, which I was reading.
And you know, it’s impossible not to become sort of wistful reading about- reading about Reagan now, which is funny because I don’t think uh- I know a lot of people who didn’t feel that way at the time, but as you say, he became uh, in certain ways, uh, so much more moderate in his- in his later years- and was able to kind of tack back from some of his early positions and approach the Soviets in a- in a more open and- and peaceful way- despite some of his uh- despite some of his rhetoric and despite a conviction he maintained that this was a corrupt system that had to go and was going to go.
But- but he was able to nevertheless be more diplomatic and- and suggest certain ideas about arms control that- that made sense and were peaceful, and he just became different in that regard. And he was able to be open to Gorbachev in certain ways.
So you look now, and- this may just be the story of our country, that you always look back and you say we’re polarized now- we thought we were polarized then and look at us now.
HEFFNER: Right. And what do you think of kind of the contemporary literature in this arena? I mean you can go all the way back to Moscow on the Hudson, uh, through Bridge of Spies. How- how do you see your portrait in sort of the context of this ongoing literature on the screen?
WEISBERG: I love some of those- I mean, I haven’t seen Moscow on the Hudson in a very long time, so I don’t remember it that well. I loved Bridge of Spies, it was one of my, you know, favorite spy movies that I’ve ever seen.
When the show started out, I- I had an idea that it should be, um- in a way, one of the more realistic spy things that had ever been filmed. And in particular, I thought there had not been really almost any realistic trade craft- espionage trade craft that had ever been on screen.
And you know, I run the show with a guy named Joel Fields, who is uh- you know, we do everything together, and he’s worked in television for years and years and we sat down together and we started talking about how to do some of this stuff. And you know, one thing I learned right away was that if you want to do something like uh- surveillance detection and how people do that in cars, there are just certain limits we were gonna have on how to do that realistically because our resources were limited.
And to be able to show that in the way I originally had in my mind would have used our entire budget, to, you know, for an episode on the one scene- it would have taken our entire budget.
So he and I started working out together how to still do it realistically, but in a way that wouldn’t, you know, blow the bank.
And over the course of, you know, the first couple of seasons, we figured it out for a lot of different areas of trade craft and I think we ended up realizing the goal of making a very realistic espionage show. And it’s not to say everything in the show is realistic, which it isn’t- but that it is, in certain ways, more realistic than- than what’s been on the screen before.
By the way- then I go to Bridge of Spies- and that whole- I think it’s right at the beginning, that whole opening sequence of that dead drop that he- that he picks up- is- is fantastic and brilliant and totally, totally realistic. So uh- so they’re catching up with us as soon as we do it.
HEFFNER: And finally, Joe- McCarthyism- back to that point- on the rise or decline you see in the next years?
WEISBERG: Uh- I- I- I’ve never predicted anything and not been wrong, so I will uh- decline to predict but just cross my fingers.
HEFFNER: Right. Yeah- let’s- let’s hope not. Uh- or let’s at least hope the Edward R. Murrows are out there-
HEFFNER: Ready to fight back. An honor to have you here, Joe.
WEISBERG: Thank you. A real pleasure.
HEFFNER: And for those of you in the audience, uh, Joe’s latest season, creator of The Americans, will be premiering this March.
And thanks to the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then, keep an Open Mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.