Spies came in all guises in 1950s television. Whether they were trained government agents risking life and limb to keep the nation safe from Communist schemes, or "average guy" do-gooders who mixed espionage with their other careers, the spies who populated TV during the Cold War were powerful communicators. By their words and actions they embodied freedom, religious belief, and individuality. They were brave in standing up against Red tyranny. They were humane in their concern for the downtrodden being pressed further to the earth by the jackboots of Communist dictatorship. And they were self-sacrificing, facing imprisonment or death if they failed in their weekly contests with Communism.
Video spies were plentiful during the Cold War. As Table 3 suggests, throughout the 1950s American secret agents battled Communism in hundreds of dramatic encounters.
No entertainment series did more to champion anti-Communism than I Led 3 Lives. The show was based on Herbert A. Philbrick's best-selling account of his nine years as an FBI agent posing as a member of the Communist Party of the United States. The producer of the program, Frederic W. Ziv, was no novice with such topical material. In 1952 his company had produced and syndicated a popular radio series, I Was a Communist for the FBI, which was drawn from the actual exploits of another FBI counterspy, Matt Cvetic.
|Table 3 Spy Series in the 1950s|
|Years of||No. of|
|Passport to Danger||1951-52||39|
|Biff Baker, U.S.A.||1952-53||26|
|I Led 3 Lives||1954-55||26|
|Adventures of the Falcon.||1954-55||39|
|Secret File, U.S.A.||1954-55||26|
|The Man Called X||1955-56||39|
|David Harding, Counterspy||1958|
|The Invisible Man||1958-59||26|
|Behind Closed Doors||1958-59||26|
Although the FBI had no direct input into I Led 3 Lives, former agent Philbrick was actively involved with the production of scripts. For two seasons the story lines came from his book. During the third season plot ideas came from the files and notes kept by Philbrick. In all cases he reviewed scripts for historical accuracy and conformity with FBI practices. "I knew of the things that the Bureau does and doesn't do, and the things that Mr. Hoover liked, and the things he didn't like," Philbrick told an interviewer in 1974. "So, that was my job," he added, "to kind of make sure that they [the FBI] didn't have to take care of this."
Interestingly, for many who were creatively involved with I Led 3 Lives, the program was intended as classic spy-genre entertainment, not as Cold War political propaganda. Yet for Philbrick—who wrote a weekly anti-Communist column for the New York Herald Tribune during the first run of the series, and who fashioned a career as a professional anti-Communist writer and lecturer—the program was clearly intended as political information as well as entertainment. For Frederic W. Ziv, too, the series was political. He remarked, two decades after the show appeared:
It's very difficult in these times to realize what was going on then. But it was felt that there was a genuine Communist threat to undermine the United States, perhaps to take over the United States. The FBI felt that they must have surveillance, and the public was entitled to know that that type of surveillance was going on. I feel that we rendered that service to the general public. You may or may not approve of that in today's times. At that time I felt that it rendered a proper service.
On TV, I Led 3 Lives enjoyed great success. It was released to syndication in 1953 and ran for 117 half-hour episodes. As late as the 1980s it was still being shown on local stations. Throughout the series Richard Carlson appeared as the FBI agent whose heroics seemed to be saving the United States from impending collapse. A typical show might involve Red plans to introduce a low-cost narcotic to American youngsters, an attempt by the Communists to steal top-secret information, or a plot to incite labor unrest by spreading hate-filled pamphlets among factory workers. Occasionally, Philbrick might even be ordered by the party to a foreign country—certainly outside the legal jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—where he invariably caused FBI ingenuity to defeat Communist goals.
The world of I Led 3 Lives was a threatening one in which Philbrick was balanced between subversive Reds intent upon destroying the American system, and the demands of an FBI "plant" secretly struggling to thwart and expose these diabolical goals. Each weekly victory meant "eliminating one more threat to our national security." Each Philbrick triumph was the result of American character and morality besting the deceit and general malevolence of "the Red underground." And in case viewers missed the immediacy of Philbrick's martyrdom, each week Carlson reminded viewers that this was for real:
This is the story, the fantastically true story, of Herbert A. Philbrick, who for nine frightening years did lead three lives—average citizen, high-level member of the Communist Party, and counterspy for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For obvious reasons the names, dates, and places have been changed. But the story is based on fact.
Like most entertainment programs with Cold War themes, I Led 3 Lives never discussed the East-West issues in rational terms. It offered no explanation of why adult Americans joined the Communist party. It never honestly discussed the extent or effectiveness of subversion in the United States, nor did it explain the degree to which the party was infiltrated by other FBI agents. Viewers encountered instead a traditional morality tale in which the forces of Good always won, but the forces of Evil were never fully vanquished.
Further, Communism was never presented as a legitimate economic and political arrangement of society. Instead, viewers saw it in terms of domestic subversion, brutal Russian dictators, expansionist world views in Moscow and Peking, and ruthless suppression of East European and Asian democracies. Just as it would have been invalid to interpret capitalism using Nazi Germany as the only example, so Communism needed a perspective much broader than Soviet imperialism. There were, however, no discussions of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Communism, the different types of socialism, the exploitation of workers around the world, and the comparative records of capitalist and Marxist economies in newly emerging nation-states. American TV in the 1950s sought no real answers. Instead, it flooded the culture with politicized rhetoric that, rather than reason with viewers, bombarded them with anti-Communist platitudes.
The propagandistic content of I Led 3 Lives and its indirect connection with the actual FBI were well understood in the United States and abroad. At the request of three separate government military organizations, Ziv Television Programs, Inc., in 1954 provided copies of those episodes of I Led 3 Lives dealing with Red sabotage training and Communist infiltration of civil defense groups. Ziv offered the films to these government organizations at no cost, "since the films are to be used for indoctrination and enlistment purposes."
Overseas, the reception of I Led 3 Lives was not always as appreciative as in the United States. The series was barred from distribution in Hong Kong, Australia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. When it was telecast in Mexico, the Russian embassy filed an official protest with the Mexican government. When the British Broadcasting Corporation aired several episodes in the mid-1950s, the series became a point of dispute in the House of Commons.
As an FBI agent, the hero of I Led 3 Lives was legally confined to activities within the borders of the United States. Occasionally the writers placed Philbrick abroad—but always sent there at the behest of the party and always operating as a private citizen. There was, however, a vast array of TV undercover agents patriotically working overseas to protect American interests and entertain television audiences.
In Passport to Danger Cesar Romero portrayed Steve McQuinn, a diplomatic courier whose duties for the State Department took him to such cities of intrigue as Sofia, Belgrade, Berlin, and Istanbul. The Man Called X and David Harding, Counterspy had been popular radio programs concerning international espionage before coming to TV. The Cold War so affected the old radio series The Adventures of the Falcon that when it came to television in 1954, its hero, Mike Waring, ceased to be a private detective and was now a U.S. intelligence agent laboring against international evil. As late as 1959-60 the short-lived series Counterthrust introduced viewers to the exploits of American counterespionage agents battling Communists in the Far East.
Such Cold War champions were frequently military intelligence officers. Often their adventures were said to be based on actual military records. Pentagon, U.S.A. (originally titled Pentagon Confidential) was a brief series in 1953 that dramatized cases from the criminal investigation files of the U.S. Army. In 1958-59 Behind Closed Doors was purportedly based on the experiences and records of Rear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias, deputy chief of Naval Intelligence during World War II. Although Zacharias' achievements had come in World War II, the series had a pointedly Cold War theme. Its stories concerned activities such as the attempt by American spies to plant a listening device in the Russian embassy in London, arranging the defection of a Russian Air Force lieutenant, helping the anti-Communist Czech underground, and preventing the assassination of world leaders such as King Hussein of Jordan and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia.
Espionage was a popular theme. It was even featured in historical series such as O.S.S., which focused on World War II cases of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. I Spy, an anthology program hosted by Raymond Massey, offered spy stories of even greater historical depth, ranging from Biblical times to the present. But whatever the time frame in which such series told their stories, they all presented the world of the spy as a threatening one involving life-and-death struggle. This atmosphere was delineated effectively by Christopher Storm, the central character of Foreign Intrigue:
When one country knows something it doesn't want another country to know, a state secret is born. Then the international fight for custody begins: government official versus government official, diplomat versus diplomat, espionage agent versus counterespionage agent. And the others, the men who never wear striped pants or frock coats, and who always carry guns and grudges—those who buy and sell secrets large and small like vegetables on the open market—men loyal only to the franc, the peseta, the dollar, the mark, the shilling—men living among us as one of us, but dying among us differently.
The degree to which the fears of the Cold War had become the grist of evening TV entertainment was strikingly evidenced in a trade advertisement in Variety in January 1956. Here the syndicators of The Man Called X purchased two full pages to trumpet the relevance of their property. "Now! TV's Most Colorful Man of Mystery!" proclaimed one banner headline. "C.I.A. Vital to U.S. Policy Makers" and "Spy Stories Always Great Entertainment," suggested others. Most pointedly, the ad announced that "Secret agents have molded our destiny." To drive home the point that The Man Called X was pertinent to, and exploitative of, the real fears of Americans in the 1950s, the advertisement grimly accentuated the necessity of spies.
Survival of any nation today, in the event of an attack by an enemy power, may be directly in proportion to its advance "intelligence," or knowledge of that enemy ... disposition of land, sea, and air power, hidden targets, weak points, concentration of physical resources, defenses, stamina of its people, intentions, plans, and capacities of its government.6
The Man Called X was the quintessential Cold War spy series. Produced by Ziv, the program featured Barry Sullivan as Ken Thurston, "code name X," whose activities took him behind the Iron Curtain to aid the cause of world freedom. In a stentorian voice the narrator proclaimed: "These are the stories of America's intelligence agents, our country's first line of defense." In the opening of one episode—a drama in which Thurston arranged the defection to the West of a prominent East European ballerina—the thrust of all espionage series was succinctly summarized: protect Americans, aid free people around the world, and thwart the war-threatening goals of international Communism.
The protection of the nation's welfare is the first concern of the United States government. And to that end intelligence agents work 24 hours a day in every part of the world. Also of great concern is the welfare of all free people, like those of this small country in Middle Europe controlled by an international group of corrupt and ruthless men whose ultimate goals could threaten world security.
TV images of American spies were not limited to professional intelligence operatives. Supplementing the military and government agents were patriotic citizens involved overseas on the U.S. side of the Cold War. Biff Baker, U.S.A., a CBS presentation in the 1952-1953 season, concerned a businessman whose import-export affairs took him and his wife all over the world. While closing deals for his company, Baker invariably would do a little spying for his country. In his personality he melded the ethic of capitalism and the spirit of patriotism.
Baker and his wife were convincing. When blocked by an East European official, Biff could be blunt—as he was when he told a Czech military officer, "I'll go over your head, all the way to Moscow!" He could be decisive. In one episode, while vacationing in Austria he had no second thoughts about destroying a secret Communist radio station that had been jamming broadcasts from the Voice of America. And that escapade was carried out "in the name of all people who seek freedom beyond the Iron Curtain." Baker could also be brave, as when he aided a French plantation owner fighting off a murderous band of Viet Minh rebels outside Saigon. "Anything's possible with these fanatics," warned the Frenchman. Baker apparently agreed as he quipped, "I'm not partial to pink."
Biff Baker, U.S.A. was so effective in portraying the businessman as spy that its sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, received letters from business groups protesting the implication that American businessmen in Europe were spying for the government. Fenton Earnshaw, the story supervisor for the series, was quick to defend his program. He gave the complaining letters to the FBI, and explained in a trade journal that his scripts were approved by the State Department, the FBI, and the Commerce Department. Earnshaw claimed, moreover, that the series was "attempting to create [a] positive, constructive kind of propaganda to encourage the American people along the road to worldwide democracy. Therefore any attack upon the show is an attack on democracy."
The spectrum of citizen-spies ranged from Steven Mitchell, the hero of Dangerous Assignment, who worked for a private intelligence agency that always supported American foreign policy goals, to the central character of China Smith, a vagabond Yankee drifting from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, instinctively fighting Communism because it was evil. In The Hunter the hero was not only an international playboy but also a patriot who at a moment's notice could leave a tennis match at Wimbledon and jet to Hungary to help an anti-Communist informer, or leave an art display in Germany and sneak into Prague to help the Czech underground. A favorite type for these series was the newspaperman. In this vein was Foreign Intrigue, syndicated from 1951 to 1955. Also important was Crusader, a series that in 1955-56 featured Brian Keith as Matt Anders, an international journalist who fought simultaneously for scoops and world security.
If the milieu of the professional spy was intriguing, the private-citizen-as-secret-agent was downright compelling. All the fears and frustrations of the era could be transferred to the shoulders of this hero. Here was a forthright picture of a man acting out his nationalistic convictions. Moving through a shadowy Hungarian street, dodging Polish border guards, making fools out of Russian military officials, stamping out Red guerrilla movements—in activities like these the powerless average viewer could project himself or herself through the citizen-spy and into the international struggle. In this manner, characters such as Matt Anders and Biff Baker became modern-day Minutemen, temporarily laying aside professional commitments to aid in the defense of social freedom.
Because they were amateurs, these nonprofessional spies usually happened upon their weekly suspenseful involvement. In the episode of Foreign Intrigue aired August 27, 1953, it was while pursuing a news story in East Berlin that journalist Bob Cannon came to help a rocket scientist defect to the West. Matt Anders just happened to be a passenger on a Polish airplane when it was hijacked at gunpoint to Hamburg and freedom. Even when Biff Baker was approached by American government officials and asked to do a little espionage work, he seemed ignorant of the implications of doing such a favor.
There was nothing serendipitous, however, about the propaganda content of these series. They all strongly asserted the anti-Communist position in the Cold War. Never doubting the political and moral rightness of their activities, their heroes acted to bring American justice to the unjust world. Casual and affable, these champions stood resolutely against Communist terror—and they always emerged as winners. This message of Americanism was strongly stated in the written preamble that rolled across the TV screen at the beginning of each episode of Crusader:
Crusader records the struggle of democratic people against the enemies of freedom and justice at home and abroad. These are the stories of people who have been helped by the many great organizations which are dedicated to bringing truth to those who are fed lies, light to those who live in darkness, protection to those who live in fear.
Inherent in most of these Cold War adventure programs was a picture of the world outside the United States as wretched and unsettled. Those clinging to the notion of a postwar united world of free and equal nations found little solace in such series. Crime, espionage, poverty, and generalized dispiritedness permeated shows like Orient Express and Terry and the Pirates. Scenes in such programs often showed bombed-out cities or hungry children to American viewers grown used to the middle-class, suburban happiness depicted in TV programs like Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and 77 Sunset Strip. Relative to a cholera epidemic in Libya, primitive agricultural techniques in Pakistan, or a political revolution in Burma, the United States was a fat, contented place. In the words of the hero of The Hunter, it was "a place at the end of the rainbow where even the toothpaste is green."
As well as being malnourished and on the verge of turmoil, the world beyond the United States was pictured as treacherous and terrifying. Enemy spies seemed to be everywhere, working to inhibit individual freedom and disrupt peace. The opening to Secret File, U.S.A.—a syndicated series filmed in Europe and featuring Robert Alda as an American intelligence officer, Major Bill Morgan—epitomized the unsettling picture of international politics offered by Cold War television.
Secret File, U.S.A.: a warning to all enemies of America, at home and abroad, who are planning acts of aggression. This is the story of the gallant men and women who penetrated, and are still penetrating, enemy lines to get secret information necessary for the defense of the United States. This is the story of one of our nation's mightiest weapons—past, present, and future if necessary—the American intelligence services.
If the TV image of American spies was heroic, the enemy was portrayed as the embodiment of perfidy. Communists were militant, deceitful, and merciless. They fomented revolutions, schemed for power, and lived in a gray, godless world. Arrogantly, these Communists sought to refashion the rest of the planet to match their dismal world.
For Herb Philbrick on I Led 3 Lives, Communism was "a dangerous threat to world security;" its goal was "control of everything and everybody by any means;" and it believed that "If you scream a lie loud [sic] and long enough, the people will start to believe it." Starker still was the image of Communists presented in "Assignment Prague," an episode of Behind Closed Doors telecast on NBC on April 9, 1959. Here, as a movie studio behind the Iron Curtain churned out anti-American propaganda films under the scrutiny of distrustful Communist bureaucrats, a narrator described the project.
This is one view of America. This view that is now being filmed in motion picture capitals of Eastern Europe—distorted, perverted, untrue. Excellent propaganda for distribution throughout Russia and her satellite countries. An insidious business closely watched and controlled by the omnipotent commissars. By carefully chosen producers such as comrade Bernasek—talented, dedicated, warped—who oversee every stage of the filming. By highly trained script girls who watch carefully for un-American errors. By top-flight cameramen recording every anti-American vilification on film. And by the best available directors, such as John Carpenter, recruited from an American Communist cell.
Every time a professional or amateur spy won his battle against a Communist enemy, television applauded the active role in foreign affairs assumed by the U.S. government after World War II. Television news may have reported the Cold War as a factual reality, but dramatized series enhanced the American position by adding characterization, emotionality, and recognizable purpose to the Cold War. And backing the believability of the TV undercover agents was the enormous strength of the U.S. military. It, too, became a significant source of entertainment on television in the 1950s.