Blogs > HNN > Robert Justin Goldstein: Review of The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage -- By Rosalee McReynolds and Louise S. Robbins (Praeger, 2009)

Oct 17, 2009 5:56 pm

Robert Justin Goldstein: Review of The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage -- By Rosalee McReynolds and Louise S. Robbins (Praeger, 2009)

[Robert Justin Goldstein is Professor Emeritus, Oakland University, Rochester, MI and Research Associate, The Center for Russian & East European Studies, The University of Michigan.]

This tale of the espionage -- or perhaps more accurately, attempted espionage-- careers in the 1940s of husband-and-wife American librarians is a subject of very modest importance, especially as its essence appears in books published (both earlier and later than this one) in the Yale University Press volumes on Soviet espionage activities in America by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes (Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America) --accounts largely identical to each other, down to exact sentence wording, although for the good reason that there ultimately isn’t much “there there,” Klehr and Haynes don’t mention the Keeneys in their summary volume, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials that Shaped American Politics.

McReynolds, a library historian at Loyola University in New Orleans, researched this book for over 15 years before dying of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52; Louise Robbins, director of the library school at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of books and articles on the history of the American Library Association, especially its response to censorship and other politically-sensitive issues, completed the research and the manuscript.

Mary Jane and Philip Keeney met while both were working as librarians at the University of Michigan in 1929, shortly before the stock market crashed. By the mid-1930s, when Philip was head librarian at Montana State University in Missoula, they were both casually involved with leftish political views and movements. In a nationally-publicized 1937 controversy, Philip was fired by Montana State’s new president, apparently due to a mixture of personal antipathies and Philip’s political views, including his attempts to form a faculty union. The Keeneys’ political views became increasingly radical thereafter, but both were able to obtain a variety of federal jobs between 1940 and 1947, were active in several “popular front” groups and socialized with numerous people who were involved in Soviet espionage activities.

According to evidence which the FBI gathered by illegally burglarizing their house, tapping their phone and reading Mary Jane’s diary, both Keeneys had numerous contacts with Russian agents and sought to provide them with information, but they apparently never actually came up with anything. According to the authors, though the Keeneys exerted “considerable effort” seeking to “contribute something of value to the Soviet cause in which they believed . . neither the FBI nor the various [congressional] investigating committees had any evidence of their having given their KGB or GRU [Soviet civilian and military intelligence] handlers anything.” Perhaps this book should probably be re-titled The Librarian Spies Wanna-bees.

Although no evidence of actual espionage was apparently ever uncovered against the Keeneys, they had a long list of acquaintances and political affiliations that were viewed as damning by the authorities, and in 1947 both lost their federal jobs and were denied passports, without being given any specific reasons (which would have revealed the FBI’s illegal activities). Mary Jane was publicly attacked in a 1946 congressional report and was named by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his notorious early 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia (by then, she was working for the United Nations and was soon dismissed and received $6,000 in compensation when U. N. Secretary General Trygve Lie refused to accept a U.N. employee panel recommending her reinstatement).

In 1952, she was indicted for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before a Senate committee, though later acquitted. The Keeneys eventually founded and ran a cinema club in Washington, D.C. between 1952 and 1958 (which the FBI regularly visited, no doubt to keep up on the latest art films); Philip died in 1962 and Mary Jane passed away in 1969 after retiring from a copy-editing job.

There is little of interest in the book’s central focus. But a few items mentioned, more or less in passing, seem worthy of more investigation: The passive role of the ALA both when Philip was fired in 1937 and when the Keeneys had their troubles with the government during the post-World War II red scare without ever being able to confront the evidence against them; the broader currents involved in the Montana State episode, which occurred at the crest of a national wave of censorship and book banning controversies (see, for example, Shirley and Wayne Wiegand, Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland about the 1940 raid and mass seizure of books at a Communist Party bookstore in Oklahoma, and Rick Wartzman, Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath [in 1939 in California]); the reference to Mary Jane Keeney in FBI documents published during the 1949 Judith Coplon trial, which clearly revealed massive FBI illegalities which caused a scandal 25 years later, but which the contemporary mainstream press failed to pursue amidst the growing anti-red hysteria; and the trouble caused the Keeneys by their affiliations with the Washington Bookshop (WB), a vaguely leftish bookstore whose primary sins seem to have been failing to enforce the usual Washington racial segregation practices at numerous cultural events and for daring to include Marxist books in its wide and diverse collection (including some volumes probably purchased primarily by the FBI, which, incidentally, charged me ten cents per page for thousands of pages of photocopies of such books in response to a Freedom of Information Act request about the WB).

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