Martin and Mitchell, Turncoat Technicians: The Lavender Scare and Cold War Homophilia

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Christina Gusella, Emory University
Once the immediate military threat of the postwar ideas passed, ideological and cultural differences came to assume greater importance in the Cold War. From the 1940s on, dozens of Americans and Soviets defected from their respective countries in search of a new life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. While westbound defections have long been studied, there is little scholarship on American eastbound defectors, for whom the USSR stood as the radiant future of humanity. This paper examines the stated and real motivations of William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell, two NSA cryptologists who defected to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Martin married, assumed a Soviet identity, and enrolled in graduate school. Only a few years later, however, he described his defection as “foolhardy,” divorced his wife, and requested permission to re-enter the United States — permission that was never granted. Mitchell, however, renounced his American past and remained in the USSR for the rest of his life. These men became infamous for their defection and for their rumoured homosexuality, an interpretation that American government and media publicly sensationalized. After news of the defection broke, both the United States and the USSR manipulated their system’s gender and sexuality understandings as propaganda weapons in the battle against their ideological opponent. Through the examination of government documents, media reports, and personal files, this paper analyzes the motivations, experiences, and outcomes of Martin and Mitchell’s Soviet defection in order to understand Cold War culture and how popular norms and restrictions on freedoms in the U.S., specifically regarding politics, gender, and sexuality, encouraged some Americans to seek “freedom” in a competing ideological and social system. Finally, this study illustrates the profound effects that the Cold War, often analyzed from a political and military perspective, had on family and personal lives.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>