The Americans, the acclaimed FX television series, focuses on the exploits and family drama of two Soviet spies, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, living in Washington during the Reagan years, passing as a native-born suburban couple with two kids, who run a travel agency. The white knuckle serial, which recently began its fourth season, breaks new ground for an American television production. It not only humanizes "enemy" spies, but empathizes with them in their endeavors, some of which involve killing innocent people.
Viewer "complicity" with the duo probably leads to guilty feelings exceeding those experienced watching television's most honored anti-heroes: Tony Soprano and Walter White. The Mafia has been romanticized since The Godfather and Walter's actions, because we don't see the effects of meth on its users, usually involve self-defense against far worse predators. Moreover, his stated motives weirdly serve, family values: making money for his wife and children's survival after his expected demise from lung cancer.
But, very few, even on the progressive side of the political spectrum, have rooted for the Soviet Union since at least Khrushchev's 1956 speech describing Stalin's crimes or the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. A repressive regime, somewhere between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, which colonized Eastern Europe and created a low standard of living at home, does not get ardent fans.
I suspect, however, Elizabeth and Philip are not embraced for their ideology, but despite it. They care about each other and their kids and have communication issues many can relate to. I like them for that as well, but, I must admit, also because of their foreign policy allegiances. However unappetizing domestic life inside the Soviet Union was, and its creation of repressive puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, it generally supporting the good (or better) side in civil wars, and international conflicts, compared to their American counterparts.
Take the Spanish Civil War. The USSR did some nasty stuff against their allies on the Republican side, but Franco was the greater evil. No other western government, including ours under FDR, was doing anything to support the anti-Franco forces, while Hitler was actively aiding him. Speaking of Hitler, the USSR basically won the war in Europe, inflicting 88 percent of German military casualties. Without Stalin's refusal to surrender in his own "Churchillian" moment at Stalingrad, the war would likely have been lost. Comparing Stalin to Churchill might seem sacrilegious, but Churchill, like Stalin, was disreputable in many other aspects of his career. He supported the fire bombings of German civilians in Dresden and the use of deadly mustard against Kurds and Arabs in Mesopotamia in 1920, which might easily be viewed as war crimes, He was an unrepentant white supremacist and imperialist.
What about Korea? Korea was a Vietnam prequel. We backed a tyrant, Syngman Rhee, who was supported by an array of local politicians who, unlike Rhee, who sat out the war against Japan in the U.S., were colonial collaborators with Japan during the war. But, this ignores the crazies from the North, backed by Stalin. In that period, the craziness hadn't materialized and it is mistake to look at North Korea in the past 25 years, assuming its history until then was identical. Kim Il Sung fought the Japanese, which colonized Korea in 1910, brutalizing it ever since. He was no Ho Chi Minh, but a legitimate nationalist resistance hero.
The North Korean economy was superior to that in the south before the 80s. It was not until the famine of the early 90s when regime insanity took over. Moreover, today's vibrant South Korean democracy didn't emerge until the 1987 mass protests against their military dictatorship, which had ruled from the early 60s. It was a vicious regime, probably not much different from what was going on in the north then.
The Vietnam War? The North Vietnamese and NLF were hardly choir boys, but were genuine nationalists with a mass support, unlike our corrupt and repressive South Vietnamese allies. Our many My Lai-style massacres, the use of chemicals weapons like Agent Orange and napalm, and indiscriminate bombing produced mass death and destruction which were the consequence of a misguided belief that the US could not accede to Vietnamese independence under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, despite acknowledgment he would easily win a fair election.
What else? The U.S. supported the Shah of Iran, the apartheid regime in South Africa, Mobutu in the Congo, Pinochet in Chile, the Duvaliers in Haiti, Suharto and even Pol Pot, among others. We helped send Mandela to jail for 27 years and played a role in the Congo's Patrice Lumumba's death. The Soviets were on the other side. They also supported movements in South America that fought against the dictators we embraced in our hemispheric version of Eastern Europe. What is the difference between the Monroe Doctrine and the Soviet's tortured rationalizations for their empire? It's hard to make the case our actions were more noble simply because we said so.
When Communists came to power they were more or less uniformly awful. But, thankfully few ever got into power. The groups we supported to prevent that were arguably worse...many more deaths on their records. Pol Pot and Suharto in Indonesia were the mass killing champs.
So, when I watched Philip and Elizabeth trying to liquidate a notorious pro-apartheid operative seeking to discredit an anti-apartheid student group in the U.S., or manipulating some Jihadists into killing each other, I'm pleased.
Philip and Elizabeth kill innocents to protect themselves from discovery. Stan, the FBI good guy, has killed an innocent too: a case of mistaken identity. One can overlook it, because he believed the person had killed a fellow FBI buddy. But, the Russian spies do their killing because they are undercover in an alien territory and fear discovery. Stan is home, not hiding who he is. It's hard to believe there aren't US undercover agents in countries around the world who haven't killed innocent people who might reveal their identities.
I hope, as fans begin the current season, they go beyond the often appealing personalities of the Elizabeth, Philip and Stan and consider the larger historical context of the Cold War. Season 4 should make it easier. It was, after all, the Mikhail Gorbachev era, but, more importantly, we are now in the midst of a presidential campaign in which all but Bernie Sanders try to outdo each other in defending American exceptionalism and the unquestioned virtue of our international posture and alliances. President Obama was pilloried by the GOP for going to Havana, but, as bad as Cuba's human rights record is, it pales compared to that of some we still bond with, such as the Saudis.