President Biden on Tuesday formally declared that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich is being wrongfully detained in Russia, where the journalist has been charged with espionage. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Hostages as Messages,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed the political posturing that so often precipitates and defines hostage-taking, from the 1776 British capture of General George Washington’s second-in-command Charles Lee to the 1974 abduction of Patty Hearst. In a case not dissimilar from the Gershkovich controversy, Soviet agents detained Yale “Sovietologist” Frederick Barghoorn for 16 days in November 1963, sparking a front-page international incident. 

Sixty years before the Russian government accused Evan Gershkovich of being a spy, around 7:30PM on Halloween, 1963, a man walked up to Yale Professor Frederick Barghoorn outside of the Metropole Hotel in Moscow. Barghoorn was working on a book about Soviet sociology and was due to fly to Warsaw the next morning. He was returning to his hotel room after drinks with Walter Stoessel, the U.S. Minister-Counsel to Moscow’s American embassy. 

The man who approached Barghoorn asked “Are you an American?” and handed Barghoorn some rolled-up papers. Barghoorn, confused, took the papers. 

Almost immediately, two KGB agents appeared and arrested the Professor in a seeming frame-up. They took him to the notorious Lubyanka Prison, where he was kept in one room for the next sixteen days. He went to the bathroom in a bedpan and was relentlessly interrogated about alleged spying through a slit in the door, but was physically unharmed. He was given copies of the Russian daily Pravda and, in a somewhat mischievous move by the Soviets, a Russian-language copy of Theodore Dreiser’s iconic 1925 novel An American Tragedy

The 52-year-old Professor spoke Russian and had quite a history in the Soviet Union. After receiving a doctorate in History from Harvard in 1941, Barghoorn had joined the U.S. State Department. From that perch, he served in the press section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during World War II and interviewed defecting Soviets in West Germany in the late 1940s. 

He then joined the Yale faculty and wrote four respected books about Russia, beginning with the 1950 The Soviet Image of the United States: A Study in Distortion. He had traveled to Russia several times to research his monographs, exercising caution by avoiding speaking to women and leaving his camera at home. “Professor Barghoorn has cultivated few intimate friends and has devoted himself to Soviet studies with single-mindedness,” the New York Times reported in a profile. “He is a bachelor.” 

Few Americans in Russia initially recognized Barghoorn’s absence, given his expected departure to Warsaw. When they rang the alarm, however, President Kennedy quickly sprang into action. 

On November 14th, 1963, Kennedy held a presidential news conference at the State Department Auditorium and excoriated the Soviets for the arrest. “He was not on an intelligence mission of any kind,” Kennedy said of Barghoorn. “He is a distinguished professor of Soviet affairs, he has played a most helpful and constructive role in arranging cultural exchanges, scientific exchanges.”

Kennedy also issued a broad threat about the potential impact of Barghoorn’s arrest on diplomacy:  “We are concerned not only for his personal safety, but because this incident, I think, can have a most serious effect upon what we understood the Soviet government’s strong hope was, and certainly our hope, that we would find a widening of cultural intellectual exchanges.”

As Kennedy implied, Barghoorn’s detainment came at a hopeful but still-tense moment in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. relationship. Barely a year had passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis, but there were signs of a thaw, buoyed by the previous month’s Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by both nations. 

For one thing, more leading American scholars were going to Russia. At the time of Barghoorn’s arrest, both playwright Edward Albee and novelist John Steinbeck were touring the U.S.S.R. Steinbeck expressed particular anger at the detention, caustically suggesting to TIME magazine that he should have been taken in Barghoorn’s place: “They should have arrested me. I covered more territory and asked more questions.” 

Amid Kennedy’s stand, American foreign policy hands pondered the real reasons for the arrest. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles suggested that Barghoorn may have been taken as revenge for the U.S. detainment in New Jersey of a Soviet trade agency chauffeur and suspected spy named Igor Ivanov

The day after Kennedy’s strongly-worded denunciation and amid continued speculation of Soviet motives, U.S. diplomats in Russia boycotted a Soviet-American “friendship concert” designed to honor the 30th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s resumption of diplomatic ties between the two nations. The Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s wife Nina attended the awkward event, which featured 25 empty seats for the U.S. delegation. 

The State Department also instructed American organizations to boycott a 16-person “cultural delegation” that had just arrived from the U.S.S.R. Ironically, Professor Barghoorn had been one of the catalysts in the cultural exchange program and had led a Yale group to Russia in 1961. 

The Russian paper Tass denounced the American reaction to Barghoorn’s detention, calling the response an “hysterical anti-Soviet campaign such as Sen. Goldwater and his yes-men, the Birchites, might envy.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valerian Zorin said that Americans were “making a mountain of a molehill” and said vaguely that Barghoorn had been arrested because he was “not doing a proper job.” Zorin asked the American press, “How can one man create a problem between our countries?” 

The American pressure campaign, however, was quickly successful. Zorin’s boss, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, orchestrated Barghoorn’s release the day after the uncomfortable concert, telling the New York Times that the release had been arranged “in view of the personal concern expressed by President Kennedy.” Gromyko, however, still continued to vigorously assert that Barghoorn was a spy. 

Barghoorn was greeted at New York’s Idlewild Airport on November 17th, 1963 by his 80-year-old mother Elizabeth, who said, “I’m very elated that he’s back, even though he is much lighter than he was when he left here.”  

More than 2,000 students and faculty welcomed Barghoorn home in New Haven.“You’d think I were a politician,” Barghoorn said of the reception. 

Later on the same day, Barghoorn held a press conference at Yale for 100 journalists. Barghoorn, always the academic, interpreted his detainment as part of a larger Soviet obsession with spying. “Under Soviet law, one can be accused of conducting intelligence activity merely by walking down the street,” he said. 

He also suggested that the brand of on-the-ground social science in which he was engaged was not culturally accepted in Russia: “It seems to be difficult as yet for the Soviet Communists to understand that there can be such a thing as objective social research.”  

Barghoorn, however, argued that the incident could be the basis of further understanding between his society and the society that he studied: “I was well treated, and I have not lost any optimism about the Soviet people and the future of Soviet-American relations.”  

And he reserved many of his most thankful words for President Kennedy, the man who had freed him: “President Kennedy’s intervention was of enormous importance.”  

Barghoorn was not alone in his positivity about the U.S.-Soviet dynamic and Kennedy’s role in shaping a more peaceful future. In an editorial, the New York Times lavished praise on President Kennedy’s shrewd approach in publicizing the scandal, and saw the Soviet response as evidence of the continuing positive trend following the Cuban Missile Crisis: “President Kennedy’s firmness secured Professor Barghoorn’s release because the Kremlin still values the few brigs of mutual trust that have been built recently.”  

On November 18th, thousands more Yalies attended a choral concert and rally in honor of Barghoorn. The Professor briefly spoke, bashfully stating, “In a sense, this is embarrassing to me because I regard myself as a symbol more than anything else. It could have happened to anybody.”  

Despite his discomfort with the spotlight, Barghoorn remained on the front pages and gave several television interviews. On the morning of November 22nd, 1963, Barghoorn headed to a studio in Hartford, Connecticut to appear on the “Yale Reports” program. He drove with two other Yale professors, and none of the men had listened to the radio en route. Upon arrival, they learned that President Kennedy had been shot. 

Barghoorn watched the news reports from the studio for much of the day and processed the death of the president. The Professor eventually offered a few words to the press on Kennedy’s relationship to Russia. “Although the Russian leadership viewed Kennedy as an opponent they also sensed, and to some degree, admitted that President Kennedy was a man of peace,” he said. 

Barghoorn’s story quickly became a footnote to the tragedy of November 22nd – a stand from President Kennedy’s last news conference, the final geopolitical stand-off of a felled statesman. A week after Kennedy’s killing, on November 29th, Los Angeles Times editorial columnist and foreign correspondent Robert Gibson penned a plea to remember Barghoorn’s plight, entitled “Barghoorn Case Too Revealing for Oblivion”:  “To let the Barghoorn case slip into the already swollen category of isolated provocations and past and forgotten, would be of dubious value. Like a birthmark, it is an identifying feature of Soviet society today.’ 

Despite Gibson’s advocacy, Barghoorn’s case indeed faded into obscurity without a clear narrative on Soviet motivations, dug up only when other journalists and academics were detained, like CBS journalist Robert C. Toth in 1977 and Wall Street Journal reporter Nicholas Daniloff in 1986. With the Gershkovich detainment, however, the United States is confronted again with the “birthmark” of Soviet society that has carried over dramatically into Putin’s Russia. 

Check out Frederick Barghoorn’s always-relevant scholarship, such as the 1960 The Soviet Cultural Offensive: The Role of Cultural Diplomacy in Soviet Foreign Policy.

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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