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William Weisband, Jr. Hear William Weisband, Jr. sing a song about his father.

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Family of Spies
William Weisband, Jr.
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NOVA: Why did you write "Father of Mine," the song about your father?

Weisband: I wrote "Father of Mine" because I think about my father every day. He's been dead 33-some years and of all the history, of all the material I've read, that's what it boils down to for me is, he's my dad and I just love him.

NOVA: How did you first learn about your dad's role in the Cold War?

Weisband: I found out about my father's involvement in the Cold War by reading the book by David C. Martin [Wilderness of Mirrors, Ballantine Books, 1981] as a very young, young person, 12 or 13 years old. I was looking at this book, and there was his picture with a little blurb. I read it and was, of course, amazed. Started a lifetime of investigation for me.

NOVA: How did it make you feel?

Weisband: It was shocking, only to the point that I was just very intrigued by it. I was interested in what his involvement was. He had never spoken to me about it. It was really never a subject in our household and in our family, so I was quite interested.

NOVA: Do you have any doubts that he was a spy?

Weisband: I don't really have any doubts that he had some kind of involvement. There have been some wonderful exploratory books lately, The Haunted Wood for one, that look at things from the Russian Comintern's side. [Editor's note: Officially known as the Communist International, the Comintern supervised Communist parties around the world from 1919 until 1943.] After reading that book, I don't believe that there's much doubt that he played a significant role in Venona.

William Weisband, Sr. William Weisband, who, says William Jr., "was the most loving person I have known to this day."

NOVA: Yet you feel proud of your father.

Weisband: I'm proud, very, very proud of who I am and who my father was. It's like peeling an onion, every book I read and every new story that comes out. It's very revealing and very intriguing. That's activity that happened before I was born, from the 1930s to the 1950s. I was born sometime after that so my perception of my father—it's like reading about a historical figure that you just happen to be very closely related to.

NOVA: What was your father like?

Weisband: My father was the most loving person I have ever known to this day. He had the greatest impact on me of any man that I have ever met and was the guiding force in who I am today. He was beautiful.

NOVA: So you never knew about your dad's spying while you were growing up?

Weisband: My dad's activity, his spying in Venona, never. The only thing I knew about my father was that he served in World War II. I saw his army hat and some of his army paraphernalia but knew nothing out about his Signal Corps operations. I knew he worked in the Signal Corps, Armed Forces Security Agency [the predecessor to the National Security Agency], but I never knew anything about his involvement being a spy or an operative for the KGB or anything like that.

NOVA: Your father was sentenced to prison for contempt of court. Did he ever tell you what that was like?

Weisband: My father never talked to me about being in prison. I remember sitting in his lap. I was very, very young watching the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and they had just locked someone up, put one of the outlaws in jail. I remember asking him, "Dad, have you ever been in jail?" There was a brief pause, sort of a long pause in retrospect, and he said "No."

NOVA: What did your father do for a living when you were growing up?

Weisband: My father had a very interesting job from my perspective when I was a child. He served as sort of a door-to-door insurance salesman, debit salesman, in Alexandria, Virginia. He had one of the largest debit books in the state. Most of our customers were African-American people, indigenous if you will. He would knock on doors. At some point in my father's life, as he got older, he had a hernia operation and ended up losing his leg. And I would go to the door—I must have been eight or nine years old—and knock on the door and say "Mr. Weisband, insurance man is here." So I was able to interact with a lot of his customers in a pretty incredible and special way.

"We were a very, very patriotic family."

NOVA: Did you know that your father was Russian-born?

Weisband: I knew that my father was born in Odessa, Russia. He would read Russian stories to us that were written in Russian, and he would translate them as he read them to us. They were wonderful stories.

He had great memories of his parents, whom I have only seen pictures of. He would talk about his Papa, and tears would come to his eyes. That's what I knew about Russia, my grandmother and my grandfather, and I just thought the Russian people were beautiful. But we never spoke about communism. We spoke about America and how it's the greatest country on the face of the Earth. We were a very, very patriotic family.

NOVA: How did your father die?

Weisband: Well, my father died in a very dramatic and impactive way. Every Sunday, my father would take me and my sisters to the zoo or the Smithsonian Institution or some other great place. This particular Sunday was Mother's Day, May 14th, 1967. We were driving down the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and he had a massive cardiac arrest and he died driving the car.

You can imagine the havoc. I grabbed the wheel and pulled the car over to the side of the road, an old '56 Pontiac, and turned the key off. The next thing I remember is being out in the middle of the George Washington Memorial Parkway stopping traffic, running down the middle of the road, knocking on doors looking for a doctor. Sure enough, I found two gentlemen—one gentleman in particular, who came over and pulled my father out of the car, laid him on the ground, and tried to resuscitate him.

NOVA: Do you remember his funeral? And was there anything particularly memorable about it?

Weisband: Yes, a couple of things happened at my father's funeral that left a lifelong imprint on me. First thing was, I was short, 11 years old, and I noticed that outside this funeral home were 40 or 50 African-American people weeping and just crowded out there on the lawn. I thought it was unusual because some of them I recognized from working with my father but others I didn't.

"'Mr. Weisband taught me how to write my name.'"

I thought perhaps they were waiting for the next funeral, but they came there to pay their respects to my Dad. I was standing near the door where they signed the guest book, and a gentleman walked up, grabbed a pen, and wrote his name in the guest book. I remember it sort of slanting off the particular line. He turned around and said, his eyes full of tears, "Mr. Weisband taught me how to write my name." I looked back at the coffin, and I just remember thinking, that's who my Dad is. That's what he was to these people out here. It stuck with me.

NOVA: Then you heard someone say something that you remember. Tell me about it.

Weisband: My mother. It's shocking, of course, standing at your father's coffin, the most important person in my life. My mother had a picture of her family, her kids. She put it in his pocket and said, "I'll take care of your kids, Bill. I'll take care of your children." I saw that, and it was very reassuring that I wasn't going to be living with that uncle that was standing behind me. That had a lasting impression on me, because I knew that she'd take care of us.

NOVA: Then something else happened, didn't it?

Weisband: Well, you know I'm not sure if it even happened, so I'd prefer to only talk about the things that I'm absolutely positive of. Here's one thing I'm positive of at this funeral, which was a day that plays in my mind like a film. I heard commotion in the back of the room, and one of our family friends was scuffling with someone, sort of throwing them out the door. I didn't know who it was, and I didn't know until years later that it was someone taking pictures of the funeral. I imagine in retrospect that it was somebody from the FBI who was documenting the life of my father.

NOVA: Did your mother ever tell you about your father's secret life?

Weisband: Well, my mother never said anything about this situation for years, and of course I've been asking her about the details and what her life was like for over 30 years. I've always had the feeling that she didn't want to lend dignity to the subject by even remarking on it. So she has been the least helpful in helping me discover my father's role in what happened, the details. She would be, of course, the best person to talk to about it, but she will not divulge any information to me whatsoever.

NOVA: Did you know your dad was a Communist?

Weisband: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Well, we never discussed the Communist Party. I mean, we would have conversations that communists that were limited to McCarthyism and about how Lucille Ball was accused of being a communist.

But we were, in my opinion, a very American family. We'd go to ball games; we'd stand up for the flag. My father explained to me why I put my hand over my heart when we sing the national anthem. He explained to me why you should never let the American flag touch the ground. He explained to me why you should never leave it out in the rain. He explained why the United States was the best country in the world, because we had freedom no matter what. Freedom of choice. Freedom of faith. Freedom to say what we believed. There was no greater place on Earth for me to be. I imagine he taught me how to be a patriot. I can only imagine that I got that from him.

"I can only imagine that he really believed what he was doing was right."

NOVA: Why do you think your father gave away secrets of Venona?

Weisband: Well, it's a question that I'd love to ask him, about why he gave secrets away that he discovered in the Venona project. I can only imagine that he believed that what he was doing was the right thing to do. As you know from studying some of these characters, this Cold War period, they're very principled people, very ideological, and very sincere about their beliefs. I can only imagine that he really believed what he was doing was right.

Understand again this was before I was around so... Looking at my young son, I can't imagine doing anything to jeopardize my son's future or my wife's future. I just can't imagine that. So I can only imagine that he believed that what he was doing was the right and proper thing.

NOVA: Did your father ever suffer anti-Semitism?

Weisband: Oh, definitely he did. My father worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City from what I understand, and it was a place where Jewish people couldn't stay in the 1930s and 1940s. That was the level of anti-Semitism that was going on there, and I think that finally one day he told them "I'm Jewish," and I think that's when they asked him to leave, frankly. He experienced it, I believe, all his life since he came to our country.

NOVA: What about you? Have you experienced anti-Semitism?

Weisband: I've never recognized any anti-Semitism in my life. It could be because I'm blind to it, but I'm very proud of my heritage. I've never experienced it to my knowledge.

NOVA: How did you find out about the Venona Project?

Weisband: The Venona project was extraordinary news to me, and I found out about it in a very particular way. I had some friends in Virginia that used to work for the CIA, and one of them introduced me one day to a friend of his, a gentleman named Clare George.

Now, Mr. George is a delightful person, very congenial, and I asked him if he could help me find out if there was any information from the CIA or the FBI about William Weisband. Mr. George asked me a few questions about why I wanted to know about my father and his involvement, and I explained to him that he was the most important person in my life. It's a legacy in a way, and what I'm seeking is to know as much about my father as an adult. I'm still on that mission.

So he told me a very interesting story that Robert Louis Benson—who was the genius editor of the Venona papers and also a very nice person who gave me some time—that he had Aldrich Ames files on one side of his desk and Venona files on the other in which my father had involvement. Mr. George was kind enough to allow me to meet with Mr. Benson. So I left there that day thinking, you know I'm on the road to finding out who my father was before—in his previous life.

"I'm the son of the greatest American patriot that ever lived."

NOVA: So how do you think of him now?

Weisband: Well, the fact that my father was a spy during the Cold War really has had very little bearing on who I am. He was a brilliant, brilliant man in his way. He poured his love and affection and knowledge into me on a daily basis and prepared me to be an American and to serve my country, to serve my God, to serve my family. He didn't really press a stigma of "you're the son of a spy" on me at all. In retrospect, I'm more thankful for that as the years go by than anything.

So I don't think to myself "Oh, I'm the son of a spy." I think I'm the son of the greatest American patriot that ever lived. He taught me how to salute. He taught me how to "at ease." He just taught me how to love my wife and my kids and taught me how to be a true American man, and I'm very thankful for that.

NOVA: Put yourself in your father's position. What do you think was going through his mind?

Weisband: I can only imagine putting myself in my father's position. If, say, I went to the Soviet Union or any other country and found new information that could somehow harm America, knowing that my relatives, people that I love and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and everything else, could somehow be in danger, I believe I would err on the side of the land I love. For my country, for America, I'd be a hero; for the Soviets I'd be shot. So I feel that in that way, I can relate to only the shadow of what he may have been feeling.

Beyond that, if I had done something terribly wrong in my life that was just wrong—and by the way, it's wrong to be a traitor to the country that you're a citizen of, no question about that—and if, 33 years after my death, my son would look at an interviewer and feel the way about me that I feel about my father, I'd be honored.

You know, part of the reason I've agreed to speak with you about this is just to let my son know someday how important it is that you stand on principles that perhaps aren't yours, as I've said. You know, the principles of Moses and the prophets and the Psalmist and the proverbs opened the door to righteousness. And perhaps not your perspective of eternal life but the perspective of George Bernard Shaw or Bertrand Russell or Joseph Stalin or George Bush for that matter could open the door to error. So be careful about what you put your faith and your trust in. And make sure that, for his sake, that you, you stand on something that's solid and true and, from my perspective, eternal.

Joan Hall | Ruth Hall | Boria Sax | Robert and Michael Meeropol | William Weisband, Jr.

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