Foreign Affairs

Better Dead Than “Red Joan”

May 3, 2019
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(Lionsgate)

When the film industry—in this case the British one—makes a movie about a Westerner who spied for the Soviet Union, you can predict that its message will be that they did it for the sake of humanity, and for permanent peace in the world. This is indeed what the new film Red Joan—directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Judi Dench—has done.

The movie illustrates how it is possible to distort history by manipulating the audience into identifying with the hero (in this case the character Red Joan Stanley) so that they view her espionage as a courageous and valiant attempt to do what is right and just.

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The character of Joan Stanley is based on a real British spy, Melita Norwood, who was a hardline British Communist. She began passing information to the Soviets in 1937 when she was hired as an aide to the director of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, a generic organizational name that hid the section’s actual task: beating the rest of the world to the atom bomb.

Norwood continued to spy for the USSR until she retired in 1972, but she was not exposed until September of 1999, when former KGB agent Vasili Mitrokhin defected and arrived in London carrying a few thousand documents which included the names of spies who had been or were currently working in Great Britain on behalf of the Soviet Union. Including Norwood, who was 87 at the time.

The real Norwood—not the movie version—was recruited by a friend in 1935 and given the code name “Hola” by the NKVD. She joined a ring working in the Woolwich Arsenal in 1937. Three of its members were caught and arrested in 1938, but she avoided capture only because, as a woman, she was not taken seriously by MI-5.

In 1943 Norwood/Nola got a job at a group with the purposefully misleading name of “Tube Alloys,” which as the movie accurately tells us, was the name of the British version of the Manhattan Project. The historian David Burke writes that “the information [Norwood] supplied on the behavior of uranium metal at high temperatures permitted the Soviet Union to test an atomic bomb four years earlier than British and American intelligence thought possible.” In his book, the British expert on espionage, Christopher Andrew, writes that Norwood was “both the most important British female agent in KGB history and the longest serving of all Soviet spies in Britain.” The KGB described her, Andrew writes, as a “committed, reliable and disciplined agent, striving to be of the utmost assistance.”


Why did she do it?

Speaking to the press in front of her modest home, Norwood explained that she did not consider what she was doing as spying against her country, saying, “I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service. I thought perhaps what I had access to might be useful in helping Russia to keep abreast of Britain, America, and Germany. ”

In her eyes, helping Joseph Stalin and his successors was simply helping the Soviets do what the British Labour government did after Clement Attlee became prime minister in 1945. Hence, she didn’t consider herself a spy, a point made by the fictional Joan in the movie.

And yet. Norwood was a dedicated Communist from a Communist family: her father was the first person in Britain to translate Lenin’s writings into English. Yet the movie (which is based on the novel Red Joan) paints a very different picture. In the film, Joan is depicted as a conventional, patriotic and not particularly political young woman who was a serious student of physics when she attended Cambridge University. She is somewhat sympathetic to the left, or course. So when she passes a student rally for the Spanish Republic, she stops to listen. The main thing she gets out of it, however, is to see a fiery young man named Leo speaking, with whom she is smitten. He later becomes her boyfriend.

The film goes back and forth between Joan’s exposure as a spy in 1999 and the 1930s, when she is portrayed as a naïve do-gooder. Leo’s mission, it turns out, was really to recruit her for espionage. When he lovingly strokes her face throughout the film calling her “my little comrade,” she doesn’t object, but also doesn’t appear to grasp its meaning. Leo explains to her that Russia needs help, but that Britain and the United States won’t share the military information Stalin is entitled to receive.

We later learn that Leo’s cousin, Sonya, is a top Soviet agent herself, working to recruit others into an espionage network. She befriends Joan and later gives Joan her assignments and receives Joan’s stolen documents. At one point, Sonya and Joan are shown having a conversation in a café during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Joan winces and expresses her disapproval. Which is something the real Norwood is unlikely to have done. Sonya explains that “this is a necessary tactic Stalin took in order to postpone war during which time Russia can get prepared.”

This is—and was—a lie. And this lie is still being perpetuated by Communists and their defenders.

Stalin, as Comintern documents and historian Roger Moorhouse show in his book The Devils’ Alliance, was actually planning to join the Axis powers by signing the Tripartite Agreement, a military alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was sent to Berlin to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. Stalin proposed to Hitler that Russia would formally enter and would commit to giving Hitler increased raw material aid to Hitler in exchange for German agreement to Soviet predominance over Finland and the addition of Soviet military bases in Bulgaria.

Hence, from the Russians’ point of view, the Nazi-Soviet alliance was meant to have been permanent. It was Hitler who broke the agreement. Had he not broken the Pact with the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the alliance would have continued, with Hitler and Stalin jointly fighting England and later the United States. Norwood undoubtedly would have followed Moscow, as would have her comrades in Britain.


Later in the film, while the elderly Joan is being interrogated after her arrest, her son—a member of Parliament and a barrister—asks how she could have done it, how horrible it is that she betrayed her country and did this all for a “murderous dictator.”

Joan’s answer is “we didn’t know that at the time.” But this is another falsehood. In fact, there were scores of writers and journalists who did inform the West about the dictatorship Lenin and Stalin had imposed on Russia. This was especially so in Great Britain, where journalists Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge famously reported the truth about Stalin’s destruction of Ukraine and his responsibility for the subsequent famine.

In 1923, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell had already exposed the true nature of the Soviet dictatorship in his book, The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism. It is certain that Joan and the other student Communists at Cambridge would have known all this. Perhaps they discounted these accounts as false capitalist propaganda. But that means not that she didn’t know, but rather that she chose not to believe.

There is a difference.


There were consequences to this treason.

Possession of the bomb emboldened Stalin’s expansion into Eastern Europe, where he destroyed the development of democracy. It also allowed Stalin to finally give North Korea’s first leader, Kim-Il Song, permission to invade the South in the attempt to create a unified Korea under Communist control. (Up until then, Stalin had refused Kim’s many requests.)

In the film, Joan is shown in the post-war period, watching footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after America dropped the first atomic bombs. The filmmakers show that this was supposedly a turning point for her. She is finally convinced that in order to ensure such horrors never happen again she must share Britain’s atomic research with the Soviets so that when they are able to manufacture a bomb, it will balance America’s sole ownership of one, and hence neither power would be willing to use it because both societies would be destroyed.

But this is chronological sleight of hand. Remember, she started spying in the 1930s, when there were no atomic weapons.

The “I did it to save the world” defense was invented only after spies such as Norwood, and the atomic physicist Theodore Hall were exposed and arrested. In 1998, Hall offered the same rationale in CNN’s series on the Cold War, saying,

I decided to give atomic secrets to the Russians because it seemed to me that it was important that there should be no monopoly, which could turn one nation into a menace and turn it loose on the world as … Nazi Germany developed. There seemed to be only one answer to what one should do. The right thing to do was to act to break the American monopoly.

Hall was such an unrepentant traitor that he didn’t even have to be recruited. He simply walked into the American Communist offices in 1944, seeking a way to inform the Soviets of his desire to spy. As a scientist, he knew what the effects of the bomb would be; his sole desire was to help Stalin get the weapon—not to balance Soviet possession with America’s future arsenal.


The real reason Norwood, Hall and others made their personal pacts with the devil was because they considered the Soviet Union to be the future of humanity and that under Stalin’s leadership, communism would be established everywhere.

Anyone who doubts this should re-read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness.

Ron Radosh

Ronald Radosh is a contributing opinion columnist for The Daily Beast, professor emeritus of history at CUNY, and co-author of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.