The Family Business

I Pledge Allegiance…The True Story of the Walkers: An American Spy Family

by Howard Blum
Simon and Schuster, 438 pp., $18.95

By the time the FBI caught up with him, John Walker had spent seventeen years spying for the Soviet Union. He had earned something like $750,000, a $44,000 annual average.

Jerry Whitworth, Walker’s most serviceable recruit, made $332,000 in ten years. Zestful spy though he had been when the spirit moved him, Whitworth slipped more and more into infirmity of purpose. It had begun to occur to Walker that no bond ever so securely endures as the tie to one’s own blood, and he set out to seed the armed services with his children.

He persuaded his daughter, Laura, to join the Army, where she turned out to be ill-suited both to the soldier’s and her father’s trade. The initial results were better with his son, Mike, who was stealing classified documents on his first day of duty on the carrier Nimitz.

Two months later, Mike Walker was carried off to prison from a ship whose captain had judged him “hard-charging, completely dependable,” and worthy of the 4.0 evaluation that is the Navy’s highest for a sailor. He had lived up to a family tradition: John Walker, his brother Arthur, Jerry Whitworth, and now Mike had all been rated 4.0 by their Navy commanders.

I Pledge Allegiance is Howard Blum’s study of these Walkers and the admiration they evoked in their country’s military and the Soviet Union’s intelligence services. Blum is at once an imaginative and a thoroughly scrupulous reporter: “hard-charging, completely dependable” would be an excellent description and, in this instance, deserved.

He seems deliberately to have chosen to tell his story in a slangy, trashy tone that, while altogether suited to its protagonist’s own style, does not quite measure up to the full proportions of a tale so Dreiserian. The prose gives us all the jagged, hysterical pitch of the Walker family, but somehow we are left feeling a trifle cheated of its soul-sickness.

It is never easy for us to think of betrayal of one’s country as the peculiarly personal decision it most often is, and we have only to look at a career like Walker’s to give way to the itch to trace it to some fancied spirit of the age. A generation or so ago, the spies who served the Soviet Union were uniformly sympathizers with the Russian Revolution, and an explanation that had its fashion in those days was that in the Thirties everyone was a Communist and, we may presume, joined the young Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in Lyndon Johnson’s Marxist study class.

That temptation to mistake the individual for the general is even more perilously beguiling in the Walker case. John Walker’s politics were, so far as coherent, John Birchite. He was a mercenary drawn to employment by exigencies of circumstance. The snack bar that incarnated his dreams for retirement was failing; the IRS was aggressing; his less and less frequent stoppings-off at home were made hideous by the revilements of his wife and the turmoils of his children.

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