E. L. Doctorow's new book is called "World's Fair." The fair of the title is the 1939 one in New York, maybe the last with the capacity to wow those who came to see it. Since then there have been many fairs, but television and movies have surpassed them as mediums of wonder. Like aging singers who are introduced as either Miss or Mister, they coast on their reputations.
It is the same with spies. A baker's dozen of suspects has been arrested so far this year. Most of them were alleged to be in the hire of the Soviet Union, which is serious stuff. But one was supposedly working for the Israelis (or an Israeli), two for Ghana, one for a British magazine, Jane's Defence Weekly, and one for what Richard Nixon used to call Red China but what we now call The Peoples Republic of. They, too, are given star billing.
The arrest of each spy warranted breathless front-page stories and precious minutes of television news. But Ghana is not a threat to us, nor is Israel; China once was, but isn't anymore. As for Samuel Loring Morison, the former Navy intelligence analyst who provided U.S. satellite pictures of Soviet ships to Jane's, he is not even a spy in the conventional sense of the word.
The remaining spies allegedly sold information to the Soviets, which is serious but somehow not so serious that anything much seems to change. The damage is always hard to measure. The government, of course, routinely says it's either immense or incalculable, but then recently a spokesman made the mistake of trying to calculate it. "It's going to cost us millions to recoup, if we can," he told The New York Times. That's hardly the same as saying we might as well kiss the East Coast goodbye. How then do we explain our continuing fascination with spies and spying? How in an age when two nations have nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the world, when much intelligence is being conducted by satellites in space and discs standing sentry in the Arctic, when we know that no spy can make a real difference because no real difference can be made -- why do we still care so much about spies?
The answer is that we are hopeless romantics. We'd like to think that individuals still matter. We would like to think that despite all the gizmos in space and the gadgets at the National Security Agency, a person (maybe in a trenchcoat) can still alter history. Once, of course, that could be done. A battle plan in the hands of the enemy could mean national defeat. But in the Cold War, there are no battles. There are only plans. Spying is a serious business, and I am not trying to belittle it. Whatever the value of the information stolen, we are still talking treason, which is another word for betrayal. Spying can have tragic consequences.
But having said that, you still cannot escape the feeling that spying has become so ephemeral and morally confusing that the government, as if to compensate, resorts to hyperbole. For instance, Larry Wu-Tai Chin is momentously arrested and charged with 30 years of spying for China. But the Reagan administration wants to provide China with nuclear technology. Jonathan J. Pollard allegedly spies for Israel, but Israel is our ally. Morison gets called a spy, but the fruits of his so-called espionage can be bought in a magazine, and there exists in our government a man who says he would give the Soviets the plans for Star Wars. His name is Ronald Reagan.
The result of all this hype and moral ambiguity is both cynicism and confusion. The government and the press seem unable to differentiate between the serious and the trivial, and so it all seems trivial. Maybe that explains why various relatives of convicted spy John A. Walker Jr. knew of his activities but did nothing about it for so long. Their apathy in the face of treason is at least, if not more, troubling than the spying of their relative -- but it went almost unreported and, worse, unpunished.
Satellites in space do the real spying nowadays, and the enemies of the past are the friends of the moment. Spying stubbornly soldiers on, Victorian in a world of porn, out of step with the times, more nostalgic than real, something like Doctorow's world's fair. Only in fiction does it still dazzle.