Spy Stories 1.

During the Fifty Years War, the opponents spied on each other by every means possible.  The Soviet Union possessed marked advantages over its enemies in this arena.  On the one hand, it was a brutal police state that could tightly control its frontiers and limit the contacts between its own “citizens” and foreigners.  Soviets who went abroad were closely watched.  On the other hand, this reality did not penetrate the minds of many foreigners.  Foreign Communists and progressive-minded “fellow travelers” clung to an idealized view of the Soviet Union as rough-around-the-edges place where socialism and democracy were being constructed.  Actually going there did nothing to alter their opinions in most cases.[1]  During the “Devil’s Decade” of the Thirties, the Soviet intelligence services recruited many Western agents.[2]

The most effective (so far as we can tell) and attention-grabbing of these spies were the so-called “Cambridge Five”: Harold “Kim” Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony (one is tempted to go the Full-Brideshead and call him “Antoine”) Blunt, and John Cairncross.  They were recruited while undergraduates, then allowed to develop over time.  During the Second World War they came to occupy important positions in British government.  The British intelligence community only caught on in the 1950s.  It chose to cover-up more than expose.[3]

The most satisfying book on Philby explores the dense network of friends and colleagues, British and American, he exploited.  Everything depends upon the barriers to entry and the acuity of the gatekeepers.  Once you are on the “inside” of a group, people tend to see your behavior as congruent with your supposed function.  If you seem to be good at what you do, then trust increases.  What if Jesus was actually the son of Satan?  What if Judas found him out?[4]

Intelligent, ordinary people surround spies.[5]  Often they see nothing unusual in the behavior of the spies.  Geoffrey Hoare[6], previously and subsequently the Middle East correspondent for the Times of London, lived near Donald and Melinda Maclean in Washington, D.C., then was in Cairo when Donald Maclean’s drinking got him sent back to London for “health reasons.”  He was on the same flight to London as Maclean, but saw no sign that Maclean was under immense psychological pressure.  “He had none of the external signs of someone suffering from a severe nervous breakdown.”  Later on, Hoare befriended Melinda Maclean, who had been left behind when Maclean and Guy Burgess disappeared in 1951 before they could be questioned by British security officers.  He was very surprised when she did a bunk herself in 1953.[7]  Tim Milne, a long-time friend of “Kim” Philby and himself a senior officer in MI-6, saw no hint of treason in him.[8]

On the other hand, there was Guy Burgess.  Burgess provided endless scandals: he was an outrageous drunk and an outrageous homosexual at a time when the former seems to have been common and the latter a felony.  The British security services turned a blind-eye in the worst version of Nelson.  “Surely he can’t mean goats” said one security officer briefed on the “peculiar tastes” of Guy Burgess.  Burgess managed to be recalled from Washington and this allowed him to tell Donald Maclean that they were buggered and had to bolt for the Soviet Union.[9]  The two, followed eventually by Melinda Maclean, simply disappeared for a bit.

Burgess and the Macleans reappeared in Moscow in 1956.  Then “Kim” Philby disappeared from Beirut in 1963.  Much gnashing of awful British teeth followed.[10]  Rebecca West had written one version of a book, The Meaning of Treason, in 1947.  It was all about the “quislings” and collaborators of the Second World War.  “A rum lot, what?”  Her second version, The New Meaning of Treason, in 1964, was all about the Soviet spies.  She lambasted the security service (MI-5) and the in-breeding of the upper classes who filled up the diplomatic service.[11]  While understandable and valid, her criticisms didn’t get at the heart of the matter.  Much later it was revealed that Anthony Blunt, a highly-esteemed art expert, had been among the “Cambridge Spies” who had been recruited by the Soviets in the 1930s.  His life revealed the essential puzzle.  How can someone hate a society so much that he would betray its secrets to another country, but still insist on enjoying all the fruits of that society?[12]

[1] Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society (1997).

[2] Notably the members of the “Red Orchestra” in Germany and France, the Gold-Rosenberg group in the United States, and the “Cambridge Five” in Britain.

[3] At least three of the men—Maclean, Burgess, and Philby—were alcoholics.  Did this make them particularly adept at deception, rather than vulnerable to error and exposure?

[4] I’m not trying to get fired from my job at a Catholic college.  I’m just trying to illustrate a psychological tendency.  In any event, see Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2015).

[5] “Roland Philipps on the Cambridge spies,” WSJ, date misplaced; “Jason Matthews on secret agents of the Cold War,” WSJ, ditto.

[6] Husband of the remarkable Clare Hollingsworth.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clare_Hollingworth#Personal_life

[7] Geoffrey Hoare, The Missing Macleans (1955).

[8] Tim Milne, Kim Philby (2014).

[9] Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman (2014).

[10] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOHiPvl2mWk  Unless you have British relatives from earlier generations.  Then you already know what I’m talking about.

[11] Rebecca West, The New Meaning of Treason (1964).

[12] John Banville, The Untouchable (1997).

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