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National Observer Home > No. 66 - Spring 2005 >Article

Book Reviews

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 66, Spring 2005.


Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess

by S.J. Hamrick

Yale University Press, 2004.
320 pages.


Reviewed by R.J. Stove


Words like “seismic” cannot begin to convey the impact made on Cold War studies by the National Security Agency’s 1995 declassification of its Venona archives. (Perhaps the only other historiographical field to have been so completely transformed in modern times has been that of Tudor England, where recent books by such scholars as Eamon Duffy and the late Michael Davies have blown to perdition the stately edifice of Whig-progressive-dirigiste propaganda which the likes of G. R. Elton had laboriously constructed from pure papier-mâché.) Any present-day historian of Cold War politics who ignores Venona proclaims himself to be inept, dishonest, or both; indeed, much pre-Venona Cold War literature could now be shredded with little adverse effect. Still, even the best Venona-sourced studies to date have concentrated overmuch on America’s intelligence role, with too little attention being extended to the part Britain played. Hence Deceiving the Deceivers, which aims to plug — and which succeeds in plugging — this regrettable lacuna.

Former Foreign Service officer S. J. Hamrick (alias novelist W. T. Tyler) deals mostly with the period 1941-51, when the Cambridge Five — Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Sir Anthony Blunt, and the comparatively obscure John Cairncross — prospered, figuring in Venona-intercepted Soviet communiqués. Three of them enjoyed high-ranking jobs at British embassies: Maclean in Cairo, Philby and Burgess in Washington. Maclean and Burgess both fled to the U.S.S.R. in 1951, twelve years before Philby vanished from Beirut. Blunt kept his treachery concealed till 1979; Cairncross, luckier still, avoided public exposure till 1990. Earlier accounts insist that no one in Britain’s M.I.5. suspected Maclean of Soviet spying until shortly before his abrupt departure. Hamrick argues, to good effect, that M.I.5. had its sights on Maclean at least from 1950 and maybe from 1948. He cannot and does not posit this notion with absolute certainty, since the British civil service continues to conceal information about precisely when Maclean became a suspect. The contrast between Washington bureaucrats publicising Venona material versus Whitehall bureaucrats hiding behind the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act represents a cultural gap between the two countries that emerged well before the Battle of Britain (novelist and ex-secret-agent Sir Compton Mackenzie fell foul of the Act back in 1932).

Eisenhower grumbled in 1948 that from British deception campaigns against National Socialist Germany “was born a [secrecy] habit that was later difficult to discard”; and while the spectacle of Ike deploring deviousness contains rich comic potential, his complaint has merit. British intelligence reacted with horror to Venona being made public: “London’s 1995 determination to conceal the details of Maclean’s exposure and Philby’s involvement remains steadfast.” Of course, Britain never had a Watergate to force upon it any lip-service to “open government.”

At times Hamrick makes his biases all too plain. He allows his own unhappy dealings with the F.B.I. to sharpen his hatred of the ‘preposterous’ J. Edgar Hoover, “who played his own squalid hand” (although Hoover surely deserves some praise for hiring far fewer criminals and lunatics than the C.I.A. or than any other major intelligence unit). More reasonably, he is astringent about Graham Greene’s pro-Philby blathering, about A. J. P. Taylor’s dilettantish jeers at Defence Secretary James Forrestal, about Philby biographer Anthony Cave Brown (“[his] penchant for explaining one mystery by introducing another”), and about the “wildly inaccurate” memoirs of K.G.B. handler Yuri Modin.

Though Hamrick’s approach is not primarily biographical, he gives enough data on the Cambridge spies to dispel (with luck) all self-serving myths of these traitors’ cerebral brilliance. None would have lasted a week in private enterprise; yet, ensconced in a foreign-affairs sector that combined the worst characteristics of genteel amateurism and welfarist parasitism, they flourished. Only Blunt, a competent historian of seventeenth-century painting, possessed some innate distinction of mind. Comparing the others’ fluent, empty classics-schooled chatter with the intellectual attainments of Continental administrators from their own generation — with Italy’s Amintore Fanfani, for instance, or France’s Jacques Soustelle — makes painfully obvious how insignificant these Englishmen’s intellectual level was, and would have been even without Moscow lobotomising them. Their attitude towards world affairs could be summed up in the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what your country can do for me.” At anything other than dipsomania, rutting, and self-aggrandisement, they were simply — to employ an obsolescent but useful British acronym —N.B.G.: No Bloody Good.

If this story has heroes, they are the British codebreakers who pored with agonised and agonising diligence over the most cryptic Soviet intercepts, trying to deduce their import. Alas, mere computational genius availed little against a Russophile Foreign Office overrun not merely with fools but with knaves. In 1951 the F.O. “found it unthinkable that a Communist could be found among its senior ranks.” So bizarre a premise must be scuttlebutt originating from “a barely civilised nation that could be whipped to frenzy by a demagogue like Senator McCarthy. Where was civility, where was decency, where were civil liberties, where was that quiet cup of tea a chap could enjoy in the Communist Party reading room as he browsed through the Daily Worker?” Bertie Wooster could not have phrased the point with greater eloquence.

True, the C.I.A. has had bunglers and idiots of its own; witness such C.I.A. fantasies —redolent of MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons — as killing Castro with an explosive cigar, and poisoning Patrice Lumumba’s toothbrush. (Robert Lovett, Under-Secretary of State in Truman’s cabinet, found so much C.I.A. reportage worthless that he preferred, sensibly, to pick geopolitical brains in Wall Street.) Yet C.I.A. executives seldom plumbed British depths. Better the paranoid excesses of the C.I.A.’s James Jesus Angleton than the awesomely vapid amateurism prevalent in Whitehall, let alone the sleaziness of actual British fellow-travellers. Little wonder that so many Americans (and Europeans) accused Britain of being mired in decadence. When the Rosenbergs were perforce contemplating a deep and meaningful relationship with Sing Sing’s electric chair, Maclean had suffered no harsher punishments than a six-month vacation and taxpayer-subsidised psychotherapy. (His more charming performances, when drunk, included breaking a colleague’s leg.) The kindest thing to be said about Whitehall methods is that they avoided too many disasters when honest patriots such as Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin held office. They became hopeless amid the nominally Conservative administrations of 1951-64, all founded on the belief that no policy whatsoever must be adopted which might irk Tito and Khrushchev. In 1955 Harold Macmillan — who never met a forced Communist repatriation he didn’t like — straight-facedly told Parliament: “I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called ‘Third Man’, if indeed there was one.”

From this risible face-saving arose a tendency to exaggerate Philby’s espionage triumphs. Hamrick shows that Philby achieved less for the Kremlin than did several of his compatriots. A relevant statistic: “The secret document yield passed to Moscow from 1941 until 1945 by Burgess and Maclean was fivefold greater than Philby’s, Cairncross’s more than sixfold greater.” Again: “for most of his twenty months in Washington he [Philby] was out of contact with a Russian control officer.” Philby never held the K.G.B. colonelship of which he mendaciously boasted. His post-defection career had nothing of the glory accorded to Los Alamos spies Morris and Lena Cohen, who both received the Soviet Order of the Red Star. During the early 1970s he occasionally cursed the U.S.S.R. when alcohol disinhibited him. But in his last decade he made his peace with the régime that at least guaranteed him a pension and steadily flowing vodka. He died in 1988, having outlived Maclean and Blunt by five years, Burgess by a quarter of a century. (Cairncross waited until 1995 before joining his colleagues in the nether regions.)

Hamrick assigns to Philby a crucial role in a 1949-1950 British disinform-ation campaign, mysterious even today, to fool the Soviets about Anglo-American nuclear capacities and willingness to retaliate against any Soviet invasion of Western Europe. While he admits he cannot prove his thesis beyond all doubt — by definition, so ingenious a scheme would never have left a paper trail — his circumstantial evidence explains much in the public domain that otherwise is a conundrum.

Deceiving the Deceivers answers numerous long-asked questions of Cold War intrigue in a manner at once assured and expert. Would that the treasonous mentality it recounts had ended with the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Sadly, this would presuppose a genuine miracle, as distinct from the monstrously fraudulent miracles — economic, cultural and otherwise — that totalitarians will forever attribute to New Soviet Man, New Maoist Man, New Khmer Rouge Man, New African National Congress Man, or whichever other godless apparition embodies their current earthly paradise.




R.J. Stove is a writer and commentator on public affairs and has had numerous articles published in Quadrant, National Observer, Chronicles and The American Conservative. His work The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of the Secret Police and Their Victims was published by Duffy and Snellgrove.