Traitor, Communist…and cad?

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956

The 1951 defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union made the CIA livid. It was, as Burgess biographer  Andrew Lownie puts it, “the third body-blow that American security had suffered as a result of the British, after the atom spies Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and they were beginning to feel their whole atomic programme was being betrayed by foreigners.” The British people were also disgusted to know that these two men at the heart of British Intelligence had been traitors.

But the two traitors’ friends and former colleagues in the British elite had a somewhat more muted response. For example, diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, who reflected in his diary that Burgess’s disappearance would mark the end of “the old easygoing confidence of the Foreign Office” and hence “the loss of one more element of civilization,” admitted that while he felt “so angry with Guy in some ways – feel that he has behaved so much like a cad,” in another sense he felt “deeply sorry for him.” Note the curious word choice here: not “traitor,” but “cad” – as if Burgess had pinched a chorus girl’s cheek rather than pinching government secrets.

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Donald Maclean

The reaction was much the same throughout the cozy club that was the British political, cultural, media, and academic elite. Burgess’s fellow Etonians and Oxbridgeans couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the idea that two of their own were Soviet spies. Actual spies. As we’ve seen, Burgess had drunkenly blabbed about his Soviet connections to BBC colleagues and heaven knows who else. But these people’s minds were wired in such a way that even what amounted to an explicit confession of treason somehow just didn’t compute. They could imagine a member of the working classes betraying their country, but not Guy Burgess.

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Kim Philby in Moscow, 1968

Even after Burgess and Maclean defected, this upper-crust naivete – this inability to work up a reasonable distrust for one of their own – remained intact. They still trusted another Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt, even though a great deal of evidence pointed toward him. This British blind spot so outraged the CIA and U.S. Defense Department that these two agencies withdrew temporarily from cooperating with British Intelligence. It was, indeed, the CIA that soon realized that Kim Philby was probably also a Soviet agent, and demanded that MI6 get rid of him or risk destroying the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. After standing by Philby for a brief while, MI6 did remove Philby from his position. But instead of investigating him for treason and putting him under arrest, it rewarded him with “a golden handshake of £ 4,000,” a pretty penny in those days. (Philby would eventually abscond to Moscow in 1963.)

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Journalist Henry Fairlie

Meanwhile the government, plainly more fearful of negative publicity than of Soviet infiltration, covered up key data about Burgess and Maclean, lied to the public about the extent of the two spies’ access to sensitive information, and made no effort whatsoever to rout out other spies. It was in response to this disgraceful display that Henry Fairlie, in an article for the Spectator, coined the term “The Establishment,” complaining that the first loyalty of the nation’s Oxbridge elite was not to King and Country but to itself. In a perfect demonstration of Fairlie’s argument, it was an American agency, the FBI, that finally fingered Philby as a Soviet agent – and it was top-level British politician (and future PM) Harold Macmillan who vehemently rejected this charge, saving Philby’s career – for a time, anyway.

Indiscreet

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Guy Burgess

We’ve seen how Cambridge man turned BBC producer, Foreign Office official, and British Intelligence agent Guy Burgess enjoyed the absolute confidence of his superiors in the UK corridors of power. And yet all the while he was a secret spy for the Soviet Union. What is baffling is that he was far from the most discreet of spooks. For one thing, as one BBC coworker, an on-air clergyman, later said, Burgess promised that “[w]hen we [i.e., the Communists] get into power” he (the clergyman) would be “one of the first to hang from a lamppost.” After one 1948 party at which he talked an “extremely pro-Russian” line, one of the attendees, Kate Maugham, told her brother, author Robin Maugham: “I believe Guy Burgess is a communist.” But Robin wasn’t having it: “Nonsense. If he were a communist surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlour communist so obviously.” To which Kate replied: “Perhaps it’s a double bluff.”

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Robin Maugham

He was also outspoken in his hatred of America and the American way of life. This feeling intensified after the war, when he felt Britain had become a “satellite” of the U.S. and believed that the only way to resist American hegemony was to stand with the Soviets. One day in 1950, he walked into the dining room at the Reform Club in London and found a friend sitting with two High Court judges. They were discussing a new memoir, I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union to the United States. Seeing a copy of the book on his friend’s lap, Burgess delivered a rant about “the iniquity of the Americans” and then picked up the book and tossed it across the room.

Yet none of this kept him from being posted later that year to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. So well-known were his political sympathies among his colleagues at the Foreign Office that one of them, before he left London, actually urged him not to be “too aggressively communist” while in the States.

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William Harvey

In any event, after relocating to Washington, Burgess wore his contempt for America – and Americans – on his sleeve. At a dinner party hosted by his fellow Soviet spy Kim Philby (who was also working at the British Embassy) and attended by CIA counterintelligence head William Harvey, Burgess drew an unflattering caricature of Harvey’s wife, causing the Harveys to leave in a huff. As Burgess biographer  Andrew Lownie puts it: “One Soviet spy had, in the home of another Soviet spy, insutled the man whose job it was to flush out Soviet spies.” This was only the beginning. Burgess’s outrageous conduct in the U.S. occasioned complaints to the CIA, State Department, and Governor of Virginia, and resulted in his being recalled to London, where he shared with everyone who would listen “his hatred for the Americans.”

But Burgess’s indiscreet behavior in the U.S. marked the beginning of the end. British Intelligence soon requested his resignation. Meanwhile, the Soviets informed his fellow spy Donald Maclean that he’d fallen under suspicion. On May 25, 1951, the two men defected to the Soviet Union.

Noel Field: defending his torturers

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Noel Field (right) with his wife, Herda, and Unitarian leader Charles Joy

Quitting the League of Nations in 1940, Soviet spy Noel Field and wife, Herta, began working for the Unitarian Service Committee in Marseille. Their job, as Field’s biographer Kati Marton recounts, was to aid refugees, and in particular to lend life-saving help to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Unbeknownst to the committee, however, the Fields used its money, above all, to help their fellow Communists and to further the Communist cause. They also refused to help Ukrainian refugees, because in their eyes anyone fleeing from the Soviets was by definition “only a little less reactionary than Nazis.”

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Allen Dulles

In 1942, with the U.S. finally in the war, the Fields relocated to Switzerland, where Noel joined the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) under Allen Dulles. He served as a sort of middleman, passing on U.S. resources to Communist friends, who in turn provided the OSS with intelligence from Communist resistance fighters in France and Germany.

After the war, a jobless Field traveled around “liberated” Eastern Europe. Years earlier, back in Washington, he had been acutely aware of the poverty and sadness he witnessed, but now he was blind to the far worse privation and misery around him. All he could see was a “Promised Land” in the process of being born.

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Whittaker Chambers

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist, told the House Un-American Activities Committee that his old State Department colleague, Alger Hiss, was a Communist. Hiss had powerful friends who protected him, including future Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. Field didn’t. What to do? Jobless, footloose in Western Europe, and scared to return to the U.S., Field wrote to a Czech official begging for a job in Prague. His letter, as Marton writes, betrays an “astonishing zeal to enter a country slowly morphing into a prison state.”

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Tito

Field was invited to Prague – where he was promptly kidnapped by the authorities, transported to Budapest, and accused of being a U.S. spy. Interrogated, beaten, and tortured, he ultimately confessed to a ridiculous charge that his tormenters knew to be untrue: that his rescue of Communists in wartime Marseille had been a cover for recruiting them for the CIA and the Yugoslav leader, Tito. Ordered to list all the Communists whose return to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary he had facilitated, Field provided 562 names. Most of the people he fingered ended up being subjected to new show trials, convicted on his “evidence,” and executed.

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Noel and Herda Field

Field later regretted the weakness that had led him to ascribe guilt to innocent people. But he never criticized his torturers. On the contrary, he defended them. And he made a list of reasons why they were right to have beaten a false confession out of him:

  1. I am an American

  1. I worked for the State Department

  2. I worked for a Christian philanthropy

  3. I was in touch with Dulles

  4. I snooped around the East Bloc after the war

  5. I was born bourgeois

“This,” writes Marton, “was the ultimate triumph of totalitarianism: the accused accepted, even embraced, his guilt. The party can never be wrong.”

More anon.