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.

The road to treason

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The young Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.

stalin1As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.

What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.

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Writer and journalist Goronwy Rees

Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.

All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.

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Kim Philby

In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”

More tomorrow.

Smollett: the spy who got away

Yesterday we discussed George Orwell’s 1949 list of literary and journalistic colleagues whom he viewed as “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way.” Among them, we pointed out, was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who at the time was considered the ultimate authority on the Soviet Union – but whose name has since become synonymous with shameless journalistic dishonesty and the systematic whitewashing of tyranny.

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George Orwell

Another name on Orwell’s list was that of Peter Smollett. Born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Peter Smolka, he relocated in 1933 to Britain, where, according to writer Daniel J. Leab, he “wrote pro-Soviet travel journalism for various US outlet during the 1930s, became a naturalized British subject in 1938, changed his name, and after the war’s outbreak joined the Ministry of Information, where he energetically organized pro-Soviet propaganda and suppressed ‘unfavorable comment’ on Stalinist Russia.”

Animal-FarmHis title at the Ministry was Head of Soviet Relations. At the height of the war, when Orwell sent Animal Farm, his classic indictment of Soviet Communism, around to various publishers, one of them, Jonathan Cape, was “reported to be initially keen on the manuscript,” but “bowed out after consulting an ‘important official’ at the Ministry of Information, who advised against publication.” That official was Peter Smollett. On his list, Orwell described Smollett as “a very slimy person” who was “almost certainly [an] agent of some kind.”

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Kim Philby’s 1990 USSR commemorative stamp

He was right. After his death in 1980, Smollett/Smolka was revealed to have been an agent of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which, in addition to performing espionage, ran the Gulag labor camps, conducted mass executions, and carried out mass deportations of various minorities and farmers. The Mitrokhin Archive, which we discussed a while back, records that Smollett was recruited as a spy in 1939 by double agent Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, and that his NKVD cover name was ABO. Smollett’s wartime NKVD work, notes Henry Hemming, “was held in high regard by Moscow.” Not only did he pass top-secret information on to the Kremlin (working first under Philby and later under another one of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess); he was also an invaluable pro-Soviet propagandist. In communications to higher-ups at the Ministry,

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956, after his defection to the USSR

Smollett would exaggerate Soviet concerns, refuse to give in to them and then suggest as a quid pro quo a more Soviet-friendly stance on other issues. He maintained, for example, that the Soviets were exceptionally thin-skinned and, as such, no stories about Stalinist persecution could be broadcast. Smollett encouraged the BBC to run stories that exaggerated the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR….Elsewhere Smollett pushed the idea that after the war the USSR would be too weak to do anything other than rebuild.

The result of Smollett’s efforts was substantial. Hemming describes it as a “red haze” that “swept over Britain after the entry of the USSR into the war.” What he means is that Britain, thanks in large part to Smollett’s initiatives, was given a consistently prettified image of life under Stalin. As Hemming puts it, Smollett “helped to blur the line between the heroic Russians and the brutal Soviet regime.”

Smollett, Hemming points out, “was not unmasked during his lifetime, and instead enjoyed a successful post-war career as a respected Times correspondent and was even awarded an OBE.” But Orwell knew.

More tomorrow.