Spy who went into the cold

Roland Philipps makes a strong case that Donald Maclean was, from the Soviet point of view, the most valuables spy of the Cambridge Five

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Donald Maclean with his family in the 1950s. His wife Melinda knew his secret from the start (©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It is hard to believe that there is more to say about the Cambridge Five, the  clutch of communists at the heart of the British establishment who spied for the Soviet Union more than half a century ago. Yet they still fascinate. Partly it is because they make a terrific, page-turning detective story. How did they get away with it for so long? How were they unmasked? How did three of them escape? What really motivated them?

For me, who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and tried to scrutinise the serene, almost smiling features of Kim Philby as the lid was closed on his coffin at his funeral, the puzzle is not so much what inspired them to betray their country in the beginning, when many clever, privileged idealists saw communism as a noble cause, as whether they truly went on believing in it. After all, it must have been clear to the dimmest observer, especially if you had seen its workings up close, that the Soviet model was an irredeemable disaster based on mass murder.

And then there is the puzzle of trying to fathom which of the quintet did most damage to the West and which of them went to his grave with a truly good conscience. As a frivolous extra riddle, one might also speculate as to which of them would have been most fun to have dinner with.

Roland Philipps, an admired publisher and first-time author, has written a ripping tale, tapping into a bundle of newly released papers from the archives of the British Foreign Office and a wodge of other fairly new sources, some of them culled from less noticed books, including chunks of material purloined from the KGB. Though serious historians of espionage will still argue over this, he makes a strong case that Donald Maclean was, from the Soviet point of view, the most valuable of the five. He also makes a case that, though he was a psychological mess, he was the least ignoble of them.

The starting point was a daddy complex. Sir Donald Maclean, the spy’s father, was a repressively high-minded teetotal Presbyterian Scottish Liberal who led the parliamentary opposition after the first world war and was later a member of Ramsay MacDonald’s national government, dying when young Donald was 21. The future traitor had been a golden boy, handsome, scholarly and athletic, at Gresham’s, a school that was then an odd mixture of progressive and repressive, where you had to take an oath against “impurity”. One of his closest friends there was James Klugmann, who went on with Maclean to Cambridge, where they both became communists. But whereas Klugmann never concealed his beliefs, even while serving in the Special Operations Executive during the war, Maclean had to bury them, once another Cambridge friend of his, Kim Philby, had had him recruited into the Soviet secret service in 1934, shortly before he joined the British diplomatic service the next year.
Maclean was an extraordinary mixture of perfect clerical diligence, composing lucid analyses and memoranda for his bosses in Whitehall, accompanied by bouts of wild, abusive drunkenness, perhaps spurred on by his domineering but much admired father’s hatred of alcohol. Plainly Maclean’s life as a double agent aggravated this furiously split personality. But one suspects that even if he had eschewed the daunting life of a spy, instead becoming a standard angry leftist within the civil service or in academia  (as  many of Cambridge chums did), he would still have been in a horrible muddle,  punctuating his clever, amiable charm with outbursts of vile, indiscriminate hatred.

Most top spies have a period when their intelligence is most valued. The Russians do seem to have had a genius first for spotting the talent and then for nudging them into an array of posts where they could do most harm; each of the Cambridge Five at one time held jobs where they could pass on secrets of exceptional worth. Arnold Deutsch, the KGB handler of both Philby and Maclean, was extraordinarily acute, sussing out the psychology of both men (and probably giving Maclean his first codename, Orphan). Maclean’s purple patch, in Soviet eyes, was probably from 1944 to 1948, when he was a top man in the British embassy in Washington and then head of the American department in Whitehall.

Maclean sent copies of thousands of the most sensitive papers concerning American and British policy and plans to the Russians. He read and passed on the most intimate exchanges between Churchill and Roosevelt and between Churchill and Truman. Before the meetings in Yalta and Potsdam, where the war victors in effect divided up the world, he told Stalin exactly what the Allies were planning, for instance for Poland and the Balkans (especially Greece). He later revealed the entire game-plan for the foundation of Nato. He enabled the Russians to work out exactly how many atomic bombs the Americans had (Truman had exaggerated in public) and whether they would contemplate dropping them during the Korean war (they did not). As the American secretary of state, Dean Acheson, exclaimed after Maclean’s exposure: “My God, he knew everything!”

Philipps’s description of how, especially during his assignment to Cairo in 1949, Maclean began his descent into the wilder reaches of alcoholism is both horrifying and riveting. On a social trip with friends up the Nile he went mad with boozy rage. He thumped one of his fellow diplomats and tried to beat up a remonstrating Egyptian guard. On another occasion he trashed the flat of two female American diplomats. He was eventually sent back to London to recover from what his indulgent bosses thought must be a breakdown due to overwork; in a sense, given that he was working for two masters, it was.
During his entire 17-year spell as a double-agent, he had several close shaves when Soviet defectors said there was a spy in the upper echelon of the British Foreign Office. Two were murdered (one at the direct instigation of Philby) before they could precisely identify the traitors. In his drunken rages, Maclean several times blurted out the truth about himself. Eventually two brilliant American cryptologists, Robert Lamphere and Meredith Gardner, broke Soviet codes that pinpointed Maclean as the mole.

The dilatoriness of the British intelligence services and the Foreign Office in failing to nail Maclean once it became blindingly clear to their American friends that he was their man makes you want to scream. Philby, of course, knowing that the net was closing in on his traitor pals, was cleverly encouraging his British colleagues to look at the wrong suspects and to drag their feet. Philipps’s description of Maclean’s  final days in England before he and Guy Burgess together took a weekend pleasure boat to St Malo and then on to Switzerland and Russia  is both thrilling and exasperating.

The British were almost certain he was guilty by May 4, 1951, putting a tail on him and tapping his telephone. But they failed to bring him in. It was not until May 25 that he hopped it. Astonishingly, the watchers knocked off on Friday afternoons for the weekends, so his final flit was unobserved. The British then compounded this mind-blowing incompetence by failing to tell their American friends, who had unmasked Maclean in the first place, what had happened until mid-June. Not surprisingly, the effect of the entire episode — the British failure to catch the spies when they could and should have, as well as the appalling fact of the spies’ existence in the first place — was massively to damage trust between the British and American secret services. 

Philipps’s telling of the tale is masterly. He weaves a complex web of professional, psychological and marital themes into a wonderfully fluent, coherent and compelling narrative. But niggling reservations remain.

Philipps has not quite cracked the riddle of Maclean’s 32 years in Russia, where he spent almost twice as long as his period as a double-agent. Did he truly believe, until his dying day, that his treachery had served a noble cause? His Moscow years, on which Philipps devotes a mere seven pages, are still a bit mysterious. Maclean was determined to become a true homo sovieticus, apparently shedding his alcoholism, joining Moscow’s main foreign-policy think-tank (known by its acronym Imemo), even writing a worthy treatise on British foreign policy since Suez, broadly predicting the eventual demise of the West. “He fraternised with likeminded intellectuals, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn . . . He was able to blossom in the society he had half chosen.”
I wonder. On paper he happily settles down, after his bizarrely attractive American wife Melinda, who knew his secret right from the start of his marriage in 1942, has briefly gone off with Philby. Melinda then departs for good to the West. Their three children are brought up as Soviet citizens, but they all emigrate to the West too. Nobody who spent a month in Moscow in the 1950s, let alone the 1980s, and who by then would have known the scale of Stalin’s atrocities, could have continued to believe in the cause unless almost crazily deluded or capable of some pride-filled self-deceit.

Philipps is indulgent, casting Maclean as an idealist who pursued a noble ideal valiantly upheld to the end. He claims that the “compelling argument” of Maclean’s Imemo thesis contains “an early plea for glasnost”. Had he lived into the Gorbachev era, he might, thinks Philipps, have renewed his hope of a “convergence” between the Soviet and Western models of society.      Maclean tells a fellow British communist that “whatever disappointments he felt about aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain, he believed to his death that the USSR and its new society has a much better prospect than the old of overcoming the major ills of our civilisation”. Philipps approvingly cites the obituary in Izvestia, a government mouthpiece, which hails him as “dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice for the largest number”.

Unlike Philby, Maclean never wrote a memoir nor agreed to be interviewed by a Westerner until he talked to Mark Frankland of the Observer a few days before his death in 1983. Philipps fillets the skimpy reminiscences of the handful of other foreigners — including a Reuters veteran and a disenchanted former correspondent for the Morning Star — who knew him a little. He is mentioned by the dissident Roy Medvedev. I cannot believe that Maclean, who died in 1983, found a “fellow dissident” in Solzhenitsyn, who returned to Russia in 1994.

In a coy afterword, Philipps gives a clue to his indulgence of this clever and brave but ultimately self-regarding, priggish, tortured man who insisted in a letter to his mother that he had “nothing to be ashamed of”. The author’s own grandfathers cast their own shadow over the tale. One of them, Roger Makins, later Lord Sherfield, was the last colleague of Maclean to have seen him on British soil, the very day he slipped away, and apparently always kicked himself for not realising that the watchers took off for the weekend on Friday afternoon. Philipps’s other grandfather, Wogan Philipps, was, like Maclean, a communist who apparently refused even after the collapse of the Soviet Union to admit that the noble ideal would not one day prevail. Philipps modestly shrinks from mentioning that he was also a hereditary peer who, as Lord Milford, was the last communist member of either British house of parliament.