Friday, January 29, 2016

Charm's Cold Mask: Ben Macintyre's "A Spy Among Friends"

“The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it?--”Jeremiah, 17:9

“. . . if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country” -- E.M. Forster

“Betrayal is a repetitious trade . . . ” --John le Carré, A Perfect Spy.

We’re all Monday-morning armchair generals. At one time or another, we all shout, “How could they not know!?” in indignant response to a surprise, that, to someone standing on the outside at a later time, seems as obvious as mud.

But for those at the center, the perceptions can be wildly different. You really can’t see the forest for the trees, even if the forest is on fire.

Case in point: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (with an afterword by John le Carré). Macintyre is the of author of Operation Mincemeat, another terrific true-life story of twentieth-century espionage, the kind of book for which you'd happily starve in your chair.

Besides being a cracking suspenseful experience, A Spy Among Friends leaves you with many questions to ponder: the uses and treachery of charm; the opaqueness of people; the appeal and immoral nature of the spy business; the pleasures, dangers and debilitating impacts of living a secret life in a secret world. And how even the sharpest of us often miss what’s right in front of our nose.

Most significantly, it’s also about how little we know one another; how we come to fool ourselves about others in our lives, the ones we sometimes mistakenly call, with all our hearts, “friends.” Friendship is an act of faith, and like many such acts, it can end in betrayal.

My knowledge of Philby (who was the most successful agent in “The Cambridge Five” spy ring) was tangential until now, mostly gained through novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (declared one of the great novels of postwar England by Salman Rushdie, no less), films such as Another Country and a surprisingly dull British series, Cambridge Spies.

The Cambridge Five spy ring is legendary among Cold War historians and, especially, spy buffs: It started in 1934, when the Cambridge-educated Kim Philby started spying for Stalin’s Soviet Union against the West. For nearly the next thirty years, he fooled everyone in his circle, friends and family alike. He became the “perfect” spy.

This is, in part, also a story about class. The son of a colonial administrator and raised in England’s often brutal public school system, Philby rose to join Britain’s best and brightest. He had, in Macintyre’s words, “that inborn faith in his right, and ability, to change and rule the world.” These are attributes no ambitious member of any empire can do without.

There was also ideology. Philby was turned on to Communism in 1934, like many of the 1930s generation (including, I was told, my own college-age mother, in faraway Illinois). With Nazism on the rise as the world sank into the Great Depression, seemingly due to unregulated capitalism, communism, as cleverly represented by Soviets, seemed the right response and best option for tens of millions of people around the globe.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, as the old saying goes.

But while the romance faded for many—especially after Stalin made his pact with Hitler on the eve of World War II—it never faded with Kim Philby. He remained a true believer, loyal above all to the abstract ideology. “I have always operated on two levels,” he once said, “a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.”

For the upper class in the British caste system, becoming a spy for the Empire was absurdly easy. There were no real background checks, as we know them. Only a whisper in the right ear, a call on “the old school tie” (not the sartorial kind, as I once imagined) and presto--the door opened into a clubby, booze-drenched, smoky secret world, elite and exclusive.

Trust was bestowed automatically, as it was on Kim Philby and his fellow spies, four other Cambridge political romantics: Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Donald Mclean. Working separately within MI6 (the equivalent of the CIA), these five members of this “league of gentleman,” stole every secret they could lay their hands on, photographing and turning over huge caches of documents to their Soviet masters.

By comparison, the West had nothing on the Soviet KGB in those years. Advantage here to the Soviets. The Cambridge Five caused widespread and bloody damage. Every effort to subvert to Soviet rule was thwarted once they learned what the West was up to. It could reasonably be said this “great betrayal” both intensified and prolonged the Cold War.

In 1951, Burgess and McLean were exposed and, tipped off by Philby, fled to the Soviet Union. The more amazing part of this story was how Philby managed to hang on and keep up his front for another ten years, despite growing suspicion.

One reason for the Cambridge Five’s success was that they received enormous of unwitting help from their side. On Philby’s part, that involved following the old adage about holding your friends close, but your enemies closer

Macintyre brilliantly centers his narrative around that very idea. In this case, the ideological enemy Philby embraced most closely was one Nicholas Elliott, another proud product of the upper-crust British establishment, and, I think, this book’s most tragic figure.

Philby and Elliott met in 1940 when World War II was well underway and Philby had been spying for the Soviets for six years. Both men shared the British talent for offhand humor. For his part, Elliott was immediately enthralled by Philby’s ultra-smooth charm (to which he also added a stutter, a brilliant detail deepening the deception). Already members of the same tribe, the two of them joined MI6, an even more elite and terribly secret society.

Spies keep their secrets from the world, but, when alone among themselves with the blinds drawn and liquor gushing, even the most scrupulous can’t shut up. Especially when being charmed and entertained by someone as affable as Kim Philby. Everybody loved Philby. Everyone wanted to be his friend. The Soviets couldn’t have had a better mole.

Blinded by Philby’s rising star, the British spy establishment spent years cheerily feeding top secret information to Philby who, in turn, fed it right to his Soviet spymasters. Perhaps this was less of a problem when both sides were united against a common enemy like the Nazis, but once World War II ended and the Cold War began, it certainly became one once the former allies became enemies.

During this time, both Philby and Elliott worked their way up the British intelligence establishment, sometimes working together, sometimes not, but always in touch professionally, and especially personally. Philby also became great friends with, and simultaneous betrayer of, CIA cofounder and head James Jesus Angleton, a strange and even horrific individual, whose betrayal by Philby turned him into a clinical paranoid who nearly destroyed the CIA.

Philby encouraged and nurtured these relationships with breathtaking cold duplicity, even as his own handlers on the Soviet side were being murdered in Stalin’s purges. No one, nothing mattered but the Cause.

No wonder the Cold War never seemed to end. The Soviets had more than our number—they had the whole damn Rolodex.

Even after suspicion fell on Philby in 1951 after the defection of Burgess and McLean (following Philby’s tip-off), Elliott and the MI6 establishment stuck by him. Philby was dismissed from MI6 for a time, but was eventually allowed back in.

But his Boy Wonder days were over. Philby would never be fully trusted again. Add to that, he was sinking into a whirlpool of alcoholic dissolution, common throughout the secret world, where severe stress is almost constant. And when Soviet defectors started crossing over with stories of an “Agent Stanley” and witnesses from Philby’s youthful past started filling in other details, what most everyone outside the Philby circle suspected became obvious.

Even so, according to Macintyre, Elliot and his bosses in the British government couldn’t bring themselves to arrest Philby: He had burrowed so deep and risen so high in MI6, even becoming chief liaison between the British Government and the CIA, that trying him on charges of treason and espionage would have only added to the already terrible damage, exposing more secrets, further ruining international relationships.

After Elliott finally confronted Philby in a Beirut hotel room in 1963, a conversation evidence shows as excruciatingly polite as only the British can be, he and his government stepped back and allowed Philby to slip away . . .

 . . . to Soviet oblivion as it turns out. Though well-treated on his arrival in Moscow, Kim Philby was never allowed to feel at home. “In Britain,” Macintyre writes, “Philby was too British to be doubted; in Russia, he was too British to be believed.” In the end, Philby, a man who transcended Forster’s choice to betray both friends and country, turned against Communism, but too late to do him or anyone much good.

As he did in Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre tells a terrific, absorbing story, full of human detail and a sharp eye for individual quirks, especially among British eccentrics (Philby kept a wild fox as a pet, for instance, while Elliott was a relentless kidder with a flair for the off-color joke.)

But Operation Mincemeat was the story of a wartime success. A Spy Among Friends is a much darker, even tragic, story of betrayal that does credit to no one. It’s the kind of book you close with a head shake and a sad sigh.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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