Some say Kim Philby was the greatest spy in history. I disagree—shouldn’t the world’s greatest spy be someone we don’t know, whose successful double life is still a mystery, who inflicted damage without leaving a name or a trace of identity? That’s what I would think. Nonetheless, Philby makes his case for himself in his memoir, My Silent War.
Harold Adrian Russell Philby, nicknamed Kim by after Kipling’s boy spy, is the most famous of the Cambridge Five espionage ring. The group of students recruited by the Soviets during the 1930s—Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—all went on to serve in various positions in the British intelligence service. They used their insider status to pass information, most notably about atomic weapons programs, to the Soviets for decades, wreaking various degrees of damage in the spy vs. spy world of the Cold War. MacLean, on the verge of being exposed, fled for the USSR in 1951; Burgess, who was supposed to just help MacLean leave instead ran off with him. Blunt and Cairncross were each eventually cornered and both provided the British government with information about their espionage activities. Philby was cleared in 1955 of being involved with Burgess and MacLean and after being dismissed from the service, was actually re-employed by MI-6 a few years later and sent to work in the Middle East, where he supplied intelligence to Britain, but again, also to the Soviet Union. In 1963, Philby was confronted about his activities and confessed. However, instead of returning to Britain for interrogation as planned, he disappeared, resurfacing months later in Moscow, where he lived until his death in 1988. In 1968, Philby published My Silent War; apparently the Soviet Union thought it was a good idea for his story to come out because it would embarrass the West by showing how they were fooled for so many years by one of their own.
I found this book both entertaining and maddeningly elusive. I don’t know what I expected. Well, I guess I do know—I expected cloak and dagger tales of midnight meetings with mysterious strangers. I wanted to read about passwords, code names, cryptic messages and narrow escapes, cutouts and dead drops. I hoped to feel the uneasiness about who to trust and who not to trust that you are part of the life of a spy. II should have known better, though. As befits a good spy, Philby tells more about what he did than how it was done. That’s left to others, I suppose. I also wanted to learn more about his early years and about how it all began in Cambridge, but he only gives the barest details of that time. Again, I guess if you’re used to living your whole life undercover you don’t easily break the habit of not giving any more information than necessary.
Much of the book is about how Philby rose through the ranks of the British intelligence service until he was in charge of Soviet counterintelligence (yes, the Soviet spy was in charge of spying on the Soviets). He spends a lot of time telling about his colleagues, not sparing his opinion of who was bright and who was an idiot. He describes his superior officer, Felix Cowgill this way: “His intellectual endowment was slender. As an intelligence officer, he was inhibited by lack of imagination, inattention to detail and sheer ignorance of the world we were fighting in.” Another officer gets this version of himself: “I have been told that magenta is the only colour that the rainbow lacks. If so, Bill’s face would be out of place in the rainbow.” (That’s my favorite in the book, by the way). This is all great stuff. He does have a seemingly unending fascination with the bureaucracy of all the British intelligence branches, though, going on at some points in mind-numbing detail about how divisions were broken down and reorganized and who was in charge of whom and who reported where, etc., etc. It’s a little bit like meeting someone who works for a research institute that is investigating the origins of the universe, and instead of telling you about dark matter, goes off into, “They are renovating our offices and at first Department C was supposed to be located altogether on the south side of the 41st floor, but now they’re going to put all of Smith’s group on the 39th floor, and everyone is going to have a cube, not a real office, while Gray’s group is going to be broken up into three divisions that are going to move to Building J…” You’re like, okay, guess you have to be there…
Fortunately, Philby writes with charm and understated wit, and is a wise observer of people and events. He writes about one pompous officer who at a meeting expounds on the idea that they need to “secure the overt co-operation of people with conspicuous access to wealth in their own right,” and Philby notices another officer writing this down as, “people with conspicuous access to wealth in their own right = rich people.” When he is posted to Washington, he reports on the rivalry between the CIA and FBI, explaining that the FBI men were proud of their solid, Midwestern, grass roots heritage and were “whisky-drinkers, with beer for light refreshment,” as opposed to the CIA men “who flaunted cosmopolitan postures. They would discuss absinthe and serve Burgundy above room temperature.” (now can you honestly tell me that you wouldn't like to have been a fly on the wall during one of those CIA absinthe discussions?) He tells how his FBI contact sneered at the CIA: “What do they teach them in CIA, son? Why, how to use knives and forks, to marry rich wives.”
Philby may have been living dangerously but seemed to have had an appreciation for the comic possibilities of his double life. As an instructor of agents for his Soviet intelligence unit, Philby was known for his command of Communist ideas and Soviet practices. One of his recruits became interested enough to later write a book about Communism and upon its publication told Philby, still undercover, that he thought about dedicating it to him but worried that he might be embarrassed by such a tribute. "Indeed,"wrote Philby," it would have given me grave embarrassment for a number of reasons." Indeed. To be honest, reading Philby is a lot like reading Evelyn Waugh; it’s almost like Scoop—the Spy Years.
The book ends with Philby’s escape to Moscow, but that was not the happy ending he would have expected for his many years of service. In Moscow, Philby was not treated as a returning hero by the KGB, but rather was suspected of being a double-agent for the British. He was not allowed to receive visitors and for the rest of the decade was pretty much confined to an apartment that had all the charms that you would expect of 1960s Communist government housing. He descended into alcoholism and obscurity until years later when the government decided to improve the lives of the former spies who had defected to them, the idea being that that would encourage others in their employ to return to them rather than turn on them. Philby eventually was allowed to lecture about Britain to future KGB operatives, but all in all lived a pretty miserable life. The quintessential Englishman in so many ways, life under Soviet control in gray, severe Moscow must have been a far greater punishment for his treachery than any prison sentence Philby would have received in England.
I knew that a spy would not be the most reliable narrator, so after reading Philby’s book, I looked for something to give the other side of the story. The literature of the Cambridge Five is enormous, but the one I ran across first was Deceiving the Deceivers, by S. J. Hamrick (2004). The idea of this book is to debunk the mythology of our five spying friends through the use of information the author found when the Venona files were declassified in the 1990s.
Venona was the code name for a top-secret project run by the US Signal Intelligence Service, its purpose the decryption of messages to and from Soviet agents in both the US and UK. The breakthrough for the US cryptologists came in 1946 when they discovered that some Soviets were reusing what were supposed to be one-time keys to ciphers. SIS was able to go back to messages stored since 1942 and decrypt those, which helped them learn about the activities of Soviet spies during WW II. In some cases, they were able to identify the spies. One of the agents they eventually uncovered was Donald MacLean. Tradition has it that his identity was confirmed only a few months before his disappearance, and that Philby, who had been posted to the British Embassy in Washington in 1949, tipped MacLean off that he was about to be exposed. Hamrick, however, believes that MacLean, Philby, and Burgess were all identified at least six months earlier than believed, and in fact, probably much earlier, maybe even a year or two. His idea seems to be that these spies, who have been both so reviled for their treason adn so hailed for their ingenuity were in fact, being watched and manipulated by their government.
Hamrick bases this not so much on the Venona files that have been released by the US, the UK, and post-Soviet Russia, but on the ones he suspects the UK has not released. He’s convinced that a stiflingly secretive British old boys’ club is stopping them from releasing the real truth about MacLean, Philby, and Burgess; they don't want to embarrass their organization or those who were, after all, their own. However, the main truth Hamrick wants to reveal is that Philby isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
Hamrick goes through all of Philby’s espionage activities and maintains that Philby exaggerated his own importance in My Silent War, particularly his post WW II activities. He seems to feel that Philby’s reputation is unwarranted, built up by a breathless mythologizing of Philby in film, TV and spy fiction. I think Hamrick is the one who is exaggerating, though. If this makes any sense, I feel that he is overrating the overrating of Philby. Those of us who know who he is (and Hamrick should keep in mind that Philby is not as big a name outside of Britain as it is there) understand his importance in the history of espionage, but I doubt many people believe he is behind every great Cold War mystery, as Hamrick seems to believe is believed. What it comes down to is that Hamrick has a real grudge against Philby and just wants to take down his reputation as much as possible. This gives the book a rather sour, hatchet job kind of tone and Hamrick’s insistence that he is the only one who sees the emperor has no clothes wears you down after a while.
Hamrick’s whole premise about Venona is also a little shaky. Basically he’s asking you to believe that the truth lies in what has not been revealed, though of course we don’t know what has not been revealed, or if it even exists. He goes through lots and lots of info about cables and intercepts, but tends to repeat and sometimes circles around and around the same point. He includes a lengthy section about the rocky beginnings of the CIA which isn’t really anything we don’t know already and seems out of place with the rest of the book; it's not particularly related to Venona or the spies in question. Trust me, you don’t need Venona decrypts to know the CIA has had its share of bad moments, and of course, Philby's own descriptions of the CIA and FBI in that time period are much more entertaining (see above). As for the British, sometimes Hamrick seems to be saying that British intelligence was incompetent and was hiding their incompetence during this period; at other times he seems to be saying that they were so competent that they are hiding the depths of their competence. And of course the US intelligence branches, outside of SIS, were all pretty incompetent (well, okay there...). You get the impression that things all could have been done a lot better if Hamrick had been in charge of all branches of espionage, here, there and everywhere. The whole book suffers from a tone of huffy, self-righteousness that maybe, perhaps unfairly, makes me focus more on the its flaws than its good points.
And there are good points—Hamrick has really studied the Venona files and does connect many dots. One of his most valuable points is one about the history of Philby literature, in which he points out that authors of a book about Philby written in the early 1970s make a statement that has no fact behind it, but becomes an accepted part of the Philby story, cited over and over again by authors for the next 30 years. It’s a lesson to all of us would be historians, I guess—if you think you found the source, keep going back until you’ve found where that source was found.
As for Philby—was he as important and successful as he portrayed himself and as some believe him to be? Probably not. Was he as inconsequential as Hamrick wants him to be? Probably not that either. The truth, unfortunately, no doubt lies somewhere in between, which is an uncomfortable place for those who seek black and white answers to everything. If you want black and white answers, though, then you shouldn't be looking in the world of espionage, which, after all, is a place of shadows and shades of gray.