MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas
How Spies Think by David Omand
In fact three of the books reviewed this month are about MI5. The fourth relates more to general intelligence, but it is a noteworthy addition, and marginally concerns MI5, and I wanted to keep the title of the piece simple. ‘Three Books About MI5 – and One Not’ didn’t seem very catchy.
Regular readers will recognize that the main focus of my research into intelligence agencies has been MI5, with occasional ventures into MI6, GCHQ, and SOE. If ever I were to attempt a second book, it would be called The Authoritative But Unauthorised History of MI5 (hereafter referred to as TABU). Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is a monumental work, very readable, and a valuable companion, but I have consistently maintained that it is too ambitious in its scope, flawed in its methodology, unscholarly in its references to sources, and far too delicate in its avoidance of controversy. That last aspect may have been forced upon its author, but then he should not have succumbed to such pressures if he wanted to preserve his academic prestige.
Above all, there is a wealth of information that needs to be incorporated in any comprehensive history of MI5, with hundreds of files released to the National Archives that require a concentrated and disciplined amount of cross-referencing, a process that would then shed much light on the activities of MI5 officers. I could start TABU with my research into Fuchs, Peierls, Pontecorvo, Philby, Maclean, Blunt, Ursula Kuczynski, Gouzenko, etc. etc. and package the stories into a book on its own. Then there are the figures who have not been properly covered: for example, Alexander Foote, Oliver Green, Dave Springhall, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Jane Archer.
A more serious approach would carve MI5’s history up into more manageable sections. Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas attempted something similar in their three-volume ‘Unofficial History of MI5’, titled Spooks (2009-2011), but their compilation inexplicably lacks an index, which is a fatal flaw. It provides a measure of useful chronicling, but contains numerous errors, and is overall unusable. Another project is required, perhaps covering separately the era of each MI5 director-general. Thus Volume 1 would take us to 1940 with Kell (1909-1940), with perhaps a chapter on Harker’s interregnum, Volume 2 with Petrie (1940 to 1946), Volume 3 with Sillitoe (1946 to 1953), Volume 4 with White (1953-1956), Volume 5 with Hollis (1956-1965), and Volume 6 with Furnival-Jones (1965-1972) – furnished perhaps with an appendix on Hanley’s molehunts, while the remaining Volumes would await further release of archival material. Whoever is charged with managing this enterprise, I hope that he or she has access to the TABU sources available on coldspur.
Meanwhile, some potentially valuable books exploring lesser-known aspects of MI5’s history continue to appear – some absurdly priced – and it is my allotted task this month to analyse what I found in them.
MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta (Oxford University Press, 2020)
This hefty volume is described in the following terms: “[It] is concerned with the powers, activities, and accountability of MI5 principally in the period from 1945 to 1964. It was a body without statutory authority, with no statutory powers, and with no obvious forms of statutory accountability. It was established as a counter-espionage agency, yet was beset by espionage scandals on a frequency that suggested if not high levels of incompetence, then high levels of distraction and the squandering of resources.”
This is all very stirring stuff, in the tradition (it would appear) of that overlooked classic of counter-intelligence analysis, Misdefending the Realm, which the authors unaccountably do not list in their Bibliography, while giving ample recognition to those renowned chroniclers of the truth, Chapman Pincher, Kim Philby and Peter Wright. Since my attention was focussed on the period 1939-1941, with some projection into 1949 and 1950 on account of the Klaus Fuchs case, one might expect a smooth transition from MTR into the post-war challenges posed by Gouzenko, Nunn May, Fuchs and Pontecorvo, followed by the growing controversies surrounding Burgess and Maclean up to Philby’s disappearance in 1963.
Yet this is not a conventional study. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta are lawyers – and their book is therefore a ‘lawyerly’ approach to the mission of MI5, with an emphasis on rights, and discrimination and surveillance. Readers should thus not be surprised when they encounter sentences such as: “That said, it must also be recognized that the consequence of vetting was to discriminate against individuals, either on grounds of their political affiliations or beliefs, or on the ground of their lifestyle.” (p 303)
To an audience in 2021, ‘discrimination’ is clearly a highly negative term. After all, MI5 recently put out a press release stating that ‘in the interests of diversity’, and ‘to ensure that our personnel accurately reflect the community they serve’, the agency would ‘begin a recruiting campaign to hire all manner of riff-raff, ne’er-do-wells, losers, and subversives to its counter-intelligence staff’. [That was intended as a joke. I do not believe any such statement has been made – yet.] In 1950, however, such a policy of ‘discrimination’ should have been seen as eminently sensible, as it should be now. Why on earth should a government department, or a company with governmental contracts engaged on secret work, not discriminate against persons whose avowed objective was to destroy the whole liberal democracy? For we are talking about Communists (Party members), and communists (fellow-travellers), here.
Be that as it may, the authors start off by providing a very useful and detailed inspection of the movements between the electoral success of Clement Attlee in July 1945, flushed with the recent victory between the western allies and their counterpart, the Soviet Union, and Attlee’s recognition, a few years later, after detection of spies and warlike impulses from Stalin, that communist influence in government needed to be stamped out. Attlee was suddenly not beholden to his Left Wing any more. This period was well summarized by Christopher Andrew in Defend the Realm (pp 382-386), and Ewing and Co. exploit the rich archival sources now available to track the important contributions of civil servants like Findlater Stewart and Edward Bridges (neither of whom appear in Andrew’s book), and the efforts by MI5 to resist any controls over its independence.
The focus of the authors is very much on the constitutional authority of MI5, and especially its involvement in ‘surveillance’. Indeed, the word ‘Surveillance’ appears in six of the fifteen chapters’ headings, and is a dominant theme throughout. This expressed dislike of ‘surveillance’ concerns these lawyers the most. It even leads them into some unfortunate misconceptions. As early as page 7, in the Introduction, they write: “Yet we too had a secret police . . .” While MI5 operated secretly, however, it was not a police force with powers of arrest and prosecution, and suggestions that it was somehow akin to the Gestapo and the NKVD are irresponsible. The motif is picked up later, on page 51, where the following interpretation appears: “Quite apart from the form of words used, further evidence that MI5 was being authorized to act as a secret political police force rather than a counter-espionage agency is to be found . . .”.
These lawyers admit to sympathies for ‘progressive’ views. “Lawyers had no immunity from MI5 surveillance during the Cold War, and progressive lawyers had even less”, they write (p 168). They hail ‘the progressive National Unemployed Workers Movement “ (p 11). They lament how certain presumably ‘advanced’ members of parliament were treated: “In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds.” (p 150)
Now, I am not certain what distinguishes a ‘progressive’ lawyer from a ‘regressive’ one (after all, should they not simply be interpreting the law?), but if they are borrowing from the world of economics and politics, they are entering dangerous ground. I could just about accept that ‘progressive’ taxation has an accepted definition concerning the increasing confiscation of wealth from those who either earn a lot or possess substantial assets, but the idea of a ‘progressive’ politician (as espoused by the New York Times and its Nobelist idol of American academia, Paul Krugman) in fact indicates someone on the loony Left who wants the government to pay for free childcare, fund reparations for slavery, forgive all student loans, distribute a universal minimum wage, offer free healthcare, community college tuition, etc. etc. with monies that it does not have, and will never have a chance of collecting.
I do not believe that historians or lawyers should ever start classifying people as ‘progressives’, as they end up sounding like a Pravda editorial, or a functionary from the Politburo. For example, here is Molotov speaking on the new Soviet constitution in 1937, quoting Stalin: “We are entirely on the side of those who have at heart the interests of ‘the whole of advanced and progressive humanity’”. Thus one has to question exactly what sort of world Ewing, Mahoney, and Moretta are progressing towards when they champion the protection of subversive elements whom the government is funding, and analyze the poorly-named ‘Purge’ Procedures. With some apparent sense of regret, they write (p 248): “Although in practice most civil servants at the time  enjoyed secure tenure and relatively good conditions of service, they could nevertheless be hired and fired at will, with no remedy in the event of a transfer or termination on security grounds”. This is a commentary on Attlee’s statement to the Cabinet of March 25, where he essentially expressed exactly that policy. (And Attlee went so far as to include the shocking statement: ‘Even promotion does not come of right’. The injustice! The iniquity!) If it was good enough for the socialist Attlee in 1948, why question it now?
The authors are on much stronger ground when they analyze MI5’s policies being carried out in practice against the broader public. I have commented before on the colossal waste of time, and the occupation of yards and yards of filing space, that was driven by MI5’s vague and all-encompassing policy of ‘keeping an eye on’ possibly disruptive elements. Literally hundreds of intellectuals, academics, union leaders and CP members were at large, spreading falsehoods about the phenomenon of Soviet Russia, and denigrating what they viewed as the oppressive, exploitative nature of western democratic society. There was thus a continuous hum that abetted Soviet propaganda, and apologists for the relatively free and enlightened United Kingdom struggled to find the right voice and outlet. The ‘scandal’ that erupted when Encounter magazine was found to have been funded by the CIA was typical of this: why on earth should a government organisation not assist a publication that promoted western values?
Nearly all these dubious characters were never going to be caught in any illegal act, such as bomb-throwing, or passing state secrets to a Soviet contact. Dave Springhall was a notable exception, and his arrest caused alarm and dismay in Moscow. As the authors point out, the most dangerous activity was taking place under the noses of MI5’s and MI6’s senior officers, by traitors who had concealed their ideological loyalties. Thus most of the surveillance energy was a wasted effort. As the authors conclude (p 424): “True, we have become accustomed to MI5 – a counter-espionage agency – being over-obsessed with fears of subversion and ill-informed about espionage threats, going back to Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and of course to ‘Sonya’.” (‘Of course’?)
On more prosecutorial issues, Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta proceed painstakingly through the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit with some confusing jumping around in time, explaining in detail the ramifications of such overlooked but much cherished phenomena as The Radcliffe Report on Positive Vetting, the Maxwell Fyffe Directive and the George Wigg Codicil. With their published concern about the fashionable leftist bogey of ‘witch hunts’, they offer a barbed criticism of Lord Denning as the Grand Inquisitor, but cover the Vassall case well, and are very incisive and accurate in their criticism of the government’s performance in the Profumo case. One probably long-forgotten grievance they document is the case of one John Lang, a solicitor with ICI who had lost the confidence of its board because he had, in 1951, married a woman who had been a member of the Communist Party, and has thus appeared on MI5’s radar trail. The authors fail to make any comparison with the romantic affairs of Dick White, the director-general of MI5 a couple of years later, who had himself married a communist at the end of the war.
One highly useful component of the volume is the Appendix on the Post-War Structure of MI5. (This was the feature that introduced me to the book, when I was conducting a Google search.) The neglect by Christopher Andrew of this important facet of MI5’s operations is one of the severest failings of Defend the Realm, and I had been strenuously trying to establish (for instance) exactly the extent to which Roger Hollis was working in Soviet counter-espionage after the war. His rump Division F became reconstituted into the new B Division at the end of 1946, after which Hollis headed B1 for a couple of years. The preliminary conclusions from this narrative indicate that Hollis became Director of C Division in December 1948, and was for some years involved in relatively inconsequential vetting procedures away from the main spy-fighting unit when the Fuchs and Pontecorvo cases were rumbling, a fact that I have since confirmed from a closer inspection of Liddell’s Diaries. The authors’ analysis of the records that source their inquiry (KV 4/162 and KV 4/166, primarily) is close and detailed, but patchy and error-prone. I have ordered photocopies of the relevant material, and plan to provide a fuller account on coldspur at some time, as a follow-up to my piece from November 2018, B2B or Not B2B?.
The standard of copy-editing in this book from the venerated Oxford University Press is sadly lamentable. Thus we read of ‘invetigations’, ‘a corrigenda’, and ‘enior judiciary’. One sub-chapter is headed ‘The Expulcation of MI5’. Persons’ names are mis-spelled: ‘Gielgud’ appears as ‘Gilguid’; ‘Beurton’ as ‘Buerton’; on a single page (219) Evelyn McBarnet appears as ‘McBarnet’ and ‘Barnet’. Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend is introduced as ‘Sir Burke’ on page 302 (without a respective index entry), and referred to thereafter as ‘Sir Burke’. One or two incomprehensible sentences obtrude, such as the verbless creature on p 369: “It is disappointing, nevertheless, that the official trade union structures co-operative in both the development of the Radcliffe exclusion policy and its extension and implementation.” Percy Sillitoe is described as being the director-general of MI5 in September 1945 (p 236), when he did not accede to the position until the following April. A similar mistake is made over Roger Hollis, when he is presented as being the director-general in November 1952 (p 320). The authors make several mistakes about Soviet espionage, such as asserting that Dave Springhall ran the Cambridge Five (p 233), and a puzzling judgment about the need for secrecy at GCHQ (p 352). They claim that the trials of Nunn May and Fuchs were both held in camera, when in fact both were public.
In conclusion, this is a bit of a clunker; a useful compendium for the earnest scholar of constitutional law, with hundreds of valuable references to archival material that might otherwise have been overlooked, but a bit laborious in its repeated plaints about MI5 as a secret police force, and its obvious bias in favour of (disputable) rights and entitlements for the left-wing cause. Nevertheless, it properly raises some important points about the constitutional and legal basis on which MI5’s surveillance powers are based, which never go away.
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)
I had to make a further raid on my wife’s gardening budget to acquire this volume, which had somehow lain undetected by me since its release fifteen years ago. I cannot recall where I encountered it, but its title beckoned unavoidably, since earlier this year I was earnestly trying to hunt down information on the decision to send the enigmatic George Graham (né Leontieff) to Moscow as George Hill’s special assistant and cipher-clerk in 1941. Murphy is described as ‘an independent scholar . . . formerly Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research’. I was not familiar with that institution, which is apparently celebrating its centenary this year. Unfortunately, its resources seem designed for research libraries and universities through a subscription service, and, like Taylor and Francis, offers no flexible subscription package for a retiree like me.
The book arrived, and I re-inspected the blurb: “The first comprehensive account of the work of the Security Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War, . . .”, and Richard Thurlow, of the University of Sheffield, added his commendation: “Security and Special Operations is a significant addition to the burgeoning literature of the history of the Special Operations Executive.” Thurlow, I see, wrote a book titled The Secret State, published in 1994, that I should perhaps read. So I turned eagerly to the Contents and Index, to discover what Murphy had written about the Russian Section of SOE in his ‘comprehensive’ account.
The answer was – not one word. That was a colossal disappointment. How could this be a ‘comprehensive’ account if it neglected to cover the most controversial of all of SOE’s undertakings – its attempt to ‘co-operate’ with the NKVD, the most suspicious, unyielding, aggressive and demanding ‘intelligence’ organisation in the world? And how did Murphy’s sponsors (“The archival research on which this book is based was made possible by a Leverhulme Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for British History at the Institute of Historical Research”) not supervise adequately Murphy’s project to ensure that it delivered the goods? Leaving the Russian Section out was like recounting the tale of Harry Potter without mentioning Voldemort. [Is this correct, Thelma? I was going to write ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, but I wanted an analogy that today’s readers would understand . . . Please emend as necessary. Tony].
What is notable is the fact that Murphy also thanks one Duncan Stuart (‘former SOE Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’) for his help, ‘pointing me in the right direction with a single sheet of paper’. Is it not strange that the F&CO would need an ‘adviser’ for a unit that was dissolved in January 1946? Was he perhaps appointed in 1943, and kept his position for several decades, forgotten and untroubled? His status sounds rather like that of Peter Simple’s Dr. Heinz Kiosk, ‘chief psychiatric adviser to the National Meringue and Profiterole Authority’. Yet it is an important position, and was in fact designed to ‘help’ historians, not the Foreign Office itself. E. G. Boxshall was the first appointee, in 1959, but for much of the period my record is bare. Christopher Woods occupied the post from 1983 to 1988, and Gervase Cowell (of Oleg Penkovsky/Greville Wynne fame) followed him until 1996, with Duncan Stuart, the last Adviser, succeeding him, and retiring in 2002. Thus to Dr. Murphy I would say: ‘I am sure Stuart did indeed orient you, squire, and pointed you away from the files on the Russian Section, which you were not capable of finding by yourself.’ The last thing an SOE Adviser would want is someone digging around in files he did not understand, whose revelations might be embarrassing, and which the Adviser was trying to get withdrawn, in any case . . .
Despite its obvious oversights, I of course read the book. As the image above shows, the cover displays the determined visage of the ‘double agent’ Henri Déricourt, taken in November 1946. When I read the volume several months ago, I had only a very hazy idea of who Déricourt was, but, now that I have become involved with Patrick Marnham and War in the Shadows, he is a subject of immense interest to me. Murphy dedicates ten dense pages to the aspects of the Déricourt affair which intrigue him, but it is symptomatic of his methods that he completely misses the point, starting his investigation only with the events of November 1943, when all the damage had been done in the preceding twelve months. I shall return to this analysis later.
Murphy has clearly applied some serious delving into the archives to put a story together. He lists an impressive Bibliography, but his detailed and very useful Endnotes are almost exclusively from files at the National Archives, and they thus for some reason ignore the published sources. Concerning the establishment of the Security Section of SOE – a unit that was much resented by the Country Sections – Murphy painstakingly explains the struggles that Air Commodore Archie Boyle experienced after he was appointed Director of Intelligence and Security in July 1941. There was ‘physical’ security (maintaining the secrecy of what went on in SOE’s various establishments), and ‘esoteric’ security, which former SOE security officer Peter Lee described as work ‘including the double cross system, running double agents [and] the very high grade interrogation of people coming out of occupied territories.’ The latter were the functions that the country sections resented, as they felt their judgments were being questioned, and the bureaucrats were putting obstacles in the way of their achieving results.
While Murphy understands well the question of how relationships between SOE and MI5 (what he calls, in the familiar jargon of our time, ‘adequate liaison machinery’) should work, he is somewhat ponderous in explaining its ramifications. He really gets going with the MI5 connections only in Chapter 4, when Geoffrey Wethered was appointed in early 1943 as the SOE Liaison Officer. The need for such had intensified. As Murphy writes: “MI5 had good reason to be concerned over the security of SOE agents in the field. Fears about the extent of undetected German penetration of SOE networks in Belgium, raised during the winter of 1942-1943, were compounded by the ‘increasing number of cases’ of agents returning to the UK having been captured by the German and ‘turned’, a staged escape preceding their return to the UK with a German mission’” In other words, MI5 had every reason to be petrified about the influx of such persons, and their not being vetted stringently enough as they passed through the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, and how secrets about the Double-Cross Operation might be inadvertently revealed.
Yet Murphy struggles to discriminate clearly between the insignificant and the important episodes. His narrative attempts to pick up every detail of who said what to whom, and how Wethered groped through his difficult task, and the responses by SOE security officer John Senter to Wethered’s recommendations and intrusions. Murphy describes the tensions as the two organisations grappled. The Country Sections continued to act in a blasé fashion. MI5 warned SOE about its ‘shockingly irresponsible’ conduct in sending a dubious character, Barry Knight, to France, and the dispute almost reached the level of Lord Selborne, the minister responsible for SOE, but Duff Cooper backed off. Guy Liddell wanted a softer approach, by talking with Senter’s boss, Archie Boyle.
Thus Murphy introduces the Déricourt story only with the investigations in late 1943, when allegations were made against him, by Jacques Frager (another SOE agent), that he was working for the Germans. Murphy painstakingly goes through the records of the discussions over Déricourt, logging the testimonies of various witness, and the plans to bring Déricourt back to the United Kingdom for interrogation. He thereby ignores all the fracas about Déricourt going back to 1942, when he had been snapped up by Dansey’s henchman, Bodington, in SOE and bypassed all the recommended investigations into his biography that MI5 tried to insist upon. His shady past was suspected then and confirmed in early 1943: Murphy misses all the nuances and sub-plots of this investigation. As with nearly all other historians of this period, he also does not seem to be familiar with the TWIST committee, and the way that MI6 was managing SOE’s ’double agents’ for them. That is understandable (given that the revelations on TWIST appeared only in 2009), but Murphy displays a lack of imagination in not providing the well-documented background material to Déricourt that did exist at the time, and not putting the events of 1946 and after into context.
There is more, on the Double Cross System and the plans for OVERLORD, which the enterprising reader may wish to follow up him- or herself, but overall my judgment is that this book was an opportunity missed. Too much of ‘what one clerk said to another’, in the immortal words of A. J. P. Taylor, and not enough imaginative synthesizing investigation. No risks were taken in the creation of this work, and no endangered species harmed. Murphy draws no integrative conclusions from his study, and the book ends very abruptly, with a Chapter he titles ‘Unfinished Business’. He covers some of the post-mortems, especially the ‘Nordpol’ operation in the Netherlands, and a fruitless interrogation of Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr at Camp 020, in an attempt to learn more about Déricourt, but his only conclusion is to suggest that MI5’s interest in SOE soon waned after the war, ‘as the new security priorities of the Cold War emerged’.
I suspect the reality is more complex than that. For example, the failure to even consider the Russian Section is unpardonable, in my opinion. I of course wrote to Murphy about this oversight, and then, failing to gain any response from his email address, tried to call him on the telephone, leaving him a message on his answering machine. He never responded, and I thus add him to my list of appalling academics who advertise an email address, but never want to engage with any of the public who read their books. As Ko-Ko might have sung:
The reclusive annalist, I’ve got him on my list. I don’t think he’d be missed! I’m sure he’d not be missed!
[What do you think, Thelma? Will my readers recognise The Mikado?]
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas (Manchester University Press, 2017)
I do not think it is a sensible idea to introduce a question in the title of a serious book on intelligence: it makes it sound like a conference presentation where you want to keep your audience in suspense. But, if you haven’t made up your mind by the time you have completed writing its 250-plus pages, you have probably chosen the wrong topic. It is not as if the eager reading public is walking around thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder whether the relationship between Intelligence and Security during Attlee’s premiership was uncomfortable in any way, and I wish some capable academic would sort it all out for me’, partly because ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security’ are merely abstract nouns, and do not have relationships with governments, and I do not believe that anyone has made the claim that the Attlee administration was exceptional in that dimension. So not a good start. Yet, according to his biographical profile at Salford, Lomas’s book was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for first academic monograph.
Dr. Lomas is described as Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, and an early warning signal is communicated in the second sentence of his ‘Acknowledgements’, where he thanks his colleague, Dr. Christopher J. Murphy, of renown in this parish above, for ‘his cherished advice and support’ throughout his research. And here is another academic who manages to gain sponsorship from a charitable institution – this time the Arts and Humanities Research Council. How do these guys do it? All that money flowing around, simply to spend some hours in the dusty archives? Moreover, he lists a whole stream of eminent persons who gave him ‘valuable advice’, such as Countess Attlee, Professor Richard Aldrich, Dr Gill Bennett, Tom Bower, Professor Keith Jeffery, Dr Christopher Moran, Professor the Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, etc. etc. (I did not see David Hare, John le Carré or Ben Macintyre on the list.) What did they tell him?: ‘Go West, young man’? ‘Don’t forget to floss’? And how does one handle all that advice, and what happens if their advice clashes? To whom would one turn? It beats me. Perhaps Lomas would have won that Whitfield Prize if he had used fewer advisers.
In fact the book starts out promisingly, with an Introduction that offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the state of play in historiography of the Labour Party and MI5 and MI6. He suggests that the phenomenon of ‘the missing dimension’, first formulated by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, is still at work in writings about political history, although he lets off certain biographers (including one of his advisers) because they did not have access to relevant archival material at the time. He crisply describes the effect of the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, and how its good intentions are often hindered by bureaucratic trudgery. And he sensibly reminds his readers of the large number of other sources, including private papers, that need to be mined to cover the era properly. He provides a rich bibliography, comprising a wide array of papers from various Ministries, as well as MI5 records, although his ‘primary’ source documents are dominated by possibly dubious memoirs from notable participants, with presumably more objective accounts from eminent (and not so eminent) historians relegated to ‘secondary’ level.
He then provides a brief history of the British Labour party’s relationship with ‘intelligence’, in which he unfortunately deploys the 21st-century cliché of ‘the intelligence community’, as well as that misplaced metaphor of ‘the machinery’. (If historians want to refer to ‘intelligence agencies’, they should do so: classifying them, alongside GCHQ, as a ‘community’ distorts the battles and rivalries that flourished then, and still do, just as with the FBI and the CIA. If they were a ‘community’, they would not be separate units.) Lomas highlights the background to the Labour Party’s electoral victory in 1945, and the historical reasons why socialist politicians might have had cause to be suspicious of more ‘reactionary’ intelligence organisations, going back to the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924, a fake stage-managed by the Tory Joseph Ball. Yet his conclusion is tentative: “The legacy of the Zinoviev Latter meant that relations between ministers and the intelligence community may have suffered during the initial stages of the second MacDonald government, elected in June 129.” That ‘may’ demands a lot more analysis.
Yet Lomas effectively destroys his straw man at the outset. The concluding clause of this section runs: “ . . . the legacy of Zinoviev was not as damaging as popularly [by whom?] suggested, showing that Labour-intelligent relations were on the mend”. His synopsis of Chapter 1 reinforces this idea by stating that, since Labour ministers in Churchill’s coalition government had access to, and use of, intelligence, ‘the experience ended any lingering animosity that remained from the Zinoviev Letter affair.” So the notion of debunking the rumour of ‘an uneasy relationship’ quickly appears to be an artificial one. And, if the reader jumps forward to Lomas’s conclusion, one reads: “Rather than intelligence novices, many senior figures in the Attlee government were experienced intelligence committee consumers, having used intelligence products in office.” (p 259). So what was the whole controversy about?
Another example of how Lomas attempts to present his argument as innovative is in his treatment of Attlee. “While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union”, he writes, “the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations.” But of course he was kept informed. There is no conflict there. Moreover, Lomas introduces his Chapter 6 (‘Defending the Realm: Labour Ministers, vetting and subversion’) with a quote from Attlee expressed as early as 1940: “The Communists have no right to the name of socialists or Communists. They are Stalinists. Whatever Stalin says is right for them . . .” The antithesis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-communism’ is a false one. Attlee saw through Stalin from the start, as did his Foreign Minister, Bevin. It would have been more interesting if Lomas had focused on why the Edenic Tory policy of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union had been forged in the first place, and if he had explored why a Labour administration had had to undo the appeasement strategies of Attlee’s Conservative predecessors.
Thus what Lomas has compiled is a very readable, well-sourced, integrative study of the fascinating few post-war years where any illusions about Stalin were quickly dispelled. It is overall well-edited (although the U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes appears several times in Chapter 5 as ‘Brynes’, and is not indexed). If the reader is new to this subject, he or she can gain a well-written and widely-sourced account of the Gouzenko affair, the Soviet threats with the atomic bomb, the espionage of Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo, the Foreign Office’s propaganda offensive, the disastrous operations against Albania, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth, Attlee’s policy of ‘positive vetting’, and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean. Lomas has gathered many fascinating accounts of politicians and intelligence, such as Christopher Mayhew’s discussions with Attlee about setting a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. Topics like these could well have been extended into a novel analysis, but immediately an opportunity seems to appear to develop an innovative study, the text returns to the more platitudinous generalisations. The author tries to wrap it all in a message that is simply not invigorating or imaginative.
Thus for any reader who has performed even only occasional study of these topics, there will be little new to be found here, apart from some incidental minutes and observations from ministers and diplomats, and Lomas misses many of the darker undercurrents that affected the surface appearance of many events. Another example: if the relationship between ministers and MI6 was so good, how was it that Attlee, Bevin and Strang approved the calamitous incursions into Albania? Lomas simply concludes: “The results were far from positive”, and reports that Bevin and Strang then decided to suspend any such activities. These episodes could have provided a stirring stretch of useful analysis, but Lomas simply moves on. At the Conclusion, one reads: “It [this book] has shown that, contrary to existing views of the relationship, ministers enjoyed what could be described as an excellent working relationship with the intelligence community . . .”. Not much of a breakthrough, that, and not really true, anyway.
It is not that the subject of his ‘monograph’ is unworthy of study. Attlee and his period certainly deserve attention, as he was probably the finest British premier of the century, skilled in both management and leadership. The reality otherwise was that ministers came and went, and some were good, and some were duds, while civil servants and the intelligence services went on for ever (with the exception of SOE, of course, which was absorbed by MI6). The intelligence ‘community’ had its rivalries, just as the individual agencies had their internal plots, conspiracies, and competition. Their bosses sometimes lied to their political masters, and intelligence was frequently concealed from those who should have received it – both outside and within the service, such as frequently happened with MI5, where senior officers withheld vital information from the grunts. Lomas seems to want us to believe that everything was hunky-dory, and that the Whitehall ‘machinery’ acted according to well-oiled routines, with politicians and intelligence officers all executing their roles in an exemplary manner. But that was not the case. Unfortunately, his book reads very much as if it had been written by a committee, and maybe that court of advisers helped bring about that result.
The bland monographist, I’ve got him on my list.
He never will be missed! He never will be missed!
How Spies Think by David Omand (Penguin Viking, 2020)
When I first saw this title, I imagined that it might sit handily on my shelf next to the SOE handbook How To Become a Spy, and that I could learn more about what made Anthony Blunt and Richard Sorge tick. Yet it all seemed a little unlikely that a book could be written about such a subject: would not spies be simply concentrating on the topic of ‘How can I get this document to my controller without being spotted?’ But then, inspecting further, I discovered that the book is not really about Spies at all. The subtitle is Ten Lessons in Intelligence: the PR boys must have got hold of it, and told their bosses that the author would never get invitations to the late-night TV shows unless they sexed up the title a bit.
For the author is the distinguished Former Director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and more recently ‘the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible for the professional health of the intelligence community [yes, that dread word again], national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security”’. (Why that last phrase appears in inverted commas, I have no idea.) And Omand’s book focuses on how seasoned intelligence analysts think, how they sort out fact from fiction, and thus build a reliable picture of the world. Espionage (or ‘Spying) may play a part in that process, but the fact that GCHQ has traditionally picked up electronic signals from the ether that have been transmitted with the awareness that adversaries will intercept them, and attempt to decrypt them, is not indicative that spying went on. Intercepting citizens’ private telephone calls or email messages without legal authority would be another matter, however.
How Spies Think turns out to be a very practical, and riveting, tutorial in how (good) intelligence analysts process information, and the author presents his analysis as a guide to how the rules for sound decision-making can be applied to everyday life. He outlines a four-step process, the SEES model, as a method for developing confident judgments about uncertain intelligence that may be arriving in a variety of forms. It consists of the following levels (and I quote directly):
* Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.
* Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.
* Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.
* Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.
All his explanations are liberally illustrated with examples from military and intelligence history, such as the D-Day landings, the Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I must confess a personal fascination with these ideas. I spent the most important part of my career as an analyst at the Gartner Group, where we were charged with assessing the situation in our area of interest and expertise, and presenting forecasts for a five-year time period based on our analysis of trends, technologies, vendor capabilities, market dynamics, and buyer preferences and profiles. (The acid test of such processes occurred when a five-year cycle was completed, and one’s forecasts from the past were dredged up for review.) I was always intrigued as to why so many smart persons would have contrary opinions as to what outcomes would be, and it turned out that a certain hard-headedness, even cynicism, and a good dose of practical experience in the field, were required to cut through much of the idealistic waffle that attached itself to many technological initiatives. Thus the analysts who believed they could change the world, or who imagined vendors to operate against their own interests (as opposed to the emissaries they sent to industry consortia), who were simplistically influenced by the more skillful of the vendor marketing campaigns, or who ignored the dynamics of buyer politics, were essentially lost. The most serious defect they displayed was viewing the world as they hoped it could be rather than as it was.
Furthermore, my last job, as VP of Strategy for a small software company, showed me how even skilled executives can ignore intelligence if it gets in the way of their personal agenda and use of power. As part of the strategic planning process, I developed a simple scheme for separating Facts about the market and technology from Assumptions about such matters as competitive threats and future innovations, and started to determine why different executives in the company sometimes maintained conflicting ideas about the unknowns we were addressing. It turned out that the CEO was really not enthusiastic about a formal strategy, as she regarded it as possibly inhibiting her desire to act spontaneously and whimsically: moreover, she paid too much attention to Wall Street, where the analysts looked to her to be a ‘deal-maker” (i.e. engage in precarious acquisition strategies), as it would enhance her reputation (and maybe the stock-price in the short run). The VP of Research and Development (who worked 1500 miles away from Head Office) believed, as creator of the product, that she had a unique insight into what features the product needed, but would change the schedule according to which large customer walked into her office. The VP of Sales did not want his creative energies to be limited by being told what market segments he should pursue to make his numbers. Thus cool assessments can always be undermined by personality traits and private ambitions.
But back to Omand. His text is studded with accurate and useful observations. He offers a clear-headed analysis of how Bayesian approaches of conditional probability can help develop alternative hypotheses to explain events, and how new evidence thus enables new situational awareness, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He presents some cogent insights on topics relevant to historians as well as intelligence analysts, such as the following, on the reliability of a source: “Like the historian who discovers a previously unknown manuscript describing some famous event in a new way, the intelligence officer has to ask searching questions about who wrote the report and when, and whether they did from first-hand knowledge, or from a sub-source, or even from a sub-sub-source with potential uncertainty, malicious motives or exaggeration being introduced at every step of the chain.” (p 27) He offers a provocative section on ‘Reluctance to act on intelligence warnings’, although he fails to delineate a clear linkage about general intelligence about inhuman crimes (e.g. genocide in Bosnia: ‘something has to be done’), and how that intelligence is converted into political action. He laments the communal ‘magical thinking’ at the time of the Falklands crisis that prevented anticipatory action in time – a clear echo of my point about self-delusion over realities.
Since the four SEES items comprise Lessons 1-4, the rest of the book covers Lessons 5-10. Again, Omand offers a very lively lecture, almost impossible to simplify. I thus recapitulate these Lessons for the eager reader, the first three grouped under the heading of ‘Checking our Reasonimg’:
5. It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us
6. We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind
7. Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking
The final three are characterized under ‘Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence’:
8. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side
9. Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships
10. Subversion and sedition are now digital.
This section includes several insightful passages, such as his coverage of conspiracy theories, where he cites Peter Wright as noted delusionist. He provides (on pages 142-143) a useful checklist of memes that characterize a conspiracy narrative, and admits that today’s world of social media makes it much more difficult to debunk or dismantle such theories. He adds, somewhat beguilingly, that his experience ‘is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin’. He recommends a number of steps that an analytic team should perform to check their models in the light of new information, since even such disciplined teams can fall in love with their own theories. I found all this accurate and hard-hitting advice.
I thought, however, that Omand’s arguments became a little slack, the further on he went, and even presented some contradictions. For instance, I considered a phenomenon of Number 8 that Omand does not cover: the appeasement of Stalin in the belief that he would behave like a decent English gentleman after sitting in meetings with the likes of Anthony Eden, and the completely misguided strategy of ‘co-operation’ that the Foreign Office tried to forge as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies fought together against the common enemy. It was the inability to imagine that Stalin was an irredeemably ruthless individual, an autocrat who did not have to listen to ‘the hard men in the Kremlin’ (or even to his own people, as he claimed) that resulted in a disastrous misjudgment of his intentions.
And, as for 8 and 9, whom should one trust? Should the USA and Great Britain really have sat down at the conference table with the amorphous and undisciplined Taliban, for instance, knowing that that body was utterly untrustworthy? Would one of Omand’s ‘negotiated agreements’ have meant anything? On Lesson 9, Omand concentrates on ‘trust’ between natural affiliated allies, such as the USA and Great Britain, and the long-term value that such strategic alliances can bring. But how enduring are they? Are they institutional, or too dependent on personalities? Can President Trump, or a Brexit, disrupt them in both directions? Do the FBI and the CIA, or MI5 and MI6 trust each other? Do members of NATO trust each other over controversial issues like Afghanistan? Does the public trust the government? It is in this section that Omand’s advice tends to become a bit preachy and idealistic, and I should have liked to read more on when and why the process of intelligence analysis fails.
Moreover, even if the analytical process is correct, the problem will be one of political will, made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone and his sister will be out there on a public platform criticising policy, or recommending populist change. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning out to be disastrous: one expert stated on television that the USA had given the Afghan government the materials, the training, and the intelligence, but that it lacked the political will to resist. Yet an assessment of the integrity and fortitude of the Afghan administration should have been one of the factors in intelligence-gathering before planning the withdrawal. (Bayesian reasoning does not appear to have helped here.) On the other hand, from intelligence gained, China’s intentions regarding territorial expansion and authoritarian control seem evident enough, what with the suppression of the Uighurs, the closing down of democracy in Hong Kong, and its claims on Taiwan, but does President Xi’s policy represent an existential threat to the West, and how can it be resisted given how economies are interlocked?
Omand’s argument disappointingly starts to get mushier in lesson 10 (‘Subversion and sedition are now digital’), where, after covering the dangers from cyber-crime and -espionage, he tries to summarise: “Finally, in Part Three I have wanted to persuade you that to manage our future sensibly we all need effective partnerships based on trust and the ability to establish constructive relationships with those with whom we have to deal.” Who is that ‘we’? – the familiar plea of the journalist with his or her heart on the sleeve, appealing to an undefined audience. And a page later, he follows with: “We are on notice that there are further developments in information warfare capabilities over the horizon that will further damage us, unless we start to prepare now.” All very vague and unspecific, more like an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury: not a useful call to action.
In a more puzzling denouement, Omand appears to discard his own Lessons in his final chapter 11: ‘A final lesson in optimism’. It is as if his Editors told him that he had to leave his readers with some hope among the chaos. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the rules of today’s digital byways, and the author then rather fancifully projects forward to ‘a warm spring day in Trafalgar Square in 2028’. After welcoming a return to representative democracy, Omand attributes the success to three schemes. The first was a major five-year programme in schools to teach critical thinking for the digital world; the second was ‘a marked reduction in the vulnerability of the public to online manipulation and disinformation’. He illustrates it as follows: “There was praise for the leadership of the new US President in calling a 2025 global conference on internet norms that had brought together democratic governments, civil society groups, the major internet companies and the global advertising industry.” (p 291) This is pure Kumbaya wish-fulfilment: maybe Osman’s own demons trying to mislead him, his own ‘magical thinking’. The third scheme was a stronger defence against cyber-coercion. However realistic that third plank may be, the chapter constitutes a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.
As a coda, I offer this suggestion. In a recent LRB review of Scott Anderson’s book on the CIA, The Quiet Americans, Charles Glass presented a long list of US intelligence failures, including many of Omand’s examples, from the Soviet atom bomb to 9/11, which he tantalisingly attributed to a ‘neglect of intelligence gathering’, rather than to a failure of analysis. So perhaps a broader study is required: how ‘spies’ collect information, whether they all cogitate over it according to Omandian principles, what happens when they disagree, and what occurs when they present their conclusions to their political masters. ‘How Politicians Think’ would be a valuable follow-up. All politicians who set out to ‘change the world’ should be interrogated to determine why they think they know best what ‘the world’ needs, and why their enterprises will necessarily make it better, not worse.
Finally, I noted a few questionable assessments in the text overall.
P 139 “The paranoia even crossed the Atlantic. Under the charismatic influence of Angleton, a small group of MI5 officers in London led by Peter Wright caught the obsession with long-term Soviet penetration. Angleton sent the defector Golitsyn to London to brief them and help them uncover the Soviet weevils presumed also to be burrowing away within the British intelligence agencies.” They did? What ‘weevils’ were those? ‘Presumed’ or ‘real’? If ‘uncovered’, presumably the latter. But who? I think we should be told.
P 141 “We now know that he [Hollis] was cleared by high-level British government inquiries, confirmed by evidence from later KGB defectors.” Well, actually not quite true. And who are ‘we’, again? The question was very much left open: Gordievsky may have pooh-poohed the idea, but his and Christopher Andrew’s explanations about ELLI muddied the waters. If it were only that simple.
P 174 “The Cabinet Secretary would have been all too aware that the incoming Prime Minister [Wilson] had been, as we saw in the previous chapter, the subject of unofficial inquiries by a clique of MI5 officers in response to the CIA’s Angleton into whether Wilson was a KGB agent of influence.” A clique? Who, in particular? Is that intelligence or rumour? That claim deserved greater detail. Was it an example of ‘How Spies Think’?
P 175 “Eric Hobsbawm knew he had been discriminated against . . .” Of course, Hobsbawm should have been discriminated against! See my comments under MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law, above.
P 215 “That led to the uncovering of the Russian spies Donald Maclean . . . and Klaus Fuchs.” Maclean and Fuchs were British citizens, but Soviet spies.
P 243 “We all carry, for example, unconscious fear about others who appear different. This instinctive xenophobia is the result of our evolutionary history as a species.” This is a very risky and debatable generalization, a dangerous step into the domains of anthropology and biology.
P 275 “The individual Western citizen is thus already, and will be for the foreseeable future, the recipient of digital information of all kinds . . .” Both a statement of the obvious, as well as a feeble prediction: ‘the foreseeable future’ (like ‘only time will tell’) represents a vague prognostication that should NEVER be used by any reputable intelligence analyst, let alone an officer of Omand’s stature. The period could be five minutes or fifty years. I forbad my team at Gartner Group to use either of the two phrases.
But definitely the best book of the four. The ‘wise cryptanalyst’ is not on my list.
At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?
The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
The John le Carré I Never Knew
The Dead Ends of HASP
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Bandwidth versus Frequency
‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
Puzzles at Kew
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/agent-sonya-ben-macintyre.html?searchResultPosition=1) I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:
Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’
Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.
Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.
A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.
She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.
Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.
Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.
A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.
It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.
As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.
The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.
Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.
His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.
The John le Carré I Never Knew
I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.
In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”
I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-le-carre-the-spy-who-was-my-friend-svr8tgv82 ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.
And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.
Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”
Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?
It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.
I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.
On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)
I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.
“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead? Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”
But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”
I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.
(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)
The Dead Ends of HASP
I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.
Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.
The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.
In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.
I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.
One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.
It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.
It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.
The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.
This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.
The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.
The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home. In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):
“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’ (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)
“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)
“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)
“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)
The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.
With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.
In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)
Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.
Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:
“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”
The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:
“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”
That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.
For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.
So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.
Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.
Bandwidth versus Frequency
My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:
Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:
“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”
This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain. The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz. On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz). Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.
By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide. As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!
So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency. It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength. And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).
You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.
In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.
An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely. The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.
Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.
Puzzles at Kew
I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.
My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)
A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.
Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”
This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.
Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.
My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.
On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.” But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?
Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:
‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’
Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.
This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.
Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.
Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’
Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’
The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?
I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.
And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.
So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:
“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.
Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’
Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.
Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”
Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.” Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team . .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?
I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.
Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?
Let us go then, you and me,
When the evening is spread out above the sea
But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.
It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.
Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”
I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.
I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.
was intending to publish this month the final chapter in the series The
Mystery of the Undetected Radios, but was inhibited from doing so by the
closure of the National Archives at Kew. I had performed 90% of the research,
but needed to inspect one critical file to complete my story. Since my doughty
researcher, Dr. Kevin Jones, will not be able to photograph it until we get the
‘All Clear’, the story will have to remain on hold. Instead, I use this month’s
bulletin to sum up progress on a number of other projects.
Sonia and Len Beurton
Prodding Comrade Stalin
National Archives and Freedom of Information
Professor Frank Close at the
The BBC and Professor
Nigel West’s new publications,
and a look at ELLI
The Survival of Gösta Caroli
Dave Springhall and the GRU
‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp
Tycoon Romance Drama!’ (exclusive)
China and the Rhineland Moment
and Len Beurton
I published the recent bulletin, The Letter from Geneva, because I believed it was important to get this story out before Ben MacIntyre’s book on Sonia appears. The fact that Len Beurton, Sonia’s bigamous husband, had acted as an agent-cum-informant for SIS in Switzerland seemed to me to be of immense importance for Sonia’s story, and the way that she was treated in the United Kingdom. Sonia herself wrote in her memoir that, when Skardon and Serpell came to interview her in 1947, they treated Len as if he were opposed to communism, rather than being an agent for it, abetting his wife as a recognized but possibly reformed spy or courier for Moscow, and the contents of the letter helped to explain why.
wanted to have my conclusions published in a respectable medium, so as to have
a more serious stake placed in the ground. I could not afford to wait for the
more obscure journals on intelligence matters (and then perhaps get a
rejection), and instead considered that the London Review of Books might
be suitable. The editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, could conceivably have a personal
interest in the story (she is an Eitingon, and has written about her grandfather’s
cousin Leon, who managed the project to kill Trotsky). The LRB
frequently runs long articles on off-beat subjects (in fact, it runs so many earnest
leftish political pieces that one sometimes forgets what its mission is
supposed to be), and it could presumably turn round my piece quickly. I thus
sent my bulletin, as an exclusive, to Ms. Wilmers, with a covering letter
explaining the appeal it could have to her readers, the opportunity for a
scoop, and describing how I would re-work my article to make it a suitable
contribution for her periodical.
a week, I had heard nothing – not even an acknowledgment. (Coldspur 0 : The
Establishment 1) So I made a similar approach to the Times Literary
Supplement, with obviously different wording in the cover letter. The
Editor, Stig Abell (who had, after all, commissioned a review of Misdefending
the Realm a couple of years ago), responded very promptly, and informed me
he was passing my piece to a sub-editor to review. A couple of days later, I
received a very polite and appreciative email from the sub-editor, who offered
me his regrets that he did not think it was suitable for the periodical. That
was it. I thus decided to self-publish, on coldspur. (Coldspur 1 : The
I have since been in contact with a few experts on this aspect of Sonia’s and Len’s case, and have discussed the puzzling circumstances of the letter, why Farrell chose that method of communication, and how he must have expected its passage to be intercepted. Why did he choose private mail instead of the diplomatic bag? Would the diplomatic bag have taken the same route as airmail, and would the German have opened that, too? Why did he not send an encrypted message over cable (although the consulate had probably run out of one-time pads by then), or wireless to SIS in London? Presumably because he did not want Head Office to see it: yet this method was just as risky. And what kind of relationship did he possibly think he could nurture with Len in those circumstances? No convincing explanation has yet appeared.
what about Ben Macintyre’s forthcoming book on Sonia, Agent Sonya,
subtitled variously as Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, or as Lover,
Mother, Soldier, Spy? The publisher indicates that it is ‘expected on
September 15, 2020’, yet Mr. Macintyre himself seems to be lagging a bit. His
US website (to which I was directed at http://benmacintyre.com/US/
) shouts at us in the following terms: ‘The Spy and the Traitor Arriving
September 2018’, but even his UK website needs some refreshment, as it informs
us that the paperback edition of his book on Gordievsky will be published on
May 30, 2019 (http://benmacintyre.com/about-the-author/
), and lists events in 2019 where the author will be signing copies of the same
book. Wake up, Benny boy! This is 2020.
back to the publisher of Agent Sonya, where we can find information at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612487/agent-sonya-by-ben-macintyre/
. The promotional material includes the following passage: “In 1942, in a quiet village in the
leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with
her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula
Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign
accent.” This is all rather disturbing, however. Sonia’s husband, Len, returned
from Switzerland only in July 1942, and they lived in Kidlington for a short
time before moving to Summertown, in Oxford. Her third child, Peter, was not
born until 1943. Len did not work as a machinist at that time, since he was unemployed
until called up by the R.A.F. in November 1943. And their name was not ‘Burton’
but ‘Beurton’. Still, ‘thin’ and ‘elegant’ might, with a little imagination, conceivably
be accurate, and she surely spoke English with a foreign accent. Not a
promising start, however.
So what is ailing our intrepid journalist? I
hope things improve from here onwards. I shall place my advance order, and
await the book’s arrival, as expectantly as the publisher itself. In fact, I
heard from my sources earlier this month that Macintyre has started ‘tweeting’
about his new book. Meanwhile, I believe I have taken the necessary initiative
by posting my analysis first. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 1)
Prodding Comrade Stalin
It continues to dismay me how Stalin’s pernicious influence casts a depressing and inaccurate shadow over the history of the twentieth century. We can now read how President Putin attempts to resuscitate the days of the Great Patriotic War, emphasising Stalin’s role as a leader, and minimising events such as the Nazi-Soviet pact or the massacres of the Katyn Forest. At the end of last month, the New York Times carried a story that described how the Russian authorities have tried to discredit an amateur historian who discovered mass graves of Stalin’s victims in Sandarmokh in Karelia, near the White Sea. The State Military society is arguing that ‘thousands of people buried at Sandarmokh are not all Stalin’s victims but also include Soviet soldiers executed by the Finnish Army during World War II’, which is palpable nonsense.
Thus my disgust was intense when I read an
article by one Lionel Barber in the Spectator of April 4. It included
the following passage:
“Covid-19 is indeed the Great Leveller.
Conventional wisdoms have been shattered. But crises offer opportunities. Wise
heads should be planning ahead. FDR, Churchill, and, yes, Stalin lifted their
sights in 1942-43 as the war against Nazi Germany began to turn. Prodded by
gifted public servants like Keynes and others, these leaders thought about the
future of Europe, the balance of power and the institutions of the post-war
The idea that Stalin could have been ‘prodded’
by ‘gifted public servants’ is a topic to which perhaps only Michael Wharton (Peter
Simple of the Daily Telegraph) could have done justice. I can alternatively
imagine a canvas by Repin, perhaps, where the wise Stalin strokes his chin as
he listens to a deputation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as if saying:
‘You make a strong point there, Alexey Dimitrovich. Maybe world revolution is
no longer necessary. I shall change my plans immediately.’ I was propelled into
sending a letter to the Editor of the magazine, which ran (in part) as follows:
“I wonder whether the Stalin Mr. Barber refers
to is the same Joseph Stalin who incarcerated and killed millions of his own
people, and then, after the war, enslaved eastern Europe, killing many of its
democratic leaders and thousands of those who defied him, as he prepared for
the inevitable collision with the ‘capitalist’ west? I doubt whether the despot
Stalin was ‘prodded’ by anyone, except possibly by a distorted reading of Marx
and Lenin, and certainly not by ‘gifted public servants’, whether they were
Keynesian or not. The ‘future of Europe’, especially that of Poland, was a
topic that, after Yalta, caused a sharp rift between the Allies, and led to the
Cold War. Where did Mr. Barber learn his history?”
The Editor did not see fit to publish my
letter. I do not know what is the saddest episode of this exercise: 1) The fact
that Lionel Barber, who was Editor of the FinancialTimes from
2005 until January of this year, and is thus presumably an educated person,
could be so desperately wrong about the character and objectives of Stalin; 2)
The fact that the Editor of the Spectator was not stopped in his tracks
when he read this passage, and did not require Mr. Barber to modify it; 3) The
fact that no other Spectator reader apparently noticed the distortion,
or bothered to write to the Editor about it; or 4) The fact that the Editor,
having read my letter, determined that the solecism was so trivial that no
attention needed to be drawn to it. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 2)
To remind myself of the piercing insights of
Michael Wharton, I turned to my treasured copy of The Stretchford
Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, and quickly alighted on the following
text, from 1968:
“The Soviet Government,” said a Times leader
writer the other day, “has become hopelessly outdated and out of touch with
contemporary movements at home and abroad.”
So the Soviet Government is hopelessly
outdated, is it? It has just imposed its will on the Czechs and Slovaks by
force. And this is supposed to be hopelessly outdated in an age which, thanks
to perverted science (a highly contemporary movement if there ever was one),
has seen and will see force repeatedly and successfully applied on a scale
undreamed of by the conquerors of the past.
So force is outdated. Treachery is outdated.
War is outdated. Pain is out dated. Death is outdated. Evil itself is not only
outdated but out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.
That a writer, presumably intelligent,
certainly literate and possibly able to influence the opinions of others, can
believe these things is positively terrifying. If the Russian Communist
leaders, as we are told day in day out, are now cowering in the Kremlin in a
state of extreme terror here is some little comfort for them.
When Soviet tanks are on the Channel Coast, shall
we still be telling ourselves that the Soviet Government is outdated and out of
touch? As we are herded into camps for political re-education or worse, shall
we still go on saying to each other, with a superior smile: ‘This is really too
ridiculously outdated for words. I mean, it’s quite pathetically out of touch
with contemporary movements at home and abroad.’?”
There was as much chance of Brezhnev and his
cronies paying heed to ‘contemporary movements at home and abroad’ in 1968 as
there was of Stalin being prodded ‘by gifted public servants’ in 1946. Pfui!
As a final commentary on this calamity, a few weeks ago I read Norman Naimark’s Stalin and the Fate of Europe, published last year, which explained how duplicitous Stalin was in his dealings with western political entities, and how he restrained European communist parties until the Soviet Union successfully tested the bomb in August 1949. One of the books cited by Naimark was Grigory Tokaev’s Stalin Means War, published in 1951. I acquired a copy, and read how, in 1947, Colonel Tokaev had been commissioned by Stalin to acquire German aeronautical secrets, by any means necessary, including the kidnapping of scientists, to enable the Soviet Union to construct planes that could swiftly carry atomic bombs to New York. Thus would Stalin’s plans for world revolution be enforced.
I do not think this book is a hoax. Tokaev
managed to escape, with his wife and young daughter, to the United Kingdom at
the end of 1947, where he had a distinguished academic career, and managed to
avoid Moscow’s assassins. He died in 2003, in Cheam, in leafy Surrey, just a
few miles from where I was born and grew up. I wish I had had the honour of
shaking his hand. His book provides undeniable evidence that Stalin was not
listening to gifted civil servants, and musing about the peaceful organisation
of the world’s institutions. He wanted war.
The National Archives and Freedom of
In my recent piece on Rudolf Peierls (The Mysterious Affair . . . Part 2) I drew attention to the increasing trend for archival material that had previously been released to be withdrawn and ‘retained’. Further inspection, prompted by a deeper search by Dr. Kevin Jones, reveals that an enormous amount of material is no longer available, especially in the ‘AB’ (records of the Atomic Energy Authority) category. I have counted 43 files alone in AB 1, 2, 3, & 4, mainly on Rudolf Peierls, including his correspondence, as well as multiple reports on Pontecorvo, and including Fuchs’s interview by Perrin. For instance, if you look up AB 1/572, you will find a tantalising introduction to the papers of Professor Peierls, described as ‘Correspondence with Akers, Arms, Blackman [Honor?], Blok, Bosanquet [Reginald?], Brown . . .’, from the period 1940-1947: yet the rubric informs us that ‘This record is closed while access is under review’.
I suspect some of these files may never have
been made available, but it is hard to tell unless one has been keeping a very
close watch on things. For example, the file on Perrin’s interviews with Fuchs (AB
1/695) has been well mined by other researchers, and the fact that the
statement ‘Opening Date: 16 July 2001’ appears below the standard message would
suggest that this file has indeed been withdrawn after a period of
availability. But does the lack of any such date indicate that the file was
never released, or is the absence merely the inconsistent application of
policy? Several months ago, I referred to another provocative file, HO 532/3
(‘Espionage activities by individuals: Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls’),which
has a different status of ‘Closed or Retained Document: Open Description’,
where the rubric reads ‘This record is retained by a government department’,
and has never been sent to the National Archives. It puzzles me somewhat as to
why the Home Office would even acknowledge the existence of such a
controversial file, as an open description without delivery just encourages
speculation, but I suppose that is how bureaucracy works, sometimes.
Dr. Jones (who has made it his speciality to
find his way among prominent archives) offered me his personal interpretation,
which may be very useful for other researchers. He wrote to me as follows:
“Where a file is stated to be ‘closed while access is under review’, but has ‘Open Document’ in the ‘Closure status’ field (e.g. AB 1/572), then the file has always been available, until its ‘disappearance’.
Similarly, as with AB 1/695, if there is a specific ‘Record opening date’ the previously retained file was made available from that date, again until its ‘disappearance’.
With the likes of HO 532/3, where it is stated ‘Retained by Department under Section 3.’”, the file has indeed never been available.
Many of these ‘Retained’ files do reveal the file’s title (the ‘Open Description’) to tantalise the researcher, but many such files are listed in the catalogue with no title/description.
Where a specific government department is named in a retained file entry (e.g. FO, MOD, etc.), it is obliged to process a FoI request, though don’t expect a quick response, especially if they are composing various forms of waffle to justify not releasing the file! When the ‘government department’ is not named (as with HO 532/3), there is good chance it is retained by MI5/MI6, both of which are exempt from the FoI Act (well, certainly the latter, which also holds the retained SOE files; not 100% sure about MI5). In any instance, click the ‘Contact Us’ button and the TNA’s FoI team will inform you of the good/bad news.”
Occasionally, therefore, the researcher is
invited to submit an FoI (Freedom of Information) request, as an attempt to
challenge the status of the censored file. I performed this over the above
Espionage file, on the grounds that no conceivable reason could be justified
for withholding it now that the subjects (and their offspring) are all dead,
but received just an acknowledgment. My colleague Denis Lenihan had approached
GCHQ concerning the HASP file (referred to by Nigel West and Peter Wright), which
was claimed to contain transcripts of Soviet wireless messages intercepted in
Sweden during WW II. Denis requested its release, as no conceivable aspect of
British security could be damaged through its publication, but his request was
rejected by the GCHQ Press Office (as if it were simply a matter of PR).
Denis then brought my attention to another
statutory body whither appeals could be sent – the Investigatory Powers
Tribunal. I had just read an article in the Historical Journal of March
2014, by Christopher J. Murphy and Daniel W. B. Lomas (‘Return to Neverland?
Freedom of Information and the History of British Intelligence’), which very
quickly explained that ‘the intelligence and security services fall outside its
provisions, in marked contrast to the comparable legislation in the United
States . . .’ I thus wondered why we
bothered, and under what circumstances any of the security services (MI5, SIS,
GCHQ) would feel they should have to even consider such requests. But, after
all, Kew does advertise the facility: is it an exercise in futility?
Denis wrote to me as follows: “While they’re right about the FOI legislation, the security
agencies react in odd but sometimes helpful ways. I remember Pincher saying
somewhere that the Romer Report (re the Houghton/Molody/Kroger case) was
obtained from MI5 by someone who applied under FOI. I once sought a document
from MI5 and got the classic Sir Humphrey response: ‘while MI5 is not subject
to the FOI Act, it has been decided to treat your application under that Act.
It has been unsuccessful’.” That was rich – so generous! Then Denis went on to
say that the authors of the article appeared not to be aware of the
Investigatory Powers Tribunal, to which he had turned with the HASP material.
(On his recommendation, I made a companion request, referring to the fact that
a reference to HASP was evident on some of the RSS records, and that it was
thus in the public interest to make the material available. I have since
conducted some deep research into the HASP phenomenon: I shall report in full
in next month’s coldspur.)
I followed up Denis’s valuable lead to Chapman Pincher’s Dangerous
to Know. Pincher’s account of the application, and its rejection, can be
seen in the chapter ‘The Elli Riddle’, on pages 318 and 319. An official of the
Intelligence and Security Committee suggested that Pincher complain to the
Tribunal about MI5’s lack of action on a ‘missing’ report on Gouzenko made by
Roger Hollis. The Tribunal had been set up in 2000, under the Human Rights Act,
to consider complaints about the public authorities, but Pincher had,
surprisingly, never heard of it. It took notice of Pincher’s request (would it
have paid heed to submissions by those of lesser standing, without a platform
in the media?), and required MI5 to respond on the status of the Hollis report.
MI5 sent two items of correspondence to Pincher, stating that ‘despite an extensive search of the Service’s archives ‘it had to conclude that no record of the important interview was ever made’. And that appeared to be the end of the affair – until William Tyrer, through an astonishing display of terrier-like determination, managed to extract a copy from MI5, having first discovered a reference to a vital telegram in the Cleveland Cram archive. Tyrer wrote up his conclusions in 2016, in an article in The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08850607.2016.1177404), and Denis Lenihan has analysed Tyrer’s findings in Roger Redux: Why the Roger Hollis Case Won’t Go Away.
As the Tribunal’s website (https://www.ipt-uk.com/ ) explains, the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 did strengthen
provisions for the public to make appeals, but it is not clear to me that the
withholding of files really fits into what the IPT declares its mission, namely
‘a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful
action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques’. That
sounds more like heavy-handed surveillance techniques, or officers and agents
masquerading as person they were not in order to infiltrate possibly dissident groups.
And the organisation has a very bureaucratic and legalistic methodology, as the
recent decision on an MI5 case shows (see: https://www.ipt-uk.com/judgments.asp, and note that the Tribunal cannot spell ‘Between’). It is
difficult to see how the body could sensibly process a slew of failed FoI
requests. And what about the Home Office, retaining aged documents? That
doesn’t come under the grouping of security services.
Yet all of this fails to grapple with the main question: why has
the Government suddenly become so defensive and concerned about records dealing
with matters of atomic power and energy, most of them over seventy years old,
and many of which have already been dissected in serious books? In the articles
to which I provided links beforehand, Michael Holzman and Robert Booth say it
all. The lack of a proper explanation is astounding, and the blunderbuss
approach just draws even more attention to the fact that the civil service is
out of control. Did Peierls’s letters to Blok and others betray some secrets
that would be dangerous for the country’s foes to get hold of? I cannot imagine
it. Maybe all will be revealed soon, but the furtive and uncommunicative way in
which these files are being withheld just induces more distrust of the
authorities, and their condescending attitude to the public. (Coldspur 2 : The
Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian
My status as Friend of the Bodleian entitles me to attend events staged by that institution, and a couple of months ago I received the following invitation: “Our first video by Professor Frank Close, available exclusively to the Friends, can be viewed here. In this talk, ‘Trinity: Klaus Fuchs and the Bodleian Library’, Professor Close uses the Bodleian’s collections to describe an extraordinary tale of Communist spies and atomic bombs.” I viewed the presentation on YouTube, but I don’t believe that it is available solely through subscription, as the above link appears to function properly.
It does not appear that Klaus Fuchs
ever visited the Bodleian Library, but Professor Close uses Bodleian resources,
such as the correspondence of Rudolf Peierls, and the photographic collection
of Tony Skyrme, another Trinity College, Cambridge man, and contributor to the
Manhattan Project (see https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3424 ) to weave a fascinating story about Fuchs. Skyrme
accompanied Fuchs and the Peierls family on a ski-ing holiday in Switzerland in
1947, and produced a riveting set of photographs of that adventure, some of
which Close reproduces in Trinity, his biography of Fuchs. Close also
makes some fascinating linkages between the dates that Fuchs claimed vacation
days from his work at Birmingham, and the timings of wireless messages to
Moscow reporting on the communication of his latest secrets. He does, however,
avoid any possible hint of controversy over Peierls’s career, ignoring what I
have written about him, even though his final message was a very pertinent one
about the relationship between Fuchs and those who ‘adopted’ him, and how he
eventually betrayed them.
Since I have read Close’s book, and
am familiar with the overall story, the pace of his presentation was a little
slow for me. Yet I could see that Close is a very gifted lecturer, and must
have truly energized his students when he was a working physics don. I
accordingly sent an email congratulating him on his performance, at the same
time asking a question about the source of some of his data. I never received a
reply. Apparently I have fallen out of favour with the learned professor, who
was so eager to communicate with me a few years ago. (Coldspur 2: The
The BBC and Professor Andrew
Readers may recall my last
Round-up, in November 2019, where I left with the optimistic projection that,
having been able to speak to Mr Brennan’s Personal Assistant, and hearing from
her that she would commit to follow up on my letter, I might be able to make
some progress on my complaint about Professor Andrew’s high-handed, even
contemptuous, behaviour towards the listeners to the ‘Today’ show. (This
concerns a letter written by Eric Roberts to a friend which Andrew categorized
as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document’ that he had ever seen, but of
which he later claimed to have no memory.)
Well, I heard nothing. So, early in
January, I tried to call the lady at Broadcasting House. (I had to explain who
I was to get past the switchboard.) And there was no reply. I thus tried asking
the switchboard operator if he could give me her email address, telling him,
quite truthfully, that I was following up a previous conversation with her.
And, believe it or not, in what was probably a gross breach of institutional
policy, he gave it to me. I was thus able to write to her, as follows:
You may recall that we spoke several weeks ago about my
correspondence with the BBC, specifically with Bob Shennan. You were familiar
with my letter, and told me that it had been passed to Audience Services. You
also said that you would personally ensure that I received follow-up.
Well, I have heard nothing since, and felt it was time to
make contact again. Could you please explain to me what is happening, and why I
have not yet received a reply to my letters?
Sincerely, Tony Percy.
Six days later, I received the following reply:
Good evening Mr Percy,
I am very sorry I have just
picked up this email, which was sitting in my Junk inbox. I will
again try and find out where your original correspondence is and why it hasn’t
been responded to, I know you offered to resend me a copy, may I please take
you up on this.
Apologies again for the non
response and I will come back to you as soon as I can.
EA to Group Managing Director.
‘Be patient now . . .’
I thus responded:
Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.
The reason I was not
able to send you the letters beforehand was that I never received any email
from you giving me your address! Only when the kind switchboard operator
offered it to me when I called last week (explaining that I had spoken to you
before: otherwise he probably would not have handed it out), was I able to
Anyway, here are the two
letters we discussed. I would really appreciate your tracking down whoever is
tasked with giving me a response. You will notice that it is now over three
months since my original letter . . .
Best wishes, Tony.
I didn’t hear from Xxxxxxx
again, but on January 21st, I received the following message:
Dear Antony Percy,
Thank you for your letters and we apologise for the time it has taken to
I have discussed your request with Sanchia Berg whose report you refer to on
the Today Programme. While we appreciate your frustration, the decision whether
or not to release the document rests with the family and not with the BBC.
Sanchia has confirmed that this was a private family document which Eric
Roberts’ family shared with her and later with Rob Hutton. The family did not
want to publish it in full but agreed to certain extracts being made public. It
was only with their consent that she shared it with Christopher Andrew. I
understand Sanchia did suggest that you look at Rob Hutton’s book, as he’d
published more of the letter than Sanchia had made available in her reports.
Nor is it the case that Sanchia was being evasive. Rather she was respecting
the family’s wishes.
I am afraid too that we can’t really comment on what Christopher Andrew has
said. He obviously views an awful lot of documents, so it’s not that surprising
he cannot remember in detail a long document he read four years ago. He is not
the only historian the BBC talks to about MI5 – but he is their official
historian, so it’s logical that we should go to him fairly frequently.
I have asked Sanchia to contact the family on your behalf and will let you know
if she is successful. However, we would make it clear there is no guarantee
they will be back in touch. I am sorry I am not able to give you any further
help and once again I apologise for the time it has taken to respond to your
Thank you for
your reply. It was worth waiting for.
your asking Sanchia to approach the family on my behalf. Since the family
approved her showing the document to Christopher Andrew and Rob Hutton, I
assume that they were comfortable with greater publicity. (Rob Hutton did not
reply to my inquiry.) I await the outcome with great interest.
But I must
admit that I do not find your distancing the BBC from Andrew acceptable. After
all, it is on the BBC website that his comments still appear (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358). Do you not accept some responsibility for this highly provocative
opinion, and do you not agree that it would be appropriate for the BBC to
contact him, remind him of what he said, point out the information on the
website, and request a clarification from him, instead of members of the public
(like me) having to chase around for months trying to gain an explanation from
the corporation? Why does Andrew’s role as MI5’s ‘official historian’ allow him
to use the BBC to promote himself and to provoke public interest, but then to
evade his professional responsibilities by concealing facts concerning MI5?
But that was
it. I heard no more. The BBC is in such
disarray, and the ‘Today’ editors have now moved on. I am not going to gain
anything else. For a moment, I thought I might score a goal, but I suppose it
is a draw of some sorts. (Coldspur 2 – The Establishment 4)
As I was
flicking through one of the book catalogues that I receive through the mail, I
noticed two startling entries, one advertising a new edition of Nigel West’s
MI5 (originally published in 1981), the other his MI6 (1983),
published by Frontline. Now this was exciting news, as I needed to learn what
the “Experts’ Expert” (Observer, 1989) was now writing about the two
intelligence services after an interval of over thirty years. I was half-minded
to order them immediately at the discounted prices of $37.95 and $26.95, but
thought I should check them out on-line first. Thus Casemate Publishers can be
seen to promote the books, at https://www.casematepublishers.com/mi5-british-security-service-operations-1909-1945.html#.XrLLhSN_OUk , and the overview for MI5 includes the following: “In this new and revised edition, Nigel West
details the organizational charts which show the structure of the wartime
security apparatus, in what is regarded as the most accurate and informative
account ever written of MI5 before and during the Second World War.”
This was encouraging, and I thought I might get
a glimpse of the new Contents by gaining a Google Snippet view, before
committing myself. Yet the text, as displayed by that feature, indicated that
the Contents of the book had not changed, and the number of pages had not
increased. Was that perhaps merely a procedural mistake, where Google had not
replaced the former text? I decide that the only way to find out was to ask the
author himself. Now, I have not been in touch with Nigel for a few years. I
have since tweaked his nose a bit on coldspur, especially over his
superficial yet contradictory treatment of Guy Liddell, and I wondered whether
he would reply. Maybe he had not seen what I had written, but, if he had, he
might not want to communicate with me.
Anyway, I sent a very polite message to him, in
which I explained how excited I was at the prospect of reading his new
versions, and the very next morning he replied very warmly, and included the
following revelation: “The four wartime titles
recently republished (MI5; MI6; The Secret War: The Story of SOE and The
Secret Wireless War: GCHQ 1900 -1986) are simply corrected new editions of
the four books previously published.”
Is this not shocking, even a gross misrepresentation of goods
sold? Apart from the fact that, if I were a historian with a chance to revise
an earlier book in these circumstances, I would take the opportunity to refresh
it with all the research uncovered in the meantime, such as a host of files
from the National Archives, and Christopher Andrew’s authorised history, I
would be very careful in arranging how the book was presented to the public.
But not just one! Four titles? I think this is highly irregular, and I hereby
warn anyone who was thinking of acquiring any of these four volumes that the
information they get will be very outdated, and that I doubt that all the
multiple errors in them have all been addressed. (Coldspur 3 : The
Meanwhile, I have been scouring other Nigel West books. His
latest, Churchill’s Spy Files: MI5’s Top Secret Wartime Reports (2018),
exploits the KV 4/83 file at Kew (although the reader is pushed to find the
source, since it does not appear until a footnote to the very last sentence of
the book). Beginning in April 1943, Director-General Petrie of MI5 sent a
regular summary report, delivered to Churchill and for his eyes only (the copy
was taken by the emissary), outlining the activities and achievements of MI5.
It seems that West produces the reports in full, although I cannot yet verify
that, as the files have not been digitized, and he adds some very useful (as
well as some very dense and impenetrable) commentary gained from study of the relevant
MI5 files at Kew, such as on the Double-Cross System, and on MI5’s major
success against Soviet espionage in World War 2, the successful prosecution of
Yet it is another weird West concoction, akin to his recent book on Liddell (see http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ ), on which my colleague Denis Lenihan has recently posted an invigorating article (see https://www.academia.edu/43150722/Another_Look_At_Nigel_West_s_Cold_War_Spymaster_The_Legacy_of_Guy_Liddell_Deputy_Director_of_MI5 ). The author’s sense of chronology is wayward, he copies out sheaves of material from the archives, the relevance of which is not always clear, and he overwhelms the reader with a host of names and schemes that lack any proper exegesis. Moreover, the Index is cluttered, and highly inaccurate. I saw my friend General von Falkenhausen with a single entry, but then discovered that he ranges over several pages. Indeed, West describes, through rather fragmentarily, the SIS scheme to invoke Falkenhausen in 1942-43, which is very relevant to my discoveries about Len Beurton. I immediately downloaded from Kew the relevant files on the very provocative HAMLET, taking advantage of the current free offer. I shall return to comment on this volume when I have completed my reading of it.
West does highlight the role of Anthony Blunt in editing the
reports for Churchill, which brings me back, inevitably I suppose, to ELLI, the
spy within MI5 (or SIS) called out by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. I have
studiously avoided making any statement on ELLI in my reports so far, but Denis
Lenihan has been writing some provocative pieces, and I must catch up with him
eventually. I had happened to notice, in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery
(2012 edition, p 78), that the author quoted the file KV 3/417 as confirming
that ELLI was a spy working for the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) in
London in 1940. He gave the source as the GRU defector, Ismail Akhmedov, whose
work In and Out of Stalin’s GRU, I had quoted in Misdefending the
Realm. So I went back to that file, resident on my PC, and found the
reference, in paragraph 104. The writer indeed states that Akhmedov was indeed
the source, but that the defector claimed that ELLI was a woman! Why did
Pincher not include that in his account – was that not rather dumb? And how
come nobody else has referred to this anomaly? Professor Glees has pointed out
to me that no male given a cryptonym by Soviet Intelligence ever received a
female name. Apart from Roessler (LUCY, after Lucerne, which is a special case)
and DORA (an anagram of Alexander RADÓ), I think he is overall correct,
although I have to add the somewhat ambiguous IRIS, who was Leo Aptekar, a
‘chauffeur’, Sonia’s handler at the Soviet Embassy.
I have thus started a fresh project on digging out the various sources on ELLI. First of all, I re-read Molehunt, Nigel West’s account of the hunt for Soviet spies in MI5. This is a very confusing world, what with Pincher staking his reputation and career on Hollis’s culpability, based on what Peter Wright told him, John Costello pointing the finger at Guy Liddell (before succumbing to a mysterious and untimely death himself), Nigel West, using the substance of Arthur Martin’s convictions behind the scenes, making the case that Graham Mitchell was the offender, and Christopher Andrew pooh-poohing the lot of them as a crew of conspiracy theorists while allowing himself to be swayed by Gordievsky’s assertion that ELLI was, improbably, Leo Long. West’s book is very appealingly written, but his approach to chronology is utterly haphazard, he is very arch in concealing his whole involvement in the process, and he makes so many unverifiable assertions that one has to be very careful not to be caught up in the sweep of his narrative. For instance, he identifies the failure of British double-agent manoeuvres with Soviet spies as a major item of evidence for stating that MI5 had been infiltrated. But he never explores this, or explains what these projects were. Apart from the attempt to manipulate Sonia (and Len) I know of no documented case of such activity, and, as I have repeatedly written, such projects are doomed to fail as, in order to be successful, they rely both on discipline by a very small and secure team as well as exclusive control of the double agent’s communications.
I also went back to Akhmedov, to re-acquaint myself with how he
described his lengthy interviews with Philby in Ankara in 1948. His conclusion
was that, even though a stenographer was present, and he suspected the
safe-house had been bugged, Philby reported only a small amount of the material
that he passed on, which certainly included a description of the GRU’s set-up
in London. (He does not mention ELLI here.) But he also wrote that he knew this
because of his contacts with American intelligence afterwards. “Many years later I learned that Philby had
submitted only a small part of the reams of material obtained from me to the
British and American intelligence services”. That indicated to me that a fuller record
exists somewhere, and that Akhmedov was shown Philby’s report. Akhmedov also said
that, a year later (in 1949) he was thoroughly debriefed by the FBI, CIA and
Pentagon officials in Istanbul. So I assumed that CIA records
were a good place to look.
And, indeed, the CIA archives display quite a lot of information
that Akhmedov supplied them about GRU techniques and organisation, but in
secondary reports. (I have not yet found transcripts of the original
interviews.) Moreover, literature produced more recently points to a critical
role that Akhmedov played in unmasking Philby. One account (Tales from
Langley by Peter Kross) even states that Akhmedov informed the CIA in 1949
that Philby was a Soviet spy (how Akhmedov discovered that is not clear, since
he obviously did not know that for a fact in 1948, although he claimed he partly
saw through Philby’s charade at the time), and that Philby was presented with
Akhmedov’s testimony when he was recalled from Washington immediately after the
Burgess-Maclean escapade. Unfortunately, Kross provides no reference for this
assertion, but Akhmedov’s informing the CIA at that stage would be an
astonishing revelation: it would put Philby’s presence in Washington under a
harsh new light, frame White’s ‘devilish plot’ in a dramatic new context, and
even explain why Eric Roberts was faced with an astonishing new reality when he
spoke to Liddell in 1949. Is that what Andrew was hinting at? I am going to
claim an early goal, before VAR gets in. (Coldspur 4 : The Establishment 4)
Another anomaly I have noticed is the famed reference to ELLI
(actually ‘ELLY’) in the Vassiliev papers. (These were transcripts of files created
by Alexander Vassiliev from the KGB archives, containing information on the GRU
as well, and available on the Internet at https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks .) Chapman Pincher presented the assertion that Gouzenko had
betrayed the existence of ELLI in British intelligence as appearing in a report
from Merkulov to Stalin in November 1945, and William Tyrer has echoed
Pincher’s claim in his article about ELLI.
Yet the published archive states no such thing. The comment that “Gouzenko
reported on the GRU source in British intel. ‘ELLY’” is not in the selected
highlights of Merkulov’s report, but appears as an introduction in a separate
pair of parentheses, looking as if it had been added by Vassiliev as editorial commentary,
after the statement that informs us that what follows is a summarization
of what Philby has given them. If it is intended to also reflect the
information received from ‘S’ [STANLEY = Philby] that immediately precedes it,
it is worth noting that Philby’s report likewise includes nothing about ELLI.
cites the comment as coming from Merkulov’s report, but uses the on-line
version as his source. He is wrong. Tyrer reproduces the whole introduction in
his article, but removes the parentheses. He is careless. Of course, it is very
possible that Merkulov did write to Stalin about Gouzenko and ELLI, and
that needs to be verified. Merkulov was, however, in the NKVD/KGB, not the GRU,
and it seems implausible that he would want to lay any bad news concerning the
GRU on Stalin’s plate. I cannot quickly see any other reference to the GRU in
Merkulov’s communications, and Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev himself, in The
Haunted Wood, suggest (note, p 105) that any reference to the GRU by
Merkulov was an attempt to pass off some of the responsibility for Elizabeth
Bentley’s defection to the GRU, who recruited her originally in 1936, and for
whom she worked until 1938, when she was transferred to the NKVD.
one might ask: if Vassiliev thought that the reference to ELLI was important
enough to be highlighted, why did he not publish the original text that
contained it? (I have checked the original Russian manuscript on the Wilson
Center website: the texts are the same. Yet some pages are missing in all
versions: original scan of manuscript, Russian transcription, and English
translation). We should recall, also, that Vassiliev was not transcribing the
texts surreptitiously: he had been given permission from the Association of
Retired Intelligence Officers (KGB alumni) to inspect them, was well-briefed in
western intelligence interests, and under no pressure. So I decided to try to
ask him what the import of his commentary was. I know he is hiding somewhere in
England (maybe holed up with Oleg Gordievsky in an especially leafy part of foliate
Surrey), so on May 18 I sent a message to his publisher to inquire whether they
could pass on a question to him. I was brushed off with a message saying I
should look on Vassiliev’s social media, or write a letter to the publisher. I
doubt whether Vassiliev is seeking any attention, or wanting to give clues to
his whereabouts, so I shall take the latter course.
There is no doubt ELLI existed. But ELLI was almost certainly a
woman, and the information on her is so sparse that she was probably a minor
player, and was not an informant for long. Thus the quest for identifying ELLI
has to be separated from the generic search for traitors within MI5. If there
was evidence of leakage on certain projects, MI5 should have investigated it,
traced it back to those officers who were privy to the information, and then
tried to discern how they might have passed it to a member of Soviet
intelligence. Instead, they listened to the emotional appeals of Angleton and
Golitsyn, and started examining (and sometime interrogating) Mitchell, Hollis,
Liddell, Hanley, even White.
In Spycatcher, Peter Wright tried to list the strongest
reasons for suspecting a major source of treachery within MI5, narrowing his
search for ELLI to Hollis and Mitchell.
I noticed that, after the Gouzenko revelations broke out, he even
consulted Akhmedov to discuss the arrival of ‘ELLI’s telegrams’ [sic] in
Moscow. But the two of them apparently did not discuss ELLI’s gender! It is all
very mystifying. And if there was an endemic failure to protect against
communist subversion (as L’Affaire Sonia shows), it makes even less
sense to pretend that the rather dim Roger Hollis had the power and influence
to stop all his smarter colleagues from performing their jobs properly. Every
time I go back to Pincher, I am stunned by the ham-handed way he overstates his
case against Hollis. Any decent defence-lawyer would submerge his case within
minutes. Nevertheless, I am not yet ready to claim the winning goal.
Now, if that were true, it would have been an alarming course of
events, with the Security Service arranging an extra-judicial killing, given
that there was no account of a trial, even in camera, to be found. The
biography of Caroli’s colleague Wolf Schmidt (TATE) was written by two Swedes, and
mentioned Caroli, but it apparently gave no details about his incarceration and
subsequent return to Sweden. So I left the issue hanging.
Now I can report that the intrepid Giselle Jakobs (the
grand-daughter of Josef Jakobs, who was indeed executed as a spy) has tracked
down the biography of Caroli, written by the same two authors, in Swedish,
which they self-published in 2015. She has arranged for enough portions of it
translated to prove that Caroli, while his health had been damaged by the fall
on his landing in England, did recuperate enough to live for thirty more years.
It includes a photograph of Caroli after his marriage. Giselle’s extraordinary
account of his life, and of her admirable efforts to present the information
for posterity, can be found at https://www.josefjakobs.info/2020/04/the-apres-espionage-career-of-gosta.html and at http://www.josefjakobs.info/.
While this is good news, removing one black mark against the
occasionally dubious application of the law by the British authorities when
under stress in 1940 and 1941, it does not materially change anything of my
suggestion that the death of ter Braak was not a suicide. I expect this matter
to be resuscitated before long. My on-line colleague Jan-Willem van den Braak
(actually no relation, as Ter Braak’s real name was Fukken) has written a
biography of Ter Braak, in Dutch. It is now being translated into English for
publication next year, and Mr. van den Braak has invited me to offer an Afterword
to present my research and theories.
Dave Springhall and the GRU
In April last year, I was investigating hints provided by Andrew
Boyle about the possible recruitment of Kim Philby by the Communist Douglas
(‘Dave’) Springhall, and wrote as follows:
problematical. On my desktop computer, I have twenty-seven bulky PDFs from his
files at the National Archives, which I have not yet inspected properly. They
provide a fairly exhaustive account of his movements, but Special Branch did
not appear to track him having a meeting with members of the Soviet Embassy in
1933. (Springhall did make a request to visit Cambridge in March of that year,
however.) I suppose it is possible that Liddell had an interview with the
communist activist at the time of his conviction in 1943, but it is improbable
that a record of such a conversation has lain undiscovered. Somewhere in that
archive (according to Springhall’s Wikipedia entry) is a suggestion that
Springhall was working for the GRU from 1932 onwards, but locating that record
is a task that will have to wait – unless any alert reader is already familiar
with the whole of KV 2/2063-2065 & KV 2/1594-1598 . . .”
Well, I have at last had enough time on my hands to go through the whole of that archive, and take notes. The evidence of a strong connection between ‘Springy’ (the comrades referred to each other thus, with Len Beurton responding to his MI5 interviewers about ‘Footie’ – Alexander Foote – as if they were members of the England cricket team) and Soviet military intelligence is thin. It derives from an SIS report concerning a translation of a Russian request for information on Indian Army capabilities from the Intelligence Directorate of the Staff R.K.K.A. to the Military Attaché in Berlin, in which Springhall’s name is brought up (KV 2/1594-2, p 40, August 20, 1931).
Springhall was very much a naval/military figure. Even though he missed the
Invergordon Mutiny (he was occupied in Moscow at the time), he was a regular
commentator on military affairs. He was head of anti-military propaganda in
England, he gave eulogistic descriptions of life in the Red Army, and busied
himself with secret work at Woolwich Arsenal. And his eventual arrest, in 1943,
for extracting secrets on radar defensive measures (WINDOW) from Olive Sheehan,
was obviously for trying to transfer facts to Soviet military experts. MI5
never determined, however, who his courier was, despite the close watch that
was kept on him. I noticed in his MI5 that Nigel West suggested that
Gorsky of the KGB was his contact at the Soviet Embassy, but in the same
author’s recent Churchill’s Spy Files, he indicates that it was a GRU
officer, and that the courier was someone called Peppin. (Somewhere in the
Springhall archive, I got the impression that the courier might have been
Andrew Rothstein.) So I wrote to West about it, and he confirmed that it must
have been a GRU contact, but he could no more about the courier.
is a vast archive: I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is writing a book about Springhall
at the moment. West’s book provides a good introduction, but there is so much
more to be explored, and I shall certainly return to the archive when I come to
write about Slater and Wintringham. I shall thus say little more here, but
merely make a few important observations on three aspects: 1) The role of
Anthony Blunt (as introduced above); 2) The immensity of the surveillance of
Springhall; and 3) Springhall’s trial.
of the remarkable features of the monthly reports to Churchill on MI5’s
activities, starting in March 1943, was that Guy Liddell, to whom the task was
delegated by Petrie, in turn brought in Anthony Blunt to perform much of the
editorial work. Thus here was additional proof that most of the service’s
‘secrets’ were being passed on to Moscow before you could say ‘Andrew
Rothstein’. Thus one has to interpret the prosecution and sentencing of
Springhall (conducted in camera) in a completely new light. The CPGB (the head
office of which, in King Street, had been bugged comprehensively by Special
Branch) was shocked and disgusted at the fact that Comrade Springhall had been
involved in espionage, and thus was guilty of bringing the Communist Party into
disrepute. Moscow was, of course ‘appalled’, and denied anything untoward had
if Moscow had known what was going on throughout the Springhall investigation
because of Blunt, they would not have been surprised at the outcome. They would
have to make the necessary melodramatic denials, but were perhaps not
completely unhappy that all the attention was being paid on an expendable,
somewhat irresponsible, open member of the Communist Party, while their
unmasked agents were gathering information on the atomic bomb. In that way, MI5
would continue to imagine that the Party was the major source for subversive
activity (with Ray Milne in MI6, and Desmond Uren in SOE being minor casualties
dragged in by Springhall), and their moles in the intelligence services would
be able to carry on unhindered. ‘Springy’ was not sprung.
second noteworthy aspect is the sheer volume of material that was collected
about Springhall, hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes on his career in the
Navy, his visits to the Soviet Union, his published articles in the Daily
Worker, his girl-friends, his associates and friends, his meetings at
Communist Party headquarters, his speeches exhorting revolution at rallies –
and of course on his espionage, his arrest, his trial, his sentencing, his time
in prison, and his release before dying in Moscow of cancer in 1953. MI5 and
Special Branch must have an expended an enormous amount of time trailing and
surveilling him, yet the service was mostly powerless in doing anything at all – until Springhall so
clumsily tried to extract the secrets from the communist flatmate of a loyal
citizen, Norah Bond, who shared what she overheard with her RAF boyfriend,
Wing-Commander Norman Blackie.
In a way, I suppose,
Springhall’s being caught red-handed justified all the effort, and it enabled
MI5 to move the traitor Ray Milne quietly out of SIS, and Raymond Uren out of
SOE. Yet so much other surveillance was going on that one has to conclude that
it was all rather wasted energy. ‘Keeping an eye’ on suspicious characters
became a literal watchword, in the vain hope that such an activity would lead
to larger networks of subversive ne’er-do-wells. But what next? So long as the
Communist Party was a licit institution, its members could make calls for
revolution, even during wartime, without any fear of prosecution, and the Home
Office seemed far too timid as to how the factories might be adversely affected
if too energetic moves were made against the comrades of our gallant ally, the
Russians. Meanwhile, most government institutions were infected with Communist
moles, agents of influence, and fellow-travellers who separated themselves from
links with the Communist Party itself.
Lastly, the Trial
itself. Files KV 2/1598-2 & -3 from Kew contain a full record of ‘Rex v
Douglas Frank Springhall, at the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, 20th
July Sessions, 1943’, before Mr Justice Oliver. It represents a transcript of
the shorthand notes of George Walpole & Co. (Shorthand Writers to the
Court). The Solicitor-General, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, K.C. and Mr L. A. Byrne
appeared on behalf of the Prosecution, with Mr J. F. F. Platts-Mills appearing
on behalf of the Defence. I think it is an extraordinary document.
From the first lines of
the transcript, where the portentous Justice Oliver rather patronisingly puts
the Rumpolean Maxwell-Fyfe in his place, and the Solicitor-General
deferentially responds ‘If your Lordship pleases’, we can see a classical
court-room drama take place. Oliver then treats Platts-Mills in the same
peremptory manner, and, when the prosecuting council start their questioning of
Olive Sheehan (who had passed on to Springhall secrets about ‘WINDOW’), Oliver interrupts
them freely, as I am sure he was entitled to. He rebukes Platts-Mills, rather
pettily, for referring to the Air Ministry as Sheehan’s ‘employers’: “Now, Mr
Platts-Mills, this court has not become a theatre of politics.” Platts-Mills has to adapt to his Lordship’s pleasure.
I shall comment no more
now than to remark how different this court was from those administered by
Roland Freisler or Andrey Vyshinsky. Yes, it was in camera, but this was
not a show-trial where the defendants knew they were already guilty and were
facing inevitable execution. Britain was at war, and had caught a spy declaring
allegiance to a foreign power, stealing secrets that could have seriously
harmed the war effort if they had passed into the wrong hands, and calling for
revolution, but Springhall received a fair trial. It concludes with Springhall
making a rather eloquent but disingenuous speech about wanting ‘to arouse the
country behind the government headed by Mr Winston Churchill’. The jury took fifteen
minutes to consider the evidence before returning a verdict of ‘Guilty’ on
almost all counts, and Springhall was sentenced to seven years’ penal
servitude. A very British trial.
‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp Tycoon Romance Drama!’
(“I wanted to marry him”, confesses distraught schoolgirl)
A while back, I acquired a slim volume titled ‘Die Tochter bin ich’ (‘I am the Daughter’), by one Janina Blankenfeld. It was published in Berlin in 1985, and is a brief memoir by a schoolteacher who was the daughter of someone who will be familiar to all readers of this website – Ursula née Kuczynski, aka SONIA. Janina was actually Sonia’s daughter by her lover, Johannes Patra (cryptonym ERNST), conceived in China, born in Warsaw in 1936, and spending much of her childhood years in Switzerland and England. Janina did not learn who her real father was until 1955, when Sonia’s first husband, Rolf, returned to Berlin, and Sonia felt she ought to break the news to her. I bought the book because I thought it might shed some light on Sonia’s movements in the UK, and even explain how Janina was able to attend an expensive boarding-school in Epping.
Unfortunately, it gives little away, sheltering under her mother’s
memoir, published a few years beforehand. Janina gives the impression that
money was very tight, and she says nothing about the private school. For a
while, the idea of a holiday was impossible, but Janina wrote that, six months
after her grandmother’s death (which occurred in June 1947), Sonia found an
inexpensive room on the Welsh coast, in Criccieth, which was a revelation for
Janina, as she enjoyed the coastline and the ruined castles. (Criccieth is a
bit too close to the University of Aberystwyth, to my liking.) But “Das schönste Erlebnis für mich war unser
Bummel durch Butlins Holiday Camp.” (‘The best
experience for me was our stroll through Butlin’s Holiday Camp’.) She revelled
in the string of bungalows, and the loudspeakers playing all day, and the
dances and merry-go-rounds in the evenings. “Der Glanzpunkt war die Wahl der schönsten
Urlauberin. Schöne Beine and ein hübsches Gesicht – mehr war nicht
gefragt.“ (“The climax
was the election of the most beautiful holidaymaker. Fine legs and a pretty
face – nothing more was asked for.”)
I am not sure what the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation leaders
would have thought of all this frivolity, with no time spent on propaganda
lessons and correct ideological thinking, and far too much attention paid to
superficial bourgeois pastimes like beauty contests, but Janina’s memoir
managed to get through the censors. And it all made a strong impression on the
twelve-year-old girl. “Seit
diesem Besuch hatte ich neue Träume – ich wollte so gern Herrn Butlin heiraten,
ganz reich sein and jedes Jahr meinen Urlaub in solch einem Feriencamp
verbringen. ” (Ever since this visit I had fresh dreams
– I wanted to marry Mr Butlin so much, to become quite rich, and to spend my
holiday every year in such a Holiday Camp.”) Instead, eighteen months later,
she had to leave for good her idyllic life in the Cotswolds and Wales,
exchanging it for Walter Ulbricht’s holiday-camp of East Germany.
China and the Rhineland Moment
I have been thinking recently of China’s gradual expansion, and reactions to threats to its growing power (e.g. concerning Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Uighurs, industrial espionage, Hong Kong), and reminded myself that, if the first response to a bully is to refrain from challenging him, and biffing him on the nose, he will continue in the knowledge that his adversaries are really too cowardly, afraid of ‘provoking’ him more, and that he can thus continue unimpeded with his aggressive moves. I thought of the piece I wrote on Appeasement a few months ago, and how I judged that Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland in 1936 was the incident marking the opportunity for the dictator to have been stopped.
Then, on May 30, Bret Stevens wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New
York Times titled ‘China and the Rhineland Moment’ (at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/china-hong-kong.html, inside the paywall). His piece started off as follows: “Great struggles between great powers tend to
have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences
becomes obvious to nearly everyone. In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis
when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston
Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, ‘all the alarm bells
throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.’ In 1936 Germany provoked
another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of
its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no
intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill
was left to warn that ‘an iron curtain has descended across the Continent’.” After making some recommendations as to what
the USA and Great Britain should do, Stevens concluded: “If all this and more
were announced now, it might persuade Beijing to pull back from the brink. In
the meantime, think of this as our Rhineland moment with China — and remember
what happened the last time the free world looked aggression in the eye, and
This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.
One of the most stressful days of my life occurred at the end of July 1980. I had been spending the previous few months commuting between the UK and the USA, courtesy of Freddy Laker, spending three weeks in Connecticut before a break of a week at home in Coulsdon with Sylvia and the infant James, and then flying back to the USA for another sojourn. For some months, we had been trying to sell the house, while I looked for a place to live in Norwalk, CT., and began to learn about US customs, banking practices, documentary requirements for applying for a mortgage, etc. etc.. Meanwhile, I started implementing the changes to the Technical Services division of the software company I was working for, believing that some new methods in the procedures for testing and improving the product with field enhancements, as well as in the communications with the worldwide offices and distributors, were necessary. Sylvia successfully sold the house. I had to arrange for our possessions to be transported and stored, and decide when and how we should eventually leave the UK. On the last decision, Sylvia and I decided that using the QEII for the relocation would be a sound choice, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, perhaps, and one that would be less stressful for the three of us. We thought we would stay in the USA for a few years before returning home.
And then, three days
before we were due to sail, I discovered that our visas had still not come
through. I had been told by my boss (the CEO of the company) that an attorney
who specialised in such matters would apply for an L-1 visa (a training visa,
of limited duration), and that it would later be upgraded to a resident alien’s
visa. I had met the attorney, and given him all the details, and he had
promised me that I would be able to pick it up at the American Embassy in
London. But when I went there, the officials knew nothing about it. Some
frantic phone-calls across the Atlantic followed, and I was eventually able to
pick up the visas the day before we left Southampton. Such was the panic that I
cannot recall how we travelled from home to Southampton, or how we packed for
the week’s cruise with a ten-month old son, but we made it. The cruise itself
turned out to have its own nightmares, as my wallet was stolen (probably by a professional
pickpocket who funded his trips by such activities), and I spent the last three
days on the ship desperately looking for it, since it contained my driving
licence (necessary for applying for a US driver’s license), as well as a few
other vital items. It was not a comfortable start to our new life.
Fortunately, we still had our passports and visas intact. We were picked up in New York, and I was able to show Sylvia her new house (which, of course, she had never seen before). If she had any qualms, she was very diplomatic in suppressing them. We settled in: the neighbours were kind. They were Jews originally from Galicia, Bill and Lorraine Landesberg. I recall that Bill named ‘Lemberg’ as his place of birth – what is now known as Lvov, in Ukraine. (Incidentally, I recall a school colleague named Roy Lemberger. I conclude now that his forefathers must have moved from Lemberg some generations before in order for his ancestor to be given the name ‘the man from Lemberg’.) I suspect that the Landesbergs found us a bit exotic, even quaint.
I recall also that my
boss had encouraged me to rent, not buy (‘Interest rates will come down in a
couple of years’), but I had thought that he was probably trying to cut down on
relocation expenses. That conclusion was solidified by another incident. During
the summer, he had succeeded in selling his outfit to a local timesharing
company (‘timesharing’ being what was not called ‘cloud computing’ at the
time). I obtained a copy of the parent company’s Personnel Policies, and
discovered that it offered a more generous overseas relocation allowance, and
presented my findings to my boss. He was taken by surprise, and somewhat
crestfallen, as he knew nothing of the policy, and the expenses had to come out
of his budget.
In any case, this windfall
helped with the acquisition of new appliances, required because of the voltage
change. I must have applied for a re-issue of my UK licence, and soon we
acquired two cars. We chose General Motors models, a decision that my
colleagues at work also found quaint, as they were buying German or Swedish
automobiles, and stated that no-one would buy an American car those days.
Gradually, we found a pace and rhythm to life, a reliable baby-sitter, and the
changes I had made at the company seemed to have been received well –
especially by the support personnel I had left behind in Europe. My parents
were coming out to visit us that Christmas.
Indeed, I was next
recommended (by my predecessor) to host and speak at the key product Users’
Group being held that autumn/fall. I later learned that relationships between
the company management and the Users’ Group were very strained, because of
failed promises and indifferent support, and I was thus a useful replacement to
address the group – a fresh face, with a British accent, an expert in the
product, with no corporate baggage. I thus quite eagerly accepted the
assignment, prepared my speeches, and set out for Toronto, where the meeting
was being held. It all went very well: the group seemed to appreciate the
changes I was making, and I was able to offer several tips on how to diagnose
the system expertly, and improve its performance.
Thus I made my way back
through Toronto airport with some glow and feeling of success. Until I
approached the US customs post, after check-in. There I was told that I was not
going to be allowed to re-enter the United States, as I was in possession of an
L-1 visa, and as such, had committed an offence in leaving the country, and
could not be re-admitted. (My visa had not been checked on leaving the US, or
on entry to Canada, where my British passport would have been adequate.) I was
marched off to a small room to await my fate. Again, the experience must have
been so traumatic that I don’t recall the details, but I believe that I
pleaded, and used my selling skills, to the effect that it had all been a
harmless mistake, and Canada was really part of the North-American-GB alliance,
and it wouldn’t happen again, and it was not my fault, but that of my employer,
and I had a young family awaiting me, so please let me through. The outcome was
that a sympathetic officer eventually let me off with an admonishment, but I
could not help but conclude that a tougher individual might not have been so
indulgent. What was the alternative? To have put me in a hotel, awaiting a
judicial inquiry? This could not have been the first time such a mistake
occurred, but maybe they didn’t want to deal with the paperwork. And I looked
and sounded harmless, I suppose.
I eventually acquired the much cherished ‘Green Card’, which gave me permanent resident status, and the ability to change jobs. (That became important soon afterwards, but that is another story.) This was an arduous process, with more interviews, forms to fill out, travelling to remote offices to wait in line before being interrogated by grumpy immigration officials. Many years later, we repeated the process when we applied for citizenship. It was something we should have done before James reached eighteen, as he had to go through the process as well on reaching that age. One reason for the delay was that, for a period in the 1990s, adopting US citizenship meant a careful rejection of any other allegiance, and we were not yet prepared to abandon out UK nationality. At the end of the decade, however, we were allowed to retain both, so long as we declared our primary allegiance to the USA. (Julia was born here, so is a true American citizen, as she constantly reminds us.) More questions, visits to Hartford, CT., citizenship tests on the US constitution and history, and then the final ceremony. I noticed a change: when I returned from a visit abroad, and went through the ‘US Citizens’ line, the customs official would look at my passport, smile and say ‘Welcome Home’.
All this serves as a
lengthy introduction to my main theme: what is it about ‘illegal immigration’
that the Democratic Party does not understand? I know that I am not alone in
thinking, as someone who has been through the whole process of gaining
citizenship, that such a firm endorsement of an illegal act is subversive of
the notion of law, and the judicial process itself. When, at one of the early
Democratic Presidential Candidate debates held on television, all the speakers
called not only for ‘open borders’ but also for providing free healthcare to
all illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, I was aghast. Did they really think
that was a vote-winner, or were they all simply parading their compassionate
consciences on their sleeves, hoping to pick up the ‘progressive’ or the
‘Hispanic’ vote? For many congresspersons seem to believe that all ‘Hispanics’
must be in favour of allowing unrestricted entry to their brethren and sisterhood
attempting to come here from ‘Latin’ America. (Let us put aside for now the
whole nonsense of what ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ means, in relation to those
inhabitants of Mexico and South America who speak Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl,
Zapotec, German, Portuguese, etc. etc.) Many ‘Hispanic’ citizens who are here
legally likewise resent the entitlements that others from south of the border
claim, suggesting that it is somehow their ‘right’ to cross the border
illegally, and set up home somewhere in the USA. There should either be a
firmer effort to enforce the law, as it is, or to change it.
Moreover, the problem is
by no means exclusively one of illegal immigration. It concerns authorized visitors
with temporary visas who outstay their welcome. Almost half of the undocumented
immigrants in the USA entered the country with a visa, passed inspection at the
airport (probably), and then remained. According to figures compiled by the
Center for Migration Studies, ‘of the roughly 3.5. million undocumented
immigrants who entered the country between 2010 and 2017, 65% arrived with full
permission stamped in their passports.’ The government departments responsible
can apparently not identify or track such persons. I read this week that an
estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants reside in Britain.
The problem of mass
migration, of refugees, of asylum-seekers affects most of the world, in an
environment where asylum was conceived as a process affecting the occasional
dissident or victim of persecution, not thousands trying to escape from poverty
or gang violence. But we do not hear of throngs of people trying to enter
Russia, China, or Venezuela. It is always the liberal democracies. Yet even the
most open and generous societies are feeling the strain, as the struggles of EU
countries trying to seal their borders shows. It is not a question of being
‘Pro’ or ‘Anti’ immigration, but more a recognition that the process of
assimilation has to be more gradual. A country has to take control of its own
I was reminded that this cannot be made an issue of morality, instead of political pragmatism, when I recently read the obituary of the Japanese Sadako Ogata, the first woman to lead the U.N. Refugee Agency. She was quoted as saying: “I am not saying Japan should accept all of them [people escaping from Syria]. But if Japan doesn’t open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it’s against human rights.” The statement contained the essence of the dilemma: Ogata recognised presumably inalienable human ‘rights’ to move from one country to another, but then immediately qualified it by suggesting that only ‘particular reasons and needs’ could justify their acceptance. And who is to decide, therefore, which reasons and needs are legitimate? Not an Open Borders policy, but some form of judicial investigation, presumably.
. . . and Healthcare
The Democratic candidates then compounded their confusion by their demonstration of ‘compassion’ for claiming that they would allow such illegal immigrants free access to healthcare. Now here is another controversial example of the clash between ‘rights’ and pragmatism. Heaven knows, the healthcare ‘system’ in this country is defective and ‘broken’, but then I suspect that it is in any other country where, alternatively, medical treatment is largely controlled by the state. I read last week that Britain’s National Health Service has 100,000 vacancies, and that 4.4 million persons are now on waiting lists. (We have the antithesis of the problem over here. While a patient needing a knee-replacement has to wait six months or more in the UK, when I was referred to a knee specialist a few months ago, within ten minutes, without even calling for an MRI, the doctor recommended, because of arthritis showing up on X-Rays, that I needed a knee-replacement, and, before you could say ‘Denis Compton’, he would probably have fitted me in for the operation the following week if I had pursued it. His prosperity relies on his doing as many operations as possible. I am successfully undertaking more conservative treatments. Moreover, the American insurance system is littered with incidents where insurance companies pay absurd sums for processes that never happened.) France, I read, is having similar problems as the UK: is Finland the current model for how welfare and enterprise coexist successively? Maybe we should all migrate to Finland.
‘Medicare for all’. Apart from the fact that such a program is estimated by its champions to cost about $30 trillion over the next ten years, where will all the doctors and medical practitioners come from to satisfy the new demands? Will they be raided from ‘developing’ nations, who would surely ill afford the loss? Again, this matter is often represented as an ‘entitlement’ issue, one of ‘basic human rights’. Consider what the UN says. Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.’ Well, one can regret the obviously sexist language here – what about ‘every person and his or her wife or husband, and members of their blended or rainbow family, including members of the LGBQT community’ – but let that pass. It also did not state that subscribing nations should appoint a Minister for Loneliness. This was 1948, after all.
Reflect also on what the Declaration does not
say: “Every individual should
have access to healthcare, including the ability to gain, in a matter of four weeks,
an appointment with a reputable gastro-enterologist whose practice is within
twenty miles of where he or she lives.” “Every individual has the right to be
treated by a qualified shaman who can recite the appropriate incantations over
the invalid for an affordable fee.” “Every individual has the right to decline
approved immunization processes for their children out of religious
conviction.” I do not make these points as a frivolous interjection, but again
to point out how the provision of healthcare in any country has to be based on
pragmatics and economics, and will often clash with religious opposition and
It is bewildering how
many of the electorate in the USA appear to have swallowed the financial
projections of Senators Warren and Sanders for their expansive plans. To
suggest that such money can be raised by taxing what are mostly illiquid
assets, and that such government programs could presumably be permanently
funded by the continuance of such policies, is economic madness. Some
commentators have pointed out that wealthy individuals would find ways of
avoiding such confiscation, yet I have noticed very little analysis of the
effect on asset prices themselves in a continued forced sale. The value of many
assets cannot be determined until they are sold; they would have to be sold in
order to raise cash for tax purposes; if they are to be sold, there have to be
cash-owning buyers available; if a buyers’ market evolves, asset values will
decline. (One renowned economist suggested that the government could accept
stocks and shares, for instance, and then sell them on the open market . . .
. !) The unintended consequences in the areas of business investment and
pension values would be extraordinary. Yet the Democratic extremists are now
claiming that such a transfer of wealth will provoke economic growth, quickly
forgetting the lessons of a hundred years of socialism, and also, incidentally,
undermining what some of them declare concerning the deceleration of climate
In summary, we are
approaching an election year with a Democratic Party desperate to oust Donald
Trump, but in disarray. The candidates for Presidential nominee are a
combination of the hopelessly idealistic, the superannuated and confused, and
the economically illiterate. I believe that those who stress the principles of
Open Borders and a revolutionary Medicare for All program seriously misjudge
the mood and inclinations of what I suppose has to be called ‘Middle America’.
But now Michael Bloomberg has stepped into the ring. As [identity alert]
‘an Independent of libertarian convictions with no particular axe to grind’, I
have found it practically impossible to vote for either a Republican or a
Democratic Presidential candidate since being granted the vote, but here comes
someone of proven leadership quality, a pragmatist (for the most part), and one
who has changed his political affiliations – just like Winston Churchill. In a
recent interview, he described himself as ‘a social liberal, fiscal moderate,
who is basically nonpartisan’. I could vote for him. But Michael – you will be
78 next February! Another old fogey, like Biden and Sanders! Why didn’t you
stand four years ago?
The Kremlin Letters
I started this bulletin by referring to experiences from thirty-nine years ago, and conclude by describing events thirty-nine years before that, in 1941. This month I started reading The Kremlin Letters, subtitled Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt, edited by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, which was published last year. It is proving to be an engrossing compilation, since it exploits some previously undisclosed Russian archives. The Acknowledgements inform readers that ‘a carefully researched Russian text was revised and rewritten for an Anglophone audience’. The core material is therefore what historians prefer to base their interpretations on – original source documents, the authenticity and accuracy of which can probably not be denied. A blurb by Gabriel Gorodetsky on the cover, moreover, makes the challenging assertion that the book ‘rewrites the history of the war as we knew it.’ ‘We’? I wondered to whom he was referring in that evasive and vaguely identified group.
Did it live up to the challenge?
A crucial part of the editing process is providing context and background to the
subjects covered in the letters. After reading only one chapter, I started to
have my doubts about the accuracy of the whole process. David Reynolds is a
very accomplished historian: I very much enjoyed his In Command of History,
which analysed Winston Churchill’s questionable process of writing history as
well as making it. I must confess to finding some of Reynolds’s judgments in The
Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century a little dubious, as
he seemed (for example) to understate what I saw as many of Stalin’s crimes.
What caught my attention
was a reference to the Diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in
London for much of WWII. I have previously explained that I think Maisky’s
Diaries are unreliable as a record of what actually transpired in his conversations
with Churchill and Eden, in particular, and regretted the fact that certain
historians (such as Andrew Roberts) have grabbed on to the very same Gabriel
Gorodetsky’s edition of the Diaries (2015) as a vital new resource in
interpreting the evolution of Anglo-Soviet relations. (see http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/) Now David Reynolds
appears to have joined the throng. Is this another mutual admiration society?
The controversy (as I
see it) starts with Stalin’s initial letter to Churchill, dated July 18, 1941,
a few weeks after Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany),
following Churchill’s two messages of support communicated via Ambassador
Cripps. Stalin’s message included the following paragraph:
“It is easy to imagine
that the position of the German forces would have been many times more
favourable had the Soviet troops had to face the attack of the German forces
not in the region of Kishinev, Lwow, Brest, Kaunas and Viborg, but in the
region of Odessa, Kamenets Podolski, Minsk and the environs of Leningrad”. He
cleverly indicated the change of borders without referring to the now embarrassing
phenomenon of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. (Stalin then went on to request,
absurdly and impertinently, that Great Britain establish ‘fronts’ against
Germany in northern France and the Arctic.)
What is this geographical lesson about? Reynolds introduces the letter by writing: “And he sought to justify the USSR’s westward expansion in 1939 under the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a life-saver in 1941, because it had given the Red Army more space within which to contain Hitler’s ‘sudden attack’.” My reaction, however, was that, while Stalin wanted to move very quickly on justifying the borders defined by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, his military analysis for Churchill’s benefit was poppycock. For what had been a strong defensive border built up during the 1930s, known as the Stalin Line, had effectively been dismantled, and was being replaced by the Molotov Line, which existed as a result of aggressive tactics, namely the shared carve-up of Poland and the Baltic States by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. (See diagrams below. In all the historical atlases I possess, I have not been able to find a single map that shows the Stalin and Molotov Lines, and the intervening territory, clearly, and have thus taken a chart from Read’s and Fisher’s Deadly Embrace, which does not include the border with Finland, extended it, and added the locations Stalin listed.)
I was confident, from my reading of the histories, that the Soviet Union’s annexation of the limitrophe states (as Hitler himself referred to them) had weakened the country’s ability to defend itself. After all, if the ‘buffer’ states’ that Stalin had invaded (under the guise of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) had been allowed to remain relatively undisturbed, Hitler’s invasion of them on the way to Russia in the spring of 1941 would have warned the Soviet Union that Hitler was encroaching on the Soviet Union’s ‘sphere of influence’ and that its traditional, internationally recognised border would soon be under attack. ‘More space’ was not a benefit, in other words. Thus the analysis of this period must address how seriously Stalin believed that forcing the buffer states to come under the control of the Soviet army would impede a possible invasion (which Stalin expressly still feared) rather than facilitate it. Reynolds does not enter this debate.
delivered this message from Stalin to Churchill at Chequers. Reynolds then
echoes from Maisky’s diary the fact that Churchill was very pleased at
receiving this ‘personal message’, and then goes on to cite Maisky’s impression
of Churchill’s reaction to the border claims. “Churchill also expressed
diplomatic approval of Stalin’s defence of shifting Soviet borders west in
1939-40: ‘Quite right! I’ve always understood and sought to justify the policy
of “limited expansion” which Stalin has pursued in the last two years’.”
Now, my first reaction
was that Churchill, as a military historian and as a politician, could surely
not have expressed such opinions. I seemed to recall that he had been highly
critical of both the Nazi invasion of Poland as well as the Soviet Union’s
cruel takeover of the Baltic States, where it had terrorized and executed
thousands, as well as its disastrous war against Finland in the winter of 1940.
(Lithuania was initially assigned to Germany, according to the Pact, but was
later transferred to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.) Churchill must also
have known that dismantling a strong defensive wall, and trying to establish a
new one, under pressure, in countries where Stalin had menaced and antagonised
the local citizenry, would have been a disastrous mistake as preparation for
the onslaught that Hitler had long before advertised in Mein Kampf. Did
he really make that statement to Maisky? Had these assertions of Maisky’s been
confirmed from other sources?
Then I turned the page
to read Churchill’s response to Stalin, dated July 20. Here was the evidence in
black and white: “I fully realise the military advantage you have gained by
forcing the enemy to deploy and engage on forward Western fronts, thus
exhausting the force of his initial effort.” This was astonishing! What was
Churchill thinking? Either I was completely wrong in my recollection of how
historians had interpreted the events of Barbarossa, or Churchill had been woefully
ignorant of what was going on, and insensitive to the implications of his
message, or the British Prime Minister had been tactfully concealing his real
beliefs about the annexations in an attempt to curry favour with Generalissimo
Stalin. Which was it? In any case, he was shamelessly and gratuitously expressing
to Stalin approval of the brutal invasion of the territory of sovereign states,
the cause he had gone to war over. Churchill’s message consisted of an
unnecessary and cynical response to Stalin’s gambit, which must have caused many
recriminations in negotiations later on. As for ‘exhausting the force of his
initial effort’, Churchill was clutching at Stalin’s straws. Where was the
I decided to look up evidence
from sources in my private library to start with. First, Maisky’s Diaries.
Indeed, the details are there. Maisky indicates that he translated (and typed
up) the message himself, and that, since he told Anthony Eden that it dealt
with ‘military-strategic issues’, the Foreign Secretary did not request that he
be in attendance when it was read. Maisky adds that ‘the prime minister started
reading the communiqué ‘slowly, attentively, now and then consulting a
geographical map that was close at hand’. (Those placenames would certainly
have not been intimately familiar.) Maisky singles out, rather implausibly,
Churchill’s reaction to the ‘expansion’ policy. When Churchill had finished
reading the message, however, Maisky asked him what he thought of it, and
Churchill ‘replied that first he had to consult HQ’. One thus wonders whether
he would have given anything away so enthusiastically in mid-stream, and why he
would have concentrated on the geographical details when the substance of the
message related to more critical matters.
What other records of
this visit exist? I turned to John Colville’s Fringes of Power: 10 Downing
Street Diaries,1939-1955. Colville records the meeting, albeit briefly. “At
tea-time the Soviet Ambassador arrived, bringing a telegram for the P.M. from
Stalin who asks for diversions in various places by English forces. It is hard
for the Russians to understand how unprepared we still are to take the
offensive. I was present while the P.M. explained the whole situation very
clearly to poor, uninformed Maisky.”
Maisky records Churchill’s protestations about the futility of trying to
invade mainland Europe without admitting his own miserable ignorance: Colville
makes no reference to the exchange over the Baltic States.
Did Churchill or Eden
make any relevant observation at this time? I have only my notes from Eden’s The
Reckoning, which refer to Maisky’s demands for the Second Front, but
indicate nothing about the Baltic States at this time. (The matter would
surface ominously later in the year, when joint ‘war aims’ were discussed.). I
own only the abridgment of Churchill’s war memoirs, which contains no
description of the meeting with Maisky. And what about the biographies? The
Last Lion, by William Manchester and Paul Reid, while spending several paragraphs
on Stalin’s demands for a second front, makes no mention of the telegram and
the Maisky meeting, or the contentious issue of Soviet borders. Roy Jenkins’s Churchill
is of little use: ‘Maisky’ appears only once in the Index, and there are no
entries for ‘Barbarossa’ or ‘Baltic States’. I shall have to make a visit to
the UNCW Library in the New Year, in order to check the details.
Next, the military
aspects of the case. Roger Moorhouse, in The Devil’s Alliance, provides
a recent, in-depth assessment. “Since
the mid-1920s, the USSR had been constructing a network of defenses along its
western border: the ukreplinnye raiony,
or ‘fortified areas,’ known colloquially as the ‘Stalin Line.’ However, with
the addition of the territories gained in collaboration with the Germans in
1939 and 1940, those incomplete defenses now lay some three hundred or so
kilometers east of the new Soviet frontier. Consequently, in the summer of
1940, a new network of defenses was begun further west, snaking through the
newly gained territories from Telŝiai in Lithuania, via eastern Poland, to the
mouth of the Danube in Bessarabia. It would later be unofficially named the
‘Molotov Line’.” These were the two boundaries to which Stalin referred,
obliquely, in his telegram.
Moorhouse explains how
the Soviets were overwhelmed in the first days of the invasion, partly because
of Stalin’s insistence that his forces do nothing to ‘provoke’ Hitler, but also
because his airfields and troops were massively exposed. “After two days, the
capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, Vilnius, fell to the Germans; a week
after that, the Latvian capital, Riga, the Byelorussian capital, Minsk, and the
western Ukrainian city of L’vov (the former Polish Lwów) had also fallen. By
that time, some German units had already advanced over 250 miles from their
starting position. Already, almost all the lands gained under the pact had been
lost.” The Red Air Force had been annihilated on the ground, with thousands of
aircraft destroyed because they sat in airfield in rows, unprotected and
unguarded. “Facing the full force of the blitzkrieg, the Red Army was in
disarray, with surviving troops often fleeing eastward alongside columns of
similarly leaderless refugees. In some cases, officers attempting to stem the panic
and restore order were shot by their own troops.”
This account is echoed
by Antony Beevor, in The Second World War: “The
Red Army had been caught almost completely unprepared. In the months before the
invasion, the Soviet leader had forced it to advance from the Stalin Line
inside the old frontier and establish a forward defence along the
Molotov-Ribbentrop border. Not enough had been done to prepare the new
positions, despite Zhukhov’s energetic attempts. Less than half of the
strongpoints had any heavy weapons. Artillery regiments lacked their tractors,
which had been sent to help with the harvest. And Soviet aviation was caught on
the ground, its aircraft lined up in rows, presenting easy targets for the
Luftwaffe’s pre-emptive strikes on sixty-six airfields. Some 1,800 fighters and
bombers were said to have been destroyed on the first day of the attack, the
majority on the ground. The Luftwaffe lost just thirty-five aircraft.” Michael
Burleigh, in his outstanding Moral Combat, reinforces the notion of
Soviet disarray: “On 22 June three million troops, 3,350 tanks, 71.146
artillery pieces and 2,713 aircraft unleashed a storm of destruction on an
opponent whose defences were in total disarray, and whose forces were deployed
far forward in line with a doctrinaire belief in immediate counter-attack.”
Yet I struggled to find detailed
analysis of the effect of the moved defensive line in accounts of the battles.
Christer Bergstrom’s Operation Barbarossa 1941: Hitler Against Stalin,
offers a detailed account of the makeup of the opposing forces, and the
outcomes of the initial dogfights and assaults, but no analysis on the effect
on communications and supply lines that the extended frontier caused.
Certainly, owing to persecutions of local populations, the Soviet armies and
airforce were operating under hostile local conditions, but it is difficult to
judge how inferior the Soviet Union’s response was because of the quality of
the outposts defending the frontier, as opposed to, say, the fact that the military’s
officers had been largely executed during the Great Purge. The Soviet airfields
were massively exposed because German reconnaissance planes were allowed to
penetrate deep into the newly-gained territory to take photographs – something
they surely would not have been permitted to perform beyond the traditional
boundaries. On the other hand, I have found no evidence that the Soviet
Union was better able to defend itself in Operation Barbarossa because of the
movement of its western border, as Stalin claimed in his telegram.
I have also started to
inspect biographies of Stalin. Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin: Triumph and
Tragedy (1998, English translation 1991) is quick to list several causes
for the disaster of Barbarossa: Stalin’s hubris in wanting to restore the old
imperial borders too quickly, the lack of attention to defensive strategies, the
fact that, in January 1941, General Zhukov recommended unsuccessfully that the
‘unfavourable system of fortified districts’ be moved back 100 kilometres from
the new border, the overall zeal in meeting production quotas resulting in too
many defective aircraft, and high crash rates, and their poor protection on
exposed airfields. But while criticising Stalin, Volkogonov appears the
inveterate Communist, claiming equivocally that
‘while the moral aspect of the annexation of the Baltic states was
distinctly negative, the act itself was a positive [sic!] one’, that
‘the overwhelming majority of the Baltic population were favourable to their
countries’ incorporation into the Soviet Union in August 1940’, and even that
‘the decision to take over Western Ukraine and Byelorussia . . . was broadly in accord with the desire
of the local working class population’. These statements are highly
controversial, and further study is called for. Meanwhile, Marshall Zhukov in
his Memoirs (1969) offers a mostly propagandist account of the
tribulations of 1941, but does provide the scandalous information that German
saboteurs had cut the telegraph cables in all of the Western Frontier
Districts, and that most units had no radio back-up facilities.
How did Churchill’s attitudes
over the Baltic States evolve over time? Anthony Read’s and David Fisher’s Deadly
Embrace contains an indication of Churchill’s early opinions cited from the
latter’s Gathering Storm: “The British people . . . have a right, in conjunction with the
French Republic, to call upon Poland not to place obstacles in the way of a
common cause. Not only must the full co-operation of Russia be accepted, but
the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, must also be brought
into the association . . There is no means of maintaining an eastern
front against Nazi aggression without the active aid of Russia. Russian
interests are deeply concerned in preventing Herr Hitler’s designs on Eastern
Europe.” Yet that was said in April 1939, well before the pact was signed.
Churchill at that time was surely not considering that the Baltic States had to
be occupied by the Soviet Union in order to provide a bulwark against
the Germans. In any case, the States (and Poland) were more in fear of the
Bolsheviks than they were of the Nazis.
I turned to Robert
Rhodes James’s edition of his speeches, Churchill Speaks 1897-1963, and
was rather astonished by what I found. On October 1, 1939, after war had been
declared, and after the dismemberment of Poland, Churchill referred to
‘Russia’s’ interests without referring to the fate of the Baltic States. “What
is the second event of this first month? It is, of course, the assertion of the
power of Russia. Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest. We could
have wished that the Russian armies should be standing on their present line as
the friends and allies of Poland instead of as invaders. But that the Russian
armies should stand on the line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia
against the Nazi menace.” A highly inflammatory and cynical opinion expressed
by the future Prime Minister, who quickly turned his attention to the Balkans
in his ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ oration.
A few months later,
Churchill picked up his analysis with commentary on the Finnish war, where the
Soviet invasion (part of the exercise to create a buffer zone between Leningrad
and hostile forces) had provoked a robust reaction in Britain, and even calls
to send troops to help the Finns. Again, Churchill evinced more rhetoric than
substance. “Only Finland – superb, nay sublime – in the jaws of peril – Finland
shows what fine men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is
magnificent. They have exposed, for all to see, the military incapacity of the
Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been
dispelled in these fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Everyone can
see how Communism rots the soul of a nation: how it makes it abject and hungry
in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war. We cannot tell what the
fate of Finland may be, but no more mournful spectacle could be presented to
what is left to civilized mankind than this splendid Northern race should be at
last worn down and reduced to servitude by the dull brutish force of
overwhelming numbers.” Well, it surely did not take the invasion of Finland to
show how a nation subjugated by Communism could be ruined, as the famines of
the Ukraine and Stalin’s Gulag had showed.
On March 30, 1940,
Churchill was again critical of the two totalitarian states. “What a frightful
fate has overtaken Poland! Here was a community of nearly thirty-five millions
of people, with all the organization of a modern government, and all the traditions
of an ancient state, which in a few weeks was dashed out of civilized existence
to become an incoherent multitude of tortured and starving men, women and
children, ground beneath the heel of two rival forms of withering and blasting
tyranny.” Indeed, sir. Yet Churchill could be remarkably selective in
identifying the places suffering under extremist cruelty: Britain was at war
with Germany, not with the Soviet Union, and he would come to soften his
criticism of Stalin’s variety of tyranny.
For the year after his
appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill was concentrated primarily on the war
in western Europe, and the threats of invasion, and his speeches reflect those
concerns. All that time, however, he was welcoming the time when the Soviet
Union would be forced to join the Allies. In February, 1941, he reminded his
audience that Hitler was already at the Black Sea, and that he ‘might tear
great provinces out of Russia.’ In April, he said that the war ‘may spread
eastward to Turkey and Russia’, and that ‘the Huns may lay their hands for a
time upon the granaries of the Ukraine and the oil-wells of the Caucasus.” By
this time he was warning Stalin of the coming German invasion, advice that the dictator
chose to ignore.
When the invasion
occurred, Churchill immediately declared his support for the Soviet Union. This
was the occasion (June 22, 1941) when he professed that ‘no one has been a more
consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the past twenty-five years’.
But then he dipped into his most sentimental and cloying prose: “I see the
Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the
fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial. [Actually, not.
Millions of peasants had been killed and persecuted by Stalin, whether by
famine or deportation. Their fields had been disastrously collectivised.] I
see them guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray – ah yes, for there
are times when all pray – for the safety of their loved ones, the return of
their bread-winner, of their champion, of their protector. I see the ten
thousand villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly
from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens
laugh and children play.”
This is all romantic tosh,
of course. Stalin had so monstrously oppressed his own citizens and those in
the countries he invaded that the Nazis, from Estonia to Ukraine, were initially
welcomed as liberators by thousands who had seen family members shot or
incarcerated, simply because they were bourgeois or ‘rich peasants’, who had
seen their churches destroyed and their faith oppressed, and who had
experienced their independent livelihood being crushed. As Christopher Bellamy
writes, in the Oxford Companion to Military History. “The next biggest
contribution [to Soviet victory] was made by Hitler, who failed to recognize
the importance of the fact that his armies were initially greeted as liberators
in Belorussia and the Ukraine.” Some maidens did indeed start laughing when the
Germans arrived, as Georgio Geddes’s extraordinary account of Ukraine in 1941
to 1943, Nichivó: Life, Love and Death on the Russian Front, informs us.
Moorhouse and others
have written of the dreadful purges and deportations that took place after the
Soviets invaded the Baltic States, and the portion of Poland awarded to it
through the Pact. From The Devils’ Alliance, again: “In the former Polish eastern regions, annexed
by Stalin in 1939, at least 40,000 prisoners – Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorusians,
and Jews – were confined in overcrowded NKVD prisons by June 1941. As
elsewhere, some were released or evacuated, but around half would not survive.
The worst massacres were in L’vov, where around 3,500 prisoners were killed
across three prison sites, and at Lutsk (the former Polish Ĺuck), where 2,000
were murdered. But almost every NKVD prison or outpost saw a similar action –
from Sambor (600 killed) to Czortkov (Czortków) (890), from Tarnopol (574) to
Dubno (550).” Moorhouse continues: “Latvia had scarcely any history of
anti-Semitism prior to the trauma of 1939 to 1941; it had even been a
destination for some Jews fleeing the Third Reich, including Russian-born
scholar Simon Dubnow. Yet, in 1941 and beyond, it became the scene – like its
Baltic neighbors – of some of the most hideous atrocities, in which local
units, such as the infamous Arajs Kommando, played a significant role. It seems
that the Soviet occupation – with its informers, collaborators, denunciators,
and persecutions – had so poisoned already fragile community relations that,
even without Nazi encouragement, some sort of bloody reckoning became
These facts were all revealed with the benefit
of hindsight, and access to archives. I need to inspect diplomatic and
intelligence reports to determine exactly how much Churchill knew of these
atrocities at the time. After all, the deportation and execution of thousands
of Polish ‘class enemies’ was concealed from Western eyes, and the Katyn
massacre of April-May 1940 remained a secret until April 1943, to the extent
that Stalin claimed that the Germans were responsible. By then, his British and
American allies were too craven to challenge him, even though they knew the
truth. Yet Churchill’s previous comments showed he was under no illusions about
Soviet persecution of even nominal opposition. If ‘communism rots the soul of a
nation’, it presumably rotted the Baltic States, too.
I started this exercise
in the belief that I would be uncovering further mendacity by Maisky, and soon reached
the stage where I was astonished at Churchill’s obsequious response to Stalin.
Stalin laid a trap for Churchill, and he walked right into it. One cannot
ascribe his appeasement of Stalin solely to his desire to encourage the Soviet
leader to continue the fight against Hitler, and his need to rally the British
public behind a regime that he had condemned for so long. Churchill acted meanly,
impulsively, and independently. In his recent biography of Churchill, Andrew
Roberts writes: “Churchill announced this full-scale
alliance with Soviet Russia after minimal consultation with his colleagues.
Even Eden had precious little input into the decision. Nor had he consulted the
Russians themselves. Over dinner at Chequers that evening Eden and Cranborne
argued from the Tory point of view that the alliance ‘should be confined to the
pure military aspect, as politically Russia was as bad as Germany and half the
country would object to being associated with her too closely’. Yet Churchill’s
view ‘was that Russia was now at war; innocent peasants were being slaughtered;
and that we should forget about Soviet systems or the Comintern and extend our
hand to fellow human beings in distress’. Colville recalled that this argument
‘was extremely vehement’.” He does not mention whether anyone brought up the
fact that Stalin himself was responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants
in his own homeland.
Churchill showed as much disdain for the fate of the Baltic States as
Chamberlain had done over the rape of Czechoslovakia. I believe that it is a
topic that cries out for re-assessment. Churchill certainly did not know the
extent of the disaster in the Soviet Union’s defences in July 1941, but,
knowing so little, he did not need to go overboard in agreeing with Stalin’s
claims. We thus have to face the possibilities: either a) Churchill knew all
along about the cruelty of Soviet oppression in the areas between the Stalin
Line and the Molotov Line, and chose to suppress them in his desire to rally
Stalin to the cause of fighting Hitler, or b) he had managed to remain ignorant
of what persecutions were occurring in these buffer states, sandwiched between
the infernal machines of Nazism and Bolshevism. And, whichever explanation is
correct, he omitted to explain why he, a military man, believed that the Soviet
Union had managed to contain better the onslaught of the Nazi war machine by choosing
to defend remote boundaries created in a campaign of aggression.
is hard to accept the second thesis. The famous cartoon by Low, published in Punch
in September 1939, where Hitler and Stalin rendezvous over dead bodies, with
Hitler saying ‘The scum of the earth, I believe?’, and Stalin responding ‘The
bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?’, reflected well the mood and
knowledge of the times. In the USA, Sumner Welles was much more hard-nosed
about the menace represented by the Soviets. As the excellent Moorhouse again
writes: “Nonetheless, in British government circles the
idea of de facto recognition of the annexations was soon floated as a
possible sop to bring Stalin onside. The American reaction was more principled.
Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles issued a formal statement – the Welles
Declaration – condemning Soviet Aggression and refusing to recognize the
legitimacy of Soviet control in the region, citing ‘the rule of reason, of
justice and of law,’ without which, he said, ‘civilization itself cannot be
preserved.’ In private he was even more forthright, and when the Soviet
ambassador, Konstantin Oumansky, opined that the United States should applaud
Soviet action in the Baltic, as it meant that the Baltic peoples could enjoy
‘the blessings of liberal and social government,’ his response was withering.
‘The US government,’ Welles explained, ‘sees no difference in principle between
the Russian domination of the Baltic peoples and the occupation by Germany of
other small European nations.’”
The research will continue. I believe an opportunity for re-interpretation has been missed, contrary to Gorodetsky’s bubbly endorsement. (And I have read only one chapter of The Kremlin Letters so far. What fresh questions will it provoke?) Can any reader out there point me to a book that carefully dissects the implications of the defence against Barbarossa from the Molotov line, and maybe a study of virtual history that imagines what would have happened had Stalin been able to restrain himself from moving his defensive line westwards? Did Basil Liddell Hart ever write about it? In the meantime, I echo what I wrote about the Appeasement of Stalin a few months ago (see coldspurappeasement), except that I admit that I may have been too generous to Churchill in that piece. What was really going on in his mind, apart from the sentimentality, and the desire to capture some moving sentences in his oratory? It seems to me that Hitler inveigled Stalin into exposing his armies where they would be more vulnerable to his attack, that Stalin hoodwinked Churchill into making a calamitous and unnecessary compliment to Stalin’s generalship, and that Churchill let down the Baltic States by mismanaging Stalin’s expectations.
The last point to be made is to draw parallels with these times. The question of borders is all very poignant in view of current geopolitics. NATO was designed to provide concerted defence against westward extensions of the Soviet Empire. When communism died, NATO’s mission became questionable. Then Putin annexed the Crimea, supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, and this month forged a tight embrace with Belarus. Largely because of the reoccupation by the Soviet Empire after World War II, both Estonia and Latvia have 25% Russian ethnicity. Could Putin, in his desire to ‘make Russia great again’, possibly have designs on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?
I wish all coldspur readers the compliments of the season. I leave for two weeks in Los Altos, CA on December 17.
The New York Times chose to present the following as its leading letter in the Book Review dated August 4, 2019:
her review of Tim Bouverie’s ‘Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and
the Road to War’ (July 20), Lynne Olson gives a number of reasons for what
happened at the Munich conference, among them Chamberlain’s ignorance of
foreign policy. However, she omits an underlying motive for that sordid
episode, namely anti-Communism.
the 1930s, Conservative political opinion in Britain mostly saw Nazi Germany as
a buffer against Marxism. Such views played as much of a role in ‘appeasement’
as did Chamberlain’s limitations and naivete. That anticommunism was a key
component of European fascism, alas, is a truth that has been long forgotten.”
H. Bell-Villada, Williamstown, Mass.: August 2, 2019)
is the message the letter-writer is trying to leave us? It was not immediately
clear (to me), and the text thus needs to be parsed carefully. ‘Alas’: that
suggests regret, regret that some unnamed persons have forgotten that
‘anticommunism was a key component of European fascism’. Well, that may not be
correct, in two senses. It may not be correct that the ‘truth’ has been
forgotten (by whom?), but it is also possible that the ‘truth’ itself is
debatable. Hitler’s brand of fascism, according to most accounts, singled out
the communists as the prime threat to his ambitions for nationalist vigour, and
he persecuted them immediately he gained power in 1933. On the other hand,
Mussolini’s brand of European fascism evolved from socialist roots. One might
conclude, however, from the way Stalin propagandized antifascism in the 1930s,
that antifascism was a more vibrant component of communism than the other way around.
After all, countless deluded intellectuals ran to his banner in the belief that
only communism could resist fascism. That all changed, of course, in August
1939, when Stalin decided to change the rules.
contention is thus not without its sceptics. I read in this September’s History
Today that Brendan Simms has just published a book, Hitler: Only the
World Was Enough, in which he claims that Hitler has been misunderstood as
a ‘far-right’ anti-communist. The reviewer Nigel Jones wrote that “Simms argues
forcefully that his primary motivation was fear that Germany would be crushed
by the Anglo-Saxon capitalism epitomised by the US and the British Empire.” (Please
check it out, Mr. Bell-Villada.) Moreover, many years ago, A. J. P. Taylor
remarked that Hitler’s anti-communism was soon dampened after his assumption of
power, being replaced by antisemitism. Perhaps the mutual loathing disappeared when
Hitler and Stalin realised that they had more in common with each other than
their ideologies superficially suggested: despite his rallying-calls to
anti-fascists, Stalin was a secret admirer of Hitler’s tactics for increasing
power. Or, more probably, Hitler’s anti-communism weakened because all the
active communists in Germany had either been murdered, or had fled the country.
Quite simply, Hitler and Stalin both wanted to obliterate everyone who
disagreed with them, or did not declare loyalty to them, or simply who did not
fit in their perverse sociological tribes.
the author seems to be suggesting two further ideas. The first is the subtle
insinuation that ‘anti-communism’ is the nadir of political depravity, and
that, by expressing opposition to communism, Chamberlain and his team were
essentially fascists themselves, and had more in common with Hitler than the
history-books have shown. Apart from the illogical and careless temporal
connection that Bell-Villada makes between the 1930s and Chamberlain
(Chamberlain did not become Prime Minister until May 1937), the assertion is
absurd. While there were certainly many fascist sympathisers in government
during the late 1930s, the Conservative Party was defending a pluralist liberal
democracy against the pressures of the two totalitarian adversaries. It was a
flawed democracy, no doubt, with too much of an aristocratic influence,
unsuitable delusions about the Empire, and an inherent disregard for equality
of opportunity, but it was as good as any of the time, and capable of
evolution. It was worth defending. The expression of both anti-fascist and
anti-communist sentiments was a healthy and necessary part of the political
second suggestion is that the failure of British political opinion to
sympathise with communism, and thus form a speedy alliance with Stalin, was one
of the main reasons why Hitler was allowed to pursue his imperial ambitions
unchecked. I believe the writer here discloses a colossal naivety about the
Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was a vast prison-camp, where Stalin had been
responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens in the name of Leninism-Marxism
and the Communist Experiment. The historian Richard Evans, in his recent
Gresham’s College Provost lecture, pointed out that the German middle classes,
before Hitler established his one-party state in July 1933, were ‘terrified of
communism, whose supporters had put 100 deputies into the Reichstag in November
1932’. They were therefore much more familiar than their British equivalents
were with what had happened to the bourgeoise in Russia. Fear of communism was
clearly not a specifically fascist characteristic, even in Germany.
would thus have been absurd for Great Britain and France to pretend that they
had goals in common with Stalin for the setting up of some stable political
order in Europe at a time even before the horrors of Hitler’s own programmes of
mass murder had been initiated, and it would have been impossible to sell such
ideas to the British electorate, or even to the nation’s allies in eastern
Europe. As one historian. Larry Fuchser, has written: “To Chamberlain, reaching
agreement with the dictators [Hitler and Mussolini] was a supremely important
goal in its own right, and he did not need the additional ideological factor of
Germany as a bulwark against communism to convince him that such agreements
would be worthwhile.” Chamberlain’s policy was desperately naïve – to satisfy
any demand of Hitler’s in order to avert war. But Hitler’s hatred of communism
had nothing to do with it.
A common theme in historical writing, however, is that, if Britain had adopted serious talks with the Soviet Union, Germany might have been encircled and intimidated, and the Third Reich quashed before war broke out. Indeed, some Russian and Western historians even today lament the failure of the Western powers to have sent a serious negotiating team to Moscow in the summer of 1939: this is a prominent theme of Bouverie’s. Yet Chamberlain rightly detested Stalin and Communism, and found it impossible to consider personal parleys with the Soviet leader. And when the Soviet Union wanted a guarantee from Poland to provide a path for its army to pass through in the event of hostilities, it did not approach Poland for permission, but requested Britain and France to intervene! The fact was that Poland’s government feared Stalin more than it feared Hitler, and would have nothing to do with any accommodation with the Communists. Had Britain come to some agreement with the Soviet Union, would it have had to connive at Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic States and Poland? Such a pact would have meant the replacement of the appeasement of Hitler by a similar grovelling position towards Stalin. As George Orwell later wrote: “. . . all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.” (London Letter to Partisan Review, April 17, 1944)
any case, what happened next blows a hole in Mr. Bell-Villada’s thesis. In
August 1939 the determined anti-fascists and the resolute anti-communists got
together to sign a non-aggression pact, and the Soviet Union started providing
matériel to help Hitler wage his war against the West, including, of course,
the Battle of Britain. The conflict joined was now a battle against
imperialism, not fascism. Alas, the truth that Molotov and Ribbentrop came together
to sign a pact that immediately turned the remnants of a Popular Front into a
Highly Unpopular Devils’ Alliance has long been forgotten by many eager
what was the Times Book Editor thinking? I suspect he (or she) didn’t
really take it all in: the apparent message rang a bell in his head that
Communism would have defeated Fascism, and that war would have been averted,
and Europe would have been a better place for it if only the West had reached
out to Stalin. The vague regret about the implosion of communism that imbues
the Times editors must have overtaken him. That is a common opinion of
the American Leftist intelligentsia. After all, this is the newspaper that
instructs its journalists to report the catastrophe of Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship
in Venezuela as his ‘mismanagement of the economy’, carefully avoiding the
‘S-word’ of ‘socialism’ (which might turn out to embarrass Bernie Sanders), as
if the moustachioed Marxist caudillo were merely an incompetent version
of John Major.
it does not appear that Mr. Bell-Villada has even read the book. He is allowed
to assume that Lynne Olson’s review offers a comprehensive summary of
Bouverie’s account. The nature of Mr. Bell-Villada’s credentials for offering
an opinion on this matter is not clear, however: he offers a suitable
Massachusetts address, but his Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘an American literary critic, novelist,
translator and memoirist, with strong interests in Latin American Writing, Modernism, and magic Realism’. Bell-Villada (the entry goes on to say)
has been a professor at the private liberal arts Williams College since 1975.
No apparent degree in modern history is evident in his curriculum vitae,
although he does hold a mysterious doctorate from Harvard.
It happened that I had read both Lynne Olson’s
review and Bouverie’s book. Bell-Villada is correct about Olson: the Soviet
Union and Communism get nary a mention in her review. Yet Bouverie is hardly
expansive in his coverage either. He repeatedly refers to Chamberlain’s
‘distrust’ of the Russians, but discusses the antipathy for Bolshevism in
mainly impersonal terms: “ . . . the western Powers needed to reach an
understanding with Soviet Russia, a nation widely distrusted and against which
Nazi Germany had originally been conceived as a bulwark.” (p 334). (Note the
evasive passive voice.) Yet, on the following page, Bouverie undermines the
nature of what such an ‘understanding’ might have taken, referring to events as
late as April 1939: “The Foreign Policy Committee could see no advantages in an
alliance with Russia – on the contrary, such a move was likely to perturb
allies in eastern Europe – and, although Chamberlain had assured the Labour
leadership that he had ‘no ideological objection to an agreement with Russia,’
he admitted privately to being deeply suspicious of her.”
‘No ideological objection’? ‘Suspicious?’, when
the state that Lenin founded was pursuing the extermination of capitalists like
him? This shows another gutless aspect of Chamberlain, who believed that
dictators could be transformed to behave like English gentlemen. Was he more
suspicious of Stalin than he was of Hitler? In that case, why not respond more
robustly? Neville Chamberlain was not known for his intellectual stature, but
that sounds more like a move to ‘appease’, or reconcile with, his Parliamentary
opposition rather than the reflection of any political principles. Nevertheless,
if Chamberlain had been prepared to discard Czechoslovakia because of ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of
whom we know nothing’, he would have been unlikely to want to establish an
association with the even more mysterious and inscrutable Russians, and explain
it to his electorate. If he had found it difficult to find a common level of
discourse with Hitler, and had been betrayed by him, it would have been an even
worse struggle with Stalin. Chamberlain was out of his depth. If he and Stalin
had abandoned parleys, and resorted to an arm-wrestling match, I would have
instantly put my money on the Gremlin from the Kremlin rather than on the
offers only a very superficial analysis of Britain’s relationship with the
Soviet Union, in an Epilogue titled ‘Guilty Men’. But he gives a hint to where his unsubstantiated opinion resides, in a
paragraph that might put some air behind Bell-Villada’s sails (p 415): “The
failure to perceive the true character of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler
stands as the single greatest failure of British policy makers during this
period, since it was from this that all subsequent failure – the failure to
rearm sufficiently, the failure to build alliances (not least with the Soviet
Union), the failure to project British power, and the failure to educate public
opinion – stemmed. For defenders of appeasement, this is an exercise in
ahistoricism. It was not until after Hitler tore up the Munich Agreement and
marched into Prague, they argue, that he demonstrated his mendacity, while the
full horrors of the Nazi regime only became apparent after the end of the war.”
Bouverie does not substantiate this claim. Does he think that Chamberlain
‘failed to perceive the true nature of the Soviet regime’, as well? He
does not say. Bouverie cites three paragraphs from Sir Warren Fisher’s ‘damning
survey’ of British foreign policy, delivered in 1948, but Fisher omitted the
Soviet Union in his castigation of the failure of ‘the British Empire, the
United States and France’ to face the facts in unison. Earlier, Bouverie explained
that the Chiefs of Staff had made an about-turn about the role of the Soviet
Union when Molotov replaced Litvinov as Foreign Minister, and feared a
rapprochement between the Germans and the Soviets, and that such arguments
swayed Halifax and most of the Cabinet into responding to Soviet overtures. Yet
this was probably too late, and largely a bluff. In a well-written book on
Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement by Larry Williams
Fuchser (a 1982 volume strangely missing from Bouverie’s bibliography), the
author shows his opinion of how unimportant negotiations with the Soviet Union
were. He spends only two brief sentences on the topic. Fuchser indicates that
it was the pliable Halifax, at the bidding of Cadogan and the Foreign Office,
who pushed for this approach, but then enigmatically adds: “Chamberlain was
forced into these negotiations quite against his will, and it is clear that in
this respect at least, he had lost control over British foreign policy.”
does not make complete sense, however, as the remainder of Fuchser’s thesis is
that Chamberlain maintained tight control over a sycophantic inner Cabinet, a
compliant Foreign Policy Committee, and a loyal party apparatus. Thus we have
to return to Chamberlain’s sudden lack of resolve: if he was not able to stand
up to his Labour opposition, the Foreign Office, and his Chiefs of Staff, what
hope did he have of standing up to Hitler or Stalin? Why did he simply not veto
any attempt to reach out to the Soviets? It was not as if Halifax was going to
resign in a flash of pique (as if that mattered), as Eden had done. It is true
that Chamberlain felt handicapped by the French, because of her agreements with
the Poles and the Soviet Union, but he was overall prepared to reject the
French implorations. Fuchser and Bouverie both point out that Alexander
Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote in his
diary that Chamberlain ‘would rather resign than sign alliance with Soviet’. ‘Appeasement’ is sometimes domestic
political compromise – and not always a necessary act.
Thus it would have been better to have sent no mission at all rather than the underpowered and underauthorised Slow Boat to Leningrad that resulted, and which failed to impress Voroshilov and company. That misguided venture encourages Bouverie, however, to make his dubious conclusion: “Unlike his successor, he [Chamberlain] treated the United States with frigid disdain, while his failure to secure a deal with the Soviet Union stands out as among the greatest blunders in that calamitous decade.” But it wasn’t ‘failure’: Chamberlain was never serious. And what kind of a deal with the unscrupulous Stalin would have made sense? The independence of the Baltic States was a major bone of contention. And what would happen if Stalin had still invaded Finland, for instance? Again, Bouverie does not explain.
of the historians with whom I am familiar is A. J. P. Taylor. Taylor studied this
period in his much-cited 1961 work, The Origins of the Second World War.
This is a book that needs to be used cautiously, however, since Taylor
notoriously came up with some bizarre and controversial judgments. For example,
he presented some equivocal and provocative opinions, such as: “The blame for
war can be put on Hitler’s Nihilism instead of on the faults and failures of
European statesmen – faults and failures which their public shared. Human
blunders, however, usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.”
Such vague attributions of guilt and responsibility are highly dubious and
unconvincing. In addition, Taylor could be infuriating when he made lofty
generalisations about ‘the British’ and their assumed intentions, when in the
next sentence he would analyse the differences of opinion that existed in
various politicians and diplomats, and which thus contributed to indecision.
(Taylor deployed too much use of the passive voice for my liking.)
Taylor could provide trenchant and pithy insights as well, worthy of essay-type
‘Discussions’. “Both sides wanted
agreement, but not the same agreement. The British wanted a moral demonstration
which would enable them to reach a settlement with Hitler on more favourable
terms. The Russians wanted a precise military alliance for mutual assistance,
which would either deter Hitler, or secure his defeat”, he wrote, in the
relevant Chapter Ten of Origins. And his conclusion to this chapter ran
as follows: “Alliances are worth while when they put into words a real
community of interests; otherwise they lead only to confusion and disaster, as
the French alliances did. It was inconceivable, in the circumstances of 1939,
that the British should commit themselves, irretrievably and decisively, in
favour of Soviet Russia as against Germany; and equally inconceivable that the
Russians should commit themselves to defence of the status quo.” That
judgment is sound and clear, notably so, given Taylor’s own communist
in 1965, in English History 1914-1945, Taylor gave a more guarded explanation
of what happened. He suggested that the Soviet Union made demands for
reciprocity in its approaches to France and Germany, and that Chamberlain
dithered, not only because of distaste of communism, but owing to the pressure
of public opinion, and the appeals of such as Lloyd George – a now familiar
refrain. In addition, Taylor raised the important spectre of the Soviet Union’s
invading Poland and the Baltic States under the mantle of an agreement with the
democracies, which would have been a bitter pill for Chamberlain to have
swallowed and explained to his constituents. Taylor significantly repeated his
earlier conclusion that the Soviet Union was as unenthusiastic about an
alliance with the United Kingdom and France as the latter were themselves.
has historical research advanced in the past fifty years? The theme of a missed
opportunity has been picked up since by many other historians, some of whom
have had access to Russian archives. For instance, in 1999, Michael Jabara
Carley wrote 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War
II (a work apparently uninspected by Bouverie) and in 2018 followed up with
a paper in International History Review titled Fiasco: The
Anglo-Franco-Soviet Agreement That Never Was, and the Unpublished British White
Paper, 1939-1940, The latter explores these events in great depth, and
points to rifts between France and Britain in the response to the Soviet
approach, and describes a White Paper on the failed negotiations that was suppressed
Carley’s work is representative of the fashionable academic left (including, no
doubt, Mr. Bell-Villada), emphasizing the themes of ‘co-operation’ with the
Soviet Union, attributing the distaste for communism to Britain’s ‘elites’, and
ignoring the fact of how unreliable a signer to an agreement Stalin would have
been. Chamberlain and other
conservatives are classified as ‘hard-core Sovietophobes’, as if their distaste
were a dire medical condition rather than a serious and justified ideological opposition.
Carley supposes the existence of Soviet ‘views’ towards Britain and France, as
if the country had vigorous parliamentary debates, a free press, and public
opinion polls. He appears to think that Soviet military ‘assistance’ to
adjoining countries from the Black Sea to the Baltic would have been welcomed,
and somehow beneficial. He reports that the Soviet Union had one hundred
divisions to deploy, while Britain and France had only two, but treats
seriously Stalin’s suggestion that he did not want be ‘left in the lurch to face
Nazi Germany alone’. Carley is far more trusting of Stalin’s objectives in a
military alliance than he is of Chamberlain’s justified scepticism about it.
Stalin’s replacement of Litvinov (a Jew) by Molotov at the end of April is
attributed to British ‘stalling’ to Stalin’s offer of a couple of weeks before
rather than interpreted as a signal that Stalin meant at that point to do
business with the Germans (as has been pointed out by other historians). He
says nothing about Stalin’s access to Britain’s diplomatic thinking by virtue
of spies in the Foreign Office (notably John Herbert King). In summary, according
to Carley, the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was all Chamberlain’s
If this is the current state of research on the crisis of the late 1930s, it is highly regrettable. The controversy over the missed opportunity would have been a highly profitable avenue for a contemporary historian to pursue, perhaps investigating the counterfactual history that would have evolved if a Soviet-Franco-British alliance had had any teeth. Would they have had to declare war on Germany in September 1939? And, since the retrospective judgment of the Soviet Union is that it signed the pact in order to gain time and rebuild its armed forces, would it really have wanted to engage Germany on foreign soil in 1939? Threatening joint hostilities would surely have not deterred Hitler, or brought Europe to peace. Hitler would not have abandoned his plans for Lebensraum. What would the Poles have done if the Red Army invaded its territory? How would a land assault on Germany by French and British forces have fared? Would Hitler have had to conduct a war on two fronts, or would he have been able to reverse his strategy, fighting the Soviet Union first before invading France and Belgium? Life would still have been made intolerable for millions of innocent civilians from Finland to Bessarabia, and Hitler would certainly not have stayed his hand over Dunkirk when he had the chance to eliminate the British Expeditionary Force. (I expect some military historian has already explored such scenarios.)
summary, Appeasement is a very readable, and imaginatively composed,
book. The author is a fresh-faced young journalist who was educated at my alma
mater, Christ Church, Oxford, gaining a degree in history. He has exploited
a rich range of sources –
works of history, both familiar and obscure, private and public archives,
memoirs, articles and dissertations (though almost exclusively written in
English) to write a fascinating account of a still controversial period in the
nation’s history. Yet debates continue about responsibilities and blame for
what was a very complex challenge in allowing Hitler to advance his plans as he
did, and I do not think Bouverie sheds any fresh light on the matter, and does
not provide support for his conclusions. Despite the extraordinary parade of
puffs from distinguished historians on the back-cover (Kershaw, Frankopan, Moorehead,
Hastings, Macmillan, Beevor and Fraser), I do not regard Appeasement as
a major work of history bringing innovative research to the table. But it prompts
me to inspect now one or two aspects in more detail.
As an example, I quote again from Bouverie’s Epilogue, where he cites several leading figures (e.g. Boothby, Churchill, Warren Fisher) who apparently held the opinion that, with greater diplomatic skills, war could have been averted (p 410). Among these he lists the historian Lewis Namier, who (he says) believed that ‘at several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice’. Well, this sounded to me a point at which a book should begin, not end. I knew of Namier (mainly through my study of Isaiah Berlin), but had not read any of his books. This statement came from Diplomatic Preludes: I thought it might address several questions on my mind, so I obtained the volume from the local university library.
Introduction and Outline of Namier’s book contains the following passage
(which I recorded in my August Commonplace file): “The issue of a crisis depends not so much on its magnitude
as on the courage and resolution with which it is met. The second German bid
for world dominion found Europe weak and divided. At several junctures it could
have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice, but was not: a failure
of European statesmanship. Behind the German drive were passionate forces,
sustained by obsessionist, sadistic hatreds and by a cruel ideology; to these
the Germans, whom defeat had deprived of their routine of life, showed even
more than their usual receptivity, while the rest of Europe had neither the
faith, nor the will, nor even sufficient repugnance, to offer timely, effective
resistance. Some imitated Hitler and hyena-like followed in his track; some
tolerated him, hoping that his advance would reach its term – by saturation,
exhaustion, the resistance of others, or the mere chapter of accidents – before
it attained them; and some, while beholding his handiwork, would praise him
of having ‘restored the self-respect of
the Germans’. Janissaries and appeasers aided Hitler’s work: a failure of
And that’s it. There was nothing else in the
book to back it up – just
these windy, abstract statements about ‘European statesmanship’ and ‘European
morality’. (I do not know what is meant by those entities. History is made by
individual agents contributing to events.) I found the rest of the book, which
describes only the events of 1938 and 1939, practically unreadable, and utterly
useless in illustrating the claims that Namier made in his Introduction. So why
would Bouverie choose to extract such a vague and unsupported assertion to
bolster the rather thin conclusion to his book? Exploring this idea might have
led to something valuable.
Maybe Namier wrote about appeasement in more
depth elsewhere. (Bouverie lists In the Margin of History as a primary
source, but I have not been able to inspect it.). So I dug around. In his essay
on Namier, published in Personal Impressions, Isaiah Berlin gives a
glimpse of how his friend really thought:
“He spoke bitterly about the policy of appeasement. He felt that their sense of reality and their empiricism had evidently deserted the ruling classes in England: not to understand that Hitler meant everything he said – that Mein Kampf was to be taken literally, that Hitler had a plan for a war of conquest – was self-deception worthy of German or Jews. The Cecils were ‘all right’; they understood reality, they stood for what was most characteristic of England. So was Winston Churchill. The men who opposed Zionism were the same as those who were against Churchill and the policy of national resistance – Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times, Chamberlain, Halifax, Toynbee, the officials of the Foreign Office, Archbishop Lang, the bulk of the Conservative Party, most trade unionists. The Cecils, Churchill, true aristocracy, pride, respect for human dignity, traditional virtues, resistance, Zionism, personal grandeur, no-nonsense realism, these were fused into one amalgam in his mind. Pro-Germans and pro-Arabs were one gang.”
This was progress, at least, the recognition
that in a pluralist society, many different standpoints contribute to eventual
policy-making, rather than ascribing causation to the abstraction of ‘European
morality’. Namier identified some of these agents. Yet I found it too
stereotyped: ‘the ruling classes’ – who are they? Why should a hesitation about
the merits of Zionism automatically be assumed to indicate a sympathy for
Hitler? Surely opinions were more complex than this? Indeed, Berlin mentions
that Namier used to harangue ‘pen-pushers of the Foreign Office’ and ‘the
hypocritical idiots of the Colonial Office’ at his club, the Athenaeum, and do
more harm than good by his supplications. And did Namier really understand the
various aspects of what ‘appeasement’ meant?
Interestingly, elsewhere in this essay, Berlin
draws attention to Namier’s failings as a historian. “He believed that objective truth could be discovered, and that he
had found a method of doing so in history; that this method consisted in a sort
of pointillisme, ‘the microscopic method’, the splitting up of
social facts into details of individual lives – atomic entities, the careers of
which could be precisely verified; and that these atoms could then be
integrated into greater wholes. This was the nearest to scientific method that
was attainable in history, and he would adhere to it at whatever cost, in spite
of all criticism, until and unless he became convinced by internal criteria of
its inadequacy, because it had failed to produce results verified by research.”
Berlin then concludes that Namier then integrated his atomic facts ‘with a
marvellous power of imaginative generalisation’, lacking the skills of a
Is ‘imaginative generalisation’ a feature to be admired in
historians? Maybe not so much these days, Sir Isaiah. (Berlin was rather good
at that stuff himself, as was Taylor.) As another example of Namier’s
shortcomings, in his memoir Bird of Passage, Rudolf Peierls reinforced
the impression that Namier gave of theatrical vagueness when he wrote: “He was very fond of saying ‘we’. And you had
to be very alert in following the course of the conversation to know whether at
the given point this meant the University of Manchester, All Souls College,
Oxford, the Jews, the Foreign Office, or Poland.” Such ways of thinking do not
lead to historical precision. I do not believe Namier is a productive and reliable
source. But very shrewd on Peierls’ part.
An Alternative Approach
My first exposure, therefore, to one of Bouverie’s influences was not positive. Moreover, I think Bouverie overlooks the fact that ‘appeasement’ (like ‘remembrance’, which can mean both ‘recalling from experience’ and ‘commemoration’) carried two clear meanings in the 1930s – ‘pacification’, and later ‘conciliation’. (This is a point that David Dilks made: “The word in its normal meaning connotes the pacific settlement of disputes; in the meaning usually applied to the period of Neville Chamberlain’s premiership, it has come to indicate something sinister, the granting from fear or cowardice of unwarranted concessions in order to buy temporary peace at someone else’s expense.”) The ambivalence is shown in the fact that the book, titled Appeasing Hitler in the UK (which does not do justice to the policy as pursued), was re-titled Appeasement in the USA (when it is not a study of appeasement in general), with an odd subtitle (Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War) that suggests that Churchill was party to the process. Thus the fact that much of Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s policy, spurred by their deep desire to avert a repeat of the WWI carnage, was motivated by an honourable desire to bring a stable peace to Europe, and only later sharply criticised as a shabby propitiation of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s demands, is overlooked by Bouverie.
I have read only a handful of the book in
Bouverie’s Bibliography, but, if I were striving for a methodological approach
to the challenge of defining when the policy of appeasement might have taken a
different course (Namier’s ‘junctures’), I would need to bring some structure
to the environment, along two axes. The first would offer a time-line, listing
the critical events by which Hitler’s growing belligerent moves became more
obvious and threatening. The second would attempt to profile the varieties of
opinion that existed in influencers and policy-makers in Britain’s pluralist
society. Indeed, from studying materials such as Bouverie’s, one can track how
the opinions of individual factions did evolve in the light of events on the
historian may have already analysed the period under such a structure, and I
apologise if I have overlooked such a study.)
I would start with Hitler’s accession to power
in 1933 – a grab, but performed with some democratic authority. At that stage,
observers should have sat up to take the Austrian more seriously. Here follow
what I would classify as the main events that western politicians should have
addressed and analysed:
The Publication of Mein Kampf: Hitler’s book was published in Germany in 1925 and 1926, but did not appear in English until 1933, in a heavily abridged version. As Bouverie relates, the Ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, immediately after Hitler’s accession, warned the Foreign Office of the threats inherent in Mein Kampf, but he was largely ignored. Indeed, many politicians did not even read the English version until too late (see ‘Who read Mein Kampf?’)
German Rearmament (1): Brigadier Temperley, who had attended the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1932, pointed out in 1933 that Germany’s development of over a hundred fighter airplanes was in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles.
Withdrawal from the League of Nations: Germany withdrew in October 1933, in protest against its members’ refusal to allow the country to achieve military parity.
The Night of the Long Knives: In June-July 1934, Hitler showed his ruthlessness by purging Ernst Röhm’s Sturmabteilung, seeing it as threat to his own power
The Murder of Dollfuß: Having banned the Austrian Nazi party, Dollfuss, the Chancellor Austria was assassinated in July 1934 by Nazi agents.
German Rearmament (2): On March 16, 1935, Hitler openly announced that Germany would build an airforce, and begin conscription, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Anglo-German Naval Agreement: This agreement was signed on June 18, 1935, and set out to regulate the size of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine in relation to the Royal Navy.
Italian Invasion of Ethiopia: On October 3, 1935, Hitler’s fascist ally Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, showing his imperial ambitions. The inability of the League of Nations to respond emphasised its hollowness.
German Reoccupation of the Rhineland: In violation of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, Hitler’s forces remilitiarised the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, including a considerable swath of land on the right bank.
Fortification of the Western Wall: Soon after the militarisation of the Rhineland, Hitler started a project to fortify the old Siegfried Line.
Aid to Franco in Spanish Civil War: Immediately the war started, in July 1936, Hitler sent in troops, aircraft and material to aid the Nationalist effort.
Hitler’s Assumption of Control of Army: With the sacking of Field Marshal von Blomberg and General von Fritsch in January 1938, Hitler made himself Supreme Commander of the Army.
The Anschluß: On March 12, 1938, Austria was annexed into Germany, a process forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles.
The Expropriation of the Sudetenland: In October 1938, the Sudetenland (a primarily German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that had once been part of Austria) was assigned to Germany.
The Munich Pact: On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain and Daladier signed the pact with Hitler, effectively handing over Czechoslovakia to the Germans.
Kristallnacht: On November 9-10, 1938, The Germans oppressed Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, killing about a hundred Jews throughout Germany.
The Invasion of Czechoslovakia: The Germans invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact: Molotov and Ribbentrop signed a pact of non-aggression on August 23, 1939.
Invasion of Poland: The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, thus triggering a declaration of war by Britain.
Extermination of Jews: On December 16, 1939, The Times made its first report on the mass execution of Jews, in Lublin.
the profiles of political figures. One must remember that the United Kingdom,
in trying to forge policy, had to consider the opinions of the leaders of its
Dominions, as well as those of its allies in Europe. In addition, Roosevelt
started to poke in his oar at the beginning of 1938. I shall restrict myself here to the spectrum
of opinion within Britain itself. I
would classify it as follows, with examples of the main adherents:
Complete agreement with Nazi policies (Mosley; Londonderry)
Sympathy for fascism, but essentially patriotic (Dawson)
Universal Christian pacifism (Lansbury)
Pious abdication of leadership (Baldwin)
Labour distaste for Nazi policies, but essentially pacifist
Liberal admiration for Hitler’s reconstruction of Germany, but
opportunistic and hypocritical over the Soviet Union (Lloyd George)
Labour distaste for totalitarianism, and stressing rearmament
Tory disdain for Hitlerism, sympathy to German grievances, but
confident it can be stopped via good will (Chamberlain)
Vague impressionable Tory piety (Halifax)
Realistic abhorrence of Hitlerism (and Communism), and urging
Distaste for Hitlerism, and unwilling to negotiate with dictators
Belief in Communism as only valid anti-fascist force (Pollitt)
This segmentation is
necessarily simplistic, but serves to show how fragmented political opinion
was. (I hope it carries enough ‘imaginative generalisation’ to satisfy
Berlinian requirements. It may attribute a depth of political thinking to such
flabby figures as Halifax and Eden that they perhaps do not merit.) Moreover, opinions
evolved. Attlee became more militaristic after the Sudetenland episode; Lord
Londonderry, a diehard fascist supporter, was revolted by Kristallnacht;
Chamberlain had to swallow his previous idealistic notions after the Munich
agreement was shown to be empty; Lloyd George suddenly switched his
affiliations to Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and made personal
remonstrations to Chamberlain about an agreement with the Soviet Union, as did
Churchill, supported by Vansittart; all but Halifax and the diehard corps of
the Conservative Party rallied to Chamberlain after war was declared; several
prominent Communists (such as Goronwy Rees) abandoned the Party when the
Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed; Mosley was interned, but renounced support
for Hitler when he understood the nature of Hitler’s aggression; Churchill
remarkably overlooked his hatred of Communism when Germany invaded the Soviet
Union. What should also be remembered, however, is that before the war
Chamberlain used his authority to apply great pressure on the media to support
his policy of trying to contain Hitler, which helped to stifle any oppositionist
communications to the mases.
Nevertheless, one can
accept that, at a certain stage, opinion might have consolidated around a
strategy of deterrence of Hitler, of sending him a message that continued
infractions of international treaties would not be tolerated, of showing a
degree of force before the dictator had been able to assemble any comparable
military strength of his own, of pointing out to the German people that a
resurgence of imperial aggression across Europe would not be tolerated. For
Hitler was a bully: and bullies will continue to flex their muscles until they
meet resistance. Indeed, they will interpret a failure to resist as a sign of
weakness, and an encouragement of the policies that brought them to where they
I would select the remilitarisation
of the Rhineland as the critical event that should have turned the tables.
Hitler had been given enough benefit of the doubt by then, and the seriousness
of his aggressive ambitions was clear. This was a territorial push, the first
implementation of his objectives for Lebensraum. Yet Hitler’s military
strength was poor: he had not yet built a competent and extensive army. The
French forces were larger and stronger. Hitler did not yet have access to the
munitions factories of Czechoslovakia. And when the French army moved, Hitler
blinked. Repulsing this German incursion would not necessarily have meant war. Yet
nothing happened. The entry of Hitler’s troops into the Rhineland, and the
failure of France and Britain to take action, removed the last obstacle to the
defence of the west. The Treaty of Locarno in 1925 had committed Britain,
France (and Italy) to guaranteeing the Franco-German border against ‘flagrant
violations’. It is difficult to imagine what could constitute a more flagrant
violation than this move of Hitler’s. William Shirer was one journalist who at
the time recognized the pivotal chance that had been allowed to escape.
As Bouverie explains,
the Rhineland exploit had not come as a surprise. The instincts of the newly
appointed Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, were to honour the Locarno Treaty
arrangements, and come to France’s aid if she requested help. But he dithered,
despite hawkish views from such as Vansittart in the Foreign Office, and spoke
against any action by France against Germany. As Bouverie writes: “Despite
stating in a memorandum to the Cabinet on March 8 – the day after the invasion
– that Hitler could no longer be trusted to abide by treaties even when they
had been freely entered into, he nevertheless, and contradictorily, argued that
the Government should use this opportunity ‘as far-reaching and enduring a
settlement as possible whilst Herr Hitler is still in the mood to do so.” (p
Moreover, the public had
not been prepared. Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace
was still an influential book, arguing that the cost of reparations on the
German people was too punitive, and they could not be expected to provide such
wealth in an effective state of slavery. His book was misunderstood, and
criticised at the time. The problem was that politicians such as Chamberlain
and Baldwin were not imaginative enough to recognize that, while the scale of reparations
may have been a mistake, it did not mean that Germany should be allowed to
break other treaty-defined obligations, rearm itself as an aggressive power,
and make incursions into the territories of its neighbours. Such subtleties
were thus lost on the British public: Bouverie records that the Dean of
Chichester believed that ‘the ordinary man almost breathed a sigh of relief
when he heard that Hitler had entered the Zone.’ Hitler gained further
confirmation of the pusillanimity of the British and French.
The crux of the matter
is that Chamberlain has come to be defined by Appeasement, as Eden was by Suez,
and Cameron will be by the Referendum. The man they called the ‘Coroner’ has
borne the brunt of the failed policy. In his tenure as Prime Minster,
Chamberlain tried to impose his will by creating a Cabinet dominated by
sycophants, and undermined those who stood up to him, such as Duff Cooper and
Eden. But at least he had a policy, however misguided it was, unlike Baldwin.
In a recent Literary Review article, Professor Cornwall observed that
Chamberlain ‘believed that a European war should be avoided because Sudeten
German grievances were basically credible’. That may have been so, but the
damage had been done long before. Again, it must be remembered that Chamberlain
did not become Prime Minister until May 1937. The failures went back many
Thus an innovative and
scholarly approach might investigate whether and why Chamberlain was able to
exert such an influence on foreign policy when he held only the office of
Chancellor of the Exchequer. For example, did his control of the purse-strings
allow him to hinder or help the cause for re-armament? A recent book by Lord
Lexden, Redressing the Balance, tries to restore Chamberlain’s
reputation by inspecting the many reforms that he helped implement before the
dire days of Munich for which he is remembered, and even claims that his
delaying tactics actually helped prepare the British Empire for the inevitable
conflict. A fresh inspection of Chamberlain’s influence before he became
Prime Minister, and of his timidity over the Soviet Union in the face of the
War and Foreign Office pressure in the summer of 1939 might have provided a
dramatic new addition to the historical record.
Dealing with Stalin
Moreover, Britain would have had to deal with Stalin eventually. I have recently been reading Vladimir Bukovsky’s penetrating study of the Politburo’s manipulation of western opinion, Judgment in Moscow, which explores how the intellectual dupes of the western democracies were taken in by the siren songs of ‘co-operation’, ‘peace’ and ‘détente’, all designed to be implemented on the Kremlin’s terms. Written over twenty years ago, it has only just been published in English. It is an absolutely indispensable volume to be read by anybody who wants to understand the sham of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’, and the fraudulent behaviour of Gorbachev, leading to the resurgence of kleptocratic communists in the control of Russia. My only regret about this work is that its detailed analysis picks up only around 1970, whereas the propaganda campaign went back to the Second World War. In any case, Bukovsky writes: “Ironically, the architects of Ostpolitik are being touted as heroes and are claiming that the downfall of communism in the East was a product of their ‘delicate’ games with Moscow. This is shameless beyond belief. According to such criteria. Neville Chamberlain could have declared himself the victor in 1945, as peace with Germany was finally reached.”
Of course, poor Chamberlain died in November 1940 of stomach cancer, so did not live to see that irony played out. Yet the analogy is clear – a clear case of post hoc non propter hoc. Bukovsky explains how the shameful policy of détente needlessly prolonged the lives of the communist regimes, and echoed the decades-long practice of the West’s attempts to come to grips with its adversary by taking its implorations for ‘peace’ seriously.
I have written before
about the futility of trying to build a culture of ‘co-operation’ with an
agency whose objectives are in fact to help the tide of history in trying to
destroy you. (See http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/) Yet immediately the
Soviet Union became an ally in the war against Germany, Britain (and then the
United States) had to deal with Stalin’s untrustworthiness, duplicity, and
propagandizing, and her representatives seemed incapable of countering the
Generalissimo’s demands for fear of upsetting him, performing damage to the war
effort, and even possibly pushing him back into Hitler’s arms. (Such
negotiations did in fact happen later, through Switzerland and Sweden, but they
were initiated by the Nazis through third parties when they had effectively seen
the writing on the wall.)
Stalin was ungracious
about Churchill’s offer of material aid (which the nation could not afford) after
Barbarossa, and immediately (July 1941) started making demands for a ‘Second
Front’, ignoring the fact that the British Empire was engaged on several fronts
already. Beaverbrook and Harriman made lavish promises to Stalin in person, in
October 1941. Despite informing Churchill in September that the Soviet Union
was ‘on the point of collapse’, Stalin arrogantly insisted on a statement of
‘war aims’ in November, to which Churchill meekly offered ‘co-operation’. Stalin
threatened Ambassador Clark Kerr that he might seek peace with the Germans if
the Allies did not help him more. He asked for (and received) legitimisation of
the Soviet Union’s extended borders in the Baltics. He made incessant and
offensively-worded demands for the highly dangerous convoy system to be
resumed. He ferociously placed the guilt for the Katyn massacre on to the
Germans: Churchill knew that was a lie, but did nothing. Stalin was insincere
about the exchange of intelligence, demanding much, but revealing little. He
undermined the Polish government-in-exile, and captured their representatives
in Warsaw. To Churchill he expressed ‘shock’ on hearing of the Warsaw uprising,
and his forces stood by. He used his spies in the governments of the United
Kingdom and the United States to undermine his allies’ negotiating tactics over
the future of the central states of Europe shortly to be ‘liberated’ by the
Soviets. He was ruthless over the return of prisoners-of-war to the Soviet
Union. And the Iron Curtain fell.
Indeed, on July 18,
1943, Anthony Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence
Committee, warned that the appeasement of Stalin closely resembled the previous
attitude to Hitler. But by then, it was again too late. British influence was
diminished by then, with the resources of the United States influencing the
outcome of the war. The vain, ingenuous and sickly Roosevelt was calling the
shots, sometimes influenced by his mischievous wife. He undermined Churchill,
believing that he alone knew how to manage Stalin. Shortly before he died in
April 1945, Roosevelt acknowledged that Stalin had betrayed all his Yalta
promises, and that he was not a man he could do business with any longer.
Yet I believe that
Churchill must be held largely responsible. When Barbarossa occurred in June
1941, he immediately sent a message of support to Stalin, without consulting
his Chiefs of Staff. That was fine as a gesture, indicating the shared campaign
against Naziism – which Churchill rightly rated as a direr threat than
Communism at the time. But I wonder, if he had visited the Kremlin soon after,
whether a speech along the following lines might have set expectations a little
straighter without damaging the war effort:
“Marshall Stalin: You
may recall that, on June 22, when ‘the monster of wickedness’ invaded your
country, I stated to the House of Commons that ‘the Nazi regime is
indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism’, and I declared that I,
as the most consistent opponent of Communism for twenty-five years, would unsay
no word that I have spoken about it. Yet I then reached out to the long-suffering
Russian people, and offered them ‘any technical or economic assistance which is
in our power’.
Let me now explain further. We have watched your experiment with
communism with the gravest dismay. We are highly suspicious of its cruel
ideology, and its determination to eradicate the freedoms of western democracy
that we treasure. We have seen how you have murdered your opponents, and
condemned millions to starvation in your fruitless quest to eliminate any
private endeavours in agriculture. You have established a prison-camp of
monstrous dimensions in which to incarcerate those who oppose your regime. We
have observed your purges and show-trials with amazement and disgust, as
apparently loyal members of your political and military administrations have
been condemned to death on the flimsiest of pretexts. We know that you have
infiltrated spies into our offices of government, intent on stealing secrets of
state in order to abet your political cause. We were astonished that, having
chastised the organs of German Fascism, you then made a partnership with the
Devil himself, and then provided war matériel that has helped Hitler wage his
aerial assault on Britain, causing thousands of lives to be lost. We were
shocked by your invasion of innocent Finland, and your enslavement of the
Baltic States, where you have again murdered anyone who might be considered an
opponent of your proletarian dictatorship. We repeatedly warned you of Hitler’s
plans to turn his aggressive impulses away from Western Europe to the Soviet
Union, but you ignored our advice, or treated it as provocation.
Yet, for all this, as Hitler moves his armies across your borders,
we again offer you our moral support, and the few military supplies that we can
spare. Jointly, and with the hoped-for involvement of the United States ere
long, we will force Hitler and his minions into defeat and submission. Yet our
determination to resist the forces of communist tyranny will not fade away
after the deed is done, and we hope that your involvement with us will help
persuade you that your version of socialism is an insult to our common humanity.”
Would that have been over the top, and have been interrupted before Churchill was able to finish? Quite possibly. (Would the interpreter have had the guts to complete the translation?) But Stalin preferred tough talk from military officers to the appeasing noises he received from milquetoast Foreign Office men, and he might have been impressed. At some stage, of course, Churchill would have had to convince Roosevelt of the correctness of his opinions, but at least he would have made the most of his opportunity to tell Stalin what he really thought. Instead, Stalin started to make demands, and intimidate his allies. It is a failing of many democratic political leaders overendowed with vanity that they believe they can ‘do business’ with despots (Chamberlain with Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin, Thatcher with Gorbachev, Trump with Kim). Yet they forget that, while they themselves have to be re-elected, the tyrants endure. And as Vladimir Bukovsky said to Margaret Thatcher: “The difficulty of ‘doing business’ with communists is that they have the disgusting habit of lying while looking you in the face.”
The Organisations: In the UK, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), operating out of Eastcote, in the London suburbs; the Foreign Office (FO), the Security Service (MI5), and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) – all based in Central London. (GCHQ, which during the war, as the Government Code and Cypher School, had reported to SIS, broke free at the end of 1945, and was then responsible to the Foreign Office.) In or around Washington, D.C. in the USA, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA, which in 1952 became the National Security Agency, working out of Arlington Hall), the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The organisations are paired, in function and in primary communications, as follows: GCHQ and AFSA; the FO and the State Department; MI5 and the FBI; and SIS and the CIA.
Edward Travis is head of GCHQ.
The leading cryptanalysts at GCHQ working on VENONA are Wilfred Bodsworth and
The Secretary of State for
Foreign Affairs, the ministerial head of the Foreign Office, Herbert Morrison,
is new to his post, having succeeded the deceased Ernest Bevin in March 1951.
At the FO, William Strang is Permanent Under-Secretary, Roger Makins is his
Deputy Under-Secretary, while Patrick Reilly serves as Assistant Secretary, and
acts as liaison with SIS. Reilly served as Secretary to the head of SIS,
Stewart Menzies, during the war, and has also chaired the Joint Intelligence
Committee since 1950. George Carey-Foster is Security Officer for the FO, while
Robert Mackenzie fulfils an equivalent role in the Embassy in Washington, under
the Ambassador, Oliver Franks. Christopher Steel is Franks’ deputy.
Stewart Menzies, the head of
SIS, is a shadowy figure in the background. His deputy, Valentine Vivian, is
responsible for security in SIS. (According to Nigel West, Vivian retired in
March 1951, but his name appears in the archives as an SIS officer after that
date.) At some stage in this spring, Vivian is replaced as Menzies’s deputy by
Jack Easton. Kim Philby, who was recruited to SIS by Vivian in 1941, was
transferred to Washington in 1949 as SIS’s representative, replacing Peter
Dwyer, primarily to liaise with the CIA on special subversive operations, but with
an additional mission to assist the FBI (but not the CIA) in identifying
possible spies hinted at by the VENONA project. Maurice Oldfield headed the
counter-intelligence section, R.5., for a while, but moved to South-East Asia
Percy Sillitoe has been
Director-General of MI5 since 1946, but gains little respect from his
subordinates because of his police background. His deputy, Guy Liddell,
previously headed B Division, responsible for counter-espionage, which is now
led by Dick White, whom Liddell mentored. (Dick White worked in intelligence
under General Walter Bedell Smith – see below – between 1943 and 1945.) Arthur Martin,
who acts as liaison with GCHQ, and James Robertson are B Division officers
knowledgeable about Soviet espionage. MI5’s Liaison Officer in Washington is
Geoffrey Patterson, who replaced Dick Thistlethwaite in the summer of 1949.
J. Edgar Hoover is chief of
the FBI, Mickey Ladd is his Director of Domestic Investigations, and Robert J.
Lamphere is the agent working with AFSA on the VENONA project. John Cimperman
is the FBI’s legal attaché in London.
Walter Bedell Smith has been Director of the CIA since 1950. He is an ex-army general who has also served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1946-1948). He appointed Allen Dulles as Deputy Director for Plans in February 1951. His leading officer on Soviet counter-espionage is William Harvey. Harvey is unusual in that he joined the CIA from the FBI, and maintains a close relationship with Robert Lamphere. James Angleton (who built a close association with Kim Philby) works at this time in the Office of Special Relations.
Rear-Admiral Earl Stone is the
head of AFSA. Meredith Gardner is his chief cryptanalyst working on VENONA. The
senior British liaison officer at AFSA is Brigadier John Tiltman, at some stage
replaced as SUKLO (Senior UK Liaison Officer) by Patrick Marr-Johnson. (Accessible
records show them both present in Washington in 1951.) Philip Howse and
Geoffrey Sudbury are cryptanalysts from GCHQ assigned to AFSA. William Weisband
is a Soviet spy in AFSA who has worked in Signals Intelligence since 1942.
The Thesis: That Dick White devised a plan to draw
attention away from MI5’s own security failures towards Kim Philby, bringing
the CIA in as an apparently imaginative source to cast aspersions on Philby’s
loyalty without MI5 having to challenge Stewart Menzies and SIS directly.
VENONA – the Background
The Two Gentlemen of VENONA
Keith Jeffery concluded his authorised history of SIS on a celebratory note. In May of 1949, Menzies’s Principal Staff Officer (probably Jack Easton) and William Hayter, who was Foreign Office Liaison Officer, had visited Admiral Hillenkoetter, the head of the CIA, in Washington, and enjoyed the ‘very cordial’ tenor of the negotiations as they discussed Cold War initiatives. At the same time, Maurice Oldfield, who headed the R.5 counter-intelligence section, was gratified by the goodwill he encountered when visiting the CIA and the FBI. Hillenkoetter wrote to Menzies in June to speak glowingly of the organisations’ common purpose, and of the close working relationship they enjoyed. Jeffery pointed to this mutual enthusiasm as indicative of the special nature of the transatlantic intelligence relationship. Oldfield would in 1977 write to William Harvey’s widow that he had enjoyed knowing her husband since 1949, so the two must have met during this visit. Hillenkoetter was, however, a failure, and on the way out, unsuitable by temperament and experience to be a leading intelligence officer.
Maybe Sir John Scarlett, chief of SIS, who commissioned the history, was adroitly trying to define a positive legacy and avoid the more disturbing events. “Full details of our history after 1949 are still too sensitive to place in the public domain,” his successor, Sir John Sawers, wrote in his Forward to the 2011 publication. Indeed. But the lid of the seething cauldron could not be completely sealed. In late September 1949, Oldfield briefed the officer who had occupied the same post that he, Oldfield, currently held, before being posted to Ankara, Turkey at the end of 1946. The officer, Kim Philby, was about to be posted as Counsellor attached to the Embassy in Washington, with responsibility for liaising with the CIA, replacing Peter Dwyer, who, according to Anthony Cave-Brown, was being recalled at his own request. Yet memoirs indicate that Philby was brought in specifically to liaise with the Americans over the joint SIS-CIA operation to infiltrate exiles into Albania in an attempt to overthrow Enver Hoxha’s communist government. For instance, Queen Geraldine of Albania recalls that she and her husband, King Zog, met Philby in 1949, and both instantly ‘hated him’, the King refusing to have the SIS officer in the room with him again. [P.S. Neil ‘Billy’ Maclean, in a separate interview, claimed that Queen Geraldine was mistaken, and that the Englishmen they met was either Harold Perkins, or maybe Julian or Alan Hare, but not Philby.]
Alongside the briefings on Albania, Oldfield explained to Philby that a project that had been able to decrypt intercepted Soviet cables had identified a spy in the heart of the Foreign Office, working in the Washington Embassy in 1944 and 1945, who had passed on highly confidential communications to the Soviets. His cryptonym was HOMER, an identity that Dwyer had noted as early as March 1949 (but which had surfaced some time before, as I explain later). It would be an important part of Philby’s job to help his counterparts apply a name to the traitor who had betrayed these communications between the Foreign Office and the Moscow Embassy, and between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, on negotiations with Stalin as the war was running down. But the mutual trust and confidence that characterised the relations between Washington and London were about to break down.
The project was known as VENONA (initially as BRIDE in
the UK). Its success lent itself to a procedural mistake by the Soviet
authorities, who carelessly reused a set of one-time-pads for diplomatic and
intelligence transmissions during the period 1943-1948. (One-time-pads were
regarded as an almost unbreakable technique for encrypting messages.) These
messages were sent both by cable (in the USA, where commercial carriers
provided a copy of all such traffic to the US Government), or by wireless –
between London and Moscow and between Canberra and Moscow, and later between (primarily)
Washington and Moscow. An intense decryption exercise was initiated by the
AFSA, who then brought in the GC&CS (who may well have had a parallel
operation in play already) as partners in the exercise. One important aspect of
the project is that, while the Soviets changed their procedures in 1948 once
they had learned via spies of the breakthroughs, the task of message decryption
carried on until 1980, and the whole programme was not officially revealed
Yet the process of decryption, namely the timing at which (portions of) certain messages were resolved has not been revealed – apart from the survival of the occasional exchange of messages between cryptanalysts, and the evidence of critical breakthroughs that forced intelligence organisations to take action. This lack of archival evidence has made it very difficult for historians to assess the reactions and intentions of the persons directing the investigation. What is also important to recognize is that the process of translation required a lot of help from political and diplomatic sources, to help identify the source messages stolen by the Soviets, since the original texts were invaluable as ‘cribs’, and the contexts were vital in helping identify the thieves. This was especially true in Australia, where the richness of the cribs meant that traffic was being digested almost in real-time by the beginning of 1948. The search for original texts did, however, run the risk of alerting a broader audience to the highly secret VENONA project itself.
That the group of intelligence officers and Foreign
Office officials stalled in passing on to their own teams and their American
partners their conclusions about VENONA ‘recoveries’ (as the evolving messages
were called) is indisputable. But was such behaviour caused by institutional
embarrassment, or was it guided by high politics? Some analysts have interpreted
such dilatoriness as a pattern of the latter dimension – that it was a
high-level strategy ordered by the British prime minister Attlee to protect a
fragile Anglo-American agreement over the sharing of atomic weapons technology.
Negotiations on resuming the wartime agreement had begun only in September
1949, and, as Aldrich and Cormac inform us in The Black Door, Secretary
of State Dean Acheson had recently explained (maybe insincerely) to the British
Ambassador that Congress would probably be able to roll back the embargo that the
1946 McMahon Act had imposed on any technology-sharing.
Some authors, such as Anthony Cave-Brown, in his
biography of Menzies, “C”, even hint at a ‘double-agent’ game (actually
a misnomer) arranged by Menzies and Hoover (FBI) to use Philby as a medium for
disinformation to the Soviets (with Angleton, of the CIA) – an unlikely
collaboration. Cave-Brown’s case, however, is woolly and muddled, with a
haphazard chronology. The delusion of such endeavours, moreover, lay in
thinking that an intelligence unit could control what an agent handed over to the
target when the unit had not comprehensively ‘turned’ that agent, and did not
manage exclusively his medium of communication. Even if such a dubious
programme had been entertained, the selection of an agent for such deception
when that agent had been indoctrinated into the secret VENONA programme, which
demanded the highest security precautions, would have simply been absurd.
Despite that obvious paradox, the legend lives on. The
prime promoter of such a theory is C. J. Hamrick, who, in his 2004 book Deceiving
the Deceivers, makes a number of claims about the deception that the
British intelligence agencies planted on the public during this exercise. His
book contains many ingenious passages of analysis, offers a remarkably
insightful account of the controversies surrounding the CIA in its initial
years, reflects some painstaking research into the evolution of cables
processed at Arlington and Eastcote, and contains a fascinating array of
valuable insights and facts concerning the relationship of intelligence to
politics. Unfortunately, however, Hamrick makes some huge leaps of imagination
in putting his theory together. His book constitutes overall a poorly
constructed and frequently dense narrative, full of circumlocutions, non
sequiturs, vague hypotheses, unsupported assertions and simple errors that
make it difficult to determine a verifiable thread.
If I can discern Hamrick’s argument correctly, I would
say that it runs as follows: Under the authority of Lord Tedder, Air Marshall
Robb, and General Hollis, Dick White masterminded, with his co-conspirator
Roger Makins, a counter-intelligence scheme that none of his immediate colleagues
or superiors knew about. What Hamrick suggests is that, after the discovery of
purloined ‘Churchill’ telegrams, the VENONA decryption exercise became a
predominantly British affair, that the authorities knew about the existence and
identity of HOMER as early as 1947 (and that Oldfield was able to give this
information to Philby in 1949), and that White contrived to conceal the results
of the Eastcote decryption exercises from his peers. Moreover, Percy Sillitoe
(who was White’s boss) reputedly kept Hoover up to date on the progress of the
investigation using something called an ‘MI6 cipher’, to which Philby had
access, and from which Philby thus gained his knowledge of VENONA decrypts, and
the progress of the investigation. The proposed goal of all these machinations
was for White to exploit Maclean, Philby and Burgess (even though they did not
work for him) as unwitting tools to mislead the Soviet Union about the West’s
nuclear capability, a project, incidentally, that should presumably have been
carried out by SIS, not by MI5.
The germ of this idea came from a General Edwin L.
Sibert, who communicated his beliefs in such a deception operation to the
author on intelligence matters Anthony Cave-Brown. According to Hamrick, Cave-Brown
misunderstood the message, and garbled it in his Treason in the Blood. (Cave-Brown
reprised the idea in “C”, adding the testimony of William R. Corson,
from the latter’s Armies of Ignorance, but then cited severe doubts emanating
from Reilly and Easton that apparently quashed the story.) Sibert had in fact
retired eighteen months before Philby arrived in Washington, but Hamrick was
impressed enough by Sibert’s story to write: “A strategic deception operation
using Anglo-American war plans and bombers as a deterrent to Soviet aggression
in Western Europe required asuspected or known Soviet agent of
proven credibility whose long loyalty to Moscow and unique access to official
secrets [my italics] amounted to verification. Was one available? Evidently
he was.” It was if Britain had dozens of such persons waiting in the wings,
proven Soviet spies, of many years’ vintage, allowed to flourish and remain
unpunished, and all the authorities had to do was to select one with the best
profile, and plant information on him. And that it made sense to post the
candidate to Washington to perform his duplicity, even though a project that
had been initiated to help unmask such spies had been underway in the same
capital for over a year.
It does not make sense. There are too many anomalies
in this thesis for me to list them here. A full dismantling of Hamrick’s
exposition, which ascribes some superhuman sleights to White, as if he were in
total charge of GCHQ, and was able to hoodwink his colleagues, including Patrick
Reilly (who was, after all, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee), will
have to be undertaken on another occasion. I present just a few comments. While
it is true that senior officials probably concluded that Maclean was HOMER well
before they communicated this fact to their subordinates, it does not mean that
Dick White (and he is incongruously given the credit for being able to manage
the whole charivari from his position as B Division chief in MI5) was
successfully controlling the output from GCHQ, and running the trio of Burgess,
Maclean and Philby as disinformation agents to the Soviets. Hamrick’s repeated
referral to a frequent series of messages from Sillitoe to Hoover on the
progress of the investigation, using ‘Philby’s secret MI6 cipher’, by which
Philby gained his information, is simply absurd. Philby gained his information
from Patterson, and Admiral Stone, the head of AFSA, knew about Philby’s
clearance, because on June 8, 1951, he sent a message to the FBI to ascertain
whether Burgess had also had access.
So much of what Hamrick asserts is contradicted by the
evidence of the archival records (the KV 6/140 to 6/145 series) released in
October 2015 that one must conclude either that the archive itself has been handsomely
faked, or that Mr Hamrick has written a work more of fiction than of history.
As Hamrick himself wrote: “Ignoring the fact that not one shred of documentary
evidence has been found nor is ever likely to be found to support it [General
Sibert’s deception plan], its probability can be considered by asking how such
an operation could have successfully escaped disclosure.” Ipse dixit.
According to some analysts, the Fuchs case (see below:
he was found guilty of espionage in February 1950) killed cooperation on atomic
technology sharing between the USA and the UK for good. M.S. Goodman wrote an
article in The Journal of Cold War Studies in 2005, quoting a US
diplomat who said: ‘We were
getting very close to getting into bed with the British, with a new agreement.
Then the Fuchs affair hit the fan, and that was the end of it’. Goodman then
commented: “The case destroyed any British hopes for a resumption of the
wartime nuclear partnership, and even Attlee’s artful performance before
Parliament could not rescue it.” The reality is rather more complicated. A
research colleague (and biographer of both Guy Burgess and Donald and Melinda
Maclean) Michael Holzman has drawn my attention to the recently issued Documents
on British Policy Overseas, which include records of negotiations in 1950 between
Makins, Bevin and Attlee, accompanied by Canadian Secretary of State Lester
Pearson, and Dean Acheson of the State Department. Makins attributed the lack
of progress on overturning the McMahon Act to allow exchange of atomic power
and weaponry technology between Canada, the USA and Britain on the dampener
that Fuchs’s arrest gave to harmonious relations, and tried to appeal to
Acheson, through Bevin, that the discovery of one spy (although he forgot about
Nunn May) should not be considered cause enough to break off plans.
I have been able to inspect
these documents, and to verify from Volume 2 of Margaret Gowing’s authorised
history of Britain and Atomic Energy (1974) that the author used the
same sources in researching her account. According to Gowing, Acheson
temporized and prevaricated, as he knew that Congress would not move quickly on
the issue. There was an election coming up in November, and thus prospects for
new legislation were slim, especially with the Korean War underway. The flight
of another Harwell scientist, Bruno Pontecorvo, to Moscow in September 1950 did
not help matters. Britain would have to go it alone, and did so, with a story
about its decision published in the New York Times in March 1951. Aldrich
and Cormac strongly suggest that Attlee’s attention quickly moved elsewhere, to
covert operations in Europe by SIS, and that he left the boffins to produce
Britain’s weaponry independently. Thus, while Makins’ concerns may have put a
temporary brake on the project to unmask HOMER in April-May 1950, such
sensitivities quickly became irrelevant. That summer, the American spies Harry
Gold and the Rosenbergs were arrested (Gold as a result of Lamphere’s
interrogation of Fuchs in London), so the one-sidedness of Britain’s exposure
to treachery was quickly removed. Gowing’s conclusion was that ‘the
negotiations would have failed even if there had been no Fuchs, Pontecorvo, Burgess
or Maclean’ (p 320).
Moreover, more recent releases
to the National Archives, in 2007, indicate that Attlee, when he was informed,
on June 11, 1951, of the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, had been completely
unaware of their errant behavior, let alone of any suspicions of espionage.
Foreign Secretary Morrison stoutly came to the defence of Maclean and of the
Foreign Office. At the time of the Fuchs case, Attlee had been briefed on the
VENONA investigation, but it appears he was not given comprehensive updates on
the project thereafter. Thus there appears to have been little scope for
political interference into what the Embassy Spy investigations were
Kim Philby and VENONA
Why was Kim Philby being brought into this web? The story contains multiple anomalies, and a number of unlikely twists and turns.
First of all, from the UK side, the investigation into
the Embassy leaks was supposed to be an MI5 responsibility, not one for SIS.
Dick White pressed hard for this at the beginning of 1949, and believed he had
the support of Menzies and Carey Foster. He soon found, however, that it was
not the case with GCHQ, and then learned that he could not rely on the
compliance of SIS and the Foreign Office, with the latter starting to playing a
much more inquisitive role. White’s representative in Washington, Dick
Thistlethwaite, felt he was being undermined by Travis’s and Carey Foster’s
officers in Washington, Marr Johnson and Mackenzie, respectively.
Thistlethwaite therefore complained to White, who was not only his boss but a close
friend as well. The fact was that every department felt it had a proprietary interest: GC&CS, because it
was in charge of the intercepted material, the Foreign Office, because the leak
had occurred on its own territory, and SIS, because the initial prime suspect
was Alexander Halpern, of British Security Coordination (BSC, the wartime
British intelligence service in the USA), which had reported to SIS. Peter
Dwyer, Thistlethwaite’s counterpart from SIS, had worked for BSC during the war,
so could contribute very usefully to the investigation.
What was especially poignant, moreover, was the fact
that FBI maintained domestically a very jealous hold over the VENONA product:
not only did Hoover intensely dislike the CIA, and regretted it had ever been created,
he also believed that both it and the State Department were riddled with Soviet
spies. (He had a point.) While a few CIA officers were introduced to VENONA
earlier, the CIA would learn about the programme officially only in 1952,
ironically after a controlled leak to Bedell Smith by the British forced
Hoover’s hand. Thus bringing in a senior officer like Philby primarily as the
SIS-CIA liaison officer (he had developed a great relationship with James
Angleton during the war) would, given the sensitivity of the VENONA enterprise,
on the surface appear to be a highly risky and unnecessary move that could only
ruffle feathers more. White’s failure to maintain intellectual and practical
leadership of the project points, however, to a developing malaise.
For some reason, MI5’s representative in Washington
was replaced at about the same time. No official explanation has been offered
for the change in the team. A large gap in the record for the summer of 1949 can
be seen at KV 6/140, but the authorised history states that Geoffrey Patterson
took over from Dick Thistlethwaite in June 1949. These moves would have
unbalanced the arrangement, as Thistlethwaite was a senior campaigner, on
first-name terms with Dick White. Patterson seems to have been a keen but
inexperienced officer, while Philby was clearly a man on the move, identified
by some as a future head of the service. It could have been coincidental, of
course, but the fact that Philby was heavily briefed by Oldfield before he left
could suggest that Menzies was keen that SIS take a stronger hold of the
investigations. On the other hand, the author Ben Macintyre suggests, in A
Spy Among Friends, that Philby’s appointment arose from the high-level
discussions in the USA, and that Philby was a name preferred by some of the CIA
officers whose opinion was sought. Macintyre offers no source for that
statement, but it would make sense for the presence of Philby to be desired
primarily in the light of the plans for joint CIA-SIS operations in Eastern
Europe, where the help of an experienced heavyweight would be necessary. Philby would however have been instructed to
stay silent about VENONA before CIA officers, but no doubt became extremely
curious once he learned of the dangerous project. Menzies – who viewed Philby
as his blue-eyed boy – would not have thought twice about the appointment.
Yet how much did SIS and MI5 suspect about Philby’s possible
career as a spy at that time, and should he have been excluded from any
sensitive post in Washington? Maurice Oldfield later informed his biographers
that, having inspected Philby’s profile, and the records concerning Volkov, the
Soviet diplomat who tried to defect from Turkey in 1945, but who was betrayed
and killed, he had suspected Philby of treachery, and he even confided his
thoughts to his friend Alistair Horne at the time. Yet, even though he was only
four years younger than Philby, Oldfield had been in SIS for only three years,
and Philby, with his allies high up, was not a figure he could easily
challenge. Moreover, Richard Deacon, in his biography of Oldfield, “C”, suggests
that Philby’s contacts with the Soviets that he made in Turkey were approved by
Menzies, as some kind of disinformation scheme.
“Whenever MI5, or
anyone else, raised the issue of treachery, the SIS would come to Philby’s
defence and indignantly reject such pleas, explaining that what he was doing in
Istanbul, and elsewhere for that matter, was carried out with their full
approval”, wrote Deacon. That would explain, if
it were true, why Philby was regarded as untouchable.
That account of Philby’s inviolability might also help explain the Guy Liddell discomfort. The information recently distributed about Eric Roberts, as I described in the April coldspur, indicates that Liddell in MI5 also had nourished suspicions about a senior member of the SIS in 1947, but had obviously been told to suppress them by the time Roberts returned from Vienna in 1949. [The BBC has so far not responded to our request for the 14-page document that Christopher Andrew described as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document I have ever seen’, so the historian must be charged with irresponsible grandstanding until he helps facilitate the release of this document to the public.] Dick White was lower on the totem-pole than Liddell, but was a more dominant character, yet between them, with their own skeletons in the cupboard, they must have concluded that speaking out against Philby at that juncture would not help their careers, or the reputation of MI5.
Soon after Philby’s arrival in Washington, however, an
extraordinary event occurred: he completely changed the tone of the
investigation by pointing the inquisitors towards Krivitsky and his 1940
testimony. (Krivitsky had warned of a spy on the ‘Imperial Council’, but his
hints had not been strenuously followed up.) Throughout 1949 the project had
taken a desultory course, involving the collection of staff lists and checking
the background of, almost exclusively, secretaries and members of the Cypher
Department. (Halpern and Cedric Belfrage were also suspected, but the latter,
who later confessed to being a spy, was discounted early since he was not in
Washington when the cables were stolen.) As early as November 19, 1949, however,
Philby wrote a memorandum to Robert Mackenzie which crisply summarized the
advice that Krivitsky had given about a spy in the Foreign Office, advice that
Patterson enthusiastically picked up on. Somewhat surprisingly, Patterson received
a rather lukewarm response when Martin and Carey Foster received the message in
London, as if to say that of course they had considered a link between the two
cases. Carey Foster did, however, produce a shortlist of six diplomats who
could fit the Krivitsky/Washington profile, namely Balfour, Makins, Hadow,
Wright, Gore-Booth and Maclean.
This bravado from Philby surely suggests that he
realised that the evidence against Maclean was so substantial that his goose
was essentially cooked, and that Philby’s best course of action was therefore to
distance himself as sharply as possible from his comrade in espionage, and
boost his counter-Soviet credentials. Yet his action raises further questions:
did he have access to pointers that were available to other investigators, and,
if so, why did the latter not come to similar conclusions? Otherwise, was it
not a bit premature to risk changing the direction of the probe so
dramatically, and risk additional attention on himself, and his associations
The Search Takes Time
On reflection, it might seem
highly negligent for the multiple leads to Maclean as the source of the Foreign
Office leakage not to have been assimilated and acted upon sooner. That was the
sentiment that Robert Lamphere expressed in late 1948, a few months after he
had been informed by his colleague Ladd of the first VENONA breakthroughs. As
he waited for a more urgent response from his British counterparts, he recorded
that the counter-intelligence machinery in the USA would surely have moved into
top gear in such circumstances. After all, if, following the creation of the shortlist,
a notice had been taken of Maclean’s leftist opinions at Cambridge, and his
less than outright rejection of them at his diplomatic service interview, and
his nervous breakdown after consorting with Philip Toynbee, a ‘known Communist’
(as MI5 considered him) in Cairo, one might have expected him to rise quickly
on the list of suspects. Yet MI5 appeared
to be overwhelmed by the list of possible offenders, knowing also that it would
be very difficult to elicit a confession from any of them on such
circumstantial evidence, and that the best chance of gaining a conviction would
be to catch him or her in the act of passing information to the Soviet contact.
For the VENONA transcripts would be inadmissible in court: apart from the fact
that all intelligence agencies did not want to reveal the extent of their
decryption efforts, the nature of the translations and interpretations would
mean that their veracity would be able to be picked apart by any capable
defence lawyer. And MI5 was not certain, even when the information about the
visits to the spy’s wife in New York were revealed in early March 1951, that
Maclean was the only Foreign Office staff member who fitted that profile. (Or
so it claimed, as long as was possible.)
Dick White then made, in
February 1950, a shocking and irresponsible suggestion. He had been in
Australia when Philby’s memorandum came through, but must have been made aware
of the resulting exchange. He held a meeting on January 31, attended by Reilly, Carey Foster,
Vivian, Oldfield, Marriott & Martin, at which he floated the idea that the
whole investigation should be called off, at least until dramatic new evidence
arrived, because of the overwhelming staff lists to be combed through. At this
stage, it appeared that he had high-level agreement from the attendees. Carey Foster agreed the field was wide, but wanted MI5
to continue to pursue traces in some way. Vivian was still interested in
Halpern. MI5 was charged with providing a formal report, which White duly
provided on February 16, laying out the reasons for abandoning the quest, and
suggesting that the project be handed over to the FBI.
This reckless initiative must
be seen in the context of what else White and MI5 were occupied with at the
time. On February 2, Klaus Fuchs (whose role as a spy had also been confirmed
by VENONA transcripts) had been arrested, and was sentenced a month later to
fourteen years’ imprisonment. White was heavily involved in the project to
cover up MI5’s negligence and incompetence over Fuchs, during which Sillitoe
vented his fury at White and Liddell for their lack of thoroughness. As Tom
Bower, White’s biographer, put it: “There were good reasons to hold MI5
responsible. Not least was White’s failure, in the chain of responsibility, to
adopt Suppell’s [Serpell’s] suggestion of investigating Fuchs.” The outcome was
that Sillitoe and White had an uncomfortable meeting with Attlee where they
lied to the Prime Minister in order to protect the institution. Moreover, Guy
Burgess had come under suspicion at this time. On January 23, Liddell noted in
his diary that Burgess had probably passed on secrets to Freddie Kuh, a Soviet
spy, and three days later was discussing with his colleagues whether Burgess
should be prosecuted for Official Secrets Act offences. The last thing White
wanted was a fresh revelation that MI5 failures to follow up the Krivitsky
testimony had allowed another spy – and a homegrown Briton, at that – to escape
the net. White simply wanted the problem to go away: the remedy preferred by
him and Liddell was for unmasked spies to fade quietly into the backwaters, and
promise not to misbehave again, with no fuss and no publicity involved. Whether
in this case he was acting on his own, or was being guided by political
considerations, say by Attlee, or possibly Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, is
not clear. The 2007 archival information referred to earlier strongly suggests
that Attlee was not involved.
Perhaps White overlooked the
fact that the Eastcote/Arlington decryption exercises were going to continue no
matter how hard he tried to stifle the investigation. For a while, however, he
appeared to have been successful. On February 22, Carey Foster (who like many
emerges from this whole farrago as a weak character, far too defensive of the
organisation he is supposed to be auditing) expressed support for White’s move,
although he reserved the right to interview one Samuel Barron, one on the
longlist of suspects. The archive is somewhat confused at this point, with
memoranda and letters being split into separate files, but a couple of weeks
later, it seems that Carey Foster had been spurred into reaction, probably at
the behest of his boss, William Strang. On March 9, Carey Foster wrote a
determined riposte to White’s suggestion, which was followed up by a similar
outpouring from Strang himself, effectively pouring cold water on White’s plan,
and suggesting that the Foreign Office would take over the investigation
itself, if necessary. It is clear that White was not happy about Strang’s
offensive, but he had to clamber down. Yet this rapid volte-face
suggests that there was probably no higher-level political direction at work.
So the project continued all
through 1950. In August, new material did turn up, primarily about references
to the spy’s wife in Washington, and, more dramatically, showing that highly
critical correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt had been compromised.
MI5’s desire for secrecy enveloped the officers even more deeply in a mire of
subterfuge. Part of the new intelligence-sharing agreement between the USA and
the UK commanded full disclosure of information, and, indeed, Eastcote and
Arlington would continue to share findings irrespective of MI5’s fears. The
responsibility for decrypting the exclusively British telegrams of 1944 was
passed to GCHQ in the summer of 1950, which meant that Arlington officially had
to rely on Eastcote for the latest decryptions. As the search narrowed, it touched
tricky ground in dealing with the FBI. MI5 could not afford any premature
disclosure of suspicions, or plans to interrogate, to be communicated to Hoover
and his cohorts, lest leaks occur and jeopardise the inquiry. At the same time,
Lamphere in the FBI was pursuing a similar line, and MI5 had to stay a step
ahead of what his progress might be. If Hoover, who was not sympathetic to
Great Britain and its intelligence apparatus (he had considered BSC a gross
infringement of his territorial rights) learned of the fruits of the inquiry
from another source, he would be apoplectic. Thus the mandarins gradually
switched from a policy of measured indolence to one of nervous deceit, which
resulted in a ‘real’ inquiry being accompanied by a ‘notional’ one, which had
to lag a bit behind so that the FBI could be stalled.
How quickly should MI5 have started the quest for
HOMER? The records are bewilderingly opaque. There is much controversy about
the first appearance of the cryptonym ‘HOMER’ (or ‘GOMER’, sometimes ‘GOMMER’:
since the Cyrillic alphabet has no letter for ‘H’, ‘HOMER’ was represented as
‘GOMER’, and frequently abbreviated to ‘G’.)
The folder HW 15/38 at Kew includes a report by Meredith Gardner that shows
that HOMER had been identified as a source as early as 26 September, 1947,
providing information about the upcoming meeting between Roosevelt and
Churchill in Quebec in September 1944. One might judge that the amount of
information contained in this message should surely have prompted a well-focussed
search on qualified individuals with access to such information. Yet an
anonymous post-mortem report written in October 1951 appears to bury this fact,
stating: “The resumé
mentioned was transmitted 7 September 1944, but the opening (which contained
the name ‘HOMER’) was not solved until much later (probably 1951). [handwritten
note – ‘not until just before May 1951’: coldspur] The resumé concerned
chiefly occupation policies, mentioning both American and British plans.” It is
difficult to interpret what this could mean: is the ‘opening’ something
different, but, if so, why does it matter, since HOMER was so clearly
identified elsewhere in the text? Very oddly, Nigel West (in Cold War
Spymaster) ignores the Gardner evidence, and echoes this conclusion that
the ‘opening’ was not solved until May 1951.
The investigators were waiting
for a stronger clue to the identity of HOMER, facts with which they could
confront Maclean. If MI5 and the Foreign Office leaders still had any doubts
that their prime suspect was Donald Maclean, they were apparently dispelled on
March 31, 1951, when (according to the prime chronicler, Nigel West) the team
of Wilfred Bodsworth and Jeffrey Northbury at Eastcote decrypted enough of a
message from Stepan Apresyan in June 28, 1944 to identify Maclean by ‘HOMER’s
visit to Tyre [New York] where his wife is living with her mother awaiting confinement’.
(Nigel West states that this was the first cable, chronologically, that
referred to HOMER [GOMER], rather than just ‘G’.) Yet even the exact process of
transcription is not clear: in Venona, West provides the text of the
above message, not released until 1973, but does not present this cable as the
one that provided the breakthrough. In Cold War Spymaster, however, the
same author specifically names this Apresyan cable as the one that succumbed to
Bodsworth and Northbury at the end of March, and thus allowed Maclean to be
confidently identified, presumably because of the ‘wife in New York’ reference.
In any case, the news was sent to MI5, and also to Arlington, where Bodsworth’s
counterparts congratulated him on the achievement. Thus we know that AFSA
experts knew about its content, although what they did with the information has
not been recorded by the historians.
Yet it is difficult to trust
West’s updated account of what happened. The archives at KV 6/142 reveal a very
startling alternative sequence of events, however. On March 31, that is the
same day on which the above information was reputedly passed by GCHQ to MI5
in London, Geoffrey Patterson wrote a long letter to the Director-General (nominally
to Sillitoe: Harrison’s cables are normally addressed that way, although it is
more likely that Martin, Robertson, or sometimes White was first to read them),
in which he declared that ‘PH’ (unidentified) ‘has sent to his Headquarters a
letter . . . and enclosures . . . which are of considerable interest and
may take us another step forward in our search
. . .’. He added: “PH despatched
these documents to London on March 30.” The primary suggestion in PH’s
conclusions is that ‘HOMER may be identical with G’. (Patterson then added,
rather alarmingly, that he and Kim Philby ‘have discussed these latest
developments with Bob Lamphere’.)
‘PH’ was undoubtedly Philip
Howse, a member of GCHQ, as the October 1951 report cited above explicitly
recognises. In his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, under
‘BRIDE’, Nigel West writes: “Although Philip Howse had been assigned to
Arlington in a general liaison capacity, the Canberra-Moscow channel revealed
the need for a British input into BRIDE, and he was integrated into the JADE
team to look after British interests, which were also focused on the leakage
attributed to HOMER in the British Embassy.”(JADE was the name assigned to the
technique by which VENONA messages identified which page of the one-time-pad to
use.) S. J. Hamrick states that Howse was assigned to Arlington Hall from 1944
to 1946, pointing out that the National Archives records on VENONA do not name
the 1951 contributor. Howse clearly returned, however, and Patterson’s weak
effort at concealing his identity failed to confuse posterity.
some reason it had taken a long time for the equation to be made that GOMER
represented the same source as ‘G’, a shorthand that was frequently found in
Soviet cables. Hamrick reports, without comment, that Meredith Gardner, who
must have been one of the smartest cryptanalysts in the world, was not able to
work out that ‘G’ and ‘GOMMER’ were the same as ‘HOMER’ before the Embassy
telegrams were passed over to GCHQ for further decryption and analysis in 1949.
The correspondence between ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was confirmed, however, as having
been made by Mrs. Gray of AFSA in August 1950, and the fact was immediately
communicated to the British. It was given to Marr-Johnson, the GCHQ
representative, and presumably passed on to Eastcote. The August 1950
memorandum continues “These
recoveries were communicated to the British 11 August 1950, who thereupon set
up work-sheets for further recovery work. The suspicion that ‘G’ was the source
of material ‘G’ occurred to people at AFSA immediately upon seeing Mrs. Gray’s
work, and this suspicion was suggested to the British at the same time.” HW
15/38 goes on to report: “On
30 March 1951, Mr Howse transmitted to England the suggestion that G. was Homer
and GOMMER. . . . This identification, if true, allowed the placing of G. in
New York in June 1944.”
Yet what is not explained is
why Howse’s insight, the correspondence of ‘G’ and ‘GOMER’, was necessary to
make the breakthrough. As we can see, ‘HOMER’ – not just ‘G’ – appears in the Apresyan cable of 28 June 1944,
which referred to the agent’s wife in New York. (The cable can be seen at https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1944/28jun_kgb_mtg_donald_maclean.pdf) Yes, ‘G’’s communications would have provided
supportive evidence, but Bodsworth did not need Howse’s analysis to make his
breakthrough reconstruction of the text, and, in any case, Howse’s message
would not have arrived in time for Bodsworth to apply it, and then make his
report. So what was going on here? If the ‘breakthrough’ did indeed occur at
GCHQ, maybe Bodsworth informed his American colleagues well before he let MI5
know, and Howse then tried to claim the credit, presenting a different, but
maybe equally important, conclusion to Philby and Patterson as if it had been
his own. Howse’s action in sending a package to Eastcote probably negates that,
however, and if Howse despatched the documents only on March 30, they would not
have arrived at Eastcote in time for Bodsworth to make his report. Was this
just a coincidental timing of independent threads? Or was Howse instructed to
report the ‘non-breakthrough’ to indicate for posterity that London had had no
inkling about HOMER’s identity until he provided the insight?
Given the intensity of this
effort, and its being undertaken by cryptanalysts highly skilled at the task,
the time it took for these correspondences to be made defies belief. The name
HOMER was decrypted on September 26, 1947.
Messages also emanating from the British Embassy, ascribed to ‘Source
G’, were known by some time in 1949. The equivalence of ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was
worked out in August 1950. On March 31, 1951, a suggestion was made that
perhaps ‘G’ and HOMER were the same person, at which time Eastcote announced it
had solved the puzzle. It took
three-and-half years for Maclean’s identity as HOMER to be recognized and
admitted: a period longer than that between the USA’s entry into the war and
VE-Day. (Anthony Cave-Brown very provocatively, and without comment, wrote, in “C”:
identity and nationality remained unknown to the State Department and Foreign
Office until 1949.”) So
why was the ‘breakthrough’ announced at that juncture? It should perhaps be noted that the America
spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted on March 29: did that event
perhaps prompt the investigators to conclude that it was now politically safe
to step into the daylight?
The evidence bequeathed us
superficially makes no sense at all. Yet the historians generally have stepped
away from trying to analyse the conflicts in front of them. C. J. Hamrick, however,
on pages 45-48 of Deceiving the Deceivers, offers a fascinating analysis
of the conundrum, concluding that Arlington Hall had been out of the picture on
the British Embassy cables since the summer of 1950, and that Eastcote had been
sitting on the solved cable for some time. That is one of Hamrick’s conclusions
that holds together well. In any case, the scribes creating what turned out to
be the HW 15/38 archive then entered some disinformation to help breed
confusion. The whole imbroglio demands some more detailed analysis.
We can, nevertheless, make
some striking conclusions: i) both Patterson and his colleagues in London were
in on the act, since they reciprocally referred to Howse as ‘PH’, and obviously
recognized that concealment and subterfuge were necessary; ii) MI5 had an
independent back-channel into the AFSA organisation, and might therefore have
gained information on the progress of VENONA decryption even before the FBI
learned of it; iii) GCHQ in Eastcote was probably not aware that Howse was
leaking information to Patterson; and iv) an immense security exposure
occurred, since Patterson did not just share the confidences with Lamphere
(whom MI5 apparently accepted as a justifiable recipient) but also Philby,
which meant that the information would surely be passed on to SIS – and the
Patterson certainly had not
been briefed by London, since he makes some creative suggestions about the
identity of HOMER. Indeed, he follows up with another letter (presumably also
sent by diplomatic bag) in which, having also discussed the material with
Mackenzie, he expands on his analysis, and, somewhat impatiently, but
justifiably, looks for a response. On April 4, Robertson responds by cable,
apparently quite unconcerned that Patterson has seen the material before the
officers of MI5. His main advice runs as follows:
new material most important. Leakage enquiry now being pursued on presumption
HOMER equals G.
for G.C.H.Q. being collected here and, unless we ask specifically, consider it
safer you do not repeat not draw subject files from Embassy.
His response does not make
sense if Bodsworth’s solving of the Apresyan telegram had provided the
‘breakthrough’. Robertson then asks Patterson to work with Mackenzie in
inspecting travel documents that might help clarify the New York visits made by
Apart from the anomaly of the
‘HOMER=G’ equivalence, and what relevance it had to the Bodsworth exercise, at
least four aspects of this exchange are breathtaking for the interpretation of
the decisions for the handling of Maclean, confirming the conclusions outlined
earlier. The first is the total lack of surprise shown by MI5 at the fact that
its Washington outpost has worked out the HOMER=G breakthrough before London
has. The second is that London intelligence (by which I mean MI5 and the
Foreign Office, with fragmented attendance by SIS) should have realised that,
once the information about ‘the latest recovery’ (as it came to be called)
floated around Washington, anyone over there could have been privy to the
supposed secret. The third is that Patterson’s and Philby’s access to
cryptographic sources, and thus awareness of what was going on, meant that they
could not be hoodwinked in any way about the progress of the inquiry. The fourth
was the news that Lamphere was right in the thick of things, and could thus
presumably come to the same conclusions as MI5’s detectives: moreover, much of
the evidence required to seal the deal was to be found in the United States.
Yet MI5 proceeded as if they
knew none of this. Indeed, Robertson followed up by trying to dampen
Patterson’s enthusiasm: ‘ . . at this stage consider enquiries . . . should not be confined to preconceived
theories but cover all Chancery, cipher and registry staff. Feel sure you agree
and will exercise moderating influence on premature speculations’. It was as if
dozens of Embassy staff had pregnant wives in New York whom they visited in New
York occasionally, and were thus under suspicion. Indeed, Mackenzie in
Washington was keen to look for other culprits, and, partly on the grounds that
Krivitsky had said that the Foreign Office source had attended Eton and Oxford,
pointed the finger at Paul Gore-Booth, who had the disadvantage that his name
more closely resembled the letters of ‘GOMER’. It was then, on April 2, that
Philby made an even more persuasive case that HOMER was the Imperial Council
spy. In a telegram to his boss, Menzies (in the archive at KV 6/142-2,
unsigned, and with its first paragraph redacted) he refines the analysis
discussed with Patterson and Mackenzie, and adds helpful information about
Gromov (Gorsky) and Paul Hardt, who had also been mentioned by Krivitsky. The
letter is a masterful exhibition of subterfuge, with Philby trying to protect
his reputation and deflect possible criticism. And it apparently worked with
What is also extraordinary is
the lack of archival evidence of how MI5 received the critical information from
GCHQ, and the lack of any initiative to let the Washington representatives know
formally of the results. The final entry in the KV 6/141 folder is a note
whereby Robertson, Martin and Carey Foster have a meeting at the Foreign Office
on March 28, 1951, where they discuss a long report that lists several dozen
Embassy employees, including junior staff, in order to whittle down the
suspects. The report focuses on Messrs. Pares, Middleton, King and Payne. It is
an exercise in self-delusion, probably written by Carey Foster, as if the
writer thought the problem would go away if the authorities sat on it for long
The Great Deception
As soon as the British
authorities accepted internally that Maclean was indeed HOMER, on April 17,
1951, according to its formal chronology, they started to dither. Martin had
told Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was the top suspect, but the MI5 and
Foreign Office mandarins suddenly realised the implications of their
conclusion. They would eventually have to interrogate Maclean. But if they
informed the FBI of their suspicions and plans, the news might leak in a
horribly prejudicial way. Lamphere might, however, also come to the same
conclusion, which could make them look very foolish if they had not confided in
the FBI as they were supposed to. Thus they concocted all sorts of strategies
to pretend that they were less well advanced in creating the recent
‘recoveries’ than they actually were, that there were still six suspects they
had to investigate. MI5 wanted to tell the FBI more, but the Foreign Office
held back, as it did not want the Department of State to hear of it before the
FO was ready. Patterson was squeezed: he was again encouraged to let Lamphere
harbour his suspicions about ‘Fisher’ (actually Belfrage), even though Belfrage
had been eliminated from the inquiry long before. Mackenzie therefore pressed for continued
deception of the FBI: Patterson and Philby disagreed.
By May 15, a tentative
timetable had been arranged, whereby Maclean (who was now under surveillance,
and had had secret papers withheld from him, so had a strong suspicion of what
was going on) would be interrogated on June 8, and the FBI would be informed of
that event the day before. On May 17, the KGB sent instructions to London for
the escape of Burgess and Maclean, deeming that Maclean was in such a nervous
state that he needed accompaniment. Martin prepared for the interrogation, and wrote
up his detailed case against Maclean, which he sent to White (but not the
Foreign office) on May 19. Sillitoe intervened to insist that no action on
Maclean could be taken unless the FBI were informed. The interrogation date was
then pushed back to June 18 (because of Mrs. Maclean’s imminent confinement),
and Sillitoe planned to be in Washington at that time to explain things, and
soothe Hoover. On May 25, Foreign Minister Morrison signed off on the
interrogation warrant. That same evening, Burgess and Maclean absconded via
The events following the
disappearance have been described in multiple books, and I shall not go over
them in full here. Instead, I shall concentrate on two aspects of the case:
White’s ploy to unmask Philby, and the puzzling use of Anthony Blunt as some
kind of witness/consultant in the investigation. Menzies realised immediately
that Philby was compromised, because of his close association with Burgess in
Washington. In fact, Verne Newton, in The Cambridge Spies, even wrote
that Vivian had been sent out to Washington in March to warn Philby about the
unsuitability of his boarding Burgess, an account that Cave-Brown also reports,
having interviewed Easton. Philby had written another memorandum, on June 4, in
which he tried to distance himself from Burgess by providing hints to his
suspicious behaviour. Cave-Brown represents this message as a key trigger for
Martin to confirm his suspicions about Philby. Martin then tells White, who conveniently
presents a damning report on Philby written by Millicent Bagot, and then convinces
Menzies that Philby must be recalled. Any complacency Philby had was shattered
when John Drew, an experienced and trustworthy officer who had worked for the
London Controlling Section in World War II, who happened to be on a visit to
Washington, was on June 6 able to hand Philby a letter from Jack Easton, Menzies’s
deputy, which alerted him to the fact that he would shortly be formally
recalled. He duly arrived in London on June 10, and was immediately summoned by
Dick White ‘to help with our inquiries’.
White had meanwhile been very
busy, making sure Sillitoe was properly briefed for his meeting with Hoover,
and also preparing Patterson for the line of deceit to take. In a letter of May
25, he introduced the concept of the ‘real and notional aspects of the case’,
emphasizing how the wool had to be pulled over the eyes of Lamphere and Hoover
so that they would not guess that the authorities had concluded that Maclean was
their man well before the day he absconded. It would have been disastrous if
the FBI learned that Maclean had been at large for several weeks since being
identified, and been able to escape the nation’s security forces. (On June 2,
Patterson was even instructed to tell Hoover that Sillitoe believed that
Maclean’s disappearance was a coincidence.) White decided that Sillitoe should
be accompanied by the impish and devious Martin, as Sillitoe needed someone who
understood what was going on (which Sillitoe clearly did not) and could
plausibly lie about the situation. Sillitoe would work at the high level, and
Martin would brief Lamphere. But this is where the story diverges: in the
account that he gave his potential biographer, Andrew Boyle (whose notes were inherited
by Tom Bower after Boyle’s death) greatly distorted the sequence of events in
order to disguise his plot.
Robert Lamphere divulged what happened next in The FBI-KGB War. While Sillitoe met with Hoover, on June 13, Martin engaged Lamphere, and handed over the famous seven-point memorandum (which I described in the April coldspur). This report sharply described several aspects of Philby’s ostensibly communist background, and Martin then passed it on to Lamphere’s old friend William Harvey in the CIA. The Cleveland Cram archive shows that, on June 15, Harvey then presented his scathing report to Bedell Smith, actually derived from the Martin memorandum, but claimed by Harvey (with encouragement by Martin, no doubt) as resulting from his own inspiration. The next day, Sillitoe met with Allen Dulles of the CIA, who passed ‘Harvey’s’ memorandum to him, Sillitoe of course being completely unaware of what the source was. Sillitoe cabled back home on June 17 to say that he had also had a very satisfactory meeting with Bedell Smith (see Guy Liddell’s Diaries), Bedell Smith telling him he would rather deal with MI5 than SIS in the future. On June 18, Sillitoe and Martin flew back to London. The same day, Hoover told Admiral Sidney Souers, special consultant to the President, about Burgess’s habitation with Philby while in Washington, and that Philby’s first wife had been a Communist. Aldrich and Cormac show this as evidence that ‘Truman was getting better information on the British moles than Attlee’. If that were true, it was because MI5 was not providing the intelligence they gave to the FBI and CIA to their own Prime Minister, not because the US organisations were more efficient.
Many of the accounts of this period (including Andrew’s authorised history of MI5) have Bedell Smith banishing Philby from Washington at this time, but, as the archival chronology clearly shows, Philby was back in London by the time Sillitoe and Martin left for Washington. Meanwhile, David Martin, in Wilderness of Mirrors, incorrectly amplified the story about Harvey’s heroic insights into Philby’s background, a story that has been picked up by innumerable chroniclers. I described this in the April coldspur, and also showed that Guy Liddell was completely unaware of what was going on.
Bedell Smith may well have
stated that he did not want to see Philby in Washington again, but the record
shows that the chief of the CIA was much more annoyed at Hoover’s withholding
information about VENONA from him than he was at either Sillitoe’s deception or
even possible treachery by Philby. After acting Ambassador Steel visited Bedell
Smith in October of 1951, Steel wrote to Reilly about Bedell Smith’s mood,
quoting him as follows: “Of course Percy Sillitoe lied to me like a trooper but
I appreciate he had to do it on account of your understandings with Hoover and
it was not his fault.” Steel went on to write: “Bedell’s principal worry is
concerned with how much Burgess may have learned casually from Philby and in
his house about his, Bedell’s, organization. He was very anxious to be
reassured that we had not had any previous cause for suspicion of Burgess as we
had of Donald Maclean and that we had let him know about Burgess as soon as our
suspicions were aroused. He is naturally not very happy about what Burgess may
have picked up but appeared much more interested in a vindication of our own bona
fides towards himself.” That did not sound like the voice of a man greatly
offended by rumours about Kim Philby.
As for White, his version of
the story, as related in The Perfect English Spy, was a gross distortion
of the truth. First of all, he represented Martin’s conversations with the CIA
as ‘focused on Burgess’, concealing the Philby memorandum. He then claimed that
the long message from Philby that hinted at Burgess’s possible flirtation with
espionage arrived on June 18, when that message had actually been seen two
weeks earlier. Next White asserted that at only at that stage did Jack Easton
send the letter to Philby warning him of the cable to call him home, when that
had happened on June 6. He then told his biographer that it was only then that
he and Martin started to compile a record of Philby’s work, as preparation for
the interrogation of Philby to which John Sinclair had given his grudging approval.
Lamphere’s report makes it abundantly clear that the research had been
completed well before Sillitoe and Martin left on June 11. Cave-Brown reported
that White immediately produced a dossier compiled by Milicent Bagot on Philby.
David Martin then contributed to the White caprice, however, by adding that it
was at this stage, on June 20, that MI5 compiled the dossier on Philby, listing
the seven points so ingeniously provided by Harvey! White also made sure that
his harsh opinion of Rees was articulated (‘why did he not come to us
earlier’?), and he left a very clear impression that Liddell was irreparably
tainted by his association with Blunt.
‘Old Men Forget’. Was this
just a misremembrance by White in his declining years? That is very unlikely:
his account is a tissue of lies. What he was trying to do is show that he and
Martin had nothing to do with the plot to bring Philby down, and were simply
following up doggedly on their investigation, since Burgess’s friend from
Washington had been brought to them on a platter. Yet it was imperative for White
to show that the creation of the dossier on Philby had been prompted by outside
investigations, and that it had not occurred until after Burgess’s
escape. That was a somewhat risky line to take, as it indicated a fair
amount of naivety about Philby’s past, a track-record which, if William Harvey
could work out from so far away (from the planted evidence), MI5 should have been
able to conclude themselves, as any objective observer might suggest. Philby
was in SIS, not MI5, of course, which ameliorated their responsibility. As
seems much clearer now – especially if the Liddell-Roberts anecdote is shown to
have substance – White had very probably already made that calculation, but he
had enough problems on his hands without taking credit for identifying another
skeleton in the closet whom he should have called out a long time before. And,
if Philby’s guilt could swiftly be acknowledged, though perhaps not proven or
admitted, it would help his cause. Yet his old ally Bedell Smith did not
respond with the degree of specific outrage that he had hoped for. And, in a
clumsy interrogation carried out by White himself immediately Philby returned
to Britain, the master-spy resisted the attempts to make him confess, despite
the damning evidence.
The ghastly secret that
haunted White was as follows: if it could ever be shown that he had harboured
serious doubts about Philby before he was sent to Washington, or while he was
there, and done nothing about it, he (White) would have to be regarded as putting
the whole VENONA project in jeopardy. White would therefore continue to
dissemble over the years (see, for example, what he said to Nicholas Bethell
over the Albanian incidents, as recorded in Bethell’s book The Albanian
Operation of the CIA & MI6) – highlighting his own insights into
Philby’s culpability, but not saying exactly when he came to any individual
conclusion about a certain activity, or with whom he shared it. # Meanwhile he concealed from his interviewers
the plant that was placed with Harvey and Bedell Smith that listed the fuller
indictment. In summary, he distorted the truth to indicate that he had no
suspicions of Philby before Burgess absconded. When Burgess and Maclean
disappeared, however, he could not hold back any longer. He needed to punish
the old foe, SIS, without drawing attention on himself. The fact that he went
behind Menzies’s back to attempt to unmask Philby proves that Menzies was not
aware of the plan. And White could not have masterminded a deception project
using Philby without Menzies’ and Easton’s participation. But was White working
alone? Who else knew what was going on?
# For example, in his comments
to Bethell, the historian manqué attempted to excuse MI5’s tolerance of
communists in 1940, the year in which Philby was recruited by SIS, by telling
his interlocutor that at that time ‘the Russians were our allies’, when of
course they were then allies of the Nazis, providing matériel to the
Germans for the prosecution of the Battle of Britain.
Philby as the Third Man?
What would have been convenient for White would be
evidence that Philby had been the agent who had warned Maclean about the net
closing in on him, and let him and Burgess know about the imminent arrest. Was
Philby thus the Third Man? That question is one of many that surround the
eighteen months that Philby spent in Washington, and it is probably educational
to list the main conundrums about the man’s activity at this time, and attach
some tentative answers to the riddles:
Why did Menzies send Philby to Washington in 1949? (He seriously had no doubts about Philby’s loyalties. In his Forward to The Philby Conspiracy, John le Carré points out that Menzies had appointed him head of Soviet counter-espionage in 1944 despite knowing his past, and was not apparently disturbed by the Volkov incident in 1945. According to Cave-Brown, based on interviews with Easton, Reilly was similarly not aware of the questions surrounding Philby, as he was party to the discussions on Philby’s possible promotion in early 1951. Whether Menzies entrusted a mission of deception and disinformation to Philby cannot be verified.)
Why did Philby so quickly help point the finger at Maclean? (Philby immediately realised from what Oldfield told him that Maclean was probably doomed, and he had to save his own skin.)
Why was Burgess sent to Washington in 1950, despite his malfeasance? (It was typical FO incompetence, as reinforced by its treatment of Maclean after his riotous behaviour in Cairo. The Foreign Office was absurdly indulgent to its senior employees: Attlee was shocked when he later learned of the continued employment of Burgess and Maclean, despite their transgressions.)
Why did Philby take on Burgess as a boarder? (He genuinely thought Burgess’s reputation was safe, needed him as a convenient courier to New York, and believed he could control Burgess’s aberrant behaviour better by keeping a close eye on him. It was, however, appalling tradecraft.)
Why was White not concerned about Philby’s close collaboration with Patterson? (He probably was concerned, but could do nothing about it without incurring Menzies’s ire. If White truly had concluded much earlier that Maclean was HOMER, he may have even believed the situation would resolve itself without MI5’s being tainted.)
Why did SIS only warn Philby about his association with Burgess in March 1951? (Menzies and his lieutenants – apart, possibly, from Jack Easton – were so out of touch that they genuinely did not know Burgess was a threat until his outrageous behaviour that month.)
Why did SIS immediately recall Philby in May 1951 if it regarded him as a loyal officer? (Given that Burgess had absconded with Maclean, it accepted that Philby would be contaminated in Hoover’s and Bedell Smith’s eyes. Cave-Brown claims that Menzies acted only after White had informed him of Martin’s suspicions, provoked by his reading Philby’s awkward letter about Burgess)
Why did Menzies agree to White’s interrogation of Philby immediately he returned? (The political pressure was intense, but Menzies was confident that Philby would be exonerated. Thus he instructed Easton to agree to the trial, grudgingly. In July, Easton would travel to Washington to tell Winston Scott of the CIA that SIS believed Philby was innocent.)
Why was Lamphere not more shocked when he was told about Philby’s probable culpability? (He had never liked Philby, but was overwhelmed by the implications of Maclean’s treachery. He wrote that he did not believe Philby was an active spy since he had spent so little time trying to woo him, Lamphere.)
Why did Philby later promote himself as the Third Man, despite the obvious logistical difficulties? (It distracted attention from the real facilitator in the bowels of MI5 and magnified his reputation as a fixer extraordinaire.)
In his notoriously unreliable memoir, My Silent War, Philby wrote, of the plan to use Burgess to help Maclean escape: “In somebody’s mind – I do not know whose – the two ideas merged: Burgess’s return to London and the rescue of Maclean.” From this emerged an extraordinary series of events that involved Burgess’ s being booked for speeding three times in one day in the state of Virginia, and thus arrested, a project that Burgess ‘brought off . . . in the simplest possible way’, according to Philby’s account. Burgess was accordingly reprimanded by the Ambassador and sent home, where he then successfully met his Soviet contact, and informed Maclean of the escape plan.
This flight of fancy does not stand up to serious
analysis, on the following grounds:
To require Burgess to engage in dangerous driving, an activity that might have
resulted in death, was irresponsible. The desired outcome of having Burgess
recalled to London was by no means certain.
The process was extraordinarily laborious. Burgess’s driving escapade happened
on March 1: Ambassador Franks received the letter of complaint from the Governor
of Virginia on March 14, and told Burgess he was seeking FO approval for his
recall. On April 14, he was ordered home, but did not leave on the boat from
New York until May 2, arriving in the UK on May 7. If Burgess had been serious,
he could voluntarily have returned home earlier without suspicion.
As the Mitrokhin archive informs us (probably reliably, in this case), Philby
had a Soviet handler in New York named Makeyev, and Burgess was used as a courier
to take messages to him. Makeyev could have had messages passed on to Moscow
and London much more easily – and no doubt did so. (While in New York, Burgess stayed
with Maclean’s younger brother Alan, who was working as Gladwyn Jebb’s private
secretary at the time – a series of visits, including Alan’s unrecorded role as
a prison visitor to another traitor, George Blake – that
the Macmillan publisher unaccountably omitted from his jocular memoir, No I
Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday . . .)
It would have been impossible and irregular for Philby and Makeyev (or Philby
and a claimed contact in Washington) to make arrangements for Maclean’s escape
from so far away, a claim made by both Modin and Philby. Moscow Centre would
have had to approve and organize the whole project.
While Philby did not make the claim, critics have pointed to the fact that
Burgess and Maclean absconded on the very day that Foreign Secretary Morrison
signed the order for interrogation, suggesting that the Third Man was able to
tip off the traitors immediately that decision was known. That would have been
impossible for Philby to accomplish: the timing was probably coincidental.
The Soviets did not have to wait until the date of interrogation was determined
to initiate the escape, which must have been planned for weeks ahead. Once
Maclean had been confidently identified, his extraction would have occurred as
soon as all the pieces were in place.
The fact that Philby was not aware of the timetable,
or what the plans were for Maclean’s escape, is shown by a message from Makeyev
that even Hamrick quotes, one ‘verifiable’ (although that word should always be
used carefully when dealing with Soviet archives) from the Mitrokhin papers.
Makeyev met Philby on May 24, and Hamrick comments on it, without dating it, as
follows: “In one or only two of Philby’s documented face-to-face meetings with his
KGB illegal, Makayev found him distraught: STANLEY, he reported, ‘demanded
HOMER’s immediate exfiltration to the USSR, so that he himself would not be
compromised.” Thus, the deception was a tactic to draw
attention away from a real source close to the centre of power: and that
process helped MI5 as well. Despite its obvious flaws, the account of Philby as
the Third Man who warned Burgess and Maclean became a political catchphrase,
and has been picked up by numerous writers. It suited Philby to deny it when
under fire in 1955, and it suited him to confirm it when writing his memoir.
The Strange Case of Anthony Blunt
Guy Burgess arrived at Southampton on May 7, he was picked up by Anthony Blunt
at the Ocean Terminal. The descriptions of Blunt’s role in helping the Soviet
cause in the next two-and-a-half weeks before the May 25 departure of Burgess
and Maclean are notably unreliable. The account by Yuri Modin (who was the KGB
handler of Blunt and Maclean at the time) in My 5 Cambridge Friends is notoriously wrong on
many points, such as Philby’s access to VENONA information and the timing of
his suspicions concerning HOMER, Philby’s passing hints to the investigation in
London, his own failure to recognize Makeyev, and the details of Krivitsky’s
interrogation. He adopts the fiction of the Burgess mission undertaken to alert
Modin and company of the imminent threat to Maclean, and that Philby and
Burgess planned the details of the escape (for Maclean only, of course) while
others (such as John Costello) have reported, by access to the Petrov papers,
that the decision to exfiltrate Maclean had been taken months before. Somewhat
puzzlingly, Miranda Carter in her biography of Blunt, Anthony
Blunt: His Lives, despite acknowledging Modin’s flaws, cites him repeatedly. What is
certain, however, is that Blunt acted as a go-between, communicating with Modin
and Burgess about what shape the plans would take.
his 1987 book, The Secrets of the Service, Anthony Glees quoted the
testimony that Blunt provided to the Times in an interview published on November 21,
1979. It is an awkward and deceitful explanation in which Blunt gave away his
continuing relationship with the Soviets, while denying that he had had any
involvement in warning Burgess and Maclean. Thus Blunt supported the story that
it was Philby who provided the hints that were based on VENONA. “Philby warned
them, as has been publicly stated and I could not have had any knowledge of
this.” Glees points out the anomalies, reminds us that Hugh Cecil and Andrew
Boyle echoed the same line of reasoning, and cites Robert Lamphere’s account of
the obstructive MI5 inquiry. But Glees’s argument focuses on the notion that
the escape was provoked by the decision to interrogate Maclean in the week
beginning May 21 (actually made on May 24), thus absolving Philby of the
ability to communicate a warning from Washington. If Blunt had been the source, however, he
would have had to rely on another insider in MI5, since he had left the service
in 1945. That conclusion would point to the existence of another mole, as
Chapman Pincher strongly asserted, naming Hollis. Glees, sceptical of the case
against Hollis, then turned to the evidence of Patrick Reilly, which I shall analyse
soon. Yet if the timing of the abscondence had been coincidental, it would not
have required the constant refreshment of the investigation’s progress to
Blunt, or to anyone else, in those heady days of May 1951.
In my February posting of coldspur, I laid out the bizarre chain of events which led to Goronwy Rees arriving to have an interview with Guy Liddell, on June 7, only to find Anthony Blunt in the room. The source for the timing of this event comes from Jennifer Rees and John Costello, yet there must be some doubt about it. Liddell’s Diaries (which contain many redactions over Burgess and Maclean) are interrupted for the period between June 2, when he met with Blunt to discuss Burgess’s travel patterns, and June 12, when he indicates that he had just returned from Wales – presumably on holiday. His first entry on his return is to deflect the discussion to Dick White: “Dick had had a talk with Anthony and Garonwy [sic] Rees, which seems to indicate that Burgess had in 1937 been fairly closely implicated in Communist activities.” Thus it seems likely that the Rees/Liddell/Blunt encounter probably occurred earlier. Jennifer Rees provides no source for the date: Costello cites Nigel West’s MI5 and Chapman Pincher’s Too Secret Too Long, but neither of those works gives a date for the meeting. Maybe Rees’s hazy memory imagined a delay that did not occur. In any case, Liddell either tried to minimise the event, and reduce his involvement.
Perfect English Spy, however, the timetable changes. White told his
biographer that Liddell’s meeting occurred on June 1 – but did not mention
Blunt’s presence – and that he, White, interviewed Rees on June 6, i.e. while
Liddell was away, which would grant more sense to Liddell’s comment. Yet there
is no mention of a previous meeting between Liddell and Rees, and certainly no
reference to Blunt’s presence. Was that ‘second’ meeting part of Rees’s
imagination? The evidence of White and Liddell might suggest that it was:
perhaps it was part of Rees’s fevered campaign of denunciation of Liddell.
While White’s recollections are frequently dubious, and he might have had good
reason for suppressing Blunt’s involvement, Liddell’s diurnal records were less
sensitive, and occasionally very ingenuous. As Liddell wrote in that same
careful June 12 entry, after dining with a very perturbed Blunt: “No new facts
emerged, except that I feel certain that Anthony was never a conscious
collaborator with Burgess in any activities that he may have conducted on
behalf of the Comintern.”
Liddell’s contribution to the investigation was certainly unusual. He had headed B Division before White, and was now Deputy Director-General, but his Diaries show that White introduced him to the leakage case only on April 11, 1951! He does not appear to be surprised or upset about this, but does become more involved after May 25. A note to file by Robertson on May 29 states tersely: “Mr Anthony Blunt is being contacted by DD [Deputy-Director, i.e. Liddell].” At this stage the whereabouts of Burgess and Maclean were not known, and most of the investigators would claim that they had no inkling that Burgess might come under the same suspicions that surrounded Maclean, so Liddell must have volunteered the information that Blunt, as a friend of Burgess, might be able to shed more light on him. Again, the lead-up to this invitation is ambiguous: both White and Costello reported that Liddell had received a telephone call from Rees on May 26, but had not been able to make sense of it. Rees said that he had tried to contact Liddell unsuccessfully that day, and thus contacted Blunt. Yet Liddell’s diary entry for May 29 (after a large redacted segment for the previous day) indicates that Burgess’s absence came as a complete surprise. He (Liddell) knew about Maclean’s departure, but not that he had been accompanied. It was Blunt who informed him: it is either an enormous bluff, or he was for some reason being kept out of the picture.
In any case, the outcome was
that Blunt turned out to be the main witness for the prosecution. The archive
at KV 6/143 contains an entry (June 6) where Blunt’s testimony that Burgess
worked for the Comintern is used as the primary background material in the
briefing-book prepared for Sillitoe for his coming meeting with Hoover. (Reilly’s
and White’s knowledge that Guy Burgess had eagerly shown he had contacts inside
the Comintern in June 1940 was conveniently overlooked.) At the same time, it
is clear that Rees tried to exonerate his friend somewhat: he told the
investigators that in 1939 Blunt had echoed his (Rees’s) protestations at the
signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. That was not true, but Rees no doubt felt some
obligation to a man he admired for dragging him into the controversy. And this
whole exercise aroused the excitement of MI5’s B2 section. On June 11, Robertson
was minded to declare: “Blunt has been named in Goronwy Rees’s statement as a
person who was understood by Rees to have been one of Burgess’s source of
information, at the time when Burgess was working for the Russians. Blunt has
given every appearance of co-operating with M.I.5 in the present investigation
but, by reason of his employment in this office during the war, must be
regarded as under some suspicion.”
The irony was that the junior
ranks in MI5 had just learned of Blunt’s possible treacherousness, while
Liddell and White had known about it since 1944. After all, Blunt had made no
secret of his Communist pretensions, he had written about them in the Spectator,
he had been recalled from a Military Intelligence course in 1940 because of his
dubious background (and somehow had been exonerated), and had then been
recruited by MI5. As I also showed (conclusively, I would say: I have not
received any rebuttal) in Misdefending the Realm, Blunt was caught
red-handed accepting purloined secrets from his sidekick Leo Long, then working
for MI14, which he then passed on to the Soviets. No doubt Blunt apologised, saying
it was a one-off event, to which he was inspired by a deep sympathy for our
struggling ally. He probably added that he believed Stalin was not receiving
the richness of intelligence from Britain that he deserved, and felt entitled
to show such initiative – an action, we should remember, with which Valentine
Vivian expressed sympathy in another context. Long was suspended for a while, and
Blunt was no doubt given a slap on the wrists, and continued with his perfidy.
Thus it might have come with a
sudden and dreadful shock when White came to the realisation that, if
apparently reformed Communist sympathisers like Maclean, and then Philby, and
most recent of all, Burgess, could turn out to be red-blooded traitors and
snakes in the grass, there was no reason why Blunt might not be in the same
category, too. And here Blunt was, pretending to help the cause in nailing
Burgess, just as Philby had gone out of his way to help incriminate Maclean.
The final irony was that that, immediately White
concluded that Philby’s guilt was proven –
because of Burgess’s escape – he must have
known that the fact of VENONA would have been leaked to the Russians, and thus
there was no harm in confronting Maclean with the cables to cause him to
confess. That would have been dangerous if Maclean had brazened out his
interrogation (though that was unlikely, given his psychological condition),
but it would no longer have mattered. By now, however, he had flown the coop.
Reilly and the Hollis Mystery
While Kim Philby had certainly acted as a ‘Second Man’ in warning Moscow of the net closing in on Maclean, many commentators and historians have picked up this unauthentic issue of a Third Man – an intelligence insider – warning Burgess and Maclean of the imminent plan to interrogate HOMER. Several have alighted on Liddell as the prime suspect, among them Costello, Lamphere, Oldfield, Deacon and Rees, as I listed in the April coldspur. An alternative theory has been strongly promoted by Chapman Pincher. Indeed, it was his life’s work to prove that the man behind all the counter-espionage disasters was Roger Hollis, who succeeded Dick White as Director-General of MI5 in 1956.
One of Anthony Glees’s objectives, in The Secrets of the Service, was to inspect Pincher’s claims, and I recommend the Professor’s book to anyone interested in the controversy. [I should declare that Professor Glees was my doctoral supervisor.] Glees analysed some of Pincher’s assertions about Hollis, and then reviewed them in the light of the Burgess-Maclean case. I have to say that I think Glees may have been influenced a little too much by some of the prominent politicians and officers whom he interviewed, among them Lord Sherfield (previously Roger Makins in our cast), Sir Patrick Reilly and Dick White. For instance, Lord Sherfield diminished the harm that Maclean had been able to cause, focusing on the matter of nuclear weaponry, when we now know that Maclean’s betrayal of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s plans for negotiations at Yalta resulted in untold death and misery for much of eastern Europe, especially Poland. It is the post-mortem of the Burgess-Maclean affair, where Reilly contributed several comments in writing to Glees, that is even more provocative, I believe, and bears some close relationship to my inquiry.
Glees introduces Reilly by citing Lamphere’s recently
published FBI-KGB War, where its author complains about the way that the
FBI were ‘misled and repeatedly lied to’ about the events that led up to the
identification of Maclean. Lamphere stated that the Americans were told nothing
about Maclean until after the escape, and he quoted Arthur Martin as ‘telling
him that MI5 had insisted the FBI not be told about Maclean’. Glees then goes
on to write: “As Chapman Pincher rightly observes, if this is true then Philby
cannot have tipped off Maclean, since Philby would have known about Maclean and
the date of interrogations only in his capacity as MI5’s postman to the FBI.
But is this true? The answer must be ‘no’.” One might point out that,
irrespective of Philby’s briefing by Oldfield in 1949, there is a solid
difference between Maclean’s being identified as one of the suspects – a fact
that was communicated to Lamphere, by Patterson – and the fact that he alone
was about to be hauled in for questioning. In any case, Glees then called on
one of the main participants in the investigation, Patrick Reilly, for his
To Glees, Reilly is a figure who instantly commands
respect. “For against these allegations we must set the far more authoritative
testimony of Sir Patrick Reilly . . .
His first concern now is that the full story of Maclean’s identification
be told.” Reilly was generous enough to write letters to Glees on the topic,
and I reproduce some of his statements here, adding my own commentary:
“In the circumstances of
the time, someone who was a member of the Communist Party might not have been
acting dishonourably in not disclosing his political sympathies, provided, of
course, he was not acting as a Soviet or a Communist agent.”
This is an
extraordinarily ingenuous and weaselly policy to defend. First of all, it
reflects the regrettable but all too real belief that there were ‘academic’
Communists who were harmless (probably British), and ‘practical’ Communists
whose mission was to overthrow liberal democracy (probably foreigners), and
that it was therefore quite acceptable to hire the former, even though they
concealed their affiliations, while persecuting the latter. Did Sir Patrick not
understand that the CPGB took its orders from Moscow, and that agents were
known to engage in subterfuge, and thus conceal any illicit activity?
“One important stage in
the investigation has, however, been overlooked. This is that at a fairly late
stage a message became available that Homer was being consulted by the Russians . . . The new message however showed that the
spy was someone of some importance and we were then able to produce what was a
relatively short list, about 9, I think. But we still had nothing special
pointing to Maclean and indeed I remember clearly that we thought someone else
was a more likely suspect.”
This is probably the
only occasion in the history of intelligence where the treachery of leaking
secret information has been described as a ‘consulting’ exercise. As KV 6/142
shows, Martin informed Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was then ‘the top
suspect’. Reilly’s colleague in the Foreign Office, Carey-Foster, may have
hoped otherwise, but the Washington Embassy was informed ‘at this fairly late
stage’ of HOMER’s probable identity.
“The other part of the
story quoted by Pincher is pure fabrication; it is totally untrue that the
Foreign Office told MI5 not to inform the FBI that Maclean had been identified.
On the contrary, Sir Percy Sillitoe [head of MI5] was absolutely determined not
to put a foot wrong with Hoover since he had had such a lot of trouble with the
latter over the Fuchs and Nunn May cases. He kept Hoover informed with messages
which were sent over for special security through MI6 and therefore, of course,
through Philby. And there is not the slightest doubt that it was Philby who was
thus able to set Maclean’s escape in train. Indeed, I remember that when we in
the FO were getting impatient about the delay in interrogating Maclean we were
told that Sillitoe wanted to be quite sure we were in step with the FBI before
the interrogation took place.”
is no evidence that Sillitoe, who was out of touch with the details of the
investigation, maintained regular communications with Hoover on the subject.
(Hamrick makes much of the ‘special MI6 link’ accessed by Philby). K 6/142 shows
that Reilly reported at a meeting on April 17 that ‘Strang wants no information
passed to the Americans’. Martin passed that message on to Patterson on April
18. On May 10 Mackenzie suggested: ‘If Maclean breaks under interrogation, we should tell
the FBI we intend to question him and very shortly afterwards give them the
results’. K 6/142 offers, from a meeting on May 15, that
the Foreign Office ‘was anxious that nothing be disclosed to the State
Department’, and thus nothing should be sent to Hoover (for fear of leaks). On
the same date, Makins and Mackenize pressed for Hoover not to be informed until
after Maclean’s interrogation had taken place.
“The allegation that
Maclean was not going to be prosecuted is also totally untrue. The long delay
in interrogating him was due to the fact that it was considered that the
evidence from the deciphered telegrams could not be used in court.”
This is partly true.
Unless Maclean could be encouraged to confess, or had been caught red-handed
passing over information (which was then unlikely, given the obvious
surveillance imposed on him), he could not be tried in court based on VENONA
evidence. Thus there was no certainty that he was going to be prosecuted, but
also no decision made in advance not to prosecute.
considered that a conviction could only be obtained by a confession and in
order to obtain a conviction their star interrogator, Skardon, needed much more
information about Maclean. Hence the long delay which proved disastrous,
especially as MI5 did not have enough men to keep Maclean under continuous
May 15, a meeting between Reilly, Carey Foster, Mackenzie, White, Robertson and
Martin agreed to go ahead with the interrogation, but keep silent about it to
Washington for up to 3-4 weeks. Reilly did have a point, however. MI5’s report
of May 18 stated that the service needed three months to prepare for the
interrogation: that was partly because they wanted the FBI to make further
investigations about Maclean’s wife, but Lamphere was very nervous about
leakages to the State Department.
certainly have had before him a written submission, certainly already
signed and approved by Strang, drafted by me or Carey Foster. That
submission would have certainly have been the result of prior discussion and
the Home Secretary’s concurrence would have been obtained.”
use of the conditional tense shows evasiveness. Could Reilly, so anxious to set
the historical record straight, not recall what papers he signed?
“All Sillitoe’s messages
to Hoover went through Philby who was thus able to arrange for Burgess to get
himself sent home to alert Maclean without the latter’s contact in the UK
having to contact him. Philby would of course have been on the alert for
information about the date of the interrogation. He could have telephoned to
Burgess who was not then suspected or under observation. But it is surely much
more likely that he would have used the safe channel of his Soviet contacts in
Washington who would have informed their colleagues in London who must have
told Burgess by the morning of the 25th since the latter spent the day
preparing for the escape.”
Communications on the
progress of the BRIDE/VENONA investigation were sent variously by Robertson,
Martin or White to Patterson, who then shared the results, as guided, with
Philby and Lamphere. There is no evidence of secret traffic between Sillitoe
and Hoover. The existence of safe contacts in Washington is highly dubious:
Philby used Burgess to contact Makeyev in New York, but does claim he made
contact once or twice with handlers in Washington. In any case, Philby would
not have had time to act. The decision to go ahead with interrogation (for June
18-25) was taken on May 24, the day before the abscondence.
“At last, towards the
end of May, MI5 declared themselves ready to interrogate. Full details of the plan
were telegraphed to Washington (via Philby). I seem to remember that some hitch
with the FBI caused a last-minute delay.”
May 25, White informed Patterson of the recent meetings, and the schedule. He
claimed that the discovery of Maclean’s wife in New York was ‘very recent’, and
introduced ‘the real and notional aspects of the case’. The same day, Sillitoe
sent copies of the instructions to Menzies, adding that they would be available
to Philby, too (via Patterson). The FBI was not party to the decision.
“In the FO we had no
conceivable motive for further delay. We were longing for the end of three
months of intense suspense.”
the contrary, the Foreign Office was trying to stretch the process out. For example, reluctant to admit that Maclean
could actually be a traitor, Mackenzie continually sought to investigate
“Our service had the tradition of a closely
knit family. That one of us, the son of a Cabinet Minister, should be a Soviet
spy was something quite horrible and we had been living with this knowledge for
Apart from the fact that the Foreign Office, like any normal family, had its black sheep, rivalries, jealousies, misfits and idlers (as is clear from memoirs and archives), if Reilly had known this fact ‘for months’ (and the description pointed solely to Maclean), how could he pretend that, ‘at a fairly late stage’, the shortlist of suspects had been reduced to nine? And had he already forgotten about the conviction of John King, and Krivitsky’s warnings about the ‘Imperial Council’ spy? What is more, Maclean had confessed to a secretary, while in Cairo, that he was ‘the English Alger Hiss’, and the secretary had written a letter that eventually landed in Maclean’s personnel file – a file which Sir William Strang refused access by MI5, on the grounds that the notion of traitors inside the Diplomatic Service was inconceivable. On the issue of ‘family’, Richard Deacon informs us that George Wigg, who had been the intermediary between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the intelligence services, told him that esprit de corps was the bane of the Foreign Office. Deacon wrote: “Wigg himself said that Morrison, when he left office, ‘still persisted in the view that Foreign Office esprit de corps was in part responsible for the affair [the failure to apprehend Burgess and Maclean before they defected]. Esprit de corps, apparently, had kept Morrison ignorant of information implicating Maclean which had been given to the Foreign Office by Stalin’s former agent, Walter Krivitsky, in 1940; it had also kept him ignorant of the Volkov revelations, made through the British Embassy in Turkey.”
“What is of course impossible to understand is
that Arthur Martin should have told Lamphere (if he really did) that the FO
told MI5 not to keep the FBI informed. . . If he is concerned to incriminate
Hollis and therefore wants to minimize Philby’s part, he is being deliberately
untruthful. I am absolutely astonished that it is possible for any doubt to be
cast on the fact that it was Philby who warned the Russians of the
investigation of Maclean and thus enabled them to plan his escape. The
statement that the FO had told MI5 not to inform the FBI is false. I say that
with complete certainty.”
As I have shown above,
Reilly’s statement is simply untrue. There is not necessarily a logical link
between the desire of the Foreign Office to keep information from the FBI
(because of the risk of leakage, and the discomfort of having an announcement
of Maclean’s interrogation pre-empted by the Americans) and the casting of
doubt on the assertion that Philby could not have been responsible for all that
Reilly (and others) claimed he did. Philby no doubt did warn the Soviets of the
investigation into Maclean, but he would not have been able to alert them to
the imminent interrogation. Indeed, no one may have done so.
Professor Glees’s conclusion
from Reilly’s contribution was that ‘the full truth about the defection of
Burgess and Maclean serves to incriminate Philby and to exonerate Roger Hollis
in particular”. Apart from the fact that Philby was incriminated anyway (if not
by the last-minute disclosure), if Reilly’s testimony can now be shown to be
untruthful, would that incriminate Hollis? Not necessarily, but that is the
topic of a completely different discussion. (Hollis hardly features in all the
archival reports about the Embassy Spy investigation, but that was because he
was intensely involved with the Australians in investigating their VENONA
leaks, travelling to the Dominion frequently in 1948 and 1949, and helping to
establish the ASIO organisation.) The major point here is: what was Reilly
trying to hide?
The first declaration to be
made is that, like White, he wanted to divert all attention away from any
potential mole in MI5 (or a further one in the Foreign Office). This would
likewise minimise the highly irregular relationship with Anthony Blunt, which must
have also embarrassed Reilly enormously when the truth came out in 1963. If one
maintained the stance that Burgess and Maclean had really been alerted at the
last minute, but then Philby was eliminated from the line-up, fingers would
have to point at another source close to the discussions. Blunt was later shown
to be an intermediary for the Soviets, but he was not close enough to the
action – unless Liddell had been keeping him constantly updated. But Liddell
was largely out of the picture, too. The subsidiary point was that he wanted to
clarify that MI5, not the Foreign Office, had been the main stumbling-block in
the move to interrogation. That was perhaps petty (and White was still alive
when he wrote to Glees), but it presumably meant a lot to Reilly.
Reilly thus remains something
of a paradox. Why, after all that time, did he not simply admit that Philby had
known about Maclean for a long time, and that the timing of the escape was
probably coincidental? He would not have constructed such a web of deception
around himself. Moreover, his professional contribution to intelligence matters
appears very flimsy. His period as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence
Committee, a position he held from November 1950 to April 1953, is treated with
complete lack of interest by Michael S. Goodman in his official history of the
Committee (2014). Goodman grants Reilly and his specific tenure only two
uninformative paragraphs. (The sole fact that Michael Goodman vouchsafes us,
about Reilly’s term as Chairman of that body, is that he destroyed a chair when
he heard the news about Burgess and Maclean – a highly symbolic gesture of
Chekhovian, or even Dostoyevskian, proportions.) Goodman does comment, however,
on the JIC’s general abrogation of responsibility over VENONA and Soviet
espionage, whether out of ignorance or indifference: “The JIC’s failure to
probe the strategic implications of the damage caused by Soviet espionage is
even harder to understand, despite the fact that administrative responsibility
for security and counter-intelligence lay with MI5”, he writes. Goodman might
have added that Reilly was in close cahoots with White at the time, but clearly
concealed everything from the JIC itself. The real mystery is why such an
unimpressive character as Reilly was not only appointed Chairman of the JIC,
but lasted there three years.
Summary and Conclusions
Jorge Luis Borges likened the
Falklands War to two bald men fighting over a comb. Here were two old-age
pensioners claiming that neither of them, when schoolboys, broke the window. In
1951, Dick White, when he realised that Philby was blown, executed a crafty
move to plant the responsibility for MI5 lapses on his rival organisation, SIS.
Thirty-five years later, he distorted the real sequence of events when he
described the happenings of that spring to his biographer, not wanting to
reveal that he had suspected Philby long before. Back then, Patrick Reilly,
embarrassed and enraged by the leakiness of the Foreign Office, had tried to
stave off the inevitable. Thirty-five years later, under no pressure at all, he
volunteered to document for Anthony Glees ‘the full story of what occurred’,
and tried to turn the reading public’s attention away from the rottenness of
MI5 and towards the comprehensive culpability of Philby. He could quite
plausibly have simply debunked the ‘Third Man’ concept without practising to
Why did they do it? Because
they could get away with it, and they knew that, even if the archive were
opened, they would not be around to see it. This was the 1980s, however. The
decade had kicked off with Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason, and the
unmasking of Blunt. Chapman Pincher had followed in 1982 with his searing Too
Secret Too Long. The secret of VENONA was starting to leak out, from David
Harvey and Nigel West, and then Robert Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War in 1986.
It does not appear that either White or Reilly read Lamphere’s account, but
Glees’s reading of it prompted his approach to Reilly. Peter Wright’s
controversial and revealing Spycatcher came out in the same year (1987)
that Glees’s book was published, at the same time when Tom Bower started
interviewing White. The mandarins needed to move on to the offensive, and try
to protect the reputations of themselves and their institutions. Dick White’s
deep plotting shows a hitherto undocumented side of his character as he elbowed
and intrigued his way to the Director-Generalship of MI5.
The last point to be made is
on the rather romantic notion of ‘intelligence sharing’, with which this piece
started. The practice has a humorous aspect, in that Britain was invited by the
Americans to join an exercise that would turn out to embarrass its intelligence
circles. MI5 (for a while) shared the fruits of the Embassy Spy investigation
with the FBI, but the FBI did not share them with the CIA, who did not even
know about VENONA. And it has its darker side, too. It appears that Dick White,
to meet his own political objectives, shared his inner suspicions with the CIA
in order to spite his real rival, SIS, while concealing what he was doing from
his boss, Sillitoe (a policeman) and his political master, Attlee (a Socialist).
All the time, the real enemy, Stalin, learned more about VENONA (from Philby,
and the American spy, William Weisband, uncovered in 1950) than either Truman
The research is never over. While I am relatively
happy that my explanation in this piece is as solid as possible, given the
sources available, further questions remain to be answered: For example:
When did White seriously begin to suspect Philby? In 1945?
In 1947? In 1949?
Was there anything devious in Philby’s posting to
Washington in 1949?
Did Menzies apply pressure on White to remain silent
between 1945 and 1951?
Was there any outside political pressure on White
Was the Embassy leakage investigation extenuated for
reasons other than embarrassment?
How much did Liddell tell Blunt?
Why was Menzies so tacit in the whole project?
Why did Reilly feel he had to lie so poorly?
Did Eastcote truly delay or conceal some of the VENONA
Readers may think of others. Please let me know.
And lastly, what historiographical lessons can be
learned from this? They are familiar.
Luminaries will say anything
to protect their legacy if they believe the archival record will not be
released. Do not trust interviews of ‘The Great and the Good’ for historical
You cannot rely on
authorised histories. Their sweep is to great, their sources too random, and
they are works of public relations.
Too many accounts pluck
indiscriminately from semi-reliable sources, and lack a research methodology,
as if an accurate story can be enticed from a volume of facts both reliable and
unreliable, or from a succession of interviews with persons loosely connected
with the drama.
A methodology is thus
essential, containing a rigorous chronology, knowledge of the roles, ambitions
and objectives of the participants, and the background in which they worked. The
historian has continually to ask: Why should we trust certain sources? What
does redacted information in the archive tell us? How can conflicts in the
record be resolved? Why would a participant in the drama want to make such
I list the following, in a hierarchy of those most
Level One comprises mostly
official archives. The series KV 6/140-145 at the National Archives at Kew is
the primary source, even though it is selective and has been redacted. Publicly
available CIA & FBI records have been used, although they are likewise
often heavily redacted. I am grateful to an anonymous colleague for showing me
excerpts from the Cleveland Cram archive. KGB records should always be viewed
with some suspicion, but the Mitrokhin Archive contains some items that most
critics have judged reliable. The VENONA transcripts are trustworthy (despite
what some leftist apologists have claimed in recent years). Guy Liddell’s
Diaries have also been a useful source, as they mostly bear the aroma of
immediacy, but they have also been heavily redacted in places, and Liddell was
not above inserting the occasional deceptive entry.
Level Two consists mostly of
serious, primarily academic, histories. It must be remembered that all of these
were published before much of the relevant archival material was released. They
are thus highly reliant on what little ‘authorised’ history had been published,
on other secondary sources, on the press, sometimes on controlled access to
archives, on testimonies from participants through interviews, even on leaked
documents. They are characterised (mostly) by a seriousness and objectivity of
approach, with some governing methodology apparent, but not always a sound
approach to the resolution of conflicts in evidence. (If you challenge
interviewees too closely, they will cut off the oxygen from you.) Andrew
Boyle’s Climate of Treason (1979) clearly broke new ground. Robert J.
Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War (1986) adds some well-supported facts, although
the author is very loose on dates. Anthony Glees’s Secrets of the Service
(1987) offers a painstaking analysis of the affair, but unfortunately is too
trusting of the evidence of Reilly, Makins and White. John Costello’s Mask
of Treachery (1988) is a compendious but more journalistic volume,
suffering from the author’s apparent desire to cram every ‘fact’ he could find
about the case in the hope that a consistent story would emerge from the
exercise. Verne Newton’s Cambridge Spies (1991) provides a thorough
US-centric view of the spies’ activity, although it uses some dubious sources a
little too indiscriminately. The
accounts of VENONA are generally solid: the official publication VENONA:
Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957 (1996), edited by
Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, Nigel West’s VENONA: The Greatest
Secret of the Cold War (1999), John Earl Haynes’ & Harvey Klehr’s VENONA:
Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), and Herbert Romerstein’s and
Eric Breindel’s VENONA Secrets (2001), but they are all weak on the
exact process of message collection and decryption, and contain errors.
displays a broad range of more specialised works, biographies mainly, by such
as (but not restricted to) Miranda Carter, Jennifer Rees, Andrew Lownie,
Michael Holzman, Ben Macintyre, Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert, Barrie Penrose
and Simon Freeman, and Roland Phillips. They all bring something to the table,
but are for the sake of this exercise a little too narrowly focussed, or are
acts of homage, or rely too much on oral evidence and memoir. I would place in
this category the very readable works of Chapman Pincher, who rewards his
readers with some tireless excavation of ‘facts’, but provides no sources, is
too easily impressed by insiders who may be stringing him a line, and whose
methodology is flawed by his objective of having all evidence point to Roger
Hollis as a traitor. Nigel West’s Molehunt is also useful, but has been
carelessly put together, and requires caution. Anthony Cave-Brown’s Treason
in the Blood (1984) has some valuable material, but is undisciplined, as is
his biography of Stewart Menzies, “C” (1987), which throws out some
will-o’-the-wisp stories about Philby in the course of reporting interviews the
author arranged with contemporaries.
includes a number of unreliable works that need to be listed, since they are so
frequently cited by books in Categories 2, 3 and 5. The comparison of
misleading stories appearing in memoirs with new archival sources does however
often result in new syntheses. David Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors
(1980) is perhaps the most dangerous because it has been so widely quoted, a
journalistic creation lacking sources. I have covered S. J. Hamrick’s
fascinating but irresponsible Deceiving the Deceivers (2004) in my text.
Kim Philby’s My Silent War (1968) needs to be approached with great
scepticism, as do most books about Philby, including Patrick Seale’s and
Maureen McConville’s Philby: The Long Road to Moscow (1973), a work
completely devoid of sources but apparently reflecting a belief that a
plausible story could be woven from interviews with about one hundred-and-fifty
persons, and The Philby Conspiracy (1968) by Bruce Page, David Leitch
and Phillip Knightley. The biography of Dick White, The Perfect English Spy
(1995), by Tom Bower, is a classic example of how a prominent intelligence
officer manipulated the media and distorted the truth. Goronwy Rees’s memoir, A
Chapter of Accidents (1972) is highly unreliable. Dozens of works, by
authors from such as Richard Deacon to Yuri Modin, could be included in this
includes the official or authorised histories. In normal circumstances such
would at least appear in Category 2, but for this subject, they add nothing,
and, moreover, frequently cite items from Level Four for their authority. Keith
Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 (2010) stops in 1949. Christopher
Andrew’s Defend the Realm (2009), the authorised history of MI5, has
solid coverage of VENONA in general, but is weak on the Burgess and Maclean
case, and uses Wilderness of Mirrors as a source. No authorised history
of the FBI exists, but John Ranelagh’s The Agency (1986), which comes
closest, shows the same defects as Andrew.
Lastly, as part of my background reading for this project, I read Robert Littell’s The Company (2002), a semi-fictional account of the life of the CIA. It is an epic work in many ways (900 pages), a complement perhaps to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and a real page-turner. It has the disquieting feature, however, of mixing in historical figures (e.g. Kim Philby, James Angleton, Richard Helms, J. F. Kennedy) with invented characters, which may give the work some measure of authenticity, but is bound to lead to disillusion among the cognoscenti. The figure of William Harvey of the CIA, who fulfils a minor, but very important, role in the story of Dick White’s deception, is thinly masked by Littell’s giving him the name of Harvey Torriti. The reason for this is, I think, simple. The author needed his hero to be alive when Communism collapsed (the real Harvey died in 1976), and he also wanted to describe Torriti’s experience in dealing with a botched defection in Germany – which he ascribed to Philby’s mischief – by the time he wrote his report to Bedell Smith condemning the British traitor. In real life, however, Harvey was not sent to Germany until after the 1951 incident. The facts would have impaired a good story.
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
I have met Nigel West, the pen name adopted by Rupert Allason, the undisputed doyen of British writers on intelligence matters, on three occasions, as I have recorded in previous blogs. I met him first at a conference on wartime Governments-in-Exile at Lancaster House several years back, and he kindly agreed to come and listen to the seminar on Isaiah Berlin that I was giving at the University of Buckingham the following week. We exchanged emails occasionally: he has always been an informative and encouraging advisor to researchers into the world of espionage and counter-espionage, like me. A couple of years ago, I visited him at his house outside Canterbury, where I enjoyed a very congenial lunch.
before Misdefending the Realm
appeared, my publisher and I decided to send Mr. West a review copy, in the
hope that he might provide a blurb to help promote the book. Unfortunately, Mr.
West was so perturbed by the errors in the text that he recommended that we
withdraw it in order to correct them. This was not a tactic that either of us
was in favour of, and I resorted to quoting Robin Winks to cloak my
embarrassment: “If intelligence
officers dislike a book, for its tone, revelations, or simply because the find
that one or two facts in it may prove compromising (for which, also read
embarrassing), they may let it be known that the book is ‘riddled with errors,’
customarily pointing out a few. Any book on intelligence will contain errors,
given the nature and origin of the documentation, and these errors may then be
used to discredit quite valid judgments and conclusions which do not turn on
the facts in question.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961,
p 479) Since then, therefore, I have not dared to approach Mr. West on
questions of intelligence where I might otherwise have sought his opinion.
I would still describe myself as being on
friendly terms with Mr. West, though would not describe us as ‘friends’. (No collector like Denis Healey or Michael
Caine am I. I count my friends in this
world as a few dozen: most of them live in England, however, which makes
maintenance of the relationship somewhat difficult. On my infrequent returns to
the UK, however, I pick up with them as if I had last seen them only the
previous week. What they say about the matter is probably better left
unrecorded.) And I remain an enthusiastic reader of Mr. West’s books. I have about
twenty-five of his publication on my shelves, which I frequently consult. I
have to say that they are not uniformly reliable, but I suspect that Mr. West
might say the same thing himself.
His latest work, Cold War Spymaster, subtitled The Legacy of Guy Liddell, Deputy Director of MI5, is a puzzling creation, as I shall soon explain. Two of Mr. West’s works on my bookshelf are his editions of Guy Liddell’s Diaries – Volume 1, 1939-1942, and Volume 2, 1942-1945. In a way, these items are superfluous to my research needs, as I have the full set of Liddell’s Diaries on my desktop, downloaded from the National Archives website. Mr. West told me that he would have dearly liked to publish more of Liddell’s chronicle, but it was not considered economically viable. Yet I still find it useful to consult his editions since he frequently provides valuable guides to identities of redacted names, or cryptonyms used: it is also important for me to know what appears in print (which is the record that most historians exploit), as opposed to the largely untapped resource that the original diaries represent. Cold War Spymaster seems to reflect a desire to fill in the overlooked years in the Liddell chronicle.
Guy Liddell, the Diaries and MI5
As West [I shall, with no lack of respect, drop the ‘Mr.’ hereon] points out, Liddell’s Diaries consist an extraordinary record of MI5’s activities during the war, and afterwards, and I do not believe they have been adequately exploited by historians. It is true that a certain amount of caution is always required when treating such testimony: I have been amazed, for example, at the attention that Andrew Roberts’s recent biography of Churchill has received owing to the claim that the recent publication of the Maisky Diaries has required some revisionist assessment. The Soviet ambassador was a mendacious and manipulative individual, and I do not believe that half the things that Maisky ascribed to Churchill and Anthony Eden were ever said by those two politicians. Thus (for example), Churchill’s opinions on the Soviet Union’s ‘rights’ to control the Baltic States have become distorted. Similarly, though to a lesser degree, Stephen Kotkin takes the claims of Maisky far too seriously in Volume 2 of his biography of Stalin.
Diaries, it is true, have the advantage of immediacy over memoirs, but one still has to bear in mind for whose benefit they are written. Liddell locked his away each night, and probably never expected them to be published, believing (as West states) that only the senior management in MI5 would have the privilege of reading them. Yet a careful reading of the text shows some embarrassments, contradictions, and attempts to cover up unpleasantries. Even in 2002, fifty years later, when they were declassified, multiple passages were redacted because some events were still considered too sensitive. Overall, however, Liddell’s record provides unmatched insights into the mission of MI5 and indeed the prosecution of the war. I used them extensively when researching my thesis, and made copious notes, but now, each time I go back to them on some new intelligence topic, I discover new gems, the significance of which I had overlooked on earlier passes.
Describing Liddell’s roles during the time of his Diaries (1939-1952) is important in assessing his record. When war broke out, he was Assistant-Director, under Jasper Harker, of B Division, responsible for counter-intelligence and counter-espionage. B Division included the somewhat maverick section led by Maxwell Knight, B1F, which was responsible for planting agents within subversive organisations such as the Communist Party and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. When Churchill sacked the Director-General, Vernon Kell, in May 1940, and introduced the layer of the Security Executive under Lord Swinton to manage domestic intelligence, Liddell was promoted to Director of B Division, although he had to share the office with an inappropriate political insertion, William Crocker, for some months. As chaos mounted during 1940, and Harker was judged to be ill-equipped for leadership, David Petrie was brought in to head the organisation, and in July 1941 he instituted a new structure in which counter-intelligence against communist subversion was hived off into a new F Division, initially under John Curry. Thus Liddell, while maintaining an interest, was not nominally responsible for handling Soviet espionage during most of the war.
Petrie, an effective administrator appointed to
produce order, and a clear definition of roles, was considered a success, and
respected by those who worked for him. He retired (in somewhat mysterious
circumstances) in 1946, and was replaced by another outsider whose credentials
were superficially less impressive, the ex-policeman, Percy Sillitoe – an
appointment that Liddell resented on two counts. Petrie was a solid
administrator and planner: he had been in his position about a year-and-a-half
when he produced, in November 1942, a paper that outlined his ideas about the
future of MI5, how it should report, and what the ideal characteristics of
officers and the Director-General should be. His recommendations were a little
eccentric, stressing that an ideal D-G should come from the Services or Police,
and have much experience overseas. Thus Liddell, who probably did not see the
report, would have been chagrined at the way that career intelligence officers
would have been overlooked. In the same file at Kew (KV 4/448) can be seen
Liddell’s pleas for improving career-paths for officers, including the
establishment of a permanent civilian intelligence corps in the services.
Petrie was reported to have kept a diary during
his years in office, but destroyed it. The authorised historian, Christopher
Andrew, glides over his retirement. In a very provocative sentence in his ODNB entry for Petrie, Jason Tomes
retrospect, this triumph [the double cross system] had to be set alongside a
serious failure: inadequate surveillance of Soviet spies. Petrie sensed that
the Russian espionage which MI5 uncovered was the tip of an iceberg, but the
Foreign Office urged restraint and MI5 had itself been penetrated (by Anthony
Blunt).” What Soviet espionage had MI5 uncovered by 1945? Green, Uren and Springhall
were convicted in 1942, 1943 and 1944, respectively, but it is not clear why
Petrie suspected an ‘iceberg’ of Communist penetration, or what sources Tomes
is relying on when he claims that Petrie had evidence of it, and that he and
the Foreign Office had a major disagreement over policy, and how the
Director-General was overruled. Did he resign over it? That would be a major
addition to the history of MI5. The defector Gouzenko led the British
authorities to Nunn May, but he was not arrested until March 1946. Could Petrie
have been disgusted by the discovery of Leo Long and his accomplice Blunt in
1944? See Misdefending the Realm for
more details. I have attempted to contact Tomes through his publisher, the
History Press, but he has not responded.
Like several other officers, including Dick White, who considered resigning over the intrusion, Liddell did not think the Labour Party’s appointing of a policeman showed good judgment. Sillitoe had worked in East Africa as a young man, but since 1923 as a domestic police officer, so he hardly met Petrie’s criteria, either. Astonishingly, Petrie’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that Petrie had recommended Liddell for the post, but had been overruled by Attlee – an item of advice that would have been a complete volte-face in light of his memorandum three years earlier. On the other hand, it might be said that Sillitoe could have well riposted to his critics, after the Fuchs affair, that the established officers in MI5 did not understand counter-intelligence either. And in another of those enigmatic twists that bedevil attempts to work out what really happened here, Richard Deacon (whose role I shall inspect later in this piece), wrote about Sillitoe in The Greatest Treason: “The picture which has most unfortunately been portrayed since Sillitoe’s departure from MI5 has been that of a policeman totally out of place in a service which called for highly intellectual talents. This is total balderdash: someone like Sillitoe was desperately needed to put MI5 on the right track and to get rid of the devious amateurs who held power.” One might ask: was that not what Petrie had been doing for the past five years?
In any case, Liddell also thought that he
deserved the job himself. Yet he did receive some recognition, and moved nearer
to the seat of leadership. In October 1946 he replaced Harker as Deputy
Director-General, and frequently stood in for his new boss, who had a rough
time trying to deal with ‘subversive’ MI5 officers, and reportedly liked to travel
to get away from the frustrations of the office climate. What is puzzling, however, about the post-war
period is that, despite the fact that the Nazi threat was over, and that a
Labour government was (initially) far more sympathetic to the Soviet cause, B
Division did not immediately take back control of communist subversion. A
strong leader would have made this case immediately.
The histories of MI5 (by Christopher Andrew,
and West himself) are deplorably vague about responsibilities in the post-war
years. We can rely on John Curry’s internal history, written in 1945, for the
clear evidence that, after Petrie’s reorganization in the summer of 1941, F
Division was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’ (F2, under
Hollis), which was in turn split into F2A (Policy Activities of CPGB in UK),
under Mr Clarke, F2B (Comintern Activities generally, including Communist
Refugees), and F2C (Russian Intelligence), under Mr. Pilkington. Petrie had
followed Lord Swinton’s advice in splitting up B Division, which was evidently now
focused on Nazi Espionage (B1A through B1H). Dick White has been placed in
charge of a small section simply named ‘Espionage’, with the mission of B4A
described as ‘Suspected cases of Espionage by Individuals domiciled in United
Kingdom’, and ‘Review of Espionage cases’. Presumably that allowed Liddell and
White to keep their hand in with communist subversion and the machinations of
Yet that agreement (if indeed it was one) is
undermined by the organisation chart for August 1943, where White has been
promoted to Deputy Director to Liddell, and B4A has been set a new mission of
‘Escaped Prisoners of War and Evaders’. F Division, now under the promoted
Roger Hollis, since Curry has been moved into a ‘Research’ position under
Petrie, still maintains F2, with the same structure, although Mr Shillito is
now responsible for F2B and F2C. With the Soviet Union now an ally, the
intensity of concerns about Communist espionage appears to have diminished even
more. (In 1943, Stalin announced the dissolution of the Comintern, although
that gesture was a fraudulent one.) One might have expected that the conclusion
of hostilities, and the awareness within MI5, and even the Foreign Office, that
the Soviet Union was now the major threat (again), would provoke a reallocation
of forces and a new mission. And, indeed, this appears to be what happened –
but in a quiet, unannounced fashion, perhaps because it took a while for Attlee
to be able to stand up to the Bevanite and Crippsian influences in his Party. A
close inspection of certain archives (in this case, the Pieck files) shows that
in September 1946, Michael Serpell identified himself as F2C, but by the
following January was known as B1C. This is an important indicator that White’s
B Division was taking back some responsibility for Soviet espionage in the
light of the new threat, and especially the Gouzenko revelations of 1945. Yet
who made the decision, and exactly what happened, seems to be unrecorded.
According to Andrew, after the war, B Division was
highly focused on Zionist revolts in Palestine, for which the United Kingdom
still held the mandate. Yet he (like West) has nothing to say about F Division
between Petrie’s resignation in 1946 and Dick White’s reorganisation in 1953.
The whole of the Sillitoe era is a blank. Thus we have to conclude that, from
1947 onwards, Hollis’s F Division was restricted to covering overt subversive
organisations (such as the Communist Party), while B Division assumed its
traditional role in counter-espionage activities, such as the tracking of Klaus
Fuchs and Nunn May, the case of Alexander Foote, and the interpretation of the
VENONA transcripts. The artificial split again betrayed the traditional
weaknesses in MI5 policies, namely its age-old belief that communist subversion
could come only through the agencies of the CPGB, and that domestically-educated
‘intellectual’ communists would still have loyalty to Great Britain. White held
on to this thesis for far too long. Gouzenko’s warnings – and the resumption of
the Pieck inquiry – had aroused a recognition that an ‘illegal’ network of
subversion needed to be investigated. Yet it was not until the Communist takeover
in Czechoslovakia, with the subsequent executions, and the Soviet blockade of Berlin
in 1948, that Attlee’s policy toward the Soviets hardened, and B Division’s new
charter was accepted.
I return to West and Liddell. On the inside cover of each volume of the published Diaries appear the following words: “Although reclusive, and dependent on a small circle of trusted friends, he (Liddell) was unquestionably one of the most remarkable and accomplished professionals of his generation, and a legend within his own organisation.” Even making allowances for the rhetorical flourish of granting Liddell a ‘mythical’ status, I have always been a little sceptical of this judgment. Was this not the same Liddell who recruited Anthony Blunt and Victor Rothschild into his organisation, and then wanted to bring in Guy Burgess, only being talked out of it by John Curry? Was this the same officer who had allowed Fuchs to be accepted into atomic weapons research, despite his known track-record as a CP member, and who allowed SONIA to carry on untouched in her Oxfordshire hideaway? Was this the same officer whom John Costello, David Mure, Goronwy Rees, Richard Deacon and SIS chief Maurice Oldfield all * thought so poorly of that they named him as a probable Soviet mole? Moreover, in his 1987 book, Molehunt, even West had described Liddell as ‘unquestionably a very odd character’. Can these two assessments comfortably co-exist?
* John Costello in Mask of Treachery (1988);David Mure in Master of Deception (1980); Goronwy Rees in the Observer (1980); Richard Deacon in The Greatest Treason (1989); Maurice Oldfield in The Age, and to US intelligence, quoted by Costello.
To balance this catalogue of errors, Liddell
surely had some achievements to his credit. He was overall responsible for
conceiving the Double-Cross Operation (despite White’s claims to his biographer
of his taking the leading role himself, and ‘Tar’ Robertson receiving acclaim
from some as being the mastermind of the operation), and basked in the glory
that this strategic deception was said to have played in ensuring the success
of OVERLORD, the invasion of France. He supervised Maxwell Knight’s
infiltration of the Right Club, which led to the arrest and incarceration of
Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent. He somehow kept B Division together during the
turmoil of 1940 and the ‘Fifth Column’ scare. His Diaries reveal a sharp and
inquiring mind that was capable of keeping track of myriads of projects across
the whole of the British Empire. Thus I opened Cold War Spymaster in the hope that I might find a detailed
re-assessment of this somewhat sad figure.
‘Cold War Spymaster’
First, the title. Why West chose this, I have
no idea, as he normally claims to be so precise about functions and
organisation. (He upbraided me for getting ‘Branches’ and ‘Divisions’ mixed up
in Misdefending the Realm, although
Christopher Andrew informs us that the terms were used practically
interchangeably: it was a mess.) When Geoffrey Elliott wrote about Tommy (‘Tar’)
Robertson in Gentleman Spymaster, he
was somewhat justified, because Robertson’s main claim to fame was the handling
of the German double-agents in World War II. When Martin Pearce chose Spymaster for his biography of Maurice
Oldfield, he had right on his side because Oldfield headed SIS, which is
primarily an espionage organisation. Helen Fry used it for her profile of the
SIS officer, Charles Kendrick, and Charles Whiting wrote a book titled Spymasters for his account of GCHQ’s
manipulation of the Germans. But Liddell headed a counter-espionage and
counter-intelligence unit: he was not a master of spies.
Second, the subject. Subtitled The Legacy of Guy Liddell, Deputy Director
of MI5, the book ‘is intended to examine Liddell’s involvement in some
important counter-espionage cases’. Thus some enticing-looking chapters appear on
The Duke of Windsor, CORBY (Gouzenko), Klaus Fuchs, Konstantin Volkov (the
would-be defector from Turkey who almost unveiled Philby), BARCLAY and CURZON
(in fact, Burgess and Maclean, but why not name them so? : BARCLAY does not
appear until the final page of a ninety-page chapter), PEACH (the codename
given to the investigation of Philby from 1951), and Exposure. One might
therefore look forward to a fresh analysis of some of the most intriguing cases
of the post-war period.
Third, the sources. Like any decent
self-respecting author of average vanity, the first thing I did on opening the
book was to search for my name in the Acknowledgments or Sources. But no
mention. I might have thought that my analysis, in Misdefending the Realm, of Liddell’s flaws in not taking the
warnings of Krivitsky seriously enough, in not insisting on a follow-up to the
hint of the ‘Imperial Council’ source, worthy of inclusion. I saw such
characters as Tommy Robertson, Dick White, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Yuri
Modin and even Jürgen Kuczynski listed there, which did not fill my bosom with
excitement, as I thought their contributions would have been exhausted and
stale by now. The Bibliography is largely a familiar list of books of various
repute, going back to the 1950s, with an occasional entry of something newer,
such as the unavoidable and inevitable Ben Macintyre, from more recent years. It
also, not very usefully, includes Richard Deacon’s British Connection, a volume that was withdrawn and pulped for
legal reasons, and is thus not generally available So what was this all about?
It turns out that the content of the book is
about 80% reproduction of public documents, either excerpts from Liddell’s
Diaries from the time 1945 to his resignation in 1953, or from files available
at the National Archives. (It is very difficult to distinguish quickly what is
commentary and what is quoted sources, as all appear in the same typeface, with
many excerpts continuing on for several pages, even though such citations are
indented. And not all his authoritative
statements are sourced.) The story West tells is not new, and can be largely
gleaned from other places. Moreover, he offers very little fresh or penetrating
analysis. Thus it appears that West, his project on publishing excerpts from
the Diaries forced to a premature halt, decided to resuscitate the endeavour
under a new cover.
So what is Liddell’s ‘legacy’? The author comes
to the less than startling conclusion that ‘with the benefit of hindsight,
access to recently declassified documents and a more relaxed attitude to the
publication of memoirs [what does this
mean? Ed.], we can now see how Liddell was betrayed by Burgess, Blunt and
Philby.’ Is that news? And does West intend to imply that it was not Liddell’s
fault? He offers no analysis of exactly how this happened, and it is a strain
to pretend that Liddell, whose object in life was to guard against the threats
from such lowlifes, somehow maintained his professional reputation while at the
same time failing calamitously to protect himself or the Realm. What caused the
fall from grace of ‘unquestionably one of the most remarkable and accomplished
professionals of his generation’? Moreover, the exploration of such a betrayal could
constitute a poignant counterpoint to the sometime fashionable notion –
espoused by Lord Annan and others – that
Goronwy Rees had been the greater sinner by betraying, through his criticisms
of Burgess and Maclean in his People
articles, the higher cause of friendship. Cold
War Spymaster thus represents a massive opportunity missed, avoided, or
Expert, Administrator or Leader?
the Realm, my analysis of Liddell concluded that he was an essentially decent
man who was not tough enough for the climate and position he was in. Maybe
someone will soon attempt a proper biography of him, as he deserves. His
earlier years with Special Branch and the formative years in the 1930s are not
really significant, I think. West starts his Chronology with January 1940, when
Krivitsky was interrogated, and I agree that that period (which coincides
closely with the start of the period studied in Misdefending the Realm) is the appropriate place to begin.
I have always been puzzled by the treatment of Jane Archer, whom Liddell essentially started to move out at the end of 1939. Why he would want to banish his sharpest counter-espionage officer, and replace her with the second-rate Roger Hollis – not the move of a ‘remarkable and accomplished professional’ – is something that defies logic. Yet the circumstances of Archer’s demise are puzzling. We have it solely on Liddell’s word that Archer was fired, in November 1940, at Jasper Harker’s behest, because she had reputedly mocked the rather pompous Deputy Director-General once too much. (She did not leave the intelligence world, but moved to SIS, so her behaviour cannot have been that subversive. Incidentally, a scan of various memoranda and reports written by Harker, scattered around MI5 files, shows a rather shrewd and pragmatic intelligence officer: I suspect that he may have received a poor press.) I should not be surprised to discover that there was more going on: I am so disappointed that no one appears to have tried to interview this gallant woman before her death in 1982.
It would be naïve to imagine that MI5 would be
different from any other organisation and be immune from the complications of office
politics – and office romance. If I were writing a fictionalized account of
this period, I would have Guy Liddell showing an interest in the highly
personable, intelligent, humorous and attractive Jane Sissmore (as she was
until September 1939). Liddell’s marriage had fallen on rocky ground: in Molehunt, Nigel West stated that his
wife Calypso née Baring (the daughter of the third Baron Revelstoke) had left
him before the start of the war. John
Costello, in Mask of Treachery,
related, having interviewed Liddell himself, that Calypso had absconded as early
as 1938, and that Liddell had travelled to Miami in December of that year, and
surprisingly won a successful custody battle. Yet contemporary newspapers prove
that Calypso had left her husband, taking their children to Florida as early as
July 1935, in the company of her half-brother, an association that raised some
eyebrows as well as questions in court. Liddell followed them there, and was
able, by the peculiarities of British Chancery Law, to make the children wards
of court in August. In December, Calypso publicly called her husband ‘an
unmitigated snob’ (something the Revelstokes would have known about, I imagine),
but agreed to return to England with the offspring, at least temporarily. At
the outbreak of war, however, Calypso had managed to overturn the decision
because of the dangers of the Blitz, and eventually spirited their children
away again. West informs us that, ‘for the first year of the war Liddell’s
daughters lived with his widowed cousin Mary Wollaston in Winchester, and Peter
at his prep school in Surrey, and then they moved to live with their mother in
California’. (Advice to ambitious intelligence officers: do not marry a girl
named ‘Calypso’ or ‘Clothilde’.)
The day before war broke out, Jane Sissmore married another MI5 officer, Joe Archer. In those days, it would have been civil service policy for a female employee getting married to have to resign for the sake of childbearing and home, but maybe the exigences of war encouraged a more tolerant approach. Perhaps the Archers even delayed their wedding for that reason. In any case, relationships in the office must have changed. There is not a shred of evidence behind my hypothesis that Liddell might have wooed Sissmore in the first part of 1939, but then there is not a shred of evidence that he maintained a contact in Soviet intelligence to whom he passed secrets, as has been the implication by such as Costello. Yet it would have been very strange if, his marriage irretrievably broken, he had been unappreciative of Sissmore’s qualities, and not perhaps sought a closer relationship with her. It might also explain why Liddell felt uncomfortable having Jane continue to work directly for him. Despite her solid performance on the Krivitsky case, she was appointed supremo of the Regional Security Liaison Officers organisation in April 1940. In this role she quickly gained respect from the hard-boiled intelligence officers, solicitors, stockbrokers and former King’s Messengers who worked for her, until she and Liddell in late October 1940 had another clash (as I reported in the Mystery of the Undetected Radios: Part 3). She was fired shortly after.
Liddell’s life was complicated by the
insertion, in August 1940, of William Crocker as his co-director of B Division,
at Lord Swinton’s insistence, and no doubt with the advice of Sir Joseph Ball.
It is not clear what the exact sequence of events was, but Crocker, who was a
solicitor, and Ball’s personal one to boot, had acted for Liddell in trying to maintain
custody of the three children he had with Calypso. While the initial attempt
had been successful, it was evidently overturned in 1939, and Liddell and his
wife were legally separated in 1943. Crocker did not last long in MI5, and he
resigned in September of 1940. While David Petrie brought some structure and
discipline to the whole service by mid-1941, Liddell had buried himself in his
work (and in the task of writing up his Diaries each night), and had found
social company in circles that were not quite appropriate for his position. The
personal stress in his life, alone and separated from his four children, must
have been enormous.
contacts would come back to haunt Liddell. When Petrie retired from the
Director-Generalship of MI5 in 1946, Liddell was overlooked as replacement,
some accounts suggesting that a word in Attlee’s ear by the leftwing firebrand,
‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, had doomed his chances. The most recent description of
this initiative appears in Michael Jago’s 2014 work, Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister, where he describes
Liddell’s rejection despite the support for him from within MI5. Wilkinson had
apparently told her lover, Herbert Morrison, who was Home Secretary in the
postwar Labour administration, that Liddell had in 1940 betrayed the communist
propagandist Willi Münzenberg, who had entered Stalin’s hitlist and been
assassinated in France.
Several aspects of such an assertion are extremely illogical, however. It is true that the suspicions that Attlee and his ministers had about the anti-socialist tendencies of MI5 coloured the Prime Minister’s perspectives on security matters, but this narrative does not bear up to examination. First, for a leftist agitator like Wilkinson (who had also been the lover of Münzenberg’s henchman, Otto Katz) to confirm her close association with Münzenberg, and take up Münzenberg’s cause against Stalin, was quixotic, to say the least, even if her convictions about the communist cause had softened. Second, for her to believe that the democratically-minded Attlee would look upon Münzenberg’s demise as a cause for outrage reflected a serious misjudgment. He would not have been surprised that MI5, and Liddell in particular, would have taken such a stance against Communist subversion, especially when he (Attlee) learned about the activities of the Comintern a decade before. Third, for Wilkinson to think that Attlee could be persuaded that Liddell had abetted the NKVD in eliminating Münzenberg, showed some remarkable imagination. Fourth, if Attlee had really listened carefully to her, and found her arguments persuasive, he would hardly have allowed Liddell to continue on in MI5 without even an investigation, and to be promoted to Deputy Director-General as some kind of designate. (Churchill was back in power when Sillitoe resigned.) Thus Wilkinson’s personification of Liddell as an agent of Stalinism has the ring of black comedy.
I have discussed this with the very congenial Mr. Jago, who, it turns out, was at Oxford University at exactly the same time as I, and like me, relocated to the USA in 1980. (We worked out that we must have played cricket against each other in opposing school teams in 1958.) He identifies his source for the Wilkinson anecdote as that figure with whom readers of this column are now very familiar, the rather problematical Richard Deacon. Indeed, in The Greatest Treason, Deacon outlined Wilkinson’s machinations behind the scenes, attributing her reservations about Liddell to what Münzenberg had personally told her about his ‘enemy in British counter-espionage’ before he was killed. Deacon had first introduced this theory in his 1982 memoir With My Little Eye, attributing the source of the story to the suffragette Lady Rhondda, who had apparently written to Deacon about the matter before she died in 1958, also suggesting that Liddell ‘was trying to trap Arthur Koestler’. Yet Deacon qualified his report in The Greatest Treason: “Whether Ellen Wilkinson linked the Münzenberg comments with Guy Liddell is not clear, but she certainly remembered Münzenberg’s warning and as a result expressed her doubts about him. Morrison concurred and it was then that Attlee decided to bring an outsider in as chief of MI5.” I rest my case: in 1940, with Nazi Germany an ally of Soviet Russia, Liddell should have done all he could to stifle such menaces as Münzenberg. Of course Münzenberg would have ‘an enemy in MI5’. I cannot see Attlee falling for it, and this particular urban legend should be buried until stronger independent evidence emerges.
The rumour probably first appeared in David Mure’s extraordinary Last Temptation, a faux memoir in which he uses the Guy/Alice Liddell connection to concoct a veiled dramatization of Liddell’s life and career. This work, published in 1980, which I have analysed in depth in Misdefending the Realm, exploits a parade of characters from Alice in Wonderland to depict the intrigues of MI5 and MI6, and specifically the transgressions of Guy Liddell. If anyone comes to write a proper biography of Liddell, that person will have to unravel the clues that Mure left behind in this ‘novel of treason’ in order to determine what Mure’s sources were, and how reliable they were. Mure describes his informant for the Ellen Wilkinson story as an old friend of Liddell’s mother’s, ‘the widow of a food controller in the First World War’, which does not quite fit the profile of Sir Humphrey Mackworth, whom Viscountess Rhondda had divorced in 1922. A task for some researcher: to discover whether Mure and Deacon shared the same source, and what that person’s relationship with Ellen Wilkinson was.
of these intrigues, Nigel West suggested, in A Matter of Trust, his history of MI5 between 1945 and 1972, quite
reasonably that an ‘insider’ appointment would have been impossible in the
political climate of 1945-1946, what with a rampant Labour Party in power,
harbouring resentment about the role that MI5 had played in anti-socialist
endeavours going back to the Zinoviev Letter incident of 1924. Yet West, while
choosing to list some of Liddell’s drawbacks (see below) at this stage of the
narrative, still judged that Liddell could well have been selected for the post
had Churchill won the election. The fact was that Churchill returned, and Liddell
Sillitoe’s time was over in 1953, Liddell still considered himself a candidate
for Director-General, and faced the Appointments Board in the Cabinet Office on
April 14. (West reproduces his Diary entry from that evening.) It appears that
our hero had not prepared himself well for the ordeal. Perhaps he should have
been alarmed that a selection process was under way, rather than a simple
appointment, and that one of his subordinates was also being encouraged to
present himself. When the Chairman, Sir Edward Bridges, asked him what
qualifications he thought were appropriate for the directorship, Liddell
recorded: “I said while this was a little difficult to answer, I felt strongly
somebody was need who had a fairly intimate knowledge of the workings of the
machine.” That was the tentative response of an Administrator, not a Leader.
Later: “Bridges asked me at the end whether I had any other points which had
not been covered, and on reflection I rather regret that I did not say
something about the morale of the staff and the importance of making people
feel that it was possible for them to rise to the top.” He regretted not saying
other things, but his half hour was up. He had blown his opportunity to
Even his latest sally probably misread how his officers thought. Few of them nursed such ambitions, I imagine, but no doubt wanted some better reward for doing a job they loved well. For example, Michael Jago (the same) in his biography of John Bingham, The Spy Who Was George Smiley, relates how Maxwell Knight tried to convince Bingham to replace him as head of the agent-runners. Jago writes: “He strenuously resisted promotion, pointing out that his skills lay as an agent runner, not as a manager of agent runners. The administrative nature of such a job did not appeal to him; his agents were loyal to him and he reciprocated that loyalty.” This is the dilemma of the Expert that can be found in any business, and is one I encountered myself: should he or she take on managerial duties in order to gain promotion and higher pay, or can the mature expert, with his specialist skills more usefully employed, enjoy the same status as those elevated to management roles?
was devastated when he did not get the job, especially since his underling,
Dick White, whom he had trained, was indeed appointed, thus contradicting the
fact of White’s ‘despondent’ mood after his interview, which he had
communicated to Liddell. The authorised historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew,
reported the judgment of the selection committee, which acknowledged that
Liddell had ‘unrivalled experience of the type of intelligence dealt with in
MI5, knowledge of contemporary Communist mentality and tactics and an intuitive
capacity to handle the difficult problems involved’. But ‘It has been said [‘by whom?’: coldspur] that he is not a
good organiser and lacks forcefulness. And doubts have been expressed as to
whether he would be successful in dealing with Ministers, with heads of
department and with delegates of other countries.’ This was a rather damning –
though bureaucratically anonymous – indictment, which classified Liddell as not
only an unsuitable Leader, but as a poor Administrator/Manager as well, which
would tend to belie the claim that he had much support from within MI5’s ranks.
Andrew’s chronology is at fault: he bizarrely has Liddell retiring in 1952,
White replacing him as Deputy Director-General and then jousting with Sillitoe,
before the above-described interviews in May 1953. The introduction to the
Diaries on the National Archives repeats the error of Liddell’s ‘finally
retiring’ in 1952. West repeats this mistake on p 185 of A Matter of Trust, as well as in
Molehunt, on pp 35-36, but corrects it in the latter on p 123. Tom Bower presents exactly the same self-contradiction
in his 1995 The Perfect English Spy. West’s
ODNB entry for Liddell states that
“ . . . , in 1953, embarrassed by the
defection of his friend Guy Burgess, he took early retirement to become
security officer to the Atomic Energy Authority”, thus completely ignoring the
competition for promotion. It is a puzzling and alarming pattern, as if all
authors had been reading off the same faulty press release, one that attempted
to conceal Liddell’s embarrassing finale. In his 2005 Introduction to the
published Diaries, West likewise presents
the date of Liddell’s retirement correctly, but does not discuss his failed
interview with the Appointments Board. The Introduction otherwise serves as an
excellent survey of the counter-intelligence dynamics of the Liddell period,
and their aftermath.)
being overlooked in 1946 cannot have helped his cause, either. West wrote, of
the competition for D-G that year, that Liddell’s intelligence and war record
had been ‘exceptional’, and continued: “He was without question a brilliant
intelligence officer, and he had recruited a number of outstanding brains into
the office during his first twelve months of the war. But he had a regrettable
choice in friends and was known to prefer the company of homosexuals, although
he himself was not one. [This was written
in 1982!] Long after the war he invariably spent Friday evenings at the
Chelsea Palace, a well-known haunt of homosexuals.” West updated his account
for 1953, stating that Liddell ‘might have at first glance have seemed the most
likely candidate for the post, but he had already been passed over by Attlee
and was known to have counted Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess amongst his
friends.’ In the light of Burgess’s recent decampment with Maclean, that
observation strikes an inappropriate chord, as if Burgess’s homosexuality
rather than his involvement in Soviet espionage had been the aspect that
tarnished Liddell’s judgment, and that Liddell’s now recognized professional
failings were somehow not relevant. After all, Burgess’s homosexuality was
known to every government officer who ever recruited him.
if associating with the Bentinck Street crowd that assembled at Victor
Rothschild’s place cast a cloud over Liddell’s reputation, Dick White may have
been as much at fault as was Liddell. It is somewhat difficult to find hard
evidence of how close the associations at the Rothschild flat were, and exactly
what went on. Certainly, Rothschild rented it to Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.
Goronwy Rees’ posthumous evidence, as retold by Andrew Boyle, was melodramatic.
The Observer article of Sunday,
January 20, 1980 was titled ‘The Brotherhood of Bentinck Street’, with Rees
explaining how ‘Burgess and Blunt entangled top MI5 man Guy Liddell in their
treachery’. Rees went on to say that Liddell was one of Burgess’s ‘predatory
conquests’, and that Burgess’s ‘main source’ must have been Liddell. Rees
certainly overstated the degree of sordidness that could be discovered there.
White, meanwhile, still a bachelor, was reported, according to his biographer,
Tom Bower, to attend wartime parties in Chesterfield Street, Mayfair, hosted by
Tomas ‘Tommy’ Harris, where he mixed with such as Blunt, Philby, Burgess,
Rothschild, Rees and Liddell himself. White, however, was not a ‘confirmed
bachelor’ and married the communist novelist Kate Bellamy in November 1945.
Yet none of this would have been known about in 1953, or, if it had, would have been considered quite harmless. After all, the top brass in Whitehall was unaware at this time of Blunt’s treachery (although I contend that White and Liddell, and maybe Petrie, knew about it), and Burgess had mixed and worked with all manner of prominent persons – all of whom rapidly tried to distance themselves from any possible contamination by the renegade and rake. Moreover, Liddell had not recruited Burgess to MI5, even though he had wanted to, but been talked out of it by John Curry. John Costello, in his multipage assault on Liddell in Mask of Treachery, lists a number of ‘errors’ in Liddell’s behavior that raise ‘serious questions about Liddell’s competency, bad luck, or treachery’, but most of these would not have been known by the members of the Appointments Board, and the obvious mistakes (such as oversights in vetting for Klaus Fuchs) were not the responsibility of Liddell alone. He simply was not strong enough to have acted independently in protecting such persons.
it is safe to assume that Liddell was rightly overlooked in 1953 because he was
not leadership material, not because of his questionable associations. White
was, on the other hand, a smoother operator. He had enjoyed a more enterprising
career, having been posted to SHAEF at the end of 1944, and spent the best part
of eighteen months in counter-intelligence in Germany, under General Eisenhower
and Major-General Kenneth Strong, before touring the Commonwealth. (Strong was
in fact another candidate for the MI5 leadership: White told his biographer
that he noted Strong’s lack of interest in non-military intelligence.) He knew
how to handle the mandarins, and sold himself well. As Bower wrote, in his biography
of White, The Perfect English Spy:
“The qualities required of an intelligence chief were evident: balance,
clarity, judgment, credibility, honesty, cool management in the face of crisis,
and the ability to convey to his political superiors in a relaxed manner the
facts which demonstrated the importance of intelligence.” Malcolm Muggeridge
was less impressed: “Dear old Dick White”, he said to Andrew Boyle, “‘the
schoolmaster’. I just can’t believe it.”
was thus able to bury the embarrassments of two years before, when he and
Liddell had convinced Sillitoe to lie to Premier Attlee over the Fuchs fiasco,
and he had also somehow persuaded the Appointments Committee that he was not to
blame for the Burgess/Maclean disaster. This was an astounding performance, as
only eighteen months earlier, in a very detailed memorandum, White had called
for the Philby inquiry to be called off, only to face a strong criticism from
Sir William Strang, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office since
1949, who was also on the Selection Committee. Yet White had previously clashed
with Strang when the latter held back secret personal files. They shared similar
convictions of misplaced institutional loyalty: Strang could not believe that
there could be spies in the Diplomatic Service, while White refused to accept
that there could be such among the officers of the intelligence corps.
had also benefitted from Liddell’s promotion. He had returned from abroad in early
1946, and had been appointed head of B Division, since Liddell had been
promoted to Deputy Director-General under Sillitoe, with Harker pushed into
early retirement. Thus White took over centre-stage as the Cold War
intensified, and was in obvious control of the meetings about Fuchs (1949-50),
and then Burgess and Maclean (1951), with Liddell left somewhat out of the main
picture. White was then able to manipulate the mandarins to suggest that the
obvious mistakes had either not occurred on his watch, or had else been unavoidable,
while Liddell was left in a relatively powerless no-man’s-land. It would appear
that White out-manoeuvred his boss: how genuine was his display of
‘despondency’ to Liddell after the interview, one wonders?
was probably also a better Leader than a Manager. He was somewhat bland, and
smoothness was well-received in Whitehall: he had the annoying habit of
agreeing with the last person who made a case to him – a feature that I came
across frequently in business. There can be nothing more annoying than going in
to see a senior manager, and making a well-prepared argument, and see a head
nodding vigorously the other side of the desk, with its owner not challenging
any of your conclusions or recommendations. Yet nothing happens, because the
next person who has won an audience may put forward a completely different set
of ideas, and still gain the nodding head. That is a sign of lack of backbone.
R. A. (later Lord) Butler ascribed the same deficiency to his boss, Lord
Halifax, and Franklin Roosevelt was said to exhibit the same tendency,
preferring to manipulate people through his personal agencies and contacts, and
commit little in writing. But White dealt well with the politicians, who
considered him a ‘safe pair of hands’, and his career thrived after that.
Kim Philby was being investigated as the possible ‘Third Man’ in the latter
part of 1951, George Carey-Foster, the Security Officer in the Foreign Office,
wrote to Dick White about their suspect’s possible escape: “Are you at any
stage proposing to warn the ports, because even that may leak and bring in the
Foreign Office? For these reasons as well as for those referred to in my
previous letter I think we ought to know how we are to act before we are
overtaken by events.” That was one of the main failings of Liddell’s that I
identified in Misdefending the Realm:
“Liddell was very reactive: he did not appear to prepare his team for any
eventuality that came along” (p 284). How should MI5 respond if its
recommendations over vetting were overruled? What policies were in place should
a defector like Gouzenko or Volkov turn up? How should MI5 proceed if it came
about that one of its officers was indeed a Soviet spy, yet the evidence came
through secret channels? Who should conduct interrogations? Under what
circumstances could a prosecution take place? There was no procedure in place.
Events were allowed to overtake MI5.
task of a regular counter-espionage officer was quite straightforward. It
required some native intelligence, patience and attention to detail,
stubbornness, curiosity, empathy, a knowledge of law and psychology,
unflappability (the attributes of George Smiley, in fact). As it happens, I
compiled this list before reading how Vernon Kell, the first Director of MI5
had described the ideal characteristics of a Defence Security Officer: ‘Freedom
from strong personal or political prejudices or interest; an accurate and
sympathetic judgment of human character, motives and psychology, and of the
relative significance, importance and urgency of current events and duties in
their bearing on major British interests’. They still make sense. Yet, if an
officer performed his job of surveillance industriously, and identified a
subversive, not much more could be recommended than ‘keeping an eye on him (or
her)’. MI5 had no powers of arrest, so it just had to wait until the suspect
was caught red-handed planting the bomb in the factory or handing over the
papers before Special Branch could be called in. That process would sometimes
require handling ‘agents’ who would penetrate such institutions as the
Communist Party HQ, for example Olga Gray and her work leading to the capture
and prosecution of Percy Glading. That was a function that Maxwell Knight was
excellent at handling.
the various ‘illegals’ and other aliens floating around, however, officers were
often left powerless. They had to deal with busybody politicians interfering in
immigration bans and detention orders, civil servant poohbahs overriding
recommendations on non-employment, cautious ministers worried about the unions,
inefficient security processes at sea- and air-ports, leaders cowed by their
political masters, Foreign Office diplomats nervous about upsetting Uncle Joe
Stalin in the cause of ‘cooperation’, or simple laziness and inattention in
other departments – even absurd personnel policies. Thus Brandes and Maly and
Pieck were allowed to escape the country, Krivitsky’s hints were allowed to
fade away, Fuchs was recruited by Tube Alloys, and Burgess and Maclean were not
fired from their positions in the Foreign Office but instead moved around or
given sick leave, and then allowed to escape as the interrogation process
ground into motion. These were problems of management and of leadership.
a new manager asks his or her boss: “What do I have to do to perform a good
job?”, and the boss responds: “Keep out of trouble, don’t rock the boat, and
send your status reports in on time”, the manager will wisely not ruffle
feathers, but concentrate on good recruitment, training, and skills
development, following the procedures, and getting the job done. The problem
will however arise that, after a while when the ship is running smoothly, the
manager may be seen as superfluous to requirements, while his or her technical
skills may have fallen by the wayside. That may lead to a loss of job (in the
competitive commercial world anyway: probably not in government institutions.)
If, however, the boss says: “I want you to reshape this unit, and set a few
things on fire”, the candidate may have to develop some sharp elbows, lead some
perhaps reluctant underlings into an uncertain future, and probably upset other
departments along the way. That implies taking risks, putting one’s head above
the parapet, and maybe getting metaphorically shot at. In a very political
organisation – especially where one’s mentor/boss may not be very secure – that
rough-and-tumble could be equally disastrous for a career. I am familiar with
both of these situations from experience.
where does that leave ‘probably the single most influential British intelligence
officer of his era’ (West)? We have to evaluate him in terms of the various
roles expected of him. He was indubitably a smart and intelligent man,
imaginative and insightful. But what were his achievements, again following
what West lists? ‘His knowledge of Communist influence dated back to the Sidney
Street siege of January 1911’ – but that did not stop him recruiting Anthony
Blunt, and allowing Communists to be inserted into important positions during
his watch. ‘He had been on the scene when the Arcos headquarters in Moorgate
had been raided’, but that operation was something of a shambles. ‘He had
personally debriefed the GRU illegal rezident
Walter Krivitsky in January 1940’, but that had been only an occasional
involvement, he stifled Jane Archer’s enterprise, and he did not put in place a
methodological follow-up. ‘He was the genius behind the introduction of the now
famous wartime Double Cross system which effectively took control of the
enemy’s networks in Great Britain’, but that was a claim that White also made,
the effort was managed by ‘Tar’ Robertson, and the skill of its execution is
now seriously in question. As indicated above, West alludes to Liddell’s rapid
recruitment of ‘brains’ in 1940, but Liddell failed to provide the structure or
training to make the most of them. These ‘achievements’ are more ‘experiences’:
Liddell’s Diaries contain many instances of decisions being made, but it is not
clear that they had his personal stamp on them.
Regrettably, the cause of accuracy is not furthered by West’s entry for Liddell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Again, vaguely referring to his subject’s ‘supervision’ of projects, and ‘key role’ in recruiting such as White and Blunt, West goes on to make the following extraordinary claim: “Thus Liddell was closely associated with two of MI5’s most spectacular accomplishments, the interception and decryption of German intelligence signals by the Radio Security Service, and the famed ‘double cross system’. The Radio Security Service had grown, under Liddell’s supervision, from an inter-service liaison committee known as the Wireless Board into a sophisticated cryptographic organisation that operated in tandem with Bletchley Park, concentrating on Abwehr communications, and enabling MI5 case officers to monitor the progress made by their double agents through the reports submitted by their enemy controllers to Berlin.” Yet this is a travesty of what occurred. As I showed in an earlier posting, the Radio Security Service (RSS) was a separate unit, part of MI8. MI5 rejected taking it over, with the result that it found its home within SIS. It had nothing organisationally to do with the Wireless Board, which was a cross-departmental group, set up in January 1941, that supervised the work of the XX Committee. RSS was an interception service, not a cryptological one. It was the lack of any MI5 control that partly contributed to what historian John Curry called the eventual ‘tragedy’. Thus West founds a large part of what he characterizes as a ‘remarkable’ career on a misunderstanding: Liddell’s lifework was one dominated by missed opportunities.
Moreover, West cites one of his sources for his bibliographic entry on Liddell as Richard Deacon’s Greatest Treason. This seems to me an error of judgment on at least three counts, and raises some serious questions of scholarship. While Deacon’s work contains the most complete account of Liddell’s earlier life, it is largely a potboiler, having as its central thesis the claim that Liddell was an agent of Soviet espionage, and may even have been the elusive ELLI over whose identity many commentators have puzzled. (The lesser-known subtitle of Deacon’s book is The Bizarre Story of Hollis, Liddell and Mountbatten.) Yet this is a position with which West is clearly not in sympathy, as is shown by his repeated encomia to Liddell’s performance. The Editors at the ODNB should have shown much more caution in allowing such a book to be listed as an authoritative source without qualification. Lastly, a fact that Deacon did not acknowledge when his book was published in 1989, West had himself been a researcher for Richard Deacon, as West explains in a short chapter in Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, edited by Robert Leeson, and published in 2018. Here he declares that Deacon was ‘exceptionally well-informed’, but he finesses the controversy over Liddell completely. Somewhere, he should have explained in more detail what lay behind his research role, and surely should have done more to clarify how his source contributed to his summarization of Liddell’s life, and why and where he, West, diverged from Deacon’s conclusions.
else with which West does not deal is Liddell’s supposed relationship with one
of the first women members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Joyce
Whyte. David Mure, in The Last Temptation,
had hinted at this lady’s identity, but not named her, giving her the codename
‘Alice’. In With My Little Eye,
however, Richard Deacon went much further, providing us with the following
insight (which can be found in a pagenote on p 194 of Misdefending the Realm): “In the early 1920s, when Liddell was
working at Scotland Yard, supposed to be keeping a watch on communists, his
mistress was Miss Joyce Wallace Whyte of Trinity College, Cambridge, and at
that time one of the first women members of the Cambridge Communist Party. In
1927 she married Sir Cuthbert Ackroyd, who later became Lord Mayor of London.” For
what it is worth, Deacon has Whyte’s family living in Chislehurst, Kent: Mure
indicates that the influential lady lived nearby, in Sidcup.
is not as if Liddell were outshone by his colleagues, however. To an extent, he
was unlucky: unfortunate that there was another ‘able’ candidate available in
White when a preference for an insider existed, and perhaps unfairly done by,
from a historical standpoint, when the even less impressive Hollis succeeded
White later. A survey of other candidates and successes does not depict a
parade of standouts. Jasper Harker was regarded by all (maybe unjustly) as
ineffectual, but was allowed to languish as Deputy Director-General for years.
Dick White was not intellectually sharper than Liddell, but was likewise
impressionable, and equally bamboozled. He managed the politics better, however,
had broader experience, and was more decisive. Hollis was certainly less
distinguished than Liddell in every way. Petrie was an excellent administrator,
and occasionally showed signs of imaginative leadership, sharpening up MI5’s
mission, but he was not a career intelligence officer. Sillitoe did not earn
the respect of his subordinates, and had a hazy idea of what
counter-intelligence was. Liddell’s equivalent in SIS, Valentine Vivian, comes
across as something of a buffoon, clueless about the tasks that were
confronting him, and how he should go about them, and Vivian’s arch-enemy
within SIS, Claude Dansey (whose highly unusual behavior may perhaps be
partially explained by his being involved, in 1893, in a scandalous affair with
Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Robbie Ross), was regarded as poisonous
by most who encountered him. Kim Philby outwitted them all. (If his head had
been screwed on the right way, he would have made an excellent
Director-General.) So, with a track-record of being only a mediocre
man-manager, it should come as no surprise that the very decent and
intellectually curious Liddell should have been rejected for the task of
leading Britain’s Security Service. The tragedy was that MI5 had no process for
identifying and developing interior talent.
Liddell resigned, he was appointed security adviser to the Atomic Energy
Commission, an irony in that AERE Harwell was the place where Fuchs had worked
until his investigation by Henry Arnold, the adviser at the time. The introduction
to Liddell’s Diaries at the National Archives suggests that he was in fact
quite fortunate to gain this post, considering his links to Burgess, Rothschild
and Philby. (The inclusion of Rothschild in these dubious links is quite impish
on the behalf of the authorities.) Liddell died five years later. The verdict
on him should be that he was an honest, intelligent and imaginative officer who
did not have the guts or insight to come to grips with the real challenges of
‘Defending the Realm’, or to promote a vision of his own. He was betrayed – by
Calypso, by Blunt, Burgess and Philby, by White, and maybe by Petrie. In a way,
he was betrayed by his bosses, who did not give him the guidance or tutoring
for him to execute a stronger mandate. But he was also soft – and thus open to
manipulation. Not a real leader of men, nor an effective manager. By no means a
‘Spymaster’, but certainly not a Soviet supermole either.
it boils down to is that, as with so many of these intelligence matters, you
cannot trust the authorised histories. You cannot trust the memoirists. You
cannot trust the experts. You cannot always trust the archives. And you cannot
even trust the Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography, which is sometimes less reliable than Wikipedia. All
you can trust is coldspur, whose ‘relentless curiosity and Smileyesque
doggedness blow away the clouds of obfuscation that bedevil the world of
intelligence’ [Clive James, attrib.].
summary, we are left with the following paradoxical chain of events:
During the 1970s and 1980s, Nigel West
performs research for Richard Deacon.
In 1987, West publishes Molehunt, where he describes Liddell as ‘a
brilliantly intuitive intelligence officer’.
In 1989, Deacon publishes The Greatest Treason, which claims Guy
Liddell was a Soviet mole.
In 2004, West writes a biographical entry
for Liddell in the ODNB, which praises him, but carelessly misrepresents his
achievements, and lists The Greatest
Treason as one of the few sources.
In 2005, West edits the Liddell Diaries, and provides a glowing
Introduction for his subject.
In 2015, West provides a chapter to a book
on Hayek, praises Deacon for his knowledge, but debunks him for relying on two
dubious sources. He does not mention Liddell.
In 2018, West writes a new book on
Liddell, which generally endorses the writer’s previous positive opinion of
him, but rejects the opportunity to provide a re-assessment of Liddell’s career,
merely concluding that Liddell, despite being’ the consummate professional’,
had been ‘betrayed’ by Burgess, Blunt and Philby. West lists in his
bibliography two other books by Deacon (including the pulped British Connection), but ignores The Greatest Treason.
So, Nigel, my friend, where do you stand? Why would you claim, on the one hand, that Liddell was a brilliant counter-espionage officer while on the other pointing your readers towards Richard Deacon, who thought he was a communist mole? What do you say next?
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.
Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.
I reproduce the letter here:
Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972
I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.
. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;
И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . . (Lermontov)
Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”
[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless . . .”]
I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.
I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.
The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika
My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.
At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.
H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg
I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”
Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest
My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.
The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.
The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.
Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.
I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.
(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)
I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/) But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.
‘Some people opposed the . . . rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.
Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips
As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.
So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler? Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.
President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.
So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.” (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)
I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:
“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.
The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.
We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”
In my Commonplace Book of 2008, I recorded the following nugget: “There is no greater nonsense than that uttered by a Nobel prize-winning economist in a mood of moral indignation”, attributing the apothegm to ‘Anon.’. But that was pure invention: I had actually come up with the saying myself, and indulged in a bit of subterfuge to give it a bit more authority. If the World watched, however, it said nothing.
I can’t recall what particular speech or article had prompted my expostulation, but the trend goes back a long way, with Karl Marx the obvious prototype, even though not all economists’ absurdities are expressed in a mood of moral indignation. John Maynard Keynes died before the Nobel Prize for Economics was instituted, but his contribution: “In the long run, we are all dead” is a good place to start. It was either an unimaginative truism, or else a colossal lie, in that, while he and all his Bloomsburyites would indeed be dead within a decade or two, the heritage that he and his acolytes would leave behind would dog future generations, and there is nothing easier for politicians to do than leave a legacy of debt to posterity. One notorious example who did catch my attention was the 1992 Nobelist, Gary Becker. He once wrote a piece for Business Week (I have it somewhere in my clippings files), which recommended that housewives ̶ he may have called them ‘homemakers’ ̶ should be paid for the work they did. It must have been utterances like this that caused the New York Times to dub Becker ‘the most important social scientist of the past fifty years’, as it reflects a tragic confusion in the economist’s brain between Effort and Value. Moreover, who would check whether the housework was done properly? If the government were to pay housewives for their contributions, it would need a Bureau of Domestic Affairs to be set up, with supervisory rights, inspection capabilities, a system of fines, as well as all the trappings of equal opportunity hiring, overtime pay, health care benefits, proper vacations and pensions for all its employees. Who would be paying for all this? One might as well suggest that I should be paid to do the gardening or the yardwork.
And then there’s Paul Krugman, whose ‘progressive’ rants (yes, that’s how he classifies himself, as if everyone who disagrees with him is some regressive Neanderthal – not that I have any bias against the Neanderthal community, I hasten to add, as most of them were upstanding characters, with reliable opinions on such matters as free childcare and climate change, and actually passed on some of their genes to me), appear regularly in the New York Times. Krugman ̶ the 2008 laureate ̶ once famously said that the US National Debt (now standing at about $19 trillion), is not a major problem, ‘as we owe it to ourselves’. In which case, one might suggest: ‘why don’t we just write it off’? I am sure we wouldn’t mind. Krugman lives in a Keynesian haze of 1930, and is continually arguing against austerity, and recommending that now is the time to increase the debt even further by ‘investing’ (note the leftist economist’s language: government spending is always ‘investing’, not ‘spending’) in infrastructure and education in the belief that this will get the economy ‘moving’ again, and foster wealth-creation, not just consumption. Keynes in fact recommended increasing government spending during times of recession, and putting it away when times were good, when the rules of national and global economics were very different from what they are today. The policy of today’s leftist economists seems to be to encourage governments to spend a lot when times are good, and even more when times are bad, criticizing any restraints on spending as ‘the deficit fetish’ (see Labour MP Chris Mullin in the Spectator this month).
So next comes along Joseph E. Stiglitz, the 2001 Prize recipient. Earlier this year he published “The Euro: How A Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe”, which I think is an absolutely muddle-headed and irresponsible project. Not that he doesn’t bring an honest concern to bear on the perils of the euro, but a) sensible persons (including me) have been pointing out for ages that financial integration is impossible without political integration, so the overall message is nothing new; and b) it is not clear whether he is talking about the future of the European Union or Europe itself, or why the health of ‘Europe’ is tied to a shared currency. Worry not: the flyleaf informs us that the guru ‘dismantles the prevailing consensus around what ails Europe, demolishing the champions of austerity while offering a series of plans that can rescue the continent – and the world – from further devastation.’ Apart from the fact that, if there is a ‘consensus’ about what ails Europe, his would be a lone voice in the wilderness, one can only marvel at his hubris.
Stiglitz shows he does not understand what he calls ‘neoliberalism’, the belief in the efficacy of free markets, at all. He characterizes neoliberalism as ‘ideas about the efficiency and stability of free and unfettered markets’, and wants to bring the power of the regulator – him who knows best – to address the instability of markets. ‘With advances in economic science [sic], aren’t we supposed to understand better how to manage the economy?’, he inquires in his Preface, without specifying what he regards as ‘the economy’ – the total output of all the countries of Europe? ̶ or why he claims economics is a ‘science’. And, if he is a Nobelist, shouldn’t he be answering such questions, not posing them rhetorically? (This month, Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the US Federal Reserve, expressed the following alarming concern: “The events of the past few years have revealed limits in economists’ understanding of the economy and suggest several important questions I hope the profession will try to answer.” From his recent see-sawing, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, appears to be similarly bewildered. Over to you, Joseph.) But markets are inherently unstable: that is why they are markets. Joseph Schumpeter was the economist who introduced the notion of ‘creative destruction’ to explain how previously dominant players can be swept away by innovation and organizational sclerosis. Such ideas disturb econometric regulators like Stiglitz: they would prefer to have a clearly defined number of players in a market, allow them to make enough profit to keep their investors happy, but ensure that there should be enough competition for each to keep on its toes, but not so much that any individual company should actually fail. Yet such a set-up quickly drifts into crony capitalism, like the US health insurance ‘market’, where supporters of President Obama’s disastrous Affordable Care Act admit that the role of the regulators is to keep insurance companies solvent. Or politicians meet with ‘business leaders’ in the belief that they are discovering what ‘business’ wants; today’s ‘business leaders’ know very well that they do not represent the interests of a competitive market, but gladly go along with the pretence, and look for favours to protect them from the upstarts. Be very wary when journalists (or politicians) start talking about ‘the business community’: it proves they don’t get it.
What is more, Stiglitz demonises his intellectual foes. Even though their ideas have been ‘discredited’, ‘they are held with such conviction and power, immune to new contrary evidence, that these beliefs are rightly described as an ideology’. (p 10) Unlike his own ideas, of course, which are naturally ‘scientific’. “Modern scientific [sic!] economics has refuted the Hooverite economics I discussed in the last chapter.” (p 54) “Doctrines and policies that were fashionable a quarter century ago are ill suited for the 21st century”, he continues (p 269), but he quickly adopts the Keynesian doctrines of eighty-five years ago, without distinguishing what is fashion and what is durable. (Keynes made some notoriously wrong predictions, especially about automation and leisure.) People who disagree with Stiglitz are madmen: “Today, except among a lunatic fringe, the question is not whether there should be government intervention but how and where the government should act, taking account of market imperfections.” (p 86: his italics) Yet it is clear that, while he denigrates the designers of the Euro for applying free-market economics to the reconstruction of Europe’s economies, categorising them as ‘market fundamentalists’ is utterly wrong. Those architects may have believed, as Stiglitz claims, that ‘if only the government would ensure that inflation was low and stable, markets would ensure growth and prosperity for all’, but such an opinion merely expresses a different variation on the corporatist notion that governments can actually control what entrepreneurialism occurs within its own borders. After all, as Stiglitz admits, the chief architect of the European Union and the euro was Jacques Delors, a French socialist.
The paradoxes and contradictions in Stiglitz’s account are many: I group the dominant examples as follows:
1) Globalisation: For someone who wrote “Globalization and its Discontents”, Stiglitz is remarkably coy about the phenomenon in this book. The topic merits only three entries in the index, much of which is dedicated to some waffle about ‘the global community’. For, if globalization is an unstoppable trend, it must require, in Stiglitz’s eyes, political integration to make it work, on the basis of the advice he gives to the European Union. “The experiences of the eurozone have one further important lesson for the rest of the world: be careful not to let economic integration outpace political integration.” (p 322) Are you listening, ‘the rest of the world’, whoever you are? Yet the idea of ‘World Government’ is as absurd as it was when H. G. Wells suggested it a century ago. By the same token, however, if Europe believes it can seclude itself from globalization effects by building a tight Customs Union, it must be whistling in the dark. Stiglitz never addresses this paradox. Nor does he recommend the alternative – a return to aurtarkic economies, which would be an unpalatable solution for someone who has to admit the benefits of trade. No: he resorts, as in his proffered ‘solution’ for the Euro crisis, to tinkering and regulation.
2) Austerity: On the other hand, Stiglitz has much to say about ‘austerity’. Unsurprisingly, he is against it, defined as ‘cutbacks in expenditure designed to lower the deficit.’ But he then goes on to make some astounding claims about it: “Austerity has always and everywhere had the contractionary effects observed in Europe: the greater the austerity, the greater the economic contraction.” (p 18) “Almost as surprising as the Troika’s not learning from history – that such private and public austerity virtually always brings recession and depression – is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned from the experiences within Europe.” (p 312) No evidence is brought forward to support such assertions. Is he not familiar with the austerity of the Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps between 1947-1950, which was necessary in order to foster an export effort, and was seen as successful? Or Reynaud’s austerity policies in France in the 1930s, which led to economic recovery? Unfortunately, ‘austerity’ has come to imply meanness of politicians unwilling to hand out entitlements with funds they don’t have (the belief of those who concur with that definition being that such spending will inexorably lead to wealth creation), rather than signifying a well-designed good-housekeeping move to protect the currency. Yes, austerity will not work as a policy for Greece: debts will have to be forgiven in some measure, since (as Keynes told us in The Economic Consequences of the Peace), people reduced to slavery will never create enough wealth to hand a portion over to others. But a large part of the problem there was government overspending and poor tax collection – a lack of ‘austerity’.
3: Confidence: Stiglitz is dismissive of any softer aspects of economic decision-making that may get in the way of his ‘scientific’ thinking. ‘Confidence theory’ is another of his bugbears. “The confidence theory dates back to Herbert Hoover and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and it has become a staple among financiers. How this happens has never been explained. Out in the real world, the confidence theory has been repeatedly tested and failed. Paul Krugman has coined the term confidence fairy in response.” (p 95) Stiglitz never explains how anybody was able to conduct ‘scientific’ experiments on something as vague as ‘confidence’ in the real world. Moreover, Paul Krugman is a good mate of Stiglitz, and they clearly belong to a Mutual Admiration Society. “Joseph Stiglitz is an insanely great economist”, puffs Klugman on the back-cover. But then, there must be different types of confidence, since Stiglitz later states: “Indeed, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011, may have saved the eurozone, with his famous speech that the ECB would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro – and in saying that, restoring confidence in the bonds of the countries under attack.” (p 145) But ‘confidence theory’ never works! Shome mishtake shurely? Absent-mindeness? Or sophistry?
4: Productivity: Stiglitz seems as muddled by productivity as do most economic journalists. He appears to share the popular opinion that increased productivity is important, as it leads to greater prosperity. That was one of the goals of the Eurozone, after all, with its free flow of labour and capital. (p 70) But common-sense tells us normal people that productivity can be applied only to a certain task. If it takes fewer employees, and less capital, to make 1000 widgets, than it did before, the benefits will accrue to the owners of capital (and in turn the pension funds) rather than to the general working populace (as Piketty has pointed out). Only if the displaced employees can find alternative similarly well-paid employment will overall prosperity increase. Stiglitz, somewhat reluctantly, seems to accept this viewpoint, but gets there in a devious way: “In the eurozone, across-the-board average hours worked per worker have declined – implying an even worse performance.” (Would fewer hours worked not suggest better productivity? Britain is reported to have lower productivity – and lower wages – than most European rivals, but less unemployment. Is that good or bad?) And then: “But most of the advanced countries will have to restructure themselves away from manufacturing towards new sectors, like the more dynamic [= ‘unstable’?] service sectors.” (p 224) But what is required to make this happen? Yes, government intervention. The market does not perform this task very well, so what is needed is ‘concerted government effort’. By individual nations? By the EU? Stiglitz is not sure, as he knows such policies are largely precluded within the eurozone. And it is not clear whether everyone will fall over themselves trying to provide services to a declining manufacturing sector – especially when those services are moving overseas as well. What is to be done? What will people do to earn a decent living? That is the perennial problem.
5: Markets: Stiglitz does not understand how markets work. In reality, they are not ‘designed’, as he claims. They do not pretend to lend themselves to stability. Their members compete, and sometimes fail. Yet he severely criticises those who he claims do not understand his view of them, for example as in the following observation about distortions: “But, of course, in the ideology of market fundamentalism, markets do not create bubbles.” (p 25) What market fundamentalists would say is that markets will make corrections to bubbles in due course, so that overpriced (or underpriced) assets will return to their ‘correct’ value once information is made available, or emotions are constrained. Moreover, failure is an inevitable outcome of the dynamism of markets, and, in order to keep trust in those entities who behave properly, mismanagement and misdemeanours of those who break such trust must be seen to fail. (An enormous slush of capital – primarily Oriental – is currently looking for safe havens in Western countries, and is almost certain to create another bubble.) In addition, there is no ‘banking system’: banks are no different from any other corporation. A loose and dynamic range of institutions provides various financial services: they will lend as they see fit, and, if they miss an opportunity, a competitor should pick it up. The answer to the recent errors of Wells Fargo on the US, for instance, is not more regulation, but a massive exodus of its customers to other banks, and visible punishment for the executives who let it happen. Bailouts lead to moral hazard: investment is always a risk. Yet the Stiglitzes of this world close their eyes to reality, seeing a business environment where established companies should be entitled to survive, making enough profit to satisfy the pension funds and their investors, but not so much that they would appear greedy and exploitative, and should try to maintain ‘stability’ to contribute to ‘full employment’. ‘Stability’ is the watchword of Stiglitz and his kind (like the Chinese government trying to maintain the ‘stability’ of the stock-market), but it is impossible to achieve.
Enough already. There are some other oddball things, such as his dabbling with referenda when the going gets tough: “There could be a requirement, too, that, except when the economy is in recession, any increase in debt over a certain level be subject to a referendum within the country.” (p 243) Surely not! And I don’t claim to understand his remedy for fixing the euro without dismantling the eurozone itself, something that apparently involves carving it up into different sectors. But Stiglitz has really written a political pamphlet: the eurozone is for some reason important to him, as it is to those who think that only political integration will prevent a reoccurrence of the dreadful world wars that originated there. “A common currency is threatening the future of Europe. Muddling through will not work. And the European project is too important to be sacrificed on the cross of the euro. Europe – the world – deserves better.” (p 326) That belief in ‘the European project’, and the disdain for those who would question it, is what divided Britain in its recent referendum.
Yet I can’t help concluding that Stiglitz and his colleagues are much closer to the architects of the euro, and thus part of the problem, than he would ever admit. The belief that expert economists, with their mathematical models and their Nobel prizes, can somehow understand how an ‘economy’ works, and possess the expertise to fine-tune it for the benefit of everybody, and somehow regulate out of the way all the unpredictable missteps that will happen, is one of the famous modern illusions. When separate decisions are made by millions of individuals, and companies and firms devise any number of strategies for new technologies, new markets, some whimsical, some wise, to suppose that all such activity can be modeled and projected, in order to supply enough taxable revenue to fund any number of favourite programmes, is simply nonsense. It is as if such experts had never worked in the real world, managed a start-up, struggled to make a payroll, had to lay off good people, dealt with a sudden competitive threat, faced an embarrassing product recall or an employee rebellion, or wrestled to bring a new product successfully to market. Yes, of course, capitalism is flawed, some executives are absurdly overpaid, compensation committees are largely a joke, and corporate boards are frequently useless, risktakers should not be generously rewarded for playing recklessly with other peoples’ money (and being rewarded for failure as well as success), and the notion that ‘aligning executive goals with those of shareholders’ does not magically solve anything if the former get away like bandits just once because of cheap stock options, while the latter who wanted to be there for the long haul simply watch from afar . . . When all is said and done, common prosperity still relies on private enterprise and profit.
Those who believe in expert management of ‘the economy’ simply have it all wrong. Except under war conditions, governments of liberal democracies cannot control the wealth-creation processes of their populace. They can spend money cautiously, knowing how unpredictable private wealth-creation is, and simply try to foster the conditions that encourage entrepreneurialism. Alternatively, they can put the currency at risk by running massive deficits, and they can plunge the place into the depths through socialism (see Venezuela), or abet a death spiral like that of Greece or Puerto Rico. But the one thing they should not do is carelessly engage Nobel Prize-winning economists to give them advice. As a postscript to the self-indulgent advice from Keynes that I quoted earlier, two prominent economists, Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Peter G. Peterson, former secretary of commerce, jointly offered the following observation concerning the National Debt in the New York Times this month: “Take some advice from two observers who have been around for a while: The long term gets here before you know it.” But neither of them has won the Nobel Prize.
P.S. A few hours after I completed this piece, I read a feature encompassing an interview with Stiglitz by the editor of Prospect, Tom Clark, in the October issue of the magazine. The article quoted Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, as saying: ‘the likes of Stiglitz and Krugman have got their Nobel prizes, then given up developing the economic ideas, and drifted into radical political commentary instead.’ Too true. If Stiglitz is not a charlatan, he is hopelessly confused. I would not change a word of what I wrote.
P.P.S. After the publication of last month’s installment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, three items have come to light. A reader sent me some provocative statements concerning Sonia from Soviet archives, a 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage has inspired some fresh observations about Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System, and my attention has been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. I shall report more, and make some textual amendments, next month – probably in the omnibus version only, to keep the integrity of the monthly posts whole.
A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Chasm), and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.
As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work. (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.) My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.
I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.
After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here. (January 31, 2016)