(This chapter is transplanted from the final text of Chapter 1 of my doctoral thesis. The section on methodology was removed for the publication of ‘Misdefending the Realm’, with a summary incorporated into the Preface, and some of the excised material – chiefly concerning Cairncross – incorporated into Chapter 8. The main reason for posting it here is to allow coldspur readers to access the full methodological statement: I have left the ‘Historical Background’ section in place, as it still serves as a useful introduction to the methodological discussion, in my opinion. The WordPress importation process has converted all the Footnotes into Endnotes, with somewhat clumsy identifiers. I have not attempted to dabble with these structures. )
Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 had come as a severe shock for the British government. Lenin, the architect of the revolution, had planned to export the proletarian dictatorship internationally, and had set up the Communist International (or Comintern) to execute that strategy. The Comintern’s declared mission was to destroy the stronghold of ‘the bourgeoisie’ and ‘imperialism’ that Britain’s place in the world represented. Britain’s ministers and civil service leaders soon identified the nation’s primary security goals as protecting the Empire against the subversive influences of communist doctrine. For Britain was assuredly ‘imperialist’: its political leaders regarded the interests of the country and the Empire as inseparable.
Their reasoning was well-established: they regarded Britain’s prosperity as being largely dependent upon protected colonial markets, and the associated control of vital resources and shipping routes. Communism, through its ideological attack on imperialism, and on the dependent status of the colonies, presented an essential threat to such arrangements. It also represented a potential menace to the British way of life, which was the cultural lifeblood of the Empire. Communism was a totalitarian system of government dominated by one ruling ideology and party, committed to extremist notions of class warfare, and deploying no division of powers. It required government control of industry and the media, all accompanied by harsh punishment for dissenters subject to laws enacted by edict, or even to arbitrary sentencing without trial. If communism spread to Britain, its ruling class would be faced with the same fate that befell the tsarist system.
Although Britain’s governing class did not accept the inevitability of a proletarian dictatorship, as predicted by Marx, it considered that any domestic actions to facilitate this socio-economic upheaval needed to be closely monitored and stifled. Within two years, in 1919, the British War Cabinet had set up a committee of the recently established Secret Service Bureau to investigate how the country’s civil intelligence should be strengthened to face this new threat of Communist subversion. The committee decided that the authority for the new Directorate of Intelligence should reside with the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, while MI5 (which had been created in December 1915 as an offshoot of Military Intelligence) would remain in charge of monitoring subversion in the armed forces. Nevertheless, during the next decade, the Special Branch, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) had frequent disagreements about control of the intelligence machinery, and the Secret Service Committee remained in operation to oversee the three organizations.
From the perspective of the British government, the fortunes and reputation of the Soviet Union blew hot and cold after this time, but the threat of subversion remained very real. Britain’s coalition government had attempted – but failed ̶ to help strangle the emergent Soviet Union at its birth. In 1924, professing some ideological sympathy with the communist cause, the first Labour administration had decided to recognise the new state. The Labour Party was nevertheless resolutely opposed to extra-parliamentary means of implementing change, as espoused by the restive foundling on its doorstep, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Even though the CPGB appeared to exert less direct political influence than had been feared at first, it turned out to be a corrosive factor in the unions and the armed forces, where it represented a constant threat for disruption and even mutiny. The discovery of espionage taking place under cover of the Soviet trade organisation, ARCOS, in 1927, highlighted the menace of subversion, and prompted Britain to break off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
Further evidence of subversion surfaced in 1928, when a communist network was shown to have infiltrated the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police itself. MI5 and SIS collaborated in tracking the movements of the network leader, William Ewer, who was paying his contacts with money supplied by the CPGB. Perhaps chastened by its experience of the ARCOS trial, at which testimony betrayed the fact that the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) must have broken Soviet ciphers, the Attorney General decided not to prosecute the Special Branch officers who had revealed information on surveillance activity to their Communist suborners. Moreover, despite the measure of co-operation exercised during this case, both Special Branch and MI5 complained at this time about the incursions of SIS on to their mainland territory.
The Comintern, meanwhile, had increased its pressure on British institutions, taking advantage of a deteriorating economic environment. The symptoms of the financial depression that started in 1930 turned the political spotlight anew on the ability of a market economy to sustain a high level of employment, and thus ensure a satisfied citizenry. Interest in the Soviet experiment, and the possible advantages of nationalization of ‘the means of production, distribution and exchange’ [*], increased. The voices of intellectuals and democratic socialists expressing doubts about the efficacy of private enterprise became louder. Early in 1930, MI5 reported on increased communist subversion in the armed forces, which came to a head in the Invergordon mutiny of September 1931. A more systematic approach for detecting subversion and espionage was needed. At the final meeting of the Secret Service Committee, later that year, MI5 was handed the exclusive task of managing the bolshevik threat within the United Kingdom, while SIS was directed to focus on its mission of gathering intelligence on foreign soil.
In 1929, MI5 had assigned responsibility for the surveillance of Soviet espionage to the first woman officer appointed in the organization. The woman’s name was Jane Sissmore, and her achievement represented a significant breakthrough both in British intelligence and in British professional life. [†] Her first significant contribution is recorded in 1935. In November of that year, she wrote a report [‡] on the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), stating that the department’s mission should be to stay informed of ‘activities, policy and mischievous potentialities of subsidiary bodies of the Comintern operating under the direction of the Communist Party of Great Britain’. The spirit of the report, however, suggests that MI5, despite its alarming experience with Special Branch in 1931, had not yet internalized the threat of direct subversion of the intelligence services. Sissmore’s analysis, signed off by Guy Liddell and Jasper Harker, her bosses, concentrates on members of the CPGB, and their ability to cause damage through subversion and sabotage. Yet by now the twin arms of Soviet intelligence, the military organisation (GRU), and the state department (OGPU, which became the NKVD in 1934), had begun to apply fresh pressures, deploying new methods of subverting the Western democracies, with special attention on Britain. MI5 was unaware that the Soviet Union had recently started to recruit sympathetic high-fliers from Oxbridge, who were to be inserted into Britain’s political and diplomatic ranks. The seriousness of the duel was increasing, yet the focus of MI5 was still on the Communist Party.
By the time of Sissmore’s report, however, a new threat, couched in an alternative totalitarian ideology, had emerged. In 1933, Adolf Hitler had grabbed hold of power in Germany, with the objective of enforcing his ideology, and his territorial ambitions for a new German Reich, as set out in Mein Kampf (first published in 1926). Now, unlike the doctrine of communism, Hitler’s manichean message was not of the brotherhood of man, and of equality, but of nationalistic strength and racial superiority ̶ with an avowed goal of expanding the Reich’s borders into Eastern Europe and Russia. It was, however, equally totalitarian, and shared the same features of fully integrated control of society through government organs, and fierce repression of opponents, that were the emblems of Stalin’s Russia. Thus, while the appeasing factions at the time (e.g. the majority of the Tory Party, royalty and the House of Lords, and the group known as the ‘Cliveden set’, which included the editor of the influential Times newspaper, Geoffrey Dawson) obviously did not recognise this threat, Germany also represented an existential menace to Britain. Hitler wanted to add colonial possessions, preferably re-acquiring territories conceded to Britain after World War I, and his increased warnings about uniting disparate ethnic Germans outside Germany’s national borders threatened the balance of power in Europe. His claims about wanting a peaceful co-existence with the British Empire were trusted by too many: those who objected were accused of provocation – a trap into which even Stalin was later to fall. Yet what action should be taken was unclear. In the minds of those who had experienced it, the horrors of World War I resonated more strongly than the fears of German revanchism. And a specific German threat to the British Isles was not perceived by MI5 or SIS until Germany’s re-occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, which caused the services to take fresh stock of their intelligence-gathering and surveillance processes.
The interplay of fascism and communism in the political and intellectual arenas of the 1930s posed considerable problems for Britain’s intelligence services. Oswald Mosley founded his British Union of Fascists in 1932, and the Home Office decided, in November 1933, that it should up its response, and that MI5’s policy towards Fascists should mimic its treatment of Communists. In 1935, the Comintern developed a ‘Popular Front’ campaign that undermined the old class warfare slogans with a message of unison against fascism. As the thirties progressed, the traditional horror of bolshevism was reinforced in some quarters by news of Stalin’s slave camps, show trials, and purges; others claimed the oppression was overstated, or even justified. In 1936, the apparent righteousness of the Republican cause in the Spanish civil war tilted much of public opinion against the naked aggression of fascism, while Stalin’s equally vicious organs were able to operate more furtively in support of the Republican government. The Nazis followed up their domestic oppression of leftists and Jews by incorporating Austria under force (in March 1938), and then by annexing the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia (in September). As the threat of European-wide war became more likely, countries struggled to determine who their enduring adversaries and allies were. And while Britain represented a beacon of freedom, it also became a haven for a heterogeneous set of refugees. Such visitors were initially welcomed in the cause of humanity, but they were still ‘aliens’, and thus inherently suspicious. In the eyes of the Home Office, they might well have been fleeing from Hitler’s persecutions, but could also have been concealing their Communist sympathies from the domestic authorities. Was Britain’s liberal policy of allowing asylum-seekers into the country increasing the potential success of subversion and potential insurrection, and thus making its task more difficult?
Opinion in Great Britain was sharply divided over how the country should react to these twin totalitarian threats, apparently ideologically opposed, but similar in methodology. Some of the populace regarded bolshevism as the eternal enemy, and were thus prepared to make accommodations with Hitler despite their distaste for Nazi Fascism, a point of view that dominated Chamberlain’s administration, and especially the Foreign Office. Others, including most members of the Labour Party and intellectual fellow-travellers, inspired by Stalin’s ‘anti-fascist’ clarion call, and maybe regarding the goals of communism as more healthy and honourable than those expressed in Mein Kampf, were ready to overlook the inherent horror of Stalin’s dictatorship, believing that only communism was strong enough to fight fascism. Another set of more high-minded pacifist voices, perhaps taking their cue from Church of England clerics, remembered the carnage of WWI, and placed their hopes in the League of Nations and the idea of ‘collective security’ spawned at Versailles, calling for worldwide disarmament. There was also a fourth group of independent pragmatists, embodied by such as Churchill and Sir Robert Vansittart (Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs), which could be said to constitute those who believed that all forms of totalitarianism had to be resisted more urgently, and looked for greater determination and muscle in re-arming the country to fight it. Such a divergence of views was the price of living in – and governing ̶ a pluralist democracy, and politicians had to deal with the realities. While the totalitarian regimes became bolder and more oppressive, Britain’s decision-making on security was characterised by further rounds of sub-committees, working-parties, memoranda, and submissions, and negotiations between different government departments. Due attention had to be paid to such topics as the constitutional role of MI5, while the Home Office’s reinforcement of the principle that arrests should not be made purely on the basis of suspicion, and that popular opinion, and the morale of the workers in the factories, all had to be taken into consideration when more stringent measures against subversion and espionage were being evaluated, caused dithering and delay. Britain’s peacetime values of tolerance and pluralistic debate were a liability in times of crisis.
MI5 was perhaps too complacent about the threat of Nazi subversion. Its officers may have been fed with the assertion that the Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany to develop an espionage service.[§] However ambiguous such a ban was, Hitler blithely chose to ignore such proscriptions, concluding, quite correctly, that ‘collective security’ was a paper tiger. An active Nazi organisation for propaganda and intelligence-gathering was accordingly working in Britain by the mid-1930s. The aims of German intelligence were quite straightforward. It tried to encourage the Chamberlainite policy of appeasement, to drive home to opinion-leaders the perils of bolshevism, and to bolster the native fascist movement. It sought also to determine what plans and actions Britain might be pursuing towards an alliance with Germany’s eastern adversary, the Soviet Union. It exploited the disaffection with British rule of provincial groups (especially the Irish), and sought out agents in such territories. The dangers for Britain were that, if Hitler were able to keep Britain subdued, he would be free to execute his plans on his eastern borders first, gaining valuable resources for his war machine, before turning his brutal attentions to the UK, and trying to dismantle the British Empire. Elsewhere (e.g. in Czechoslovakia in 1938, and later in Poland, in 1939) Germany had been able to facilitate its invasion by use of a ‘Fifth Column’ of operatives in contact with military command, and to exploit the presence of native sympathizers who could assist in the takeover of political control. Despite the existence of the British Union of Fascists, it was not until after Chamberlain’s demise in May 1940 that a fear of such a force appeared intensely in the United Kingdom, with the arrest in London of the American spy working for the Nazis, Tyler Kent. The collapse of Denmark and Norway that month brought a rapid insertion of the terms ‘Fifth Column’ and ‘quisling’ unto political debate.
On the other hand, the objectives of Soviet espionage were better concealed, more strategic, more subtle. While the Soviet Union hoped to increase direct political influence through the successes of the Communist Party, and stressed the attraction of a broad leftist political front to counter Nazism, it had long-term subversive goals, such as fomenting labour unrest via penetration of the unions, initiating mutiny and sabotage in the armed forces, and influencing intellectual opinion by nurturing academics and civil servants who were favourable towards Communism. In addition, it had a very aggressive strategy for acquiring technological and military secrets to compensate for its dismal creativity back home, and for infiltrating the corridors of power to discover who might be plotting an alliance with Hitler against it. It had developed its well-crafted strategy for identifying potential members of Britain’s political elite who were sympathetic to the communist cause, and gaining their commitment before they had graduated from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Truly, a ‘Red Menace’ existed on Britain’s hearth. The threat of Russia’s being able to undermine British society for a smoother Communist takeover was always real, and yet the Home Office responded pusillanimously. Even the success of the Woolwich Arsenal convictions in 1937 (after the detection of a Communist ring led by Percy Glading) was muted, as prosecutors displayed a desire not to upset Stalin, a behaviour of appeasement that mimicked the accommodations made to Hitler.
Moreover, MI5 seemed to have ignored some obvious signals. The 1928 lesson of Ewer and the Special Branch had apparently been forgotten. MI5 failed to consider that the Soviet Union might have been planning to infiltrate the security services themselves, and it instead concentrated its efforts on members of the Communist Party and its public sympathisers. Since 1934, however, officers of the Soviet Union’s intelligence departments, such as the highly capable cosmopolitans Walter Krivitsky (in the GRU) and Alexander Orlov (in the NKVD), had been scheming to insert ‘illegals’ in the western democracies, and have them recruit agents who were chartered with burrowing their way deep within the establishment. Britain was singled out as the most important of such targets. Having successfully camouflaged their Communist backgrounds, these moles (with one notable exception) managed to conceal their true affiliations as they gained entry to various diplomatic and intelligence structures. The notion that effective subversives might have carefully veiled their ideological loyalties did not seem to occur to the officers in MI5. So the Security Service remained in the dark.
The official histories [**] suggest that efforts to counter Nazi espionage were far more resolute than those against the Soviet threat. Before hostilities broke out, and in the first six months of the war, however, such initiatives did not always result in decisive action. It was admittedly easier for MI5 to identify probable sources of information leaks to the Nazis, while the surveillance of Communists and their allies evolved into an interminable process of ‘keeping an eye on’ suspected subversives, and rarely progressed to a more penetrating stage. Reasons for such differences in execution can be suggested. Germany was geographically closer, and was the traditional adversary: Vernon Kell (who headed MI5) and Churchill (who joined Chamberlain’s wartime cabinet in 1939) had vivid memories of German espionage a generation earlier. Germany’s borders were more open, British visitors continued to throng there, and its menace was frequently reported on. Hitler had declared his intentions publicly (even though few British politicians had read Mein Kampf): his overall objectives were very clear, and his supporters and sympathizers showed their affiliations openly.
The process of closer surveillance and internment was slow to be launched, however. While the term ‘fellow-traveller’ was rarely applied to Nazi sympathizers [††], MI5 had in fact successfully identified dozens of members of the Auslands Organisation [‡‡], and wanted it banned. Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, was another who made an urgent appeal for action against the organisation, but who was frustrated by pro-German sympathies in government. (His repeated criticism of appeasement in fact lost him his job.) Chamberlainite lackeys continued to deliver supportive messages to the emergent enemy. So, even though the appeasers disapproved of the more rabid aspects of Hitlerism, a strange kind of double-think emerged. At the start of the war, it was as if the government considered a British form of fascism relatively harmless, and that it would be unreasonable to assume that a home-grown variant could be unpatriotic, submit to the German variety of the ideology, and provide assistance to the enemy. Mosley was not interned until May 1940, when the assumed dangers of ‘fifth columns’, as evidenced by Germany’s successes in Norway and Denmark, were highlighted by the media, picked up by the public, and internalised by the politicians. Any potential domestic help for Hitler’s plans to undermine and subjugate Britain had then to be aggressively opposed.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union was remote, and less accessible, visited almost solely by those who wanted to believe in the coming Utopia. While the Russian people had suffered, and an apparently horrible but necessary experiment was under way, the apparent goals of equality and ‘social justice’ pursued by Communism seemed to many to be more noble and humanitarian than the creed of racial superiority espoused by Hitler. Bolshevik revolution in Britain seemed a romantic notion, only a distant possibility, and intellectuals were frequently seduced by the more pacifist aspects of its message. For example, the influential liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin, fellow of All Souls, renowned later as a fierce critic of totalitarianism, and to be recruited as a key intelligence analyst by the British Embassy in the United States a few years later, heard in April 1936 that his friend Stephen Spender had joined the CPGB. He promptly agreed with Spender’s assessment that it was a ‘neo-liberal’ organization. This was an extraordinary ‘appeasing’ opinion, which Berlin was soon to revise. A few months later, perhaps spurred by the horrors of Stalin’s show trials, he urgently tried to convince his friend of his mistake [§§].
Such influential voices thus contributed to a more indulgent supervision of the broad Left. While MI5 maintained prolific files on Communists and their sympathisers, it was a gentlemanly sort of surveillance, to be converted to an arrest only if a suspect were caught red-handed. And even though many of those watched were aliens, their loyalties were not unduly questioned. Those who were not British citizens were, almost exclusively, not Soviet citizens either: the cosmopolitan flavour of Communist espionage made the identification of subversives more difficult. Nazi espionage was casual and obvious: Soviet espionage was deep and furtive. Yet Stalin’s constant recalls and purges of agents set MI5 off its guard: early in 1939, Kell went so far as to make the ridiculous claim that Communist espionage was non-existent [***]. Ironically, Hitler did not take great interest in intelligence reports; Stalin devoured everything. What is certain that, while the British did identify nearly all German spies who were engaged in short-term intelligence missions, it failed to discover the majority of Soviet agents who were focussed on long-term strategic subversion.
Chamberlain continued to dither in his attitude to both totalitarian powers. His policy of appeasing Hitler, believing each time that the German leader was a reasonable man whose final demand had been made, had been shown to be a dismal failure. After the fiasco of Munich, and the rape of Czechoslovakia, when Chamberlain’s trust in Hitler had been shown to be utterly misguided, he had pushed himself to make a commitment to the even more distant country of Poland that Britain would not tolerate any more Nazi incursions into sovereign states. Yet Britain’s preparation was puny. Up to the outbreak of war, Chamberlain and his party whips maintained a strict control over the Tory majority in the House of Commons. Re-armament took up, but at a feeble pace. Appointments of ministers were uninspired. In the eyes of many, the Soviet Union was a natural potential ally against the Nazi menace. Apparently, Stalin thought so, too, since the doctrine of ‘collective security’ had proved to be a sham, a realization that cost Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, his job. But it was difficult for serious negotiations between the two countries to begin. Neither party trusted the other. Chamberlain was virulently opposed to communism: Stalin had informed the CPGB, via the Comintern, that an alliance between a Chamberlain-led government and the Soviet Union would be untenable. The CPGB, in turn, characterized Chamberlain’s government as ‘Hitler’s Fifth Column’. [†††] (In truth, Chamberlain’s representatives continued to try to negotiate with Germans even after the war had started.) Thus the overtures that Britain and the Soviet Union made to each other in the summer of 1939 were half-hearted, and doomed to fail.
And then an astounding bouleversement occurred, which should have thrown all previous assumptions up in the air. In August 1939, Stalin and Hitler surprised the liberal democracies by signing a pact of non-aggression. This also included some secret clauses about territorial claims, which showed that the Soviet Union too maintained expansionist designs. Hitler apparently wanted a complaisant Soviet Union before starting his eastbound invasions. (As late as November 1940, when Molotov visited Berlin in an attempt to resolve the conflicting interests of the two dictatorships in the Balkans, Hitler was still hoping that they might jointly be able to dismember the British Empire.) Stalin’s motivations were unclear: some say he wanted to gain time after the purging of his Red Army, but, if so, he failed to make use of it. Maybe he wanted to pre-empt an alliance between Britain and Germany, the prospect of which continually perturbed him. In any case, British intelligence had not foreseen that the two totalitarian states, sworn ideological foes, would become allies. Neither of course did the Communist Party of Great Britain, which had to make some quick adjustments in its messages. Some remnants of goodwill from the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 [‡‡‡] had been retained, despite Hitler’s regular rants against bolshevism.
Soon after the pact was signed, the fruits of the conspiracy by these unlikely partners were seen in the brutal carve-up of Poland and the Baltic states. In September 1939, Britain followed up on its commitment by declaring war on Germany, the latter’s problematic strategic relationship with the Soviet Union remaining an irritant and a complication. Even though Britain was not at war with Russia, the risk remained that the non-aggression pact could develop into something much tighter, and more dangerous. Britain was also concerned that the Soviet Union would interfere with the economic blockade of Germany, and re-route valuable materials to the Nazi regime. The nation’s home-grown supporters of the totalitarians were sparked into a response. Both the British Union of Fascists (now called just the BU), and the CPGB immediately issued propaganda against the war, yet the Home Office was able to persuade the War Cabinet that no action should be taken against them, as it would in that case also have to be taken against the popular Peace Pledge Union. The fragmentation of a pluralist democracy [§§§], whereby negotiations for law and executive action continually have to test the validity of contesting viewpoints, was seen at work again, stifling any decisive response. Nevertheless, MI5 and the Home Office should have paid special attention to the risk of the two totalitarian states sharing purloined secrets with each other.
Into this cauldron of frenetic espionage and counter-espionage Walter Krivitsky, the GRU officer, made his entry. Krivitsky had defected from his station in France to the USA in 1937, and had been persuaded to visit the UK at the beginning of 1940 after providing valuable information, via the British Embassy in Washington, about a Soviet spy in the Foreign Office. A singular opportunity thus presented itself to MI5, offering the chance to gain a valuable trove of information to make up for the hole in the organisation’s intelligence caused by the Soviets’ changing of their encipherment procedures after the ARCOS revelations. Defectors can bring a host of vital information about enemy organisations, personalities and procedures that would be impossible to gain from any other source. The urgency with which Stalin instructed his Fourth Department to track down and murder such individuals is testimony to the danger their revelations posed to the Soviets’ strategies. Krivitsky’s visit was an extraordinary event that merited the full attention of British intelligence.
Krivitsky had been born in Poland, as Samuel Ginsberg, in June 1899, and had eagerly embraced the goals of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, joining military intelligence (GRU) in 1920. He then acted as a highly-effective ‘illegal’ operative in various nations of Western Europe, becoming a high-level officer by the mid-nineteen-thirties. When Stalin began his purge of old Bolsheviks and less than totally-loyal agents, Krivitsky himself had even been ordered to murder another agent, his friend Ignace Reiss (who had openly challenged Stalin). He managed to evade that responsibility. Fearing for his own life, however, when Stalin continued to kill intelligence personnel who might have been tainted by foreign ways, or by ‘Trotskyism’, or who simply expressed disgust with his tyranny, Krivitsky managed to avoid a recall to Moscow, and defected in 1937. He then went public with some highly provocative – but accurate – revelations about Stalin’s ruthless dictatorship and police system, which must have set him more firmly in the sights of Moscow’s special assassins.
In the autumn of 1939, having been helped by information originating from Krivitsky, MI5 had been able to detect, convict, and gain a term of imprisonment for John Herbert King, the spy he identified in the Foreign Office. Britain’s Security Service then expressed interest in speaking to Krivitsky himself. Its officers calculated that he might be able to assist them with other suspected leaks, and he was persuaded to come to the UK. When he arrived in January 1940, Jane Sissmore was appointed as the lead interrogator, and became his key confidante. Sissmore (now Archer) was the most experienced of MI5’s officers working in Soviet counter-espionage. (She had married another intelligence officer, Wing Commander John Archer, the day before war broke out). She had lived up to all the confidence expressed in her, successfully managing the Woolwich Arsenal case. She was also responsible, after Krivitsky returned to Canada in February 1940, for writing the official report on the sessions jointly held by MI5 and SIS. It is clear from the documents on file that Krivitsky, who was very cautious when the interrogations started, and overall not trusting of British intelligence personnel, gained a high degree of confidence in the sympathetic, self-assured and highly competent Jane Archer.
The information that the MI5 and SIS intelligence officers gained from Krivitsky was of exceptional value. Here was a defector who had both inside knowledge of Stalin’s machinations with the German government as well as insights into the Soviet Union’s strategy for subversion in the UK. He named key agents working in the Soviet Embassy; he provided broad hints at the identity of Soviet spies working inside the British government and the media; he described the Soviet strategy for subverting British Intelligence directly, outside the confines of the Communist Party; and he warned of the potential danger to Britain incurred by the Soviets’ sharing any findings with their Nazi allies. Yet MI5 (and to a lesser extent, SIS) astonishingly failed to follow up on this unique opportunity: on the contrary, during the next twelve months, it recruited overt Communists, as well as Soviet agents who had attempted to conceal their past affiliations, into the organisation. It failed to pursue leads that might have enabled it to keep under surveillance agents acting as middlemen between traitors and the Soviet Embassy, and thus unmask such figures as the spies Philby, Cairncross, Maclean and Fuchs. It appeared to be thwarted continually by the Home Office in its attempts to intern communist activists disrupting the war effort. (It is significant that Soviet infiltration was already performing its mischief: one of the first civil servants to read the Krivitsky report was a Soviet mole, Jenifer Hart, later to become an Oxford don.)
In addition, MI5 failed to assess seriously the implications of revealing the outcomes of the interrogation to a broader audience. The slipshod dissemination of information contributed to Moscow Centre’s ability to track Krivitsky’s movements, with the result that a year later he was murdered in Washington by Stalin’s thugs. Various excuses were later given for this negligent behaviour: shortage of staff; the vagueness of Krivitsky’s information and the dubiousness of his character; confusion of leadership and the political turmoil during the ‘Twilight’ or ‘phoney’ war; the demands made upon MI5 to investigate the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column; the necessity of not provoking the communistic unions and thus affecting wartime productivity in the factories. The timing was even muddied to suggest that, as the Soviets became allies, any prosecution of the leads would have been insulting and damaging to the successful prosecution of the war. But it was nevertheless an operational failure of dire proportions.
MI5 showed a total lack of effectiveness in its follow-up. Jane Archer was re-assigned as soon as she completed her analysis, and dismissed later in the year for insubordination [****]. Procedures for disseminating her report appropriately, and maintaining its security, were lax or non-existent. The report itself was well-written, and analytical, but seemingly made no recommendations. MI5 was not culturally or organisationally prepared to accept that it might have recruited subversives, and thus was not positioned to perform a strict review of its hiring practices. The voices of those who expressed concern about the possible undermining of the service by Communists were drowned out by those who regarded any threat as minimal. Government servants who had raised flags about serious information leakages to the Soviets allowed their attention to wander. After a short burst of energy provoked by Krivitsky’s contribution (when even Kell was roused into action), and suggestions were made to the Home Office about possible internment of CPGB members, observation of Communists weakened. MI5 experienced resistance from the Home Office, whose judgments leftist politicians like Ellen Wilkinson and Denis Pritt, abetted by Harold Laski, were able to sway. MI5 failed to notice linkages between embassy staff identified by Krivitsky and incidents of previous surveillance of suspected subversives, and to follow up appropriately. Soon after, on June 10, Kell himself was dismissed by Churchill, and yet he and Jane Archer formed an extraordinary partnership in the remainder of 1940 – two discarded officers trying to track down Krivitsky again.
The preliminary conclusion might be that MI5 officers simply displayed an infirmity of purpose: they did not have a resolute and clear plan for what the result of its surveillance of communists should be, and had no mechanism for assessing and verifying what Krivitsky told them, or then pursuing such leads. This is perhaps an inevitable and enduring characteristic of a government bureau trying to maintain security in a liberal democracy. It was culturally hard for it (and the Home Office that would actually make the decisions) to arrest or banish suspects unless they were found with the proverbial bomb in their hands or with their fingers on the button of the camera taking images of secret documents. Furthermore, its instincts for security were continually thwarted by the voices of liberal society. And yet, after a proven success record against Nazi spies, it missed a number of opportunities for detecting, and acting upon, real threats from Soviet spies, and it loosened its recruitment disciplines. The visit of Krivitsky was a god-sent gift of unique value. Nevertheless it appears that a selective policy of turning a blind eye to communist infiltration was developed. What caused this change of course? Who made it happen? And why? Was it an open and unanimous policy? And how did the appeasers win out?
The research agenda behind this thesis thus sets out to answer the following primary question:
- Was MI5’s apparent accommodation of communists caused by incompetence, by confusion, by lack of expertise, by higher political direction, by internal subversion or conspiracy, or by some combination of these factors?
which can be broken down into subsidiary questions:
- Why did MI5 not act upon the leads that Krivitsky provided it? Was there a reason for mistrusting Krivitsky, and defectors in general?
- How and why did MI5 start to minimise the Comintern/Communist threat?
- How did intellectual opinion and government policy influence MI5’s view of communist subversion?
- Why did MI5 loosen its restrictions on hiring officers with communist backgrounds?
- Did communist moles shape policy?
- What opportunities for catching Soviet spies did MI5 miss?
- Why did MI5 officers conceal from their superiors the decisions they made during wartime?
As a conclusion, the following question is addressed:
- What enduring lessons can be learned concerning counter-espionage tradecraft?
The thesis implements a scholarly approach that integrates information from a broad set of sources. While providing a firm historical background, it will concentrate primarily on the series of events between the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (in August 1939), which halted any attempts by the British government to form an alliance with the Soviet Union, and Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union (in June 1941), which immediately inspired Prime Minister Churchill to come to the aid of his previous ideological foe to wage war against Nazi Germany. It extends its attention to the arrest and trial of the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs in 1950, since the critical events of his recruitment by the British authorities, and the initiation of his treachery, took place within the period under the microscope. It will approach and analyze existing accounts of this period through a rigorous cross-checking of sources. The principle parts of its methodology are the following:
1. A Chronological Database: A primary tool is the maintenance and exploitation of a large and proprietary database of events, starting with the initial recruitment of spies by Moscow Centre, ca. 1934, through the war, and up to the time of Fuchs’s sentencing in 1950 (comprising over 10000 events, with over 1500 discrete items for 1940 alone, derived from around 200 different sources, and constantly being expanded) that helps determine temporal sequences, test and verify conflicting accounts, and identify relationships that have hitherto been overlooked. This assists in the creation of an authoritative chronology lacking in every other publication that covers this period, and in its use helps to identify unreliable accounts of important events. While correlation is not causation, and synchronous events are not necessarily triggered by the same stimulus, an accurate chronology is invaluable in chasing down leads for unexplained phenomena.
2. Triangulation of Evidence: An eclectic approach to source material is taken, which accepts that official documents are still the primary source for determining historical facts, but one that acknowledges that the biographies, memoirs and letters of a large array of primary and subsidiary actors can help shed light on discovering what happened – especially when there exist so many gaps in the official record.
The nature of security matters is such that the British government exerts stringent restrictions on the release of official material. While files from MI5 are released on a regular basis to the National Archives at Kew, they do not constitute a full record of the activities of the Security Service and its officers. Civil servants have often ‘weeded’ files of sensitive material: cross-references to unavailable files can be detected from close reading of others. Certain important documents (such as minutes of military meetings during wartime) are frequently missing, or have been destroyed.
The British Government has frequently resorted to granting privileged access by approved authors to inspect secret files, so that such historians and journalists may write histories that show the government in a positive light (e.g. Alan Moorehead in The Traitors, Hugh Trevor-Roper in the Last Days of Hitler), historiography being used as a kind of public relations exercise. This process has been defined as the ‘Denning Formula’ by the historian Christopher Moran. [††††] Such acccounts may be complemented by ‘official’ histories, such as Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, where references are often inadequately sourced, and thus do not contribute substantially to scholarship. The Official Secrets Act, used as a threat to intelligence officers not to reveal any secrets about their careers, has often been abused or ignored in the case of senior figures who either believe that a story deserves to be told (e.g. John Masterman and The Double Cross System, orWalter Winterbotham and The Ultra Secret) or who wish their own story to be written (e.g. Percy Sillitoe’s Cloak and Dagger, or Tom Bower’s The Perfect English Spy, about Dick White). This habit echoes a long-established pattern of British politicians having access to confidential documents in order to write their own histories or memoirs, the most famous being Winston Churchill himself, in his History of the Second World War.
Yet the memoirs of celebrated figures involved in British Intelligence are notoriously unreliable. One expects the accounts of spies themselves, either self-written or dictated to others, (e.g. Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt) to be mendacious: through their own internal contradictions, or by checking with records released posthumously, the astute analyst can identify anomalies and deceptions. Lies are the métier of spies, after all. On the other hand, the memoirs of officers and diplomats involved in intelligence or international politics frequently turn out to be equally as unreliable, and not purely because memory becomes faulty with old age. As the MI6 officer Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “Diplomats and Intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists, and historians who try to reconstruct the past out of their records are, for the most part, dealing in fantasy.” [‡‡‡‡] The period in question, when spies for the Soviet Union – only much later uncovered ̶ mixed easily with prominent civil servants, or even worked for the Intelligence Services, has resulted in a number of persons wishing to attempt to ensure their reputation be recorded in a positive light before they die. The figure of the rogue Guy Burgess, who mixed freely with the Great and the Good, and deceived them all, is a special ogre in their careers, and they must somehow explain that they were not at fault in their dealings with him, and minimise their relationship with him. Thus accounts of this time by such as Dick White, Gladwyn Jebb, and Isaiah Berlin need also to be treated circumspectly, especially in view of the fact that many historians and journalists have granted them reverence because of the fame or dignity of the authors/subjects.
In the firm belief that some truths have not yet been revealed, and some puzzling questions about MI5’s policy and behaviour remain unanswered, this study takes an intense approach to triangulation of events and testimonies. It sets out to reach plausible hypotheses about a number of enigmatic occurrences that relate to its major theme, such as the firing of Jane Archer, the shared mission to Moscow by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin, the collusion of Rudolph Peierls and Max Born over the recruitment of Fuchs, and the failure to prosecute Leo Long when he was caught stealing confidential material. For that reason, to complement the documents increasingly being released to the National Archive, it will use such sources to verify the memoirs of the major participants, and to shed light on facts evolving from study of official papers. It will thus use the memoirs, diaries and biographies of such peripheral figures as Cedric Belfrage, Elizabeth Bentley, Max Born, Moura Budberg, Dmitri Bystrolyotov, Hugh Dalton, Joseph Davies, C. A. Day-Lewis, Tom Driberg, Nicholas Elliott, Mary Fisher, Muriel Gardiner, Katharine Graham, Shiela Grant-Duff, Harold Laski, Isaac Don Levine, Bruce Lockhart, Hilda Matheson, Joan Miller, Tim Milne, David Mure, Harold Nicolson, Rudolph Peierls, Goronwy Rees, Flora Solomon, Stephen Spender, Robert Vansittart, John Wheeler-Bennett, and Ellen Wilkinson. It will exploit in particular the Letters of Isaiah Berlin, and the unpublished transcripts of Berlin’s interviews with his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, the full implications of which have been overlooked by historians of this period. Indeed, the unbiased accounts of minor players (e.g. Bickham Sweet-Escott) who have no reputation to defend can sometimes be regarded with more confidence than the sanitised or distorted recollections of the major players.
3. Vertical and Horizontal Integration: A multithematic approach to the history of intelligence at this time, which interweaves narratives from multiple concurrent sectors of the political and diplomatic environment, is adopted. It precisely places the activities of British Intelligence in the contemporary political/military framework, as well as relating them to the socio-literary events of the times. Thus the challenges of British Intelligence in 1940 are set in context of a) the machinations of the Soviet spies themselves; b) the political dynamics of appeasement and an opposing serious thrust to counter the Nazis; c) the rise of broader intellectual sympathy with the ideals of the Soviet revolution; d) the struggles of Soviet intelligence, as it tried to recover from Stalin’s purges; e) the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services, and the struggle for control and management of them; f) the demands of coalition government, Churchill’s role in leading it, and the accompanying pressures from Labour (Socialist) politicians, with special attention to the role of the Home Office in internment decisions; g) the reorganisation of British intelligence, and the effect it had on reshuffling (or eliminating) roles and functions; h) competition for control of propaganda, as represented primarily in battles between the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office, but also with more furtive organisations like the Joint Broadcasting Committee; and i) the realities of Anglo-Soviet relations, both official and unofficial, and the presence of European governments in exile in London, with a range of delicate interchanges between many of the actors in the drama.
4. Collingwoodian Analysis: An approach to historical analysis will be used which could be called ‘Collingwoodian’, namely a methodology that treats the drama as the scene of a possible crime, and attempts to go beyond the dry collection and re-statement of facts to apply some psychological testing to the evidence of the participants. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood described this approach in his 1946 book, The Idea of History, where he distinguished sound history-writing from both the ‘scissors-and-paste’ style, where undue attention is paid to the memories of participants, as well as from fiction, which has its own version of truth, but not a historical one. As an illustration of this idea, he wrote: “The principles by which this evidence is interpreted change too; since the interpreting of evidence is a task to which a man must bring everything he knows: historical knowledge, knowledge of nature and man, mathematical knowledge, philosophical knowledge; and not knowledge only, but mental habits and possession of every kind; and none of these is unchanging.” [§§§§] Such a methodology requires imagination, but not invention.
In the face of contradictory information, for instance, when documentary proof may never become available, the method will analyze the professional situation and probable motivations of many of the actors (e.g. Krivitsky’s possible dissembling; the historical distancing of themselves, by all British diplomats, politicians and intelligence officers, from any close association with the spy Guy Burgess) in order to present a more convincing hypothesis of what actually happened. Accepting that multiple hypotheses have been suggested about treasonable activities deep within MI5 – in particular, the existence of a super-mole orchestrating treasonous activities, and the betrayal of secrets to the Soviets – this thesis does not offer any new evidence to support any individual claim. It will recognize that, while there may have been a superspy known to Moscow Centre (in fact, military intelligence, the GRU), as ‘ELLI’, his or her identity may never be known. This writer brings no new evidence on the identity of such a person to the table. The thesis will thus treat with circumspection all theories of the presence of such a character – and thus of the culpability for MI5’s negligence ultimately resting with a lone person working for Soviet Intelligence. In contrast, it will make the case that a well-intentioned but disastrous sympathy for Communism, not directly engineered by the Comintern, that emerged in MI5 during the late 1930s was enough to destroy its effectiveness.
Key to the whole Collingwoodian notion is the detection of untruths from witnesses by verification from official documents and third-party sources. (The writer accepts that official documents are not wholly reliable, frequently having been censored by the authorities before release. In the case of Soviet archives, cases of spravki [*****] being inserted into a file to give false information are known to have occurred. In many cases, such as the author has discovered in the voluminous archives on Klaus Fuchs, documents are posted that deliberately give a false impression of what happened, or testimony is re-written to help sanitise decisions made or nor made, where only a rigorous cross-checking of events and memoranda can help identify conflicts. Moreover, many documents that might have shed light on events have been withheld or even destroyed.) Yet the gradual dissemination of official documents, perhaps not known by actors to exist, and maybe believed by them never to see the light of day, has helped provide a rigorous background-check to the dubious world of personal memoir.
As has been previously noted, the memoirs and testimonies of participants in the world of intelligence are riddled with mendacity. One can perhaps group liars into four main categories: the professional, the casual, the reluctant, and the habitual. Spies are essentially of the first group. Their confessions and memoirs are inherently unreliable: they took up their careers by accepting the Big Lie that was Communist doctrine, and suppressed their own imagination and judgment because the word from the Comintern was the only correct one. Thus living and speaking a lie become, for them, second nature. Lying to deceive is part of the programme, with a few verifiable facts thrown in for verisimilitude. John Cairncross and Kim Philby, whose memoirs are totally unreliable, are examples of this category. What is remarkable is how many reputable authors or journalists – admittedly, but not exclusively, at a time when relevant archival records were not available – have been taken in by such deception. For the professional liar works alone: he does not erect a cast-iron scaffolding to provide strength to his fiction, and the weaknesses in the infrastructure soon become apparent.
The second group treats the occasional misrepresentation of the truth as a necessary but harmless aspect of political life. Casual practitioners – essentially honourable men ̶ may thus neglect events they consider minor, or slightly distort what actually happened, regarding the manipulation of the truth as a justifiable twist that may be easily overlooked, and forgiven. Thus Gladwyn Jebb’s failure to acknowledge and describe his involvement with Burgess and Berlin in the summer of 1940, and to understate or overstate his role from that time, in order to preserve or enhance his reputation, and Rudolph Peierls’s and Max Born’s failure to acknowledge when they first made approaches to Klaus Fuchs, come into this category. The perpetrator justifies it as a sin of omission (or faulty memory) rather than commission, believing that the essence of historical truth has not been betrayed. Such offences are mainly peripheral to the Great Tide of History, but they can shed an eerie light on some aspects of the overall story.
The third liar, the reluctant one, is a character who probably has an impeccable reputation otherwise, but is someone who believes that a lie needs to be told for a greater good, such as the protection of another’s reputation, or that of an institution. Dick White’s deceptions over Long and Fuchs, carried out to protect the image of the Security Service (and, incidentally, his own career) are an example of this kind. The lie will be made very deliberately, planned with others, and thus will be carefully orchestrated. When he lies, the perpetrator has clearly reflected on the issue at length: he has thought out the territory, and confined it. Such liars harbour a strong belief (and desire) that they will not be discovered, and thus go to extreme lengths (as a group) to keep their secret secure – such as MI5’s trying to suppress Joan Miller’s memoir, as Chapter 6 describes. They justify it by suppressing the personal dishonour that accompanies the lie, attributing it to a higher moral purpose (such as the reputation of MI5, and the protection of the harmonious relationship between the UK and the USA).
The last category is the most problematic – the liar who habitually tells untruths, or invents fables, simply because he sees no immorality in it, or believes it does not matter. It has become a way of life, and, either receiving reinforcement for the behavior, or at least no strong deterrent, the practitioner decorates his account of events with any manner of fabrications and embellishments. It appears that Isaiah Berlin comes into this category, as evidenced in repeated misleading statements he made about his acquaintance with such as Burgess, Straight, Halpern, Philby, and Maclean, as well as his persistent denial that he ever worked in Intelligence, and the dubious tales he tells about his youth in St. Petersburg, or the death of his uncle. His account of his meeting Akhmatova in 1946 has come under severe scholarly criticism, for similar reasons, and the episode of the clash with Donald Maclean at Katharine Graham’s house, described in Chapter 5, is another example of the role of pantomime in Berlin’s narrative. Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, has confirmed to this writer that Berlin was a regular fabulist in his personal life, not just distorting events, but creating them as if they actually happened, and ascribes the practice to the influence of his mother. This is a far more alarming phenomenon, since Berlin’s individual testimony is key to much of the ‘Moscow Plot’, and has been accepted and echoed by many other historians. Yet, as the Berlin-Ignatieff transcripts, and Berlin’s letters, show, his lying is not executed with panache. Various repeated verbal mannerisms accompany the deceit, which only draw attention to the fact that things are not as they are being described (for example, in Berlin’s anguished letter of protest to Goronwy Rees, described in Chapter 5).
Thus the historian, having inspected the relevant archives and laid out his chronology, determines that certain items of evidence from an important witness are in conflict with the established record, has to consider the nature of the liar. He has to consider his role, his professional status, his associations and friendships, his motivations at that stage of life when the transgression occurred, as well as his knowledge and probable intentions at the time he recalls the incident. Once the lies have been detected by a process of verification, a new challenge for the historian is to judge, in the case of witnesses who lie, when they tell the truth. Which type of liar are they? The casual and the reluctant liars are easier to process than the professional and the habitual versions of the species. An example of each of the latter pair will indicate the scope of the problem.
John Cairncross published his autobiography The Enigma Spy in 1997. Cairncross’s role in the events covered by this thesis are pivotal, as he was a major provider of information to the Soviets during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Yet some unresolved questions linger. For example, as Chapter 7 explains, if, in the summer of 1940, Cairncross had access to atomic secrets by virtue of his working for Lord Hankey, how did he pass them on to his masters once Gorsky had left London in February of that year? Or did he sit on them until Gorsky returned (not knowing if and when he would return, of course)? Did he use Burgess as a courier? This writer notes that, in his autobiography, Cairncross writes about his dealings with Guy Burgess at this time, reporting that, in July 1939, Burgess contacted him for some information he needed about British plans for Poland, to be given (so Burgess claimed) to a group of anti-Nazi Germans that Burgess was in touch with. He [Cairncross] provided it in note form, notes which were later found in Burgess’s flat after he had absconded to Moscow. Cairncross also indicates that he believed Burgess and Blunt had been behind his recruitment as a spy, stage-managing, in May 1937, his recruitment by James Klugmann from behind the scenes. He also describes meeting Burgess socially, which would all suggest a close familiarity with him. Finally, Cairncross casually drops the fact that, when Gorsky returned from Moscow, he told his Soviet handler about the incident with Burgess, and Gorsky rebuked him, telling Cairncross to avoid Burgess in the future. Overall, Cairncross minimizes his espionage activity, and differentiates himself from the ‘Cambridge Five’ (of which he did not regard himself as a member) by virtue of his patriotism.
What is happening here? Why is Cairncross volunteering this information? Nigel West has subsequently revealed that Cairncross’s account of his espionage is not to be trusted: West discovered from the KGB archives that his spying activities were more extensive and more enduring than Cairncross claimed. This writer asked West (since it was he in Mortal Crimes who pointed out Cairncross’s access to atomic secrets) about the possibility of Cairncross’s passing on the secrets to Burgess, as a courier. West’s reply was surprising. He stated that Cairncross did not know that Burgess was a fellow-spy until 1951, after the defections. The reason he gave for such knowledge was that Cairncross was interrogated by MI5 in 1951 (because of the notes in his handwriting discovered in Burgess’s flat), and told his MI5 interrogator that he had believed Burgess was authorised to receive the information he had requested in July 1939, and had never suspected that Burgess was a Soviet agent. (Cairncross describes this episode in his book: it echoes Berlin’s similar claim.) West rather oddly attributes (relatively) innocent motives to the contact: “Burgess asked many people for information, and offered different reasons”, as if this were normal behavior.
Now West, in view of Cairncross’s mendacity, privately expressed to this writer uncertainty about such a conclusion, but the question certainly needs to be asked publically: why would anyone trust Cairncross’s statements to MI5, when he was under a serious investigation, and needed to extricate himself quickly? In fact, one would expect him to minimise his associations with the other members of the Cambridge Five when being interrogated. One would expect him to have then used the same claim that he was not a Communist, and had only Britain’s interests at heart, as a useful argument in 1951. On closer inspection, however, Cairncross’s account of his activities throughout the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact turns out to be utterly unreliable, simply because he gets so much of the chronology, and of Gorsky’s whereabouts at the time, completely wrong. He presents Gorsky’s return to Moscow (for training) as occurring in about December 1938, and his coming back to London in January 1940. From this time up until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Cairncross claims to have had occasional meetings with Gorsky, at which he passed on little information – because of the sensitivity of the political situation. Thus Cairncross builds a fiction that has Gorsky unavailable at a most critical time (during the whole of 1939), whereafter, on Gorsky’s return, the Nazi-Soviet pact interfered with his desire to pass on secrets, until the latter part of 1941, when Cairncross believed his espionage could be more easily justified, morally.
The whole alibi is false. As Soviet archives have shown, Gorsky was in London for the whole of 1939 (handling Blunt, Burgess, Philby, Tudor-Hart and Cairncross himself, according to other sources such as West’s and Tsarev’s The Crown Jewels, as well as accounts from such as Blunt himself), but was recalled at the beginning of 1940, not returning to London until December 1940. Whole years of Gorsky’s interactions with Cairncross have been misrepresented. Gorsky was thus in London when Burgess approached Cairncross. The key questions now have to be re-posed in the light of this fresh evidence: Why would Burgess have approached Cairncross for information unless he knew that Cairncross was already a Soviet agent? Why would Cairncross reveal such information to Burgess unless he knew that he could trust Burgess not to reveal his source, and betray him? And why would Cairncross insert, in his memoir, the gratuitous information that he informed Gorsky of Burgess’s approach ‘when he returned from Moscow’, when Gorsky was actually in London and in regular contact with him at the time?
We have to consider Cairncross in 1995 (the year he died), and the younger man, very afraid, in 1951. In 1995, Cairncross is a survivor. All his allies and all his accusers are dead (Burgess long gone in 1963, Blunt and Maclean in 1983, Philby in 1985: his MI5 interrogator from 1964, Jim Skardon, in 1987, Dick White more recently, in 1993). No revealing documents have been released by the government. He believes he has a chance to define his legacy in a positive way. But he knows that his interrogation by MI5 in 1951, his subsequent resignation, his further confession to MI5 in 1964 after a lead from Blunt, followed by a partial deal of immunity from prosecution, are all well-known facts. Cairncross had been infuriated by Chapman Pincher’s publication in 1981 of Their Trade Is Treachery, but, living abroad, and thus protected from extradition, had withheld talking any legal action. (Pincher’s allegations about Cairncross, provided by the retired MI5 officer Peter Wright, were in fact accurate. And Pincher was still alive.) John Costello brought out his Mask of Treachery in 1988, and Costello and Tsarev cooperated on Deadly Illusions, exploiting Soviet archives, in 1993. (West’s and Tsarev’s The Crown Jewels, likewise using the KGB archives, with a sharper focus on spies in Britain, would not appear until 1998.) Cairncross had been provoked to write his memoir mainly by a book on the KGB by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, published in 1990, in which Cairncross had been named as the ‘Fifth Man’, and as the ‘probable’ source of atomic secrets leaked to the Soviets in October 1940. [†††††] Thus his autobiography of 1995 is a forlorn attempt to help his tarnished reputation, especially in the eyes of his much younger wife, in the belief that no one will be able to provide any evidence to counter it. He offers a concoction of misleading information, peppered with a few verifiable facts to give his story verisimilitude.
And what were his motives for lying in 1951? To save his skin: he had to acknowledge ‘his flirtation with Communism’, he decided. The evidence of his handwriting was incontestable. It was not going to be ‘damaging’ enough to out him as a spy, but because Burgess was careless enough to leave the original notes undestroyed in his flat when he absconded with Maclean, it could threaten his career. He admitted a minor offence (‘passing confidential notes to the Russians’, according to Andrew and Gordievsky) to avoid prosecution. If not for that discovery, Cairncross would never have mentioned Burgess at all: he had to do so, however, when faced with the evidence, and tried to make out it was a casual contact completely unconnected with Soviet espionage, but dealing with fading negotiations with the German opposition. With hindsight, one can make the obvious point that Cairncross would not have volunteered such information to Gorsky unless he knew that Burgess was a fellow-spy, but one can be sure that Cairncross did not provide that information at the time.
Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what Cairncross said to his interrogators in 1951 and 1964. A file is identified at the National Archives titled ’Espionage Activity by Individuals: John Cairncross’ (HO 523/4), but a note indicates that it is still retained by the Home Office. What is extraordinary, however, is that MI5 did not check the chronology in 1964, when Cairncross made his confession. If Cairncross admitted to espionage (which he did), he must have had a controller, and may even have identified that person to his interrogators, as part of the agreement. If he had lied to his interrogators about chronology in the same way as he presented his espionage activity in his autobiography, they should have been able to perform some additional checks to determine whether his story were true. Certainly, they would not have had access to KGB archives, but a simple search of Soviet Embassy arrivals and departures would have allowed them to plot Gorsky’s movements, and challenge Cairncross on some of his assertions.
By 1995, however, Cairncross feels much more confident about describing his relationship with Burgess, since the latter is a known villain, and Cairncross can present himself as being manipulated. Hence the references to Burgess working behind the scenes, and the mention of parties and other social occasions when they met. Yet this tone must be balanced by even more astonishing statements that appeared soon after Cairncross died. The Crown Jewels tells of Burgess’s nurturing of Cairncross on October 1938, and records how Max Eitingon, Burgess’s controller in Paris, requested that same month permission from Moscow Centre for ‘contact between Burgess and Cairncross so that documents could be received from him’. Whereas Cairncross’s main deliveries were via Klugmann, the book goes on to say that, in September 1938, Burgess passed on information received from Cairncross about ‘an important British agent’ within the NKVD. The evidence looks cast-iron that Burgess and Cairncross knew of each other’s role, and collaborated.
So why would the same Nigel West, who has worked vigorously to uncover the truth behind the deceptions of Stalin’s Men and Women in Britain, in 2015 be so indulgent and casual about Cairncross’s dealings with Burgess, and appear to accept Cairncross’s version of the truth? The main reason is that, even though he receives no mention or attribution in the book, Nigel West was the ghost-writer of Cairncross’s ‘autobiography’, and conducted extensive interviews with the spy. It must have been a colossal embarrassment for the prolific and industrious writer to realise how he had been hoodwinked. He is understandably reluctant to take up his pen and admit the deception. The same author’s Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence (2014) laconically records that Cairncros died ‘after he had completed his memoirs’, while simply stating that his NKVD dossier shows how Cairncross’s claims about not having betrayed atomic secrets were false. Moreover, in the mid-1990s, West should perhaps have attempted to verify Gorsky’s movements himself, and thus been able to demolish Cairncross’s flimsy infrastructure, an oversight that provides a lesson on the critical role that a detailed chronology has to play in historical analysis, and the importance of a historian’s maintaining his distance and objectivity. When this writer pointed out to West, in July 2015, the litany of contradictions inherent in Cairncross’s story, the author replied: ‘I agree with your observations’.
Cairncross’s testimony is thus a whole farrago of lies. One is left with the startling hypothesis that Cairncross may well have passed, in the summer of 1940, atomic secrets to Burgess, who then made plans to get them to Moscow, which would add a brand new dimension to the Moscow Plot. To reinforce this possible scenario of conspiracy, Cairncross reveals in his memoir that he was a close friend of Roy Pascal and his wife, whom Rudolph Peierls, the prime mover in atomic research in the spring of 1940, and whose important report passed by Cairncross’s desk (see Chapter 7), so accurately describes as close friends. Mrs Pascal was a diehard Communist, and had been friends with Peierls in Berlin in the 1920s. Cairncross underlines that relationship by telling how Roy Pascal (‘a prominent Communist’) visited him at the Foreign Office after he joined in 1937, making overt gestures of wanting to introduce Cairncross to a friend of his for ‘intelligence-gathering’ purposes. And from the standpoint of personal psychology, if Cairncross had been left stranded, but had come into possession of vital material, he would have looked for an ally to help him in his cause, just as Burgess took over the handling of Leo Long and his purloined secrets when Anthony Blunt was sent abroad to France (see Chapter 5).
One minor episode in Cairncross’s story provides a smooth link to the second case-study. It appears to be a casual throwaway line with no possible aim of deception: Cairncross describes Guy Burgess with Isaiah Berlin and Alexander Halpern at a party together in 1939. This might be harmless enough, except that Berlin later made a claim about not making Halpern’s acquaintance until they met in New York, in 1941. This item of testimony is analogous to that from another notorious spy, Cedric Belfrage. In his own self-delusionary memoir about persecution of Communists in the USA, Belfrage admitted that he worked in British Intelligence in New York in 1941: that was in an office alongside Berlin, who denied he ever worked for Intelligence. [‡‡‡‡‡] On issues that are not apparently important, even the traitors can help the search for truth. The historian however, has to ask himself: is the witness, a known liar, lying in this case? And then he has to investigate the situation and individual psychology: why would he lie about such an insignificant matter?
Isaiah Berlin’s role in the ‘Moscow Plot’ is one especially ripe for Collingwoodian analysis, since Berlin’s record sadly indicates that he was an habitual liar. Reference to the Burgess/Berlin mission in the summer of 1940 is almost completely absent from the official archive – merely a few Foreign Office memoranda after the journey has been called off. Yet a mission was undertaken, approved at the highest level, and there must have been good reasons for it. In the absence of official records, however, the prime sources come from Berlin himself: first, in the biography written by Michael Ignatieff, based largely on interviews between Berlin and Ignatieff (1998), and second in the letters Berlin wrote during that period, published in 2004. [§§§§§] In addition, Berlin gave several interviews to historians (e.g. Andrew Boyle, for The Climate of Treason; Verne Newton, for The Cambridge Spies), as well as writing a Foreword for Washington Despatches, the compendium of intelligence reports, all of which resulted in accounts of the mission that themselves vary in the details. Occasional commentary from the time, such as Harold Nicolson’s Diaries, provides a very thin veneer of fact to clarify the path of the adventure. (Other contemporary diaries, such as Alexander Cadogan’s – especially those entries that are unpublished – are a good source of reliable information on related events, because of their immediacy. The fact that certain entries are withdrawn ‘for reasons of national security’ is as solid a reason as any for respecting them.)
So how may the facts be assembled? One might judge that contemporary accounts, especially those not designed for posterity, would be the most reliable, as the events would have been fresh in the author’s mind, and would be most free from bias. Thus Harold Nicolson, while not betraying much of a plot in which he was himself partly an accomplice, of course, sheds real light on one dimension of it – that it had been officially cancelled before the voyagers left London. One could also assume that Berlin’s letters from the time were not disingenuous, written with events fresh in his mind: he reveals to various friends aspects of what is propelling him to Moscow. One must bear in mind, however, two things. First, the letters themselves went through a selection process by Berlin, as he prepared them for posterity, and second, he is not internally consistent in the accounts he presents in his correspondence. He was notorious for representing issues in terms that he believed would please his addressee, as a form of flattery, and the clues that he leaves behind in the letters to not point to a single-minded and undeniable purpose. Thus the letters represent an ambiguous position that was part of the legacy that Berlin himself wanted to leave behind. Yet, because of their immediacy, they remain a more reliable indicator of events than the apparently better-organised remembrances of fifty years later.
Berlin’s interviews with Ignatieff (undergone at the end of Berlin’s life) have been transcribed. Now memory can be seen to be in play, and it is moreover a tool that the deceiver can manipulate. Thus one hears of episodes from 1917 that Berlin recalls precisely, while he struggles to remember more recent events, such as whether he ever encountered the spy Michael Straight at Cambridge. Of course, that might well be the elusiveness of an old man’s brain, but unrehearsed habitual liars (as opposed to the Philbys of this world) struggle when under pressure. They are accustomed to huffing and bluffing. Berlin’s speech is affected by verbal tics that are revealing of his discomfort, as when Ignatieff asks him about Straight (“Maybe I knew there was a character like that in Cambridge, maybe I didn’t, that I can’t tell you, it’s comparatively unimportant” [******]), mannerisms that are akin to Berlin’s extraordinary response to Goronwy Rees (see Chapter 5), where Berlin, even in writing, tries to bluster himself out of admitting an association with the enigmatic Joseph Ball. One can detect the same ill-at-ease in the memoirs of Max Born, for example, when he describes his sharing of atomic secrets with Klaus Fuchs just before the war: “I think that I discussed this with Fuchs after my return from Cambridge,” where the desire not to incriminate oneself is at war with a preference for historical truth. [††††††] Berlin’s account of the Mission to Moscow is coloured with a variety of such unlikely scenes, such as a meeting with Colonel Grand of Section D of SIS, where the diplomatic bags in which Berlin and Burgess will smuggle in unidentified material are discussed and described, or the improbable voyage across the ocean, where the garrulous couple never discuss the mission, to the attempted intervention in Foreign Office affairs by Victor Rothschild’s sister Miriam in Washington, that one might pause and wonder whether any of the saga actually took place.
Yet there is enough substance to support the mission: and why would Berlin invent the whole adventure? Bickham Sweet-Escott, a minor player with no axe to grind, confirms it, and Fitzroy Maclean’s official protestations at the Foreign office reinforce it. Berlin’s goal, however, at this stage of his life, is to ensure that a positive legacy is left behind, and thus he applies his spin of a noble intellectual caught up in the fringes of a world he does not understand, performing his patriotic duty. His biographer, who understands the academic world well, is under pressure to deliver quickly, and has no researchers to dig into the murky world of political intelligence for verification of Berlin’s dealings with it. The authorised biographer is too close to his subject: if the latter is alive, a generous amount of deference and respect will have to be shown to guarantee continued access. Berlin’s reputation by now is such that he is confident that he will not be questioned or challenged. He is the authority, the only living witness to the Mission to Moscow, and is the master of ceremonies.
Thus the Collingwoodian historian has to accept that there was at least one reason for Lord Halifax to bless this strange expedition, and to explore a wealth of background activities to pinpoint the dates of the decisions and the events, and to try to suggest what is the most plausible hypothesis of all. He (or she) has to test the recollections of an old man (‘Old Men Forget’) against a scattered set of factoids and observations made across the decades. He has to enter the mind of Berlin and Burgess, and seek what motivated them at the time, and the politicians who aided or approved their venture, and consider how any new hypothesis has to co-exist with what has already been inscribed as history, and what it has to replace. Even if no historical archive proves his case, he knows that there must have been some valid reason why the venture went ahead, and the fact that it has remained secret is a pointer in itself. The suggestion made in Chapter 3 that Churchill used Halifax and Butler as a feint to improve his strategy of deception of Hitler is not a revolutionary idea: John Lukacs and John Costello are supportive of the notion in general, but neither appears to have considered the notion that the pair with a reputation for appeasement may have been convinced by Churchill that it was in their nation’s interest to pretend that they were still interested in pursuing peace with the Nazis when in fact they had given their commitment to Churchill that it was out of the question. [‡‡‡‡‡‡]
What these episodes show is how difficult it is to trust the testimony of persons who are known to be liars, and how easy it is to select the evidence from them that supports a particular thesis (although, in West’s case, he does not appear to have any ulterior research agenda). As official records are released to the National Archives, and information such as the VENONA decrypts are published, the historian can, with a reasonable degree of certainty, identify which actors in the drama are lying on certain occasions, but has to restrain himself or herself from declaring that a) everything that person said is therefore mendacious, or b) that everything else the person said (that has not been shown to be deceitful) can be regarded as true. [§§§§§§] The Collingwoodian process of detective work has to be stringently adopted, with a test of questioning why any person would say what he or she said, given the circumstances, the personal situation and psychology of the individual, his or her knowledge or ignorance of what else was happening, and the dimension played by time and memory. Types 1 and 4 liars (the professional and the habitual) are the most challenging to deal with: Type 2 (the casual) has the least import, and Type 3 (the reluctant) is normally so transparent and obvious, and so easily dismantled by the evidence, that the analyst does not have to waste much time pondering whether the incidents conceal a broader pattern of behavior.
The methodology can be summed up by the following steps:
1) Immerse oneself in the period in question, but do not get too close to any of the actors;
2) Read deeply into the primary subject, but also vertically (to give, for example, military and political context), and horizontally (to enhance the study of ideological dynamics through a background of contemporary arts and science);
3) Absorb contemporary evidence (e.g. archives, diaries, letters, memoranda, news reports) for a perspective of immediacy;
4) Build a detailed chronology of events and actors, with sources, in order to define sequentiality, inspect conflicting versions of events, and identify possible contradictions.
5) Familiarise oneself with detailed biographies of key actors, to reveal important aspects of life, (career, associations, friendships, etc.), carefully considering timing and psychology at the time of events, as well as when memoirs are written;
6) Develop Affinity Charts of key actors to highlight relationships, and identify hitherto undocumented ones;
7) Assess relevance of peripheral observations from minor players (who are more likely than prominent players not to have any ulterior motives);
8) Review testimony from major actors with a view to reliability of evidence, classifying them according to the nature of (any of) their mendacity, and provide evidence for judgments on their reliability or mendacity;
9) Develop new hypotheses for unexplained events, bringing new information to the careful assessment of existing hypotheses, replacing them or enhancing them as the evidence suggests.
This thesis uses this methodology to present an
alarming hypothesis about the corrosion of defence mechanisms against Communist
subversion during the later 1930s and the first years of the war. It will not
constitute the last word. The research process will continue. It is the hope of
this writer that other historians, with access to other sources, will pick up
the threads of this argument, and extend it, improve it – even demolish parts
of it – in an attempt to discern what the truth was behind the very puzzling
events of 1940.
[*] Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, adopted in 1918, ran as follows: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
[†] See Chapter 2 for more information on Jane Sissmore.
[‡] The report is titled ‘Investigation by SS [the Security Service, better known as MI5] into Activities of the CPGB and Indentification [sic] of its Members’. See KV 4/125 at the National Archive.
[§] This assertion is commonly found in histories of espionage. For example, see ‘British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 4’ by Hinsley and Simkins, p 11. Yet the only clause in the Treaty of Versailles which represents such a ban runs as follows: ‘Germany agrees, from the coming into force of the present Treaty, not to accredit nor to send to any foreign country any military, naval or air mission, nor to allow any such mission to leave her territory. . .’ (Article 179). While this article has been interpreted as a ban on any espionage activity, it would not appear to forbid any espionage undertaken by civilians or non-military organisations.
[**] See Hinsley (op. cit.), Christopher Andrew’s ‘The Defence of the Realm’ and John Curry’s ‘The Security Service 1908-1945’ (written in 1946, but not published until 1999), as well as Andrew’s Introduction to Curry’s work. These accounts of counter-espionage against German agents promote the notion that the process was thorough and comprehensive, with the celebrated XX Committee appearing as the most important symbol of that success. That committee did not meet for the first time, however, until January 1941, when it began its successful campaign of turning Nazi spies into agents of disinformation. And the analysts cannot be omniscient. For example, the Germans undertook, in peacetime, an illegal and clandestine enterprise to photograph the landscape of Britain, for purposes of destruction through bombing, yet the activity was undetected.
[††] Joachim Fest uses the term in his memoir ‘Not I’, and the historians of the Gestapo, Dams and Stoller, refer to the term Mitläuferfabrik (translated as ’Fellow Traveller Factory’) in their account of denazification trials. Hitler’s cinematographer, Leni Riefenstahl, was one who was judged, in 1948, to be nothing worse than a ‘fellow-traveller’. (New Yorker, October 19, 2015, p 86)
[‡‡] The Auslands- (Foreign-) Organisation consisted of expatriate members of the Nazi Party (Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). In some countries, non-Germans were allowed to join.
[§§] Berlin’s rapid change of attitude is striking. In April 1936 he may merely have been acting indulgently to Spender: he much later told his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that he had implored Spender ‘on bended knee’ not to join the Communist Party. The date of this event is uncertain, but presumably occurred between the Moscow Show Trials of July 1936 and Spender’s claim that he was sent by the CPGB on a Moscow-inspired mission to Spain to track down the whereabouts of the crew of the Komsomol, which had been sunk by the Spanish, in January 1937. (see Chapter 4)
[***] Christopher Andrew records this in his authorized history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, p 185
[†††] Ironically, it was not until Churchill came to power in May 1940 that the chances of an alliance with the Soviet Union were rekindled; Churchill, who had been the fiercest of opponents of Communism, had indicated as early as 1933 that he would enter an alliance with the Bolsheviks in order to defeat Nazism, but the Chamberlain majority of the Tory Party, and its resentment of a coalition government in which socialists gained new power each month, remained a threat to him until the summer of 1941.
[‡‡‡] After the failure of the Genoa Conference in early 1922, where a dispute over inherited debts caused a breach between the Soviet Union and France, Germany and the Soviet Union turned to each other for support, and signed a commercial treaty at Rapallo on April 16 of that year.
[§§§] Historians frequently characterize the major ideological conflict of these decades as one of ‘communism versus capitalism’. That is not so: capitalism is not a system of government. It was more accurately ‘totalitarianism versus pluralism’. See Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion of this matter.
[****] The career of Jane Archer was astonishing. In his Diaries, Guy Liddell writes (18 November, 1940) that she was ‘sacked for insubordination’, apparently for speaking up one time too many about the incompetence of the head of MI5, Sir Jasper Harker. It was not Liddell’s decision: ‘a very serious blow to us all’, he adds. Archer’s extraordinary abilities were widely recognized: despite her sacking, she was soon hired by SIS, by her ally in the Krivitsky interrogations, Valentine Vivian, and she later worked there for Kim Philby, who testified to her strengths in his memoir, My Silent War. Yet she was not able to carve a path for other woman officers: no others were appointed during the war, and evidence suggests that on 1941 the new head of MI5, Sir David Petrie, issued instructions that barred women from such rank.
[††††] “As someone who had seen British intelligence at its brilliant best during the war, he [Denning] was mortified by the proliferation of scandals, exposes and racy accounts. To correct public misconceptions, he championed the policy of giving discreet official assistance to trustworthy authors. Writers would be selected for their willingness to portray things in a positive light.” (Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain, p 312)
[‡‡‡‡] Chronicles of Wasted Time: The Infernal Grove, p 149
[§§§§] The Idea of History, p 248
[*****] From Russian spravka, a note.
[†††††] Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story, p 311, p 400
[‡‡‡‡‡] Cedric Belfrage, The Frightened Giant
[§§§§§] Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff (Metropolitan Books, 1998); Isaiah Berlin: Letters, 1928-1946, edited by Henry Hardy (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
[******] Tape 7 of Berlin-Ignatieff Exchange, courtesy of Henry Hardy
[††††††] Max Born, My Life, p 287
[‡‡‡‡‡‡] John Lukacs, The Duel and Five Days in London; John Costello, Ten Days to Destiny
[§§§§§§] The Sovietologist Robert Conquest died the week that this section was written. The historian Anne Applebaum cited a statement that Conquest made about the Soviet defector Alexander Orlov: “Just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not invalidate all its evidence.” (Sunday Times, August 9, 2015)