In 1975, William Colby, the director of the CIA, was bracing himself to testify before the Church Committee on the crimes of the CIA. The agency was created to be accountable to Congress, but it had so routinely evaded that responsibility that being honest was considered a form of treason to the company. (Former director Richard Helms had been given a hero’s treatment for his own lying to Congress.) Just before his testimony, Colby went to see an old friend, who he knew was giving a guest lecture at George Washington University on Sophocles’ Antigone, about the woman who defies her family and the state to stay true to her conscience. That friend was Bernard Knox, a fellow “Jed” from World War II. The Jeds were members of Operation Jedburgh, which trained three-man teams (one American, one British, one French) to parachute by night into occupied France and join the Resistance. Both men became decorated war heroes. This was just one example of the way Knox could bring together ancient literature and modern life.
Knox was a good comrade to have in combat situations. He had served on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, where he was severely wounded in the neck and shoulder and left for dead by his own troops. He was there because his friend John Cornford had come back from a first foray into Spain to recruit fellow Communist students at Cambridge and Oxford to follow him into the war against Franco’s fascists. Knox told me that Cornford, a poet and charismatic leader, was “the most extraordinary person I have ever known…. Perhaps it was the fierce single-mindedness of his thought and action that compelled admiration.” Cornford found Knox conducting a Marxist reading group in Cambridge, and he took him to meet his father, the famous Cambridge classicist Francis Cornford, who gave his son the revolver he had carried as an officer in World War I. Knox had to smuggle the gun through customs since Cornford was a radical whose luggage was bound to be searched. When Cornford was killed in Spain, Knox had to take that news back to Cornford’s lover, Margot Heinemann, whose poems lamenting his death Knox sent me:
Yes, you’d like an army all of Sidney Cartons,
The best world made conveniently by wasters, second rate,
Someone that we could spare,
And not the way it has to be made,
By the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.
After recovering from his war wounds (which left a scar on his neck), Knox came to America, to marry the woman from New Jersey he had met when she studied in Cambridge. For three years he used his classical Cambridge training to teach Latin to girls at a private school in Connecticut. But when America went to war he joined the OSS. His language skills led the men forming the elite Jedburgh corps to appoint him to its number. Later, in the McCarthy …