Two Letters on Treason

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Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images (left); John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images (right)
Kim Philby (left) at a press conference in London, 1955; Hugh Trevor-Roper (right) at Oxford, 1950

Hugh Trevor-Roper and Kim Philby worked together from 1941 as fellow recruits of British wartime intelligence. They savoured each other’s company, admired each other’s intellects, and shared a contempt for the inadequacies they perceived in their superior officers. But whereas Trevor-Roper’s attitude toward them provoked calls for his dismissal, and on one occasion a preposterous charge of treason, Philby, the real traitor, charmed his superiors with courteous deference.

In Trevor-Roper’s view Philby would have gone on to become head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) but for the flight of Donald Maclean and Philby’s drinking companion Guy Burgess to Moscow in 1951. That episode, though it threw suspicion on Philby, did not destroy him. He remained on the intelligence payroll and from 1956 was stationed in Beirut, under cover of a posting as a correspondent for the London Observer.

In 1957 Trevor-Roper encountered him in Iraq, on a tour of the country organized for journalists. Though Trevor-Roper, who like Philby’s other colleagues had not suspected him during the war, was now convinced that he was a Russian spy, he kept his knowledge from him. So, as Trevor-Roper would recall, “we mixed again on the old terms; and although I inwardly shrank from him as a traitor, I must admit that I found his company as attractive as ever, his conversation as enjoyable.”

In January 1963, when the net was tightening around him, Philby slipped away to Moscow. In Britain public interest in him became intense in the autumn of 1967, partly because British journalists were exposing his activities, partly because the Russians, delighting in Western discomfort, were encouraging the publicity. By January 1968 Trevor-Roper had written a long essay on Philby for Encounter. Published in late March, it would reappear in expanded form as a book entitled The Philby Affair.1 The essay was widely applauded for bringing new depth and sophistication to the study of state secrecy. It also caused outrage within the intelligence community, both by its breach of the convention that former officers do not publish their knowledge and by its unflattering assessment of the British machinery of secrecy.

The starting point of Trevor-Roper’s essay was the appearance of three recent books on Philby. Between the composition and the publication of the essay there appeared a book that interested Trevor-Roper much more, Philby’s own memoirs, My Secret War. On April 1, 1968, Trevor-Roper published an article on the memoirs in Le Figaro, which had just printed material from them. On April 30 Philby responded to the article in a typed letter to Trevor-Roper, which was sent from Moscow via Le Figaro. Trevor-Roper hesitated long before writing his reply, which is dated September 21. It too was typed, evidently by Trevor-Roper himself, whose personal letters were normally handwritten …

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  1. 1

    A critical edition of The Philby Affair will be included in a collection of Trevor-Roper’s writings on wartime intelligence, The Secret World, edited by E.D.R. Harrison (I.B. Tauris, 2014).