Kim Philby
Kim Philby; drawing by David Levine

We have recently had a spate, if not a surfeit, of Kim Philby, the Englishman who, for thirty years—eleven of them inside the British Secret Service—spied for Russia and has now gone “home.” What he did in those years is now generally known. What he is still something of a mystery. Here are three books about him and one by him. All reveal something about the psychology of this celebrated double-agent. Inevitably the last of them, his own book, is the most revealing. I shall therefore deal cursorily with the others and devote most of this review to it, which I find the most interesting of all.

Of the first three books, the most ambitious and complete is undoubtedly that of Messrs. Page, Leitch and Knightley, the “Insight” team of the English Sunday Times. It can be described indifferently as instant history or as high-class journalism, and it has both the virtues and the faults of this, to me, unattractive genre. That is, it has behind it all the resources of high-powered modern journalism; it is enlivened by the products of interviews with living persons; and it is presented in an efficient, readable, if impersonal style. On the other hand it lacks dimension; it has no corrective context, no general background, no reflective depth. The authors have certainly established the details of Philby’s career with substantial accuracy—he himself has admitted that—although they persist in some questionable assertions, such as that he remained a “field agent” of SIS after his dismissal in 1951. They have also given full and racy biographical accounts of the two other Russian spies—also, like him, Cambridge men—with whom Philby was involved: his close friend, the fascinating, brilliant, but drunken and dirty Guy Burgess, and the distant, enigmatic, unfathomable schizophrene whose wife he has now detached in Moscow, Donald Maclean. All this gives human interest to the “Insight” book. Unfortunately its authors have ignored the duller but more important subject of Philby’s solid work against the Germans in 1941-5, which was the real basis of his rise inside the Secret Service; and they make no attempt to reconstruct the general context within which he operated, either as a British or as a Russian agent. This inevitably makes their book seem superficial. Nor is it helped by the vapid and vulgar Preface of John le Carré—an exercise in pretentious, rhetorical class-hatred which nowhere touches any point of fact and serves only to emphasize and inflate, instead of to correct, the weaker generalization of the authors.

Mr. Cookridge’s book (which also deals with the other two members of the “unholy trinity,” Burgess and Maclean) is different in every way from that of the “Insight” team. In many ways it is much worse. It is far less accurate in detail, and some of its confident assertions are hopelessly wrong. Nor is it so professional, or so lively, in presentation. On the other hand the author, who has studied the world of espionage a good deal longer than his rivals, does provide some background to his story. He has held fewer interviews, but he has done more homework among the documents. More humane as a biographer, he also sees that mere personal biography is not enough. And in one area at least he gives valuable personal evidence. As a Social Democrat in Austria, he was personally involved in the Putsch of 1934 by which Dollfuss destroyed the Social Democratic party and established his own “bourgeois” dictatorship. On that occasion he met Philby, who was then acting with the communists. Since Philby contrived afterwards to bury his communist past, this glimpse of the only period in which he openly revealed his loyalty is of great importance, and Mr. Cookridge’s otherwise shaky book seems to me worth reading for this episode alone.

If Mr. Cookridge casts a narrow beam of light on the dark beginning of Philby’s career as a spy, Mrs. Philby sheds a dim, diffracted glow over the end of it. She was his third wife and they first met in the Middle East, after his fall from power in SIS. Politically naïve, personally incurious, she never learned or guessed anything about his true character till he suddenly and secretly disappeared, leaving her stranded and bewildered in Beirut. Hers is a simple personal narrative, which nevertheless has merit as well as charm. She describes Philby’s state on the eve of his flight, her own predicament thereafter, her journey to Moscow to join him, and their life there until she returned, disillusioned, to America, leaving him in the arms of Mrs. Maclean. This book solves no factual mysteries, but it is valuable for its incidental psychological evidence, to which, in due course, I shall return.

Finally we have Philby’s own book. This is less complete than the “Insight” work, and it avoids the sensitive areas illuminated by Mr. Cookridge and Mrs. Philby. Philby skims very lightly over the years before 1940, when he joined the British Secret Service. He hardly mentions the Austrian episode. He says very little about his activity in Franco’s Spain, although he reveals that he had been sent there secretly by the Russians (who paid him through Guy Burgess) before his open mission as correspondent of the London Times. Equally, except for a brief epilogue on his official clearance in 1956, he says almost nothing on the period after 1951, when he was dismissed from the British Secret Service. The time-span of the book is, in fact, Philby’s eleven years in that service: the rest is frills.


The reason for this incompleteness is given differently at different times. In the Preface we are told, rather ominously, that this is “an introductory sketch” only: “more will follow in due course.” In the Epilogue, the note changes: “the compelling reason,” we are there told, is that “while the British and American special services can reconstruct pretty accurately my activities up to 1955, there is positive and negative evidence that they know nothing about my subsequent career in Soviet service.” In other words, Philby is only prepared to reveal to the Western public what is already known to the Western secret services. His work is intended to embarrass them, not to enlighten anyone.

Of course Philby does not admit this. Indeed, in his Introduction, he seeks to forestall any such suggestion. He has no wish, he there tells us, “to muddy the waters” or “cause a rumpus.” If only he had been left to himself he would have kept silent. Unfortunately he has not been left to himself. The “Insight” publication has “completely changed” the situation and obliged him to speak up in order “to correct certain inaccuracies and errors of interpretation, and to present a more fully rounded picture.” It is simply as a scholar, concerned for historical truth, that he now feels obliged to give a correct version, “a round, unvarnished tale,” of his experiences in the British Secret Service.

This, of course, is complete nonsense, Philby is not a scholar interested in truth. He is an officer of the KGB. To that service, as he freely admits, he has committed his life. His commitment is total—so total (he explains) that he can overlook, as mere incidental, temporary deviations, the prolonged and hideous crimes of Stalin. He is now in the physical power of his employers. He has already compiled, under their orders, the memoirs of another spy—the Russian Konon Molody alias Gordon Lonsdale, who, until his arrest in 1961, was the head of the Soviet spy-net in England. Lonsdale’s “memoirs” were not needed to “correct” any previously published account. And why, if his own memoirs had no political significance or purpose, did Philby offer to withdraw them in exchange for a political concession by the British government—the release from prison of two other communist spies, the Krogers, whose release the Soviet government had already been seeking by other means? In fact, the political significance of this publication is evident once we look at the pattern of which it forms a part. Since 1964 such publication has been a regular Russian policy. It is part of the war of nerves which the Russian government has declared on those intelligence services which have expelled their Philbys.

BUT IF PHILBY’S MEMOIRS are primarily propaganda, that does not mean that they are necessarily untrue. Skillful propagandists, addressing intelligent people, do not lie: they achieve their aims by selection and emphasis. Philby is far too clever a man to use the clumsy methods of a totalitarian regime addressing its helpless subjects. I can vouch for that. For five of his eleven years I was myself a member of the British Secret Service. I knew him personally and was familiar with his work; and I can say with confidence that, as far as they go, his memoirs, over that periods, are factually true. His judgment of situations is generally sound. His pen-portraits (some of which are devastating) are—with certain notable exceptions—exact and just. The historical narrative is accurate too. What we have to ask ourselves as we read this story is not, “is this true?”—it is—but rather, “is this all?” What has Philby, to serve his masters or his vanity, selected? What has he left out?

Philby’s bias is of course determined by his position. He takes it for granted that Russian policy, at all times, was right, and he would never think of testing his own premises. The Resistance movements in Europe, he says, naturally leaned heavily toward the Soviet Union and were only artificially recovered for the West by “a massive Anglo-American military presence.” This distinction may well surprise us. “It is a sobering thought,” he declares, “that but for the power of the Soviet Union and the communist idea, the old world, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.” It evidently does not sober him to think that if the Soviet Union and the communists had had their own way, the result would have been exactly the same. It was not Stalin who tore up the Nazi-Soviet pact. The Westerners who served Russia as spies were, he tells us, idealists: they stayed at their posts of danger for the cause. Easterners who served the West were different: they sought not “freedom” but “the fleshpots”: “it is remarkable that not one of them volunteered to stay in position and risk his neck for freedom. One and all, they cut and ran for safety.” “Not one of them…one and all.” Of course Philby only names a chosen pair. I could tell him of some others who stayed in position until, like Philby, they could stay no longer; and one at least who insisted on staying to the end, which, in Russia, is a good deal nastier than in Britain.


Even in certain of his character-studies Philby’s bias is clear to anyone who knows the facts. The most obvious instance of this is the case of Sir Dick White, the man who, more than anyone, ensured Philby’s exposure and the reform of the Secret Service. Philby is well aware of the facts, and indeed, on his final defeat, he made it known that he was determined to be revenged on his destroyer. He would win the last round, he protested; he would have the last word. So now he takes his revenge by often omitting and always belittling “the ineffective White.” White, we are told, “lacked outstanding qualities.” “His most obvious fault”—so there were others, less obvious—“was a tendency to agree with the last person he spoke to.” He was “too much inclined to be all things to all men.” The plain fact is that, during the war, White was recognized by all rational men to be the clearest and firmest professional head in either of the two security services, and that even before Philby’s fall, even while still in MI 5, he was strongly pressed as the only man fit to be ultimate head of SIS. It is not by being all things to all men that a man makes a unique career—the first civilian to be Chief of the Secret Service, the only man to be head of both MI 5 and SIS. Of course White’s “most obvious fault,” in Philby’s eyes, is really very different. It is that he broke Philby, and indeed the Soviet penetration of British security; and that there was one man with whom, even if he spoke last, he did not agree.

So, little by little, as we examine not the facts themselves but the process of selection and emphasis among the facts, we discover the true purpose behind this “round unvarnished tale.” We also discover something about the curious psychology of the author; and this to me is the most fascinating part of the book. For although the importance of Philby’s career has been grossly exaggerated, no one can deny that it was a very unusual career; and we must therefore be interested in the human mind of which it was the expression. At an early age, Philby—it seems—consciously resolved to be a spy. He did not slide into espionage. He set out, as his life’s work, to deceive all his open friends and confidants for the sake of a distant regime of which he had no personal experience or understanding. And he contrived to persevere in this difficult and unnatural role for thirty years. For we must remember that Philby had never been to Russia, nor to any communist country, till he defected in 1963; that he made his decision, at the age of twenty-one, on the positive intellectual basis of spoon-fed propaganda only; and that it was not his own indiscretions which, in the end, betrayed his long sustained duplicity.

PHILBY’S MEMOIRS do not, of course, by themselves solve this psychological problem, but they do add to the evidence; and what they add is, in particular, the evidence of a truly extraordinary egotism and complacency. Mrs. Philby’s book had already prepared us for this. She describes her life with him as “a perfect marriage,” with no apparent reservations. He was “an ideal husband,” and she still looks back to those days with melancholy pleasure. But in fact Philby not only deceived her throughout that time. He not only—as he afterwards admitted—invariably put his loyalty to the Party before her. He also assumed that she would blindly submit to whatever change of life this prior, unrevealed commitment entailed. When she did even this, following him, after harrowing suspense and grim experiences, to a squalid and lonely life in Russia, he never thought it necessary, or even reasonable, to offer any explanation. “He never once said to me, ‘I’ve landed you in a situation you perhaps did not anticipate when you married me.”‘ Subtle and sophisticated though he is in external matters, where he himself is involved Philby is totally, blindly, egocentric. Only thus, perhaps, could he have been so constant in his uncritical devotion.

The same characteristic emerges from his memoirs. Throughout his active career Philby has deceived his friends, confidants, colleagues, just as he deceived his wife. Trust has been given to him only to be abused, secrets entrusted only to be divulged. Such treachery is seldom forgiven. Mrs. Philby is aware of this; she felt deeply their pariah status in Moscow. But Philby, who clearly values the respect of his former friends, seems quite unaware that he has now lost it. In his memoirs he regularly assures his old colleagues of his continuing “affection and respect” for them. For his old chief, Sir Stewart Menzies, he expresses “enduring affection.” He protests that he does not wish to “embarrass” any of them. He seems to assume that if he spares them embarrassment, they will return his respect. He expresses regret for having had to lie to Menzies’ successor, “the honest Sinclair,” but hopes that Sinclair “now realises that, in lying to him, I was standing as firmly on principle as he ever did.” And in his Preface he solicits sympathy from those whom his revelations may embarrass by explaining that “I too have suffered personal inconvenience through my connexion with secret service.”

SUCH AN ATTITUDE of mind within the closed world of secret services could perhaps be logically defended. If we are all agents, all engaged in penetration and deceit, and the only principle which separates us is our ultimate loyalty, then it may be said that one such loyalty justifies no less than another. But Philby is not consistent even in this. One episode shows this clearly. In 1951, after the flight of Burgess and Maclean, General Bedell-Smith wrote to Sir Stewart Menzies that Philby was no longer acceptable in Washington. This perfectly reasonable letter was evidently drafted by William J. Howard, Philby’s former American contact. On seeing it, Philby was indignant. He is indignant still. “From Howard of all people!” he exclaims. Had not Philby “handsomely apologized” for an untoward episode in his house, when Burgess had grossly insulted Mrs. Howard? How then could Howard play this “very cheap trick” on him? This “provocation,” this “retrospective exercise in spite,” must not go “unpunished.” So Philby punishes it by repeating what he admits to be a cheap story about Howard. This indignation destroys any claim to consistency. Philby expects Sinclair to respect his own treachery as justified by the morality and the rules of the game; but when an American official performs his duty and drafts a letter forbidding the return of a justly suspected traitor to the scene of his treachery, this is a “very cheap trick,” an act of “spite,” which must be punished. We are forced to conclude that it is not consistency in machiavellianism but blinding egotism which dominates and explains Philby’s career.

But if bigotry has formed and egotism has protected Philby’s remarkable way of life, let no one suppose that either the one or the other has destroyed either his intelligence or his charm. In our years together, I appreciated both, and in his memoirs—with whatsoever instinctive reluctance—I appreciate them still. He is the sharpest of observers as he was the neatest of operators. He writes with sophistication, elegance, and irony. His account of the intrigues by which he used the inexpressible Vivian to remove the impossible Cogwill from the command of British Counter Espionage in 1944-45 is delicious. It was a removal which every rational man welcomed at the time, for its own sake, although none realized that Philby, in engineering it, was acting on Russian instructions. We wanted Cogwill out; they wanted Philby in. This indeed was the misfortune—the culpable fault—of the wartime SIS. If its professionals had not (with few exceptions) been such duds, there would have been an alternative: Philby would not then have moved so easily toward, and nearly to, the top. He also describes, in detail, and with great art, the manner in which he himself was nearly exposed, first in 1945 by the Russian defector Volkov, then in 1951 by the closing of the ring round Maclean and the unexpected flight, with him, of Burgess. Philby’s narrative of these episodes does not add substantially to that of the “Insight” team, but he adds rich detail and he writes with an understanding and a subtlety which is far beyond their reach.

These four books, unequally, build up together the Philby story: the story of “a straight penetration agent” (as Philby calls himself) in the British Secret Service, first in war, then in peace. But how much they leave still unsaid! The true history of the war of secret intelligence against Germany—a war which, in spite of everything, was completely won (though not by SIS)—is not found here. Nor is the true history of Russian espionage against the West. These form the unrevealed, or half-revealed, background of a psychological study, and at times a social comedy, worthy of Philby’s one-time subordinate in SIS, Graham Greene.

This Issue

May 9, 1968