Michael Straight
Michael Straight; drawing by David Levine

To Europeans, the 1930s are an unforgettable decade. Those who were young then were marked by it for life, and still, in their old age, live under its shadow: not till they are dead will it sink into its historical context and become objectively comparable with other periods. For those were very special years, different from the decades that had preceded and would follow them. Society was divided not only by class or nation but also, more sharply than is usual, by generation.

The shift came about the time that Hitler took power in Germany. I was myself an undergraduate at that time and could observe the change. The problems of the 1930s loomed before us all: economic, political, ideological; but young and old faced them from radically different positions. The old hated war and feared Bolshevism: they remembered 1914-1918 and the revolution in Russia. The young, who remembered neither of these events, were more tolerant of both. They were prepared to regard communism and even war as preferable to the new and visible horrors of economic chaos and fascism. The period of crisis began with the Spanish Civil War in 1936; it culminated in 1938, at the time of the Munich surrender—the last victory of those who, through fear of war, believed in unconditional “appeasement.” Munich, in particular, divided generation against generation within families. The division was healed next year, but only by the palpable failure of appeasement and the sheer necessity of a new, defensive war.

I have said that the shift came about the time when Hitler came to power. That was January 1933. Next month, the Oxford Union debated the famous motion “That this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” I well remember the furor which followed the passing of that motion. Afterward it was said that Hitler and Mussolini were much encouraged by it. But in fact the event was insignificant. Hitler was not then a dictator, nor did he yet have an army: his public utterances were professions of peace. The motion was therefore unrelated to any real threat. It was an expression of the pacifism, and the unreality, still surviving from the 1920s; and its author was the London philosopher C.E.M. Joad, an elderly pacifist whose opinions had been formed long ago. In the following years, as the menace of Marxism grew, the attitude of the young would change. Under the impact of events, pacifism would dissolve and in a period of political and ideological bewilderment the propagandists of a new faith would see their chance: the Communist International would move in.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. To the young of 1933 Soviet Russia was unknown except through its propagandists, and as the bugbear of their elders and of the bourgeoisie in general. Ever since the revolution it had been sealed off from the West. Only a few privileged visitors had penetrated it, and they, of course, had only seen what they had been shown. Therefore, when the Western, capitalist world was in confusion and it seemed that capitalism could be saved only by the “fascist” methods adopted first in Italy, then in Germany, the bewildered young turned toward communism—to the smiling face of communism that was presented to them—and saw it, if they wished, as the magic talisman that might yet save the world. It happened that, precisely at this time, the Bolshevik government was adopting a new policy that greatly helped this process.

In the early years of their power, the Russian Bolsheviks had preached world revolution. Only by being spread to the rest of Europe, Lenin believed, could communism be perpetuated at home. But by 1923 that policy had failed: Mussolini’s victory in Italy, as Hitler recognized, had been the turning of the tide, and Stalin fell back on the policy of “socialism in one country.” In order to consolidate his own dictatorship over Russia, he was prepared to accept the legitimacy of the noncommunist world and to seek conventional relations with it. But acceptance did not mean trust, and the old aims were not renounced, only suspended. So the revolutionary Comintern went, effectively, underground and operated at the new level. The idealistic young, in capitalist countries, were now to become not open propagandists of the communist cause but secret agents of Stalin’s machine.

This change in itself put a premium on a particular class of recruit. What Stalin now needed was not proletarian agitators but young men who, in the normal course of events, might hope to prosper within capitalist society: the intelligent products of good families, good schools, good universities; young men who, through their social status or their education, would have, or could be expected to acquire, contacts within the governing elite of their countries. Of course, such men would not prosper, or acquire such contacts, unless they kept their communist allegiance strictly secret. That in itself imposed a further condition. Since any active espionage entailed the risk of exposure, such a risk could not be justified except by the gravest necessity. Therefore, short of such necessity, these young men must lie low. Ultimately, when they had arrived, they might be used. Meanwhile, they were “moles.”


As is well known, the most prolific breeding ground for such moles was at Cambridge University. Why was this? On the face of it, Oxford would have seemed more promising. Oxford was the scene of the famous Union debate. Just before that, the Oxford University Communist Society—the “October Club”—had been dissolved by authority: an invitation to its members to go underground. Oxford is traditionally more political than Cambridge. But Oxford, as far as we know, produced no Russian spies, whereas Cambridge can glory in the names of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, not to speak of smaller fry. How are we to account for this? Was it a mere accident: the presence of a particularly expert angler at that wellstocked pool? Or was it the consequence of some particular quality of the place?

The two ancient universities of England, as Macaulay wrote, have always had distinct characters. Oxford, in this century, has been gayer, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan: ideas there overflow, collide and mingle with other ideas, and are diluted or complicated in the process. Cambridge is more esoteric and intense, even solipsistic: its ideas (where they exist) gather steam and build up pressure in the sealed test tubes of introverted coteries. It is difficult to imagine the philosophy of G.E. Moore, with its complacent cult of “good states of mind,” or the sanctimonious teaching of E.M. Forster, with its subordination of public virtue to private relations, being received in Oxford. And what is one to say of the “Apostles,” the egregious secret society of self-perpetuating, self-admiring narcissi to which Moore and Forster, Burgess and Blunt, belonged? Could it have existed at Oxford? Would it not there have been blown up from within, or laughed out of existence?

However that may be, the fact is that Cambridge was the pool in which Stalin’s anglers fished, and in which they made their greatest catch. Hitherto we have had no account of the pool except from the outside; for Philby’s memoirs—a work of propaganda written in Russia—give nothing away, and Blunt’s promised memoirs, for which British publishers were outbidding each other a few years ago, have suddenly disappeared from the horizon. Now at last we have a view of the pool from inside, from one of the fish who, having taken the fly, broke away, escaped—with the hook still in his jaw—to his home waters, and now, after many adventures, tells his tale: Michael Straight.

Michael Straight is an American brought up in England. His father, Willard Straight, became familiar to me when I was studying the strange career, in China, of Sir Edmund Backhouse; for as a young man he had worked in China for an American finance house, raising loans for China as afterward, during the war, for the Allies. In China, Willard Straight met Dorothy Whitney, whom he later married. She was heiress to a great American fortune. The Straights were a cultivated, highminded, public-spirited couple, devoted to liberal causes. They founded The New Republic, of which Michael Straight would later be editor. After the early death of Willard Straight in 1918, his widow married an Englishman, “Jerry” Elmhirst, and they made their home in England, at Dartington Hall, in Devonshire.

There they established a “progressive” school and a cultural center which still survives under other auspices. The two Straight sons received an unconventional early education at the school, and afterward went to Cambridge. The elder, Whitney, became a British subject. Conservative and conventional, “more British than the British,” he went in for motor racing, fought in the RAF during the war, and died in England in 1979. He does not feature much in this book. Michael, the younger son, was very different. Like his parents, he was liberal and unconventional, with cultivated interests, and after some hesitation he would decide to remain American. Nevertheless, it was his English education that determined his life and gives form and interest to his book.

Before going to Cambridge (to Trinity College, of course), he spent a year at the London School of Economics, then dominated de jure by Sir William Beveridge, de facto by that self-important fantasiste, Harold Laski. There are agreeable portraits of both Beveridge and Laski in this book, as also of the rabid fanatic V.K. Krishna Menon, “a perpetual student, in a perpetual rage.” The school was a hotbed, or oven, of half-baked radicalism. That was a good start. But more important were the years at Cambridge. There Mr. Straight quickly gravitated toward the radical-chic Marxist world. His teacher was at first Maurice Dobb, the economist, who was a member of the Communist Party, then the classical economist Denis Robertson, whom he deserted in order to seek tuition from Keynes’s maverick disciple Joan Robinson.


The lectures of Maynard Keynes were, to some extent, a corrective. But how could any lectures prevail against the current of events and the pressure of contemporaries? For Straight’s years at Cambridge were 1934 to 1937, the years in which Hitler was establishing his dictatorship in Germany and Stalin, in Russia, while destroying his own rivals in show trials and monstrous purges, was presenting himself to his gullible admirers in the West as the champion of liberal democracy, the leader of the united “Popular Front” against Nazism, the only hope of preserving peace in the world. The influence and friendship of Keynes provided Mr. Straight with his long-term stability; but immediately he found himself carried along by the communist enthusiasm of his time and place.

Why did Mr. Straight, with his cultured, privileged, liberal background, slide so easily into the Cambridge communist world? Perhaps it was because of such a background, which, in a time of crisis, can be a source of weakness, not of strength. He refers to his sense of guilt because of his inherited wealth, and of rootlessness because of his cosmopolitan upbringing: he “lacked a sense of loyalty to British or American institutions.” However, that cannot be the whole story, for others who had less wealth to inspire guilt and whose roots lay in solid English earth slid as easily as he: a friend of mine, who was at the same college at the same time, has assured me (perhaps with some exaggeration) that he was the only scholar of his year who was not a communist. Nor did such wealth, or such rootlessness, draw others (like his brother Whitney) in the same direction. We are forced to conclude that these factors merely lubricated the slide, or are invoked as later rationalizations: that the real motive was the fashion of the time, similarly rationalized. Undergraduates are gregarious. Easily carried away by apparently idealist slogans, they move in shoals, following some luminous, charismatic pilot fish. The young in Germany did the same thing at the same time. The direction was different but the reflex action was the same.

Who was the pilot fish? Early in his Cambridge career, Mr. Straight fell under the influence of two young men who are always named in the story of the Cambridge communists, and whom he still mentions only with respect and affection: John Cornford and James Klugman. Cornford, idealist and poet, was the son of a distinguished Cambridge classicist; he would be killed in the Spanish Civil War. Klugman was the devotee of the Party: he would be writing its official history in Britain when he died in 1978. These two were the communist leaders in Cambridge: they controlled the communist core of the University Socialist Party, and they were responsible to the head office of the British Communist Party in King Street, London. From the moment when they called on him in his lodgings in Trumpington Road, Klugman and Cornford—“James and John”—were the directors of Mr. Straight’s conscience. They politicized him, making him join the Cambridge Union and compete for office in it; they also brought him into the center of the communist cell in Cambridge; and from there it was a short step to the inner citadel ruled by Burgess and Blunt.

Guy Burgess is the most elusive of the Cambridge traitors. Some will say or hear no good of him: he was, they assure us, dirty in his habits, aggressive in his homosexuality, obsessive in his conversation. He behaved outrageously when—as so often—he was drunk. Others found his company enchanting. Clearly all were right. A diplomat friend of mine who met him at luncheon during the war was so charmed by his conversation that he invited him to fill a place at a dinner party that evening. The result was disastrous: at dinner he behaved so grossly that his host refused ever to see him again. I met him only once and found his company delightful. In any case, it is clear that he had a powerful personality, able to seduce highly intelligent men.

He also had extraordinary self-confidence. Just before reading this book, I happened to read Martin Gilbert’s latest volume of Winston Churchill’s papers. There I found that in 1938, after Munich, Burgess, having visited Churchill on behalf of the BBC and evidently been well received by him, sent to him a long lecture on the correct foreign policy to be adopted by Britain.1 Since Churchill had been in politics for over forty years and in the cabinet, off and on, for thirty, this shows an almost sublime assurance in one whose only experience of politics was in homosexual brothels and as a Russian spy. Such confidence gives the habit of command; and Burgess clearly commanded his little Cambridge world.

One member of it whom he commanded was Blunt. Burgess recruited Blunt, who was older than himself and already a fellow of his college, in November 1935. He then directed him to recruit others. Mr. Straight had already met Blunt on a visit to Russia, sponsored by a communist student, earlier in that year, and soon he was friendly with both him and Burgess. Next year, he found himself co-opted into the secret society of the Apostles and could be scrutinized closely by them. Burgess had by then publicly broken with the Communist Party and, as a blind, was moving in reactionary, not to say Nazi, circles. Philby and Maclean, we may note, were not Apostles. Consequently they did not come his way. Apostles were hardly expected to know anyone outside the society. As one of them once said, when asked a question about other undergraduates, “There are no other undergraduates.”

Mr. Straight has a delicate sense of irony and I particularly enjoyed his account of this absurd secret society. Like most university societies, it had originally been founded (in the early nineteenth century) with a serious purpose (the laicization of the university), and had not been secret at all.2 But—again like most university societies—it had quickly become purely social. It had also become secret and complacently exclusive. One of the silliest members in Mr. Straight’s time was the then provost of Kings, J.T. Sheppard, a third-rate classical scholar. According to Sheppard, in order to be an Apostle, one had to be “very brilliant and extremely nice.” There was an initiation ceremony and a fearful oath: the initiate prayed that his soul might writhe in unendurable pain for the rest of eternity if he so much as breathed a word about the society to anyone who was not a member. When Mr. Straight remarked that this seemed a bit harsh, Provost Sheppard reassured him: “You see,” he explained, “our oath was written at a time when it was thought to be most unlikely that a member of the society would speak to anyone who was not Apostolic.” Such was the self-constituted elite which, by now, had become the envelope for an even more secret cell: the crypto-communist recruiters of Russian spies.

The critical moment came in February 1937, soon after the death in Spain of John Cornford. Blunt then summoned Straight to his rooms in Trinity, and a grave dialogue ensued. Blunt began by asking what Straight intended to do after graduation. Straight replied that he had various ideas, all assuming that he would stay in England and, like his brother, become a British subject. Blunt listened, and then said portentously, “Some of your friends have other ideas for you.” In fact, Straight was told, he was to be an international banker in New York. Straight demurred. He had no intention of becoming a banker, he said. But Blunt was not to be put off. “Our friends,” he said, “have given a great deal of thought to it. They have instructed me to tell you that that is what you must do.” “Our friends,” it emerged, were the Communist International. The orders came from a particular friend who “knows you and respects you” but “regrets very much that he is not permitted to identify himself to you.” In other words, Burgess.

Straight was to pretend a nervous breakdown caused by the death of Cornford, break openly with the Communist Party, and then, like Burgess and Blunt, become a mole, operating in Wall Street. When Straight still protested, Blunt told him that his “plea” would be conveyed to his “friends” and “their decision” would be reported to him within a week. Then “he laid a hand on my shoulder as I left his rooms.” In due course the decision of the “friends” was reported. His plea, Straight was told, had been considered “in the highest circles in the Kremlin,” but it had been rejected; he must do as he was told, and go underground: the proper place for a mole.

If we can forget the tragic character of the predicament, the scene is pure farce. Here was a young art historian, whose life, after leaving the family vicarage, had been spent in the pampered security of Trinity College and the complacent elitism of a secret society, assuming the role of priest, and ordering his penitent, in the name of a hidden, distant high priest, to sacrifice himself for the divinity which they were privileged to represent. It is a perfect example of the self-importance of young dons—perhaps especially young Cambridge dons, at least in the 1930s; for of course they are quite different now.

To our surprise—but he knows how to rationalize his indecisions—Mr. Straight did not (like an undergraduate friend similarly instructed) reject the outrageous proposal out of hand. Imprisoned by his past surrender, he did what he was told. Overtly, he broke with the Party which retained his sympathy; but he still sought to avoid the next step of becoming a “mole.” He hoped, no doubt, that his “friends” would give up the effort and let him go. He was wrong. Returning from a visit to America, he was summoned once again by Blunt. His “plea to be released,” he was told, “had been reviewed by Stalin,” but had been rejected, and so he was still considered to be under orders. To confirm this, Blunt summoned him to London to meet his future manager: “a stocky, dark-haired Russian” who gave him some very low-level general advice and “was more like the agent of a small-time smuggling operation than the representative of a new international order.” This, presumably, was the “friend” who spoke with the voice of Stalin. On parting, Blunt asked Straight for “some highly personal document,” and on being given a drawing, tore it in half. One half he returned to Straight; the other half, he explained, would be used as an identity card by “the man who, some day in the future, would approach me in New York.”

For the remaining years of peace, and throughout the war, Straight remained based in America, moving easily in the high political circles to which his own background and the magic name of Keynes opened the door. He became an “unpaid volunteer” on the fringe of Roosevelt’s administration, electioneered for the New Deal, wrote speeches for the president, promoted, by action and in writing, the cause of liberalism at home and Britain in the war. He kept in touch with some old Cambridge communist friends, and he humored the promised emissary of Blunt by giving him some unimportant documents from his own pen. But in 1942 he broke away. Thereafter he had some difficult passages—Henry Wallace, as editor of The New Republic after the war, proved a liability through his communist allies, and the McCarthy period could have been more dangerous to Straight than it was—but in general, his American career was successful and honorable. It was his English past which in the end caught up with him and caused him, in explanation, to write this book: a beautifully written, occasionally discursive, but always fascinating and sometimes moving apologia pro vita sua.

In 1949, at an Apostles dinner in London, Straight again met Burgess and Blunt, and next day a crucial conversation took place. Burgess was eager to ensure that Straight would not betray them, and Straight, having been assured that both were now inactive—that Blunt had returned to art history and Burgess was about to leave the Foreign Service—gave or implied such an assurance. In fact Burgess did not leave the Foreign Service and Blunt did not cease to act as his accomplice. But Straight did not betray them—at least not yet. On three occasions between 1949 and 1951, he tells us, he drove to the British embassy to do so; but like Hamlet he could never quite bring himself to act, and each time he drove away again. Of course, we must remember the date: it was the time of Senator McCarthy. If he had told all at such a time, “my story,” he writes, “would result in a trial in England; it would be leaked to a congressional committee in America; I was certain of that. Within a few months, I would be facing Anthony Blunt in an English courtroom, or else I would find myself in a witness chair facing Senator McCarthy.” Even in 1951, when Burgess bolted to Russia with Donald Maclean, Straight did not speak up. Once again there were good reasons for silence: “I told myself that Guy was gone forever, and that Anthony had been rendered harmless.” Hamlet too always found good reasons for inaction.

Why then, in 1963, did Straight decide to tell all? The occasion was comparatively trivial. John F. Kennedy had proposed to make him chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. It then turned out that the appointment entailed the formality of FBI clearance. That clinched the matter. Alarmed at the thought of exposure, Straight refused the post and then, feeling that the old objections no longer applied, he told all, first to the FBI in Washington, then in London to MI5. Finally, in the presence of MI5, he confronted Blunt in person. That effectively ended the story. Blunt had long been suspected, but he had denied everything and no hard evidence had been found against him (or indeed against Burgess). Now he confessed all, against a promise of immunity from prosecution. Blunt afterward said that he felt free to confess because something that had happened in 1964 “freed him from loyalties to his friends.” That phrase, which recalls the sanctimony of the Cambridge guru E.M. Forster, is now clearly shown to be untrue. He confessed because denial was no longer possible: he had been caught out.

For fifteen years Blunt’s secret was protected by MI5 and the FBI. Then, in 1979, the investigative writers smelled it out and protection became impossible. When the prime minister, in answer to a parliamentary question, stated the facts, there was a public outcry. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood, forced to resign his honorary fellowship of Trinity College, squeezed out of the British Academy. Still, he had had a long run. He had fared better than his friends, whose lives he had ruined. He could not complain.

When I look back on this history, and reflect on the ideological commitments of the 1930s which destroyed or distorted the lives of so many of my contemporaries, I am often struck by the irony of it. In the spring of 1933 we followed the course of the Reichstag trial and admired, above all, Georgi Dimitrov, the accused Bulgarian who stood up to the bullying of Hermann Goering. We supported the London “antitrial” which we supposed to be “objective” in opposition to the “political” justice of the Leipzig court. After the war we were disillusioned: we saw Dimitrov installed in Sofia as the ruthless tyrant of Bulgaria, and we discovered that the Leipzig court had been fairer than the London trial, which was rigged by Willi Munzenberg, with forged documents, on behalf of the Comintern. To all of us, communist and noncommunist alike, the great crisis, before Munich, was the civil war in Spain. The survival of liberalism, of democracy, even—if we preferred—of the British empire, seemed to hang on the defeat of General Franco, and we were prepared to support the communist International Brigade, if not for love of communism, or Spanish “democracy,” or legality, then in order to prevent our own defeat in the coming war.

In fact, though nobody could have predicted it, precisely the reverse was true. If a left-wing government had prevailed in Spain, Hitler, in 1940, would not have stopped at the Pyrenees. He would have sent his army into Spain to overturn it and would have taken Gibraltar by force. Thereby he would have closed the Mediterranean, transformed the position in the Near East, and won the war. The self-sufficient Cambridge communists were convinced that they alone knew how to save the world. If they had prevailed, they would have handed it over to Hitler—which, of course, Stalin himself would have done in 1939.

For this reason, although I can forgive their error and even, at a pinch, their treachery, I cannot forgive their arrogance. The picture of the priestly Blunt, with his thin precise voice, ordering the lives of others at the behest of “our friends” in the Kremlin and laying a paternal hand on their shoulders as they leave his presence, will remain with me as the perfect icon of a Cambridge Apostle in 1937. So might St. Paul have sent Timothy to the Christian cells of Greece, or the Jesuit general sped a doomed missionary to the secret priest holes of Elizabethan England.

This Issue

March 31, 1983