Popperfoto/Getty Images

Guy Burgess, a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed information to the Soviets from the 1930s until his defection to the USSR in 1951, sunbathing on the shore of the Black Sea, 1956


In 1938, Roger Hollis joined MI5, the British internal security service, sister agency (not that sororal relations were always affectionate) to MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service: spy-catchers and spies respectively. He would serve with MI5 for twenty-seven years, rising to be deputy director-general in 1953, and director-general three years later. That was during the height of the cold war, years of acute drama and controversy when his agency was so buffeted by scandal that very dark suspicions were aroused. While Hollis was still head of MI5 a young diplomat called John Cornwell began publishing well-informed novels under the pen name John le Carré, and introduced the public to a shadowy land of betrayal, double agents, and moles. There was already ample evidence of Soviet penetration of the security services; might it have gone to the very top?

In some ways Hollis was an unlikely figure. Born in 1905, the son of a canon of Wells cathedral, and with another clergyman as maternal grandfather, he grew up in what his elder brother Christopher called “a sort of Trollopean world.” Chris went to Eton, Roger to Clifton, the Bristol public school to which he remained much attached, and then both went to Oxford, among what we are obliged to call the Brideshead generation: Chris and Evelyn Waugh became great friends (as well as fellow Catholic converts), and Waugh admiringly described young Roger as “a good bottle man.” After working briefly for a bank, Roger joined a newspaper in Hong Kong, before taking a job with a tobacco company that he served for eight years in China.

He joined MI5 after illness obliged him to return home. He was regarded in the agency as an authority on communism and Russian intelligence, an esoteric specialty during the war when most of the agency’s attention was naturally devoted to the German and Japanese foe, but far more important in the postwar years. Before long, tension was heightened across the Atlantic by the Alger Hiss case, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—executed the year Hollis became deputy head—and the demagogic career of Joseph McCarthy.

Although the British atmosphere was less fervid, the cases were even more alarming. A series of trials of “atomic spies,” notably Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, had shown how far the most secret operations had been compromised, and had very gravely damaged Anglo-American relations. As if that weren’t enough, there was the melodramatic disappearance, in May 1951, of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who reappeared in Moscow several years later. In 1963, Kim Philby joined them there, despite having been previously declared innocent by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

By then, the Vassall, Blake, and Lonsdale cases—and that really is to name only a few—had led sensible observers to wonder whether the British intelligence services were uniquely incompetent or whether there was a more sinister explanation. If there was a third man, might not there be a fourth, or fifth, or more still? Some in those services were convinced that the enemy was within. One such was Peter Wright. Originally a scientific officer in MI5, he chaired a joint MI5–MI6 committee to investigate Soviet penetration, and decided that Hollis was an agent for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.

That committee began in 1964 but had not completed its inquiries when Hollis retired the following year; he died in 1973. Wright also left the service, embittered by a sordid little row over his pension, and began a lonely vendetta. Soon after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 she revealed that there was indeed a fourth Cambridge man, more astounding than any of the others: Sir Anthony Blunt, the art historian who had been Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. Later the name of John Cairncross was added, to make them the Cambridge Five. That only spurred on the hunt, and Wright published his now-it-can-be-told Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (1987), which was severely dealt with in these pages by Noel Annan,1 although the attempt to suppress it brought the Thatcher government endless woe. That government also felt obliged to investigate Hollis posthumously; he was cleared, though in a manner that left some room for doubt.

But Wright had already collaborated with one of the best-known reporters of his age, a man who can now claim to have been following the story longer than anyone else alive. “After sixty years of investigating the massive Russian espionage assault on Great Britain and the United States,” Chapman Pincher announces at the beginning of Treachery, and 650 pages later he looks back “at the age of ninety-four and with near total recall.” After a scientific education and wartime army service, “Harry” Chapman Pincher joined the Daily Express and spent decades there when it was in some ways the dominant London newspaper, selling more than four million copies a day. He was in the Old Bailey to see Fuchs convicted in 1950 and in the Commons to hear a debate on intelligence in 1955. Treachery is an important addition to the literature in this field, and if nothing else, it’s unusual for a reviewer to be able to say that the book in hand would be formidable if it were the work of an author sixty-five years younger.


After he retired, Pincher was sought out by Wright in an arcane imbroglio involving Victor, Lord Rothschild, who had known the Cambridge gang, had come under suspicion, and was desperate to clear his name. The consequences proved lamentable for Rothschild, as Pincher describes in a narrative that defies summary, and it must be said that his very long book, though perfectly lucid, is sometimes episodic and convoluted.

At any rate, Pincher too was sure of Hollis’s guilt, and said so in his 1981 book Their Trade Is Treachery. This new book is partly a reprise of that one, though with new detail. When Igor Gouzenko defected in 1945, he provided a great deal of information about Soviet spying, including an agent inside MI5 code-named “Elli.” Pincher thinks Elli was Hollis, and fits him into a larger picture. Agent “Sonia,” otherwise Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski, German Jewish by birth, became a Communist and a GRU agent while an exile in China. She made her way to England, and transmitted information from there to the USSR during the war using her own radio. It may have been from her that the Russians so quickly learned the details of the 1943 Anglo-Canadian-American Quebec Agreement on nuclear cooperation, and Pincher calls her “the most influential female secret agent of all time.” If Hollis was Elli, Pincher says, it would explain the way that Sonia was able to continue her work—as well as a good deal else besides about the way that so many spies went too long undetected—and confirm the accusations long leveled at Hollis.

Has Pincher made the conclusive case at last? Having heard it out attentively, this juror finds it very hard to say either “Guilty as charged” or “Not guilty”; maybe best would be the ambiguous old verdict in Scots law, “Not proven.” It may be said that history is not a courtroom, which must follow the great principles of Anglo-Saxon common law, with the presumption of innocence for the accused, the burden of proof on the prosecution, and the requirement to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Nor is the historian a trial lawyer who has to remember the rules forbidding hearsay and other inadmissible evidence, and is liable to be interrupted by objections from the defense.

But Pincher does write like a prosecutor, and although he makes his case assiduously, not to say relentlessly, and at times almost persuasively, it is still not open and shut. It must be emphasized that ever since suspicion was first aroused, Hollis has divided opinion. Successive official investigations gave their own “not proven” verdicts rather than a clear acquittal. Some authorities share Pincher’s belief in Hollis’s guilt, but others don’t, and Pincher conducts a running skirmish with writers such as Anthony Glees who think the charges are false. Guilt could only be established beyond question by a confession, which is no longer possible, a direct accusation by an unimpeachable witness, or incontrovertible documentary evidence, which Pincher doesn’t provide.

Even the—unsatisfactory and partial—opening of the former Soviet archives leaves many gray areas, in this and other cases. While never having doubted that Hiss was guilty, my own instinct about I.F. Stone is that although that often admirable journalist at one time had Russian contacts, and was (as he later admitted) for too long a sentimental fellow traveler, he was not in any serious sense the Soviet agent he has been called. In both cases, ambiguous documentation from Moscow obscures as well as clarifies.

Not only is Pincher’s evidence circumstantial, he continually argues by supposition or implication. At Oxford, “Hollis may have become a Soviet sympathiser”; “coincidentally perhaps”—in a lecture on China to the Royal Central Asian Society in 1937—“Hollis was reflecting the Communist Party line”; “So if Hollis had been recruited [to the GRU] it would have been in keeping with standard Soviet practice”; “So it would seem inevitable that Hollis would soon have learned…”; “Hollis seems to fit all the requirements.” And so on.

Along with these logical swoops and swerves, Pincher makes free use of “how else are we to explain…?” It would be quite unfair to call him “McCarthyite,” a term that should anyway be used very sparingly, but his argument is on occasion reminiscent of Senator McCarthy’s denunciation of General George Marshall in 1951: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy….”


But there are plenty of ways to explain failure other than “great conspiracies”: folly, vanity, stupidity, and arrogance come to mind. Much of what Pincher says about the gross failures of British intelligence is all too true, but the fact that “Sonia” was left to her malign work unhindered doesn’t prove that some high personage was protecting her, any more than the barely credible way in which the Cambridge gang got away with it for years means that they were all being surreptitiously covered up. The very fact that so many moles dug for so long in so many different agencies must weaken Pincher’s case. To put it another way, what makes this shadowy netherland so fascinating for writers like le Carré is also what makes it so difficult for historians to analyze objectively.


On either side of the Atlantic, the subject has long aroused rapt interest, but in almost comically different ways. Many Americans are even now haunted by McCarthyism, “red-baiting,” and the notion of witchhunts hounding imaginary spies. But in Europe, as Tony Judt has drily observed, even people on the left have been better than their American counterparts in recognizing “that there might really have existed a secret Communist underground.”

Before one lapses into that subtle self-congratulation at which the English excel, it should be admitted that we had advantages. However it might be with Hiss, once Burgess and Maclean had vanished at dead of night and then resurfaced in Moscow, it was difficult for anyone to claim that they had been innocent victims of a frame-up, and so again when Philby followed them, and then when Blunt was exposed. Not only was there thankfully no English McCarthy, circumstances ensured that there could be no retreat into denial, a refusal to believe that anyone anywhere had ever been a Communist, let alone a spy.

More strikingly still, the Cambridge spies have been woven into the tapestry of English national life, part of Our Island Story. An endless flood of books about them was followed by television “drama-docs,” not to say sly allusions to “Guy and Donald” in comedy programs; it seems only a matter of time before “The Famous Five” becomes a musical. A good biography of Burgess is still to seek, but Miranda Carter’s life of Blunt, reviewed in these pages by John Banville, was truly excellent.2 Banville’s own novel The Untouchable (1997) is inspired by Blunt, as is Alan Bennett’s play A Question of Attribution, while Burgess has inspired at least two plays, Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad and Another Country by Julian Mitchell.

That fabled gang inhabits our imagination, and those of us from a generation too young to have encountered them in person may still feel we know them at a remove. Years ago I remarked to A.J. Ayer that I was fascinated by Burgess, only to be told, “Guy was even more boring drunk than sober,” but when I mentioned that in turn to Isaiah Berlin, he said, “Freddie was wrong. Guy wasn’t boring at all, just someone with no moral center to his life.” This is not just gossip. It’s a small world—or England is, and the way in which everyone seems to know everyone, strikingly illustrated by Burgess and Maclean, would not have been true in most other countries, including America.

In his beguiling recent book Cold Cream,3 a memoir of his high-bohemian upbringing, Ferdinand Mount describes his mother’s friendship with Maclean from pre-war holidays, when he “gets very drunk on the skiing trip, though not nearly as drunk as he gets after the war,” and indeed Philip Toynbee writes to Lady Julia Mount in 1950 from Cairo, “Poor Donald has indulged in a wild crescendo of drunken, self-destructive, plain destructive episodes.” Mount’s gentleman-jockey father thought Burgess “the most ghastly type of BBC pansy, quite insufferable. Not as bad as Maclean though,” while Mount’s uncle Anthony Powell—whose own novels capture those intricate eddies and flows of English society where the most unlikely people continually bump into one another—observed more unarguably that the Foreign Office seemed to have a positive genius for hiring the wrong people.

After the two vanished, they became an obsession in the circles that had known them. In 1952 Cyril Connolly published his short book The Missing Diplomats, a true period piece. He was concerned that Burgess and Mac-lean “may well have been victims of some unforeseen calamity,” which was perhaps true if not in the sense he intended. Needless to say he had known them well, and had spoken to Maclean on his last day in England. Apart from indulging his unhappy penchant for amateur psychoanalysis, Connolly has a number of revealing anecdotes. On one occasion Burgess had confided to “a talented and beautiful woman, a novelist who, in those days, resembled an irreducible bastion of the bourgeoisie entirely surrounded by Communists, like the Alcazar of Toledo” (this must be Rosamond Lehmann), that he was, or had been, a Soviet spy. Maclean knocked down another close friend who had defended Whittaker Chambers with the words “I am the English Hiss.”

Then when the Foreign Office at last acknowledged their defection, it prompted a column in the Spectator by Henry Fairlie that had London in a tizzy. Fairlie wrote disdainfully of the “establishment,” by which he meant not only the official centers of power “but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.” To make it more inflammatory, he accused the Foreign Office of recruiting men of whatever reliability or otherwise who “know all the right people,” and said that such “right people” had protected Burgess and Maclean: “Lady Violet Bonham Carter was the most active.” It was true that the formidable Lady Violet, daughter of H.H. Asquith, the prime minister, had protested against what she called “the persecution of their families”—meaning Maclean’s wife—“by certain members of the press.”

And there were yet more ladies in the story. Lady Pamela Berry, wife of a newspaper proprietor and in her day the London hostess with the mostest, had given a dinner party in May 1951 that deserves both literary and historical footnotes. Two people met that evening, the writer John Betjeman and Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, sister of the Duke of Devonshire, an important meeting for them as they would subsequently share their lives. But there was an empty chair at the dinner table: it was laid for Burgess, on the very night he fled the country.

When Berlin told me about Burgess, I had no idea how well they had known each other, or about the astonishing episode in 1940 when the two of them traveled to the United States together. Burgess had been sharing a flat with Victor Rothschild and a bed with Harold Nicolson (the world grows smaller), and when he proposed that they should go to America and then on to Moscow, where Berlin could become a press attaché, he attributed this suggestion to Nicolson, an MP at the time.

Although Berlin wasn’t a complete innocent abroad, or at home, he seems to have been in the dark here. He was unaware that Burgess met Michael Straight, one more member of the Cambridge ring, in New York, and was perplexed when Fitzroy Maclean at the Foreign Office sent a message that they must not proceed to Moscow, adding curtly, “Burgess should return to the United Kingdom immediately. Berlin, who is not in the employ of His Majesty’s Government, must do what he thinks best.”

On the other hand, well before my exchange with Ayer, I had learned more of the story from a friend of his. In 1972 I sat in the “French pub” in Soho with Goronwy Rees, that charming and dubious figure who had gone from a Welsh grammar school to Oxford to become a fellow of All Souls but never found a proper métier. He was an even closer friend of the Cambridge gang, to the point where he may have been at least marginally involved in their activities, and had then caused much indignation by publishing an anonymous (but not anonymous enough) article in a popular Sunday newspaper about Burgess and Maclean when they vanished. After his third or perhaps fourth large pink gin, Rees told me that Blunt was the fourth man; information I didn’t know quite what to do with at the time. Blunt’s own mysteries were taken with him to the grave, and the memoir he left behind, recently published, is notably evasive and unforthcoming.

What all this means is that Pincher is quite right about the thrall communism exercised for that generation, and right in principle to say that double agents would have sprung from Oxford as well as Cambridge, as doubtless happened. Indeed, echoes of those distant dramas can be heard to this day. When a few months ago the annual Orwell Prizes were awarded in London, the journalism prize was won by Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who has been a resourceful and notably brave correspondent in Iraq. Accepting his award, he made ironical mention of its name, reminding us that his own father and George Orwell had both been in Spain during the civil war, but occupying rather different political positions.

He could say that again. Claud Cockburn plays more than a walk-on part in Pincher’s book. He was an Oxford contemporary of Waugh’s (they were cousins) and of Hollis’s who became a journalist and, for most of the 1930s and 1940s, a Communist, not to say an activist and conspirator who wrote for the Daily Worker, later boasted about having spread disinformation from Spain, and had close contacts of one sort or another with the Comintern. He and Hollis drifted into and out of each other’s lives for many years, and Pincher makes much of this link. It might possibly be damning evidence, but then again Pincher can scarcely say that all of the many people who knew Cockburn must be suspects. To the contrary, Cockburn’s Stalinist zeal could sometimes have quite the wrong effect; in 1945, Waugh recorded that he had “dined with my Communist cousin Claud who warned me against Trotskyist literature, so that I read and greatly enjoyed Orwell’s Animal Farm.”

Then again men like Claud Cockburn are no help at all to those who still want to portray “anticommunism” as a warped, paranoid obsession with nonexistent traitors. Nor are some other veterans of those days. V.G. Kiernan was one of the famous or notorious Communist Historians Group of sixty years ago, who died last February aged ninety-five. In 1987 he published a startling essay, which sneered at “spasms of virtuous indignation about the wickedness of a small number of idealists.” He still thought fondly of Burgess, one of those “who helped to induct me into the Party” at Cambridge in the early 1930s, and although he never saw Burgess again after Cambridge, “he did what he felt it right for him to do,” Kiernan claimed. “I honour his memory.”4

Scarcely less remarkable—although unremarked by most reviewers—is a passage by Kiernan’s sometime comrade Eric Hobsbawm in his autobiography Interesting Times (2002), a curious book and another period piece. After a brilliant undergraduate career at Cambridge, where he too joined the Party, Hobsbawm spent the war in the ranks of the British army, never rising above the rank of sergeant or leaving the shores of England, and is still resentful that he wasn’t given work fitting his undoubted abilities. He specifically thinks he should have been asked to join to the code-breaking station at Bletchley, along with so many dons from King’s, his Cambridge college.

He also mentions the Cambridge spies. He only knew Burgess and Blunt after the war but, while he was an active young Communist, though not himself a Soviet secret agent, “We knew such work was going on, we knew we were not supposed to ask questions about it, we respected those who did it, and most of us—certainly I—would have taken it on ourselves, if asked.” So Hobsbawm is bitter because he wasn’t recruited into the single most important and secret British enterprise of the war if not of the century, while cheerfully admitting that he would have spied for Russia if asked.

Those old comrades seem unaware that they are saying exactly what many others who were on the left in the 1930s and 1940s do not want to hear. Over and again it has been argued that just because men and women were Communist sympathizers or Party members they were not potential traitors, and that it was grossly unjust to vet or purge officials on political grounds. Reading Hobsbawm, one might rather conclude that at least the authorities got it right in his case, and that the general principle of political vetting was justified.

As for Guy Burgess, Isaiah Berlin was not just right but stating the obvious when he said that he had no moral center, but Freddie Ayer must have been wrong when he called him boring. Indeed, Roger Hollis seems rather a dull dog besides him, with his golf, his taste for dirty jokes, and his mundane office adultery. At any rate, in his awful way Burgess did have a sense of humor. After various shocking escapades while in Washington he came home, but the Foreign Office almost insanely decided that he might be sent back. A friend gave him some man-to-man advice if he did return to America: have nothing to do with left-wing politics, avoid the color question, and no queer antics.

“I think,” Burgess replied, “what you’re trying to say is, Don’t make a pass at Paul Robeson.”

This Issue

October 22, 2009