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 It also caused outrage within the intelligence community, both by its breach of the convention that former officers do not publish their knowledge and by its unflattering assessment of the British machinery of secrecy.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. These letters are reproduced below.2

Though publicly honored in Moscow, Philby was something of an isolated figure there. There was a lonely streak too in Trevor-Roper, whose craving for human contact was often in tension with his unyielding principles. The displays of fellow feeling in the letters may surprise readers who remember, in the Encounter essay or The Philby Affair, Trevor-Roper’s deployment of an unsparing historical perspective to condemn Philby’s treason. But in the shorter, less Olympian piece for Le Figaro, the article that Philby saw, the warmth of their relationship peeps through.

There is no softening of principle in the article, no hint of absolution. Trevor-Roper recalls Philby’s dedication to an “odious tyranny.” He describes the “gigantic egotism” manifest in Philby’s treatment of his wife Eleanor, whom he had duped and abandoned, and whose own memoirs had been discussed by Trevor-Roper in Encounter. He detects “schizophrenia” in the combination of Philby’s outward liveliness of intellect and the deadness of an inner mind in thrall to a barren creed. During the war Trevor-Roper had been disappointed by the unwillingness of so intelligent a figure as Philby to engage in any serious discussion of ideas.

The article also hits at a feature of the memoirs that strained Trevor-Roper’s temper: its dismissive assessment of Sir Dick (D.G.) White, the man who in 1956 had become head of SIS, a post that might have gone to Philby. White had been Trevor-Roper’s friend and patron in the war; he had commissioned him to write the report that produced The Last Days of Hitler; he had encouraged him to write the Encounter essay and was delighted by the result. In Trevor-Roper’s eyes White was the effective leader of a reform party, the man who had “broken” Philby and on whom Philby had now turned in revenge.

Even so, Philby’s book, which Trevor-Roper privately described as “deplorably good,” brought back to him what in Le Figaro he called the “irresistible charm” of Philby’s company. In Encounter the recollection of their friendship had been more distantly phrased. The book also reminded Trevor-Roper how much ground the two wartime colleagues had shared. He relished Philby’s “delicious” depiction of the follies of the two men’s wartime British masters.


In composing his reply to Philby’s letter, Trevor-Roper meant to allow him no illusions. He stated his intention to enclose an “essay,” which must have been either the Encounter piece or an article, also more hard-hitting than the one in Le Figaro, published in the May 9, 1968, issue of The New York Review, where Trevor-Roper, a number of whose articles on wartime intelligence appeared in the NYR, reviewed Philby’s memoirs together with the three books discussed in Encounter.

In the event Trevor-Roper’s letter was not sent. The original is in his papers, with Philby’s letter. Interviewed twenty years later on the British radio program Desert Island Discs, Trevor-Roper revealed that Philby had sent him a letter from Moscow, but stated coldly that he “didn’t answer” it, not wishing “to have any further dealings with him.” The bond that had produced the subterranean exchange of 1968 had been severed.

Postbox 509
Main Post Office
April 30 1968

My dear T-R,

I was delighted to see from your photograph in Le Figaro of April 1 that you seem to be growing younger with the passing years.3 I am writing partly to offer you my greetings, partly to thank you for the many kinds things you said about me, partly to comment on a few of your remarks.

To begin with a small point. You say of me that “le but qu’il poursuit en ecrivant et en publiant ses Memoires n’est pas purement historique.” [His purpose in writing and publishing his memoirs is not purely historical.] Bang on the nose. I said in my Introduction: “This is not a history…it is a personal record.” In a personal record, personal views must surely be allowed to obtrude here and there without being denounced as propaganda. Right?

The next is a point of history. You write: “Il s’obstine en particulier a depeindre comme faible, mediocre, inefficace et sans dignite l’homme qui, grace a sa perseverance, finit par le mettre en danger, et par ruiner sa carrier d’espion…” [In particular he persists in depicting as weak, mediocre, ineffective and lightweight the man who, by his perseverance, finally placed him in danger and destroyed his career as a spy.] This passage frankly astonishes me, and I can assure you that it is quite wrong to say “Philby s’etait depuis longtemps jure de se venger de lui.” [Philby had long sworn to be revenged on him.] The fact is that from late 1951 I was quite sure that a whole string of security officers thought me deeply, if not wholly, suspect. The list would include Liddell, White, Milmo, Skardon, Martin, Marriott, Mackenzie. I have never had reason to single out White as any more dangerous than the others. I described him as ineffective, etc. because I really thought he was. My judgment may have been wrong, but it was not insincere. Surely you yourself would agree that White was pretty nondescript beside such colleagues as Liddell, Mart, Blunt, Rothschild, Masterman and others? Or perhaps not?

You are of course entitled to make the most of my relations with Eleanor, but you are far too wise not to realise that there are always two sides to such affairs. Eleanor has had her say, and I have no complaints. I wish her no harm, so my side of the story must remain untold.

I cannot comment on my own egocentricity or schizophrenia, especially as I have never quite understood what schizophrenia is. For all that, I am pretty certain that I could produce one psychiatrist to say that I was schizophrenic, another to say that I was abnormally single-minded, yet a third to say that I was both or either. I saw that Malcolm Muggeridge, the old rascal, seriously linked my career as a Soviet agent with the fact that my father had become a Moslem. To what could I not ascribe Malcolm’s total alienation from practically everything? Such long-range psychiatry is fun and helps to fill a column, but it serves little else.

Finally, I note that you abhor treason. So do I. But what is treason? We could spend many days motoring round Iraq and discussing this without getting much nearer agreement. Of one thing I am certain: I should enjoy it immensely.

Well, I hope that the young clarets are coming along nicely. Tomorrow I shall toast you, with deep sincerity, in one of my May Day glasses of champagne. All my best wishes.


Yours ever,

P.S. I am grateful for the chance that enabled us to fight together, for a time at least, on the same side.

Chiefswood, Melrose
21 September 1968

My dear Kim,

Ought I to answer your letter of 30 April? Perhaps not. But I hate to leave letters unanswered (though I often take a long time to answer them). I must admit that I enjoy hearing from you, even across the vast intermediate gulf which now separates us: a gulf now, alas, not merely physical. I always enjoyed your company, always look back on it with pleasure, and I appreciate your remark that you would enjoy a long discussion with me now. But if we had few serious discussions in the past, how could we possibly have any in the future? Discussion needs common ground on which to stand, how deep down soever it may lie; and where could we find such ground now? Probe as I may in search of it, the solid rock which I once imagined proves but a continuation of the spongy quagmire of double-spoken words; and in that quagmire we would surely founder.

You justify the treachery, the hypocrisy, the purges of the Stalinist period as a mere temporary phase, a necessary form of Caesarian surgery without which the next stage of progress cannot begin. I’m afraid I cannot accept such apocalyptic reasoning, nor could I find any basis for discussion with anyone who could seriously argue that Chamberlainism was an immutable, permanent “evil,” justifying total repudiation, while Stalinism was a temporary necessity, deserving permanent, unqualified support.

You note that I ‘abhor treason’; but ‘what is treason?’ you gaily ask, and, like jesting Pilate, do not wait for an answer. I would agree with you, I think, in rejecting conventional definitions. To serve a foreign power, even to spy for a foreign power, does not seem to me necessarily treason. It depends on the foreign power, and the conditions of service. At most, it is mere political treason. But to serve unconditionally, to equate truth with the reason of state of any power, that to me is treason of the mind; and to make this surrender to a form of power that is cynical, inhuman, murderous, that to me is treason of the heart also.

Since you are now a public figure, you will not expect to be immune from public criticism, and I send you, in return for your letter, an essay in which I have sought to correct some of your public critics. As you will see, if you read it, on a superficial level we often agree, and where we disagree, on that level, we could argue; but at a profounder level I could no more argue with you than with an unrepentant French agent of Himmler, who also regarded the murder of a few millions as the necessary surgery which would make possible a new millennium. I regret this, because I like to recall, and would like to resume, our old convivial conversations, whether over my claret (now happily matured) or your Georgian champagne.

I agree with you about long-term psychology (I use the term ‘schizophrenia’ as a metaphor only), but I think you are wrong in your evaluation of D.G.W.

yours ever,