A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal By Ben Macintyre, $27.
Marx argued that capitalism’s greatest threat lay within, but in the spy wars of the mid-20th century, it had little to do with the Labor Theory of Value. It was more like the “Old Boy” Theory of Upper Class Chumminess that gave the Soviet Union an advantage over the West.
Kim Philby, the Soviet spy at the heart of British intelligence from the start of World War II until his defection in 1963, was a typical product of the class he sought to destroy, complete with cold, eccentric father and education at Eton and Cambridge. He started spying for the Soviets in 1933 and for cover joined a rightist group. A freelance correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, he got close enough to the fascists’ inner circle that the Soviets considered having him assassinate Franco. (If only!) Back in Britain, unconcerned that paranoid Stalin had purged his handlers, he got himself hired by MI6.
In A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre notes two nerve-wracking paradoxes Philby faced. One was that success at his job undermined his service to the USSR and the other was that the Soviets distrusted him: “In Britain Philby had been too British to be doubted; in Russia he was too British to be believed.” But his treachery at the head of MI6’s Soviet desk doomed countless Western operations—and operatives.
Philby eventually was posted to Washington, where he used his considerable, alcohol-enhanced charm to wrangle intelligence from CIA officers. But when fellow double agents Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess fled to Moscow in 1951, MI6 called him home. For several years, Philby parried all accusations. Macintyre quotes Philby himself ascribing his success to the “genuine mental block which stubbornly resisted the belief that respected members of the Establishment could do such things.”
Most resistant was Nicholas Elliott, a close friend of similar background, who defended Philby in crisis and then employed him as a spy again in Beirut. When even Elliott recognized Philby’s guilt, he let him escape—or effectively exiled him to Moscow and spared MI6 an embarrassing trial. In an afterword, John le Carré, the MI6 veteran who partly based Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Philby’s story, doubts Elliott’s claim that Philby’s scarpering surprised him.
Macintyre, writer-at-large for The Times of London, spins an entertaining tale that you don’t need to be a le Carré fan to savor.