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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 25 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Kindle Edition)
If you are my age (I'm 61) the Kim Philby story probably passed you by. I was born the year after Burgess and MacLean defected to Russia. I was ten when Philby followed them. Of course, I heard about the Philby scandal, but I didn't really take it in. Actually, even those older than me, who may have had a livelier interest in current affairs, would have had only a vague idea of what Philby had done.

Philby had been named as the "third man" by Marcus Lipton several years before he fled, but the allegation had then been withdrawn. When he finally went to Moscow, in 1963, the British public were told nothing for some months. Then, when the newspapers started to pick it up, we were just told that Philby had spied for the Russians during, before and for a very short time after the war. The truth was hidden from us for years. In fact, Philby had worked for the USSR from the 1930s right through to 1963. And he had been directly responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of innocent people. But all that was kept under wraps. Even the Americans, the CIA and the FBI, were assured by MI6 (which doesn't come out of this story very well) that Philby had given up his work for the Soviet Union before he became head of the MI6 station in Washington in 1949 (a job which he used to pass on many American secrets to Moscow).

The theory the secret service wanted us to swallow was that Philby had become a communist spy at about the time of the Spanish civil war and had retained his allegiance to the USSR only until shortly after the second world war. We now know that was a blatant lie: he continued to help Moscow right up to the time, in 1963, when his cover was finally blown. It is not surprising that most of us, until we read this excellent book, only had the dimmest idea of what Philby was up to during all those years.

MacIntyre's book is a wonderfully easy read. It tells Philby's story in a way which is splendidly illuminating for those of us who knew little more than that he had helped Russia during the war and then defected nearly twenty years later. Of course, because the government still refuses to allow us to see the official documents, a lot of it, as the author explains, is speculation and conjecture. But it is well-informed speculation and conjecture, and it rings true.

I am not sure whether MacIntyre entirely succeeds in explaining why it was that Philby, an intelligent and apparently civilised English gentleman, stuck so firmly, for so long, to his conviction that the Soviet Union was heaven on earth, that there was nothing wrong with killing innocent people in large numbers in order to advance its cause. But that is probably because it is almost impossible to think of any rational explanation, other than the rather boring one that he was too arrogant to accept he had been wrong in the first place.

The modern reader will be struck by how easy it was, particularly in the cases of Burgess and MacLean (two obviously rather nutty men), for oddballs to get on in government service in the 1940s and 1950s. MacIntyre puts it all down to the old boy network: anyone, however nutty, who had been to a public school could get a job, just because he was a gentleman. But I am not convinced he is right about that. There was another side to the old boy network. For every Burgess, MacLean and Philby who was employed by the government there were many others, public school boys, who were rejected because the other "old boys" knew of their weaknesses. These days, I suspect, we have gone too far the other way: I doubt whether any eccentric can ever get an important job in government service; the rest of us are probably the losers.

The real problem, of course, was that all those Cambridge spies were recruited by Russia at a time when many young people (not all stupid), understandably appalled by fascism, were convinced that communism provided the only hope of world peace. And then there came the war against Hitler which, after the Soviet Union's brief pact with Germany, put the UK and Russia on the same side. It is not wholly surprising that young idealists in Britain convinced themselves that there was nothing wrong with helping our ally.

But we are still left wondering why Philby, in particular, refused to accept, long after almost everyone else did, that the Soviet Union was evil. He knew that information he was providing to Moscow was being used to kill innocent people, but he apparently saw nothing wrong with that. And yet, at the end of his life, in his flat in Moscow, he was still avidly reading the Times's reports of cricket matches. Maybe we will never understand him.

But this book does go a long way to explaining a very odd phenomenon. I have no hesitation in advising you to read it.

Charles
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Dec 2014 06:22:32 GMT
Last edited by the author on 13 Dec 2014 06:23:00 GMT
Hi Charles: I'm 70, and I remember much of this -- even Buster Crabbe. I think it's a fascinating book, especially on the class aspects. Le Carre's interview with the guy who let Philby back into the service was very revealing, I thought. He seemed unaware of HIS responsibility for a lot of death and damage (or maybe just was in denial about it). I didn't like J. Edgar Hoover at all, but his instincts about Philby were right! Cheers, SC

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2014 10:24:22 GMT
C. E. Utley says:
Thank you so much for your comment. It is gratifying when one discovers that these reviews are not wholly ignored.

All the best

Charles
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