The Cambridge Spies

Title:                  The Cambridge Spies

Author:                                Verne W. Newton

Newton, Verne W. (1991). The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby, And Burgess In America. Lanham, MD: Madison Books

LCCN:    91007889

UB271.R9 N47 1991


Date Updated:  October 13, 2015

As World War II ended, dancing broke out in the streets of victorious capitals. But in Washington and Moscow, menacing ultimatums soon replaced declarations of common purpose. The music stopped, the Grand Alliance crumbled, and the Soviet Union and the United States squared off against one another. The victor in this war would be determined by the outcome of a series of geo-strategic battles. Which side would capture the Persian Gulfs oilfield’s, and who would seize the Congolese uranium essential for the manufacture of atomic bombs? And whose air and naval bases would dominate the globe’s vital traffic lanes from the Black Sea Straits to the Pacific Islands?

Three British diplomats, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess, did everything in their power to see to it that the Soviet Union prevailed in these clashes. The Cambridge Spies details their behind-the-scenes effort to sabotage America’s national security apparatus during the crucial period between 1945 and 1951 when each, at various times, served at the British embassy in Washington. The book is the result of many years of digging through the State Department and Foreign Office records and undiscovered by government officials responsible for “purging” such files. The reader can follow the Soviet spies as they work behind enemy lines to sabotage the machinery of Western foreign policy. It is the first book written by an American on these fabled British spies, and the first to chronicle their most effective period as allied diplomats and enemy agents.

The Cambridge Spies reveals the story Washington managed to cover up for forty years. Telling it at a time the work is beginning to relive the fiftieth anniversary of many of the events described in these pages will only add to its explosive impact, and spark new historical debates on issues of abiding interest and contemporary concern.

The Cambridge Spies[1]

This is another summary of a talk given on July 8, 2010 by Nigel West on board Queen Mary 2, headed from New York to Southhampton, UK

Kim Philby was born 1908 in India. He joined the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in 1941. In time he was posted to Istanbul, and, in 1949, to Washington, DC. His cover was blown by Anthony Burgess and Donald Maclean. These three, plus John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt comprised what became known as “The Cambridge Five.”

Philby came under suspicion in November, 1951 with the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, and serious suspicion in 1953, so serious that he defected to the Soviet Union. He died in a Moscow hospital in 1988.

Philby was not recruited at Cambridge University. He was the son of a famous father, the Arabist, explorer, and author, with whom he enjoyed cordial, if distant relations. It was his father who gave him the nickname Kim, alluding to the Kipling story. St John Philby was rumored to have gone in for spying himself. He did resign from government service in 1924 as a protest against pro-Zionist policy, renounced his status as a British subject, and lived as an Arab. Some authors list him incorrectly as Sir John Philby, mistaking his name St. John (pronounced in British English as Senjen) for Sir John.

Philby was a brilliant young man who soon came into huge responsibilities. His father, St. John, married an Indian woman, so Philby was of mixed race, a factor that ultimately had a strong effect on him. Given the British class system there is no way he would have been able to rise to the top of that system. Philby could never have risen to head MI-5 because of his Indian ancestry, his communist leanings, and his wife who was an alcoholic. Further, he had a painful stutter (which oddly, seemed to make him attractive to women.)

He attended Trinity College at Cambridge. He joined the Socialist Party. After graduation he went to Vienna, and then returned to the UK. He became enamored with the Communist Party of the UK (CPUK), but was turned down by the Party. He was able to get in touch with a Soviet agent who was able to get him into the Party later.

An NKVD agent, Arnold Deutsch (left), recruited Philby “in the name of world peace.” Deutsch was an illegal resident in London. By the way, he was a neighbor of Agatha Christie. Deutsch was a psychologist and wrote profiles of targets for recruitment. He knew very well how to appeal to each target for recruitment. Further, he tried to guide the careers of his recruits in specific directions. He developed a strong relationship with Philby. Philby, in turn, became a talent spotter, and Guy Burgess was one whom Philby recommended. Philby also recruited Anthony Blunt as well as Donald Maclean. Blunt was also a talent spotter and recruited John Cairncross, a brilliant young Scot

The NKVD had a path for Philby. They needed him in Spain as a free-lance journalist. Actually, the NKVD wanted to assassinate Franco. That never came off, and Philby never knew of the plot. In Spain, Philby began to contribute to the London Times. Eventually he was made a correspondent.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, Philby returned to the UK. In WWII he was sent to France by the government, and had access to classified material.

Under Stalin, a paranoid dictator, huge purges of anyone who might challenge him were carried out. NKVD agents were recalled to Moscow and most of them were executed. Philby discussed this with Deutsch’s replacement who revealed that he too was being recalled. That he was willing to go, even in the face of probable death, impressed Philby.

Philby urged to join the government in cyber service. He was sent to the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) for an interview. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ[2]) is a British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the UK government and armed forces. Based in Cheltenham, it operates under the guidance of the Joint Intelligence Committee. However, GCCS would not offer Philby a job since he was “so qualified.” He finally got a job teaching Spanish refugees how to do propaganda. He had no stutter at all when speaking Spanish. Finally in 1941 he got an offer to join the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

The British Radio Security Service collected an enormous amount of German traffic, and easily broke the hand cipher they were using. This made it easier to read the corresponding machine ciphers. Most were about German agent movement in Europe. Section V was created as a signals intelligence organization. Philby got this job (in the Siberian section) V-D. He worked very hard and had a natural talent. He was promoted to head a new section – the anti-Soviet section (IX).

In 1949 Philby was posted to Washington. He was briefed on BRIDE (which was the code name for VENONA traffic.). BRIDE fingered Ted Hall (Los Alamos) and Klaus Fuchs (also Los Alamos) two people in the Manhattan Project.

Philby was at a huge disadvantage going to Washington. He was supposed to have an NKVD (illegal) contact but did not get one. As a result he had no chance to warn the NKVD about VENONA. Anthony Burgess somehow didn’t get the message that this should be taken seriously. The Soviet’s denied having any knowledge of VENONA.

No signal ever came to Philby. The new Rezident was a music professor, and lost all interest in continuing his work. In 1951 Philby got word that VENONA would get Donald Maclean. Philby warned him, and he subsequently disappeared. Burgess went with him. This implicated Philby, and began to unravel the entire pattern of his life.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[3]

From Edgware Road to Kendal Street, then just after Connaught Street pick up Tichborne Row, which leads into Hyde Park Crescent. The buildings hereabouts are new and unlovely. Turn left into Southwick Place. On your left is 6 Southwick Place. Donald Maclean, the brilliant young British diplomat who fled to Moscow in 1951 and years later would still be remembered as “such a good fellow”, lived in a dark three-storey house here during his boyhood.

The family had moved to London when Maclean père entered Parliament. Young Donald, born in 1913, returned to Southwick Place periodically from the reformist environment of Gresham’s, one of the smaller public schools. He had little ease with his father, “a figure of almost claustrophobic rectitude.” Depending on which partisan view we, accept, the father was either “one of the least-inspired Cabinet ministers of his time” or “very near to being a great man.” He was a pillar of the Liberal Party, his reformism a secular expression of his Calvinism. But while father and son shared a puritanical dislike for the excesses (and successes) of modern capitalism, Maclean fils soon abandoned Calvinism for the secular religion of Leninism. His father’s death in 1932, here at Southwick Place, released young Maclean from the need to lie to his father about the loss of one faith and the acquisition of another.

The circumstances of Donald Maclean’s recruitment to Soviet Intelligence have been unclear for 60 years. His best friend at Gresham’s was James Klugmann (see Site 69 Norgeby House, 82 Baker Street). His first male lover, soon after he came up to Cambridge in 1931, was Guy Burgess. Was Maclean recruited by either of them? Newly opened NKVD files indicate that it was Philby who invited Maclean to serve the Soviets. The year was 1934; friend Burgess, not yet recruited himself, was disappointed in Maclean for breaking with the Party (as Moscow had ordered).

Under orders from Soviet Intelligence, Maclean sought entry to the British Foreign Service, abandoning his plans to drive a tractor in the USSR while teaching English to the peasants. Asked by the FO about his communist views at Cambridge he replied, “I haven’t entirely shaken them off.” This answer seems to have satisfied his questioner, for Maclean entered the FO soon afterward. A shining young man, he seemed destined for a distinguished diplomatic career. His first foreign posting, in 1938, was to the important embassy in Paris where, as John Costello has learnt from newly released KGB documents, Maclean was already delivering huge quantities of material to the Soviets.

He was sent to Washington in 1944 and reached the embassy’s third-ranking position before leaving there in 1948. During this period of keen Soviet interest in America, Maclean was both British diplomat and Soviet agent—and in the latter capacity was “both saboteur of the West and adviser to the East,” writes Verne W. Newton in The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby and Burgess in America (1991). Maclean’s name is deliberately first. “From Stalin’s point of view,” writes Newton, “Maclean was far more valuable than either Burgess or Philby.”

Nowhere was Maclean more valuable than on matters of US atomic capability. In Washington he served as the British representative to a high-level American-British-Canadian committee on atomic policy. He was allowed unescorted access to Atomic Energy Commission’s facilities when even J. Edgar Hoover and members of the President’s Cabinet needed escorts. From Maclean, the Soviets learnt that “America’s nuclear arsenal was nonexistent” after the war, writes Newton. During the 1948 Berlin crisis, Stalin understood that he had “nothing to fear” from America.

Maclean aided the Soviets from Washington in a multitude of other ways: he supplied important Churchill-Truman exchanges concerning postwar policy towards Poland; he supplied the probable “hold line” for NATO (the precise Soviet behaviour that would be considered an act of war); he supplied the names of Soviet citizens who had contacted British diplomats; he continually supplied the updated listing of personnel and weapons at every American military base throughout the world. And that’s only part of it. In every possible way consistent with avoiding detection, Maclean put the Western alliance at a disadvantage while also causing difficulty within the alliance—all the while maintaining what one observer calls a “reassuring concern for embassy security.”

In 1948 Maclean was posted to Cairo as head of chancery. The youngest counsellor in the FO, he was one of Britain’s most promising young diplomats. And then he began to unravel. The conviction of Alger Hiss early in 1950 must have been unnerving. Hiss claimed never to have met Maclean but, as Newton reports, “for nearly a year, the FBI listened in on many of their phone calls.” The arrest of Klaus Fuchs, also early in 1950, must have been doubly disquieting to Maclean. Drinking heavily, he now began doing things that even the most indulgent couldn’t ignore. At a party given by King Saud, he urinated on a carpet. At a smaller party, he tried to strangle Melinda, his wife. After another evening of carousing, he and a friend wrecked the empty apartment of two American women, tearing their underclothes apart and hurling a large mirror into their bath (breaking the bath, not the mirror). It was time to leave Cairo. Maclean took medical leave in May, 1950, and returned to London. Had he been trying to end his career, as a means of getting out from under the communists? It’s a charitable theory. More likely, I think, he simply couldn’t help himself.

Medical leave could last only six months. To keep Maclean from being reduced to half-pay after November, the FO made this loose cannon the head of its American Department! The appointment must have struck the Soviets as quite mad: their diplomats would never be forgiven the indiscretions of Cairo. And now Maclean was of inestimable value to the other side. The Korean War had just begun. Maclean divulged the limitations placed on UN forces as to targets in North Korea and beyond. He also divulged early Anglo-American decisions not to retaliate against the Chinese, not to use atomic weapons, not to aim for a military victory or a unified Korea. With Maclean’s information, Peking and Moscow could fight “almost a risk-free war,” writes Newton.

The FO subsequently tried to conceal the fact of Maclean’s access to such vital information, pretending that the American Department dealt “principally with Latin-American affairs” and, in the US, only with tourism and British citizens there. Files going to the Public Record Office were suitably purged. But the attempt was bungled, says Newton; prior files of the American Department were not purged. In any case, Maclean had routinely seen highly restricted information about the Korean War from the Far Eastern Department.

Maclean’s tenure at the American Department, and in the FO altogether, would soon end. The Americans had been working on a batch of intercepted messages sent during the war between Moscow Centre and its people in New York. In 1949 the cryptologists achieved a breakthrough, locating a spy called “Homer” inside the British Embassy in Washington in 1945. By the end of1950 there were 35 suspects; by April, 1951, only Maclean and one other. By May it was all over: Maclean had been tipped off and had flown the coop (see Site 120 Clifford Chambers, 10 New Bond Street). Only the recriminations remained, with MI5 accusing the FBI of having acted too slowly on its information (J. Edgar Hoover having failed to advise the White House or State Department of the unidentified spy), and with the FBI accusing MI5 of having dragged its feet altogether (Guy Liddell having been perhaps the chief offender in the casual pursuit of “Homer”).

Maclean’s last 32 years, in the USSR, couldn’t have been easy. At first he had a teaching job 500 miles from Moscow, then he was allowed pack to the capital to work in the foreign ministry. He wrote a book on British foreign policy: “a boring, shallow polemic,” accordingto Newton. Eventually he drank himselfto death, reveals Gordievsky (although more slowly than Burgess who predeceased him by 20 years). Eventually too, he came to see things somewhat differently: he sought out dissidents and read their samizdat, he had a sign on his door saying “Anti-Semites not welcome here” and he abstained from voting (once, at least) in order to protest at the Soviet use of psychiatric hospitals for political prisoners.

Maclean was “crippled by inner stress”, write Page, Leitch, and Knightley in The Philby Conspiracy[4]; driven by fury and a need for revenge; writes Newton in The Cambridge Spies. But he was the perfect spy, with an adolescent’s desire for conspiratorial relationships and an elitist’s desire to run against the herd—and with a sophisticate’s ability to get away with a life of deception. He had a strong anti-American streak, as did the other Cambridge spies, stemming in part (I believe) from a British chauvinism gone awry: they hated the nation and culture that they viewed as surpassing Britain. Most observers deny that Maclean was a hard-core ideologue for the communist cause. In fact, as Newton argues, “Had Maclean’s ideological ardour been greater, the Soviets would never have recruited him.” The KGB avoided the really committed types as too volatile, too risky.

Maclean was, above all, successful. “It is doubtful that any other agent in the postwar period,” writes Newton, “served Moscow more ably than Maclean.” (Whoever protected him at the FO can be considered even more successful.)

His story has been a cautionary tale for more than 40 years, providing early evidence (with Burgess in 1951) that the communist threat was real. More recently, as Ronald Radosh argues in his review of the Newton book for The American Spectator[5], Maclean has provided evidence utterly discrediting the revisionists who suggest that espionage against the West was without harm during the Cold War and that Western counter-espionage effort was without purpose.

[1] The CAMBRIDGE FIVE was the spy ring recruited by the Soviets from among undergraduates at the British university in the 1930s, including Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and John Cairncross.
Following his graduation from Cambridge University and a visit to Vienna, where he married Soviet agent Litzi Friedmann, Kim Philby was recruited by an NKVD illegal, Otto Deutsch. On his recommendation his friend Guy Burgess agreed to become a spy, and Burgess then approached Anthony Blunt, a don at Trinity College, and Donald Maclean, who had graduated from Trinity Hall in October 1934. Maclean joined the Foreign Office in 1935 and continued to supply information to his Soviet contacts until he was obliged to escape to Moscow in May 1951. Meanwhile Burgess, who graduated from Trinity College in 1935 and the following year joined the BBC as a radio talk show producer, gravitated toward the Secret Intelligence Service.
Blunt acted as a “talent spotter” for the group and identified another Trinity College student, John Cairncross, as a potential member. Having excelled in both the Home and Foreign Civil Service examinations, Cairncross joined the Foreign Office in October 1936 , for a time shared an office in the Western Department with Maclean, unaware that he too had become a Soviet spy.
In 1940, having worked as a war correspondent in Spain and France for The Times, Philby joined the Special Operations Executive to train agents in propaganda techniques, having been suggested by Burgess, who was himself working for SIS’s Section D as an expert on broadcasting. In September 1941 Philby was transferred to the SIS, where he worked throughout the war as a signals analyst, studying the enemy’s organization in the Iberian Peninsula. At the end of the war, Philby, having established himself as an intelligence professional, in 1946 was posted to the SIS station in Istanbul. Three years later he was sent to Washington, D.C., where he learned that Maclean had become the focus of an MIS investigation, based on VENONA texts, into the leakage of classified documents from the British embassy in 1944. On his tip, Burgess conveyed a warning to Maclean, by then promoted to head of the Foreign Office’s American Department, and both men fled the country in May 1951.
Upon the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, suspicion fell on Philby, who was interrogated and dismissed from the SIS in November 1951, and then onto Blunt. Blunt had joined the Intelligence Corps on the outbreak of war, and in 1940 had been recruited into MI5 but had gone back to academic life at the end of hostilities. Under suspicion following the defections of Burgess and Maclean, he eventually confessed, in return for an offer of immunity, in April 1964 to having spied for the Soviets since his recruitment by Burgess in 1935.
Blunt confirmed that he had recruited Cairncross, who had resigned from his post in the Ministry of Supply in 1951 when questioned about his prewar contacts with Burgess. Although on that occasion Cairncross had denied having passed classified information to Burgess from the Foreign Office, he had hemorrhaged secret documents to the Soviets when he was a junior diplomat, and later from the Cabinet Office and from Bletchley Park, where he had worked during the war as a linguist. In 1944 he had been assigned to the SIS, and after the war had joined first the Treasury and then the Ministry of Supply.
See West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, pp. 42-43

[2] See West, Nigel (1986). GCHQ: The Secret Wireless War 1900-86

[3] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 195-200

[4] Page, Bruce (1968), David Leitch, and Phillip Knightley. The Philby Conspiracy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday

[5] Found at, downloaded October 13, 2015



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One Response to The Cambridge Spies

  1. Pingback: Espionage, Security and Intelligence in Britain 1945-1970 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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