The New Meaning of Treason

Title:                  The New Meaning of Treason

Author:                 Rebecca West

West, Rebecca (1964). The New Meaning of Treason. New York: Viking

LCCN:    64025703

KD373.J68 W47 1964


Date Updated:  April 13, 2016

In The Meaning of Treason, Rebecca West tackled not only the history and facts behind the spate of World War II traitors, but the overriding social forces at work to challenge man’s connection to his fatherland. As West reveals in this expanded edition, the ideologically driven amateurs of World War II were followed by the much more sinister professional spies for whom the Cold War era proved a lucrative playground and put Western safety at risk. Filled with real-world intrigue and fascinating character studies, West’s gripping narrative connects the war’s treasonous acts with the rise of Communist spy rings in England and tackles the ongoing issue of identity in a complex world.

Dame Rebecca West (1892–1983) is one of the most critically acclaimed English novelists, journalists, and literary critics of the twentieth century. Uniquely wide-ranging in subject matter and breathtakingly intelligent in her ability to take on the oldest and knottiest problems of human relations, West was a thoroughly entertaining public intellectual. In her eleven novels, beginning with The Return of the Soldier, she explored topics including feminism, socialism, love, betrayal, and identity. West’s prolific journalistic works include her coverage of the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker, published as A Train of Powder, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic study of Yugoslavia. She had a son with H.G. Wells, and later married banker Henry Maxwell Andrews, continuing to write, and publish, until she died in London at age ninety.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

The revised edition of an earlier book that was concerned with traitors in World War II. Now expanded to include accounts of Soviet espionage into the early 1960s, it is marked by the penetrating analyses and writing ability for which the author is famous. The cases paraded before us—those of May, Fuchs, Pontecorvo, Vassall, Houghton, Blake, Burgess, Maclean, Philby, the Rosenbergs, and others—illustrate the size of the problem of Soviet espionage and provide a telling contrast to the treason for fascism represented by Joyce and Amery. It is a sad litany of the lax security that prevailed in the West, especially in Britain, where the quality of security oversight was shockingly bad. West provides many examples of this and discerning judgments on the traitors and their motives; at the same time she focuses our attention on the expanded security problem created by developments in science and the bureaucracy. There is some interesting speculation on Soviet motives in certain of these cases. She urges vigilance and the elimination of sentimentality about traitors by democratic societies; they must be viewed for what they are. Blackstock and Schaf’s bibliography[2] makes the point that while many books and articles are concerned with the harm to personal freedom resulting from the activities of security and counterespionage agencies, this one speaks of the harm to a nation by too little attention to the problem of traitors and the protection of secrets.

This work has been praised but has not been immune to certain criticisms or reservations. Some scholars complained of the lack of source notes and documentation. Some critics felt that West generalized a bit too freely about the meaning of the espionage she described, such as implying that persons in a particular category were prone to treason or suggesting that the extent of treason was symptomatic of the West’s decline. And now we naturally know more about how certain Soviet agents were discovered and need not speculate as she did. We also know that Blake was not (as she thought was probable) a double agent with the knowledge of his British superiors. What is important is how well so much of this work stands up after so many years and how vivid her account remains. Dulles in Great True Spy Stories[3] called West one of those knowledgeable and imaginative reporters versed in the lore of espionage and able to get close to the heart of the cases she studied.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[4]

Dame Rebecca West has revised and updated her The Meaning of Treason. Her incisive accounts of the psychology and motivations of celebrated (mostly British) spies, traitors, and defectors are extremely valuable. The conclusions warrant close reading. Among those discussed are William Joyce, John Amery, Dr. Alan Nunn May, Dr. Klaus Fuchs, Bruno Pontecorvo, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and George Blake.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[5]

The author traces the treasonous activities of the various people who agreed to spy for the Soviet Union in England and the United States during the 1950s and ‘60s. The book is a revision of her important classic of 1947, The Meaning of Treason[6], Among the spies whose treason the author assesses are the atomic bomb spies, McLean and Burgess, Harry Houghton, Winifred Gee, Peter and Helen Kroger, George Blake, and William Vassal. Most of the books and articles cited in this section of the bibliography are concerned with the harm to personal freedom caused by the investigations and surveillance of counterespionage and security agencies. This book reveals the other side of the coin—the harm to national security by too little attention to protection of classified information and investigation of traitors. The author condemns the casual acceptance of spying for the Soviet Union.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 477-478

[2] Blackstock, Paul W.(1978) and Schaf, Frank L. Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co.

[3] Dulles, Allen W. (1968), ed. Great True Spy Stories. New York: Harper & Row

[4] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 71

[5] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 88

[6] West, Rebecca (1947, 2000). The Meaning of Treason. London: Phoenix Press [LCCN: 00708885]. Originally published New York: Viking Press [LCCN: 47011976]


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