Donald and Melinda Maclean

Title:                      Donald and Melinda Maclean

Author:                 Michael Holzman

Holzman, Michael (2014). Donald and Melinda Maclean: Idealism and Espionage. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Chelmsford Press

OCLC:    907213773

UB271 .R92 M333 2014


Date Posted:      December 7, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

The subjects of this dual biography are well known to students of intelligence history. The story has been told before, first in 1955 by Geoffrey Hoare[3] and some 30 years later by Robert Cecil[4], a former Foreign Office subordinate of Maclean. Hoare’s account contained no sources and relied on conversations with members of the Maclean family he had known for years. Cecil relied on his firsthand knowledge and cited other sources that had emerged in the interim. Now historian Michael Holzman has revisited the subject based on extensive research of new material that has become available since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Holzman’s approach seeks “to avoid the rhetoric of both journalistic and seemingly scholarly writing about espionage” that labels Maclean and his fellow Cambridge spies as drunk, seedy, often homosexual, traitors. “Such characterizations,” he writes, “are not meant to lead to understanding; they are meant to prevent it.” (p. 14) He goes on to suggest “that it is best to avoid talk about treason and traitors when writing about espionage matters.” His sympathetic biography concentrates on “who they were, what they did, and the effects of their actions on their chosen world: the political.” (p. 15)

Thus there is very little new in Donald and Melinda Maclean. As Holzman chronicles their lives, he confirms that Donald’s reversal of allegiance occurred before he reached Cambridge. And Melinda was a communist, in spirit at least, when they met in Paris, though this conclusion was not reported in the accounts cited above. Similarly, though those same accounts did not conclude Melinda was aware of Donald’s espionage, Holzman is convinced that she was a willing supporter.

Holzman discusses Donald’s well known wartime assignments in France, London, America, and Cairo; the material to which he had access; and the events that led to his identification as a Soviet agent in May of 1951. Unlike other accounts, Holzman is convinced Melinda was also witting of Donald’s defection plans and contributed to their success.

The final part of the book discusses Melinda’s decision to join Donald in Moscow, the gradual disintegration of their marriage, her affair with Kim Philby, and her eventual return to America and self-imposed obscurity; their children would eventually follow. Donald remained in Moscow until his death, and Holzman describes his efforts to become a genuine communist. Holzman also quotes some of his writings on the Soviet economy that, he suggests, presaged those of Gorbachev. (p. 4) Donald Maclean died alone in 1983.

While Holzman prefers viewing the Macleans’ saga as art idealist product of the 1930s, the facts he presents suggest a more accurate description would be idealistic traitors. In any case, this book is the best treatment of the Maclean case to date.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 118-119). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Hoare, Geoffrey (1955). The Missing Macleans. New York: Viking Press

[4] Cecil, Robert (1989). A Divided Life: A Personal Portrait of The Spy Donald Maclean. New York: Morrow

This entry was posted in Cambridge Spies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s