The Magazine

Traitor in Embryo

A famous spy’s first steps toward betrayal.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Philby’s political leanings from his time at Cambridge were known to several people in the British establishment, but they were always dismissed as having been part of a youthful phase that he later outgrew—a characterization Philby himself cultivated. He was aided by the fact that his eccentric father, who had made a career of opposing the policies of the British government, was able to persuade Philby’s future superiors in British intelligence that his son was unlikely to betray his own class. And in a later, remarkable parallel to Philby’s treachery, when Whittaker Chambers of Time was trying to prove that Alger Hiss had been a Soviet spy, his boss Henry Luce made the observation to Chambers that it was always the upper classes of Britain and America who were first to betray their countries.

Philby was an able intelligence officer, working effectively for SIS in its efforts to penetrate Nazi intelligence operations during World War II. But in addition to his care in doing his work, his most important asset in avoiding detection as a Soviet double agent may have been his charm. During the war, and afterwards, the top precincts of SIS seem to have been snakepits of backbiting and professional backstabbing; in his memoirs, Philby claims credit for obtaining his position as chief of SIS counterespionage through masterful manipulation of his rivals.

In fact, as Harrison shows, Philby was as much the beneficiary of good luck as of bureaucratic skills: A candidate for a top position at SIS who might have uncovered Philby’s treachery was passed over for promotion because of internecine rivalry; Philby was identified publicly as the suspected “third man” of the Cambridge Five, but was exonerated in Parliament because of the absence of proof.

The strain of living a double life, of working in the intelligence circles of one country while passing information to its enemy, finally took its toll on Philby. He was often drunk, went through three marriages before his defection to Moscow, and, once in Moscow, had an affair with the wife of fellow-defector Donald Maclean. Philby was ultimately disappointed by the Soviet Union: He turned out not to have been a KGB colonel, as he had claimed, and could find no substantive work with his new masters for several years after his defection. He died in 1988, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

One of the more intriguing aspects of Harrison’s study is how lacking in curiosity Philby’s British colleagues were about his worldview and philosophical allegiances. Of course, it is unlikely that a man like Philby would survive scrutiny today, by skeptical colleagues and superiors in, say, the CIA. Unlikely, but not impossible. Arrogance about one’s own views is often the generator of negligence in checking the views of others. Philby was from “the right drawer,” in British snobspeak, but philosophically he was something else. 

Ask the Volkov family.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East