Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cambridge Spies

The Spy Legacy

What are we to make of the Cambridge Spies? What is their impact?

Rufina Pukhova, widow of Philby
Rufina Pukhova, widow of Philby (AP)

It appears that they were not mercenaries. With the exception of a single payment to Philby when he was financially distressed after resigning from MI6, and travel funds for Mrs. Maclean and Mrs. Philby to assist in their joining their husbands in Russia, the Cambridge Four were never paid for their services. The assumption is that they were idealists, rather than spies in for it for personal gain.

There is no question that Philby affected the course of World War II, in that he provided the Soviets with essential information about the intentions of the British and Americans on how they intended to proceed with the war against the Nazis. Further, he and Maclean affected Stalin's strategy for dealing with post-war matters, since the Russian dictator was fully informed of the alliances designed by Churchill and Truman to thwart the western progression of Communism into Europe. The two of them, Philby and Maclean, contributed to the Cold War tactics that allowed Stalin to know the intentions of the Western bloc. Burgess and Blunt made their contributions through less spectacular but nonetheless important ways, by conveying secret documents and recruiting.

How did they get away with it? The simple answer is that MI5, MI6, and the British Foreign Office were incapable of distrusting four men who "were their own kind." Past Marxist and Communist affiliations were ignored, first because Marxism was considered antifascist during the war, and, second, because all four belonged to the "old-boy network." Despite the brilliance of many of the officials in MI5 and MI6, those agencies' leaders were grossly incompetent in their own internal security policies.

It must be remembered that --- whatever their deficiencies of personality --- Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, and Philby were highly intelligent individuals. They were more than lucky. They were smart and determined.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1970
J. Edgar Hoover, 1970 (AP)

A second, lasting influence of their espionage was the loss of confidence between the American and British intelligence communities. It was true that J. Edgar Hoover, even before knowledge of the efforts of the Cambridge Spies, had little trust of the British intelligence services. Still, the effects of Philby, et al, was to further diminish the trust between the CIA, the FBI (already in competition with its sister agency) and the British services, MI5 and MI6. The "special relationship" so important to Anglo-American foreign policy was severely damaged.

The loss of confidence in British intelligence organizations was exacerbated by the clear class distinctions that were evident in the Cambridge Spies case. The special privileges that the intellectual and social hierarchy, represented by Cambridge and Oxford graduates, were able to bring to the administration of government in England proved disastrous to both Britain and America. In truth, the American CIA was much the same, in that its recruits came from the Eastern Establishment, while the FBI, under Hoover, was much more Midwestern and egalitarian. Nonetheless, the view of the British as class-conscious snobs was reinforced by the outrageousness of the success of the Cambridge spies.

CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia
CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia (AP)

American views of the insidiousness of Philby and his colleagues are that their work for the Soviets were serious setbacks for the goals of America in the Cold War. Lamphere of the FBI held the Englishmen in contempt, and the CIA, under James Jesus Angleton, became paranoid after being duped by Philby and Maclean.

The Russians, of course, consider the Cambridge Spies, and Philby in particular, as ideological heroes who advanced the aims of Soviet Russia in an unsettled world that was allied against the goals of Marxism.

The British position is one that moves from annoyance that Philby caused their intelligence community such distress, to that of indifference, described in part by Alan Bennett in his preface to his plays. Bennett's comments are worth quoting in some detail, since they are typical of the views of many Britons:

"I find it hard to drum up any patriotic indignation over either Burgess or Blunt, or even Philby. No one has ever shown that Burgess did much harm, except to make fools of people in high places. Because he made jokes, scenes, and most of all, passes, the general consensus is that he was rather silly. Blunt was not silly and there have been attempts to show that his activities had more far-reaching consequences, but again he seems to be condemned as much out of pique, and because he fooled the Establishment as for anything that he did."

Philby, however, is not quite so easy to dismiss, as even Bennett admits:

"It is Philby who is always thought to be the most congenial figure. Clubbable, able to hold his liquor, a good man in a tight corner, he commends himself to his fellow journalists, who have given him a good press. But of all the Cambridge spies he is the only one of whom it can be proved without doubt that he handed over agents to torture and death."

As for Maclean, Bennet says:

"At the height of the Cold War Maclean's understanding of Western scruples is said to have had a moderating effect on Soviet policy and the message seems to be that the more we know about each other the less dangerous the world is likely to be."

Is Bennett's view a naive view? How serious is espionage? The argument that the world would be better off without secrets, and, therefore, there are no secrets worth keeping, is an interesting and controversial position.

We are left with a spectrum that runs from, on the one hand, disgust for traitorous actions to, on the other, admiration for idealists who were capable enough to get away with them. Disgust and admiration, of course, are in the eye of the beholder. It is clear that the fruits of intelligence are to provide an edge over one's adversary, even if that edge results in the deaths of one's enemy. A question that could be raised is: what is the moral difference between the work of the Cambridge Spies and the work of the CIA to bring off the overthrow or assassinations of foreign leaders?

A very recent book by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy, deals with these issues from a number of enlightened perspectives. In his introduction to Moynihan's book, Richard Gid Powers makes the following observation:

"What secrecy grants in the short run --- public support for government policies --- in the long run it takes away, as official secrecy gives rise to fantasies that corrode belief in the possibilities of democratic government. All because of secrets locked away foolishly and in the end, it would seem, needlessly. Secrecy is a losing proposition. It is, as Senator Moynihan has told us, for losers."

--- Richard Gid Powers, in his introduction to Secrecy, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1998

Whatever the conclusion, there will always be both disgust and grudging admiration for spies who are successful.

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