First Posted: 8/20/2014
Video may have “killed the radio star,” as the song says, but it was the end of the cold war that just about did in spy fiction. Since I loved those tales of intrigue, betrayal and suspense, I grew so desperate that I must have re-read John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” five times in the last 20 years. Luckily, Ben Macintyre has just published “A Spy Among Friends,” his take on the notorious real-life spy, Kim Philby. And it’s a dandy.
Although non-fiction, a blend of history and biography, “A Spy Among Friends” is no mere dull-as-dirt recounting of names, dates and events. Well, okay, there’s a little of that, but for the most part, the book reads like fiction, filled with excellent characterization, suspense and ironies that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. The story centers on Philby’s long and successful career as a double agent. Recruited by Britain’s famous MI16 to spy on the Germans during World War II, Philby, like his Cambridge classmates Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, secretly served another master: Russia. Macintyre’s thesis is that Philby managed to lead a successful double life for 30 years because he had the unwitting help of two men he befriended and whose loyalty he betrayed: Nicholas Elliott, a fellow MI16 agent, and James Angleton, an American who would become head of counterintelligence for the CIA.
How, you might ask, could two intelligent men, well-versed in the ways of spydom, and indeed, almost everyone in the British Secret Service, fail to realize that Philby was a double agent? The author offers two plausible explanations: hero-worship and the skewed perceptions created by class assumptions. By all accounts, Philby was remarkably charismatic — handsome, charming, funny, an attentive listener and dashing — he loved cricket, booze and women, although not necessarily in that order. Both men and women were attracted like adoring moths to the bright glow of his flame. Elliott and Angleton were just the sort of young men who would worship him and revel in his friendship, but for different reasons.
For starters, Elliott and Philby came from the same upper crust social class, had similarly distant and demanding fathers and were schooled at the same university. Both reveled in defying authority and adventure. But unlike Philby, Elliott was somewhat homely, had little drive and zero curiosity, preferring to slide through school with as little effort as possible. Although accepted by his peers because of his social pedigree, he lacked confidence and natural appeal, so it’s no wonder he was thrilled when befriended by a man who was, to him, shinier, more popular and more confident. Elliott wanted to emulate his hero so much that he even purchased and carried an umbrella identical to Philby’s.
Angleton, though American by birth, was educated in England until he returned home to study at Yale. His time in Great Britain left him “with courteous manners, an air of cultivated eccentricity and a faint English accent that never left him.” He wore Saville Row suits and fancied himself a poet. Recruited into the newly formed OSS in World War II, he was sent to London for training, and Philby, his instructor in counterespionage, took a liking to the brilliant, driven young American, becoming, ironically, Angleton’s mentor. Thus, for Angleton, hero-worship grew out of this tutor-prodigy relationship.
Believing they were fired by the same goals as their hero’s, and thrilled that he had befriended them, it’s no wonder Elliott and Angleton gave Philby their unconditional trust and undying loyalty. What we do have to wonder is why it took Philby’s British employer, MI16, nearly 30 years to catch on to his duplicity. Macintyre credits this blindness to the “Old Boy” class assumptions. Simply put, if one had the right bloodlines and attended the right schools, he was automatically above reproach. I was astounded by the naiveté and unthinking loyalty that protected Philby from suspicion, and just as amazed that neither Philby nor Elliott were rigorously vetted before being inducted into the Secret Service. Both were hired merely on the say-so of influential members of the Old Boy network; in Philby’s case, simply because his sponsors “knew his people.” As Macintyre reveals, this presumption of worthiness stood Philby in good stead, even when his traitorous activities were exposed. Almost to the very end, Elliott and Angleton swore to his innocence. I suppose they had to believe in him; after all, they had been feeding him information for years — information he immediately passed on to his Soviet handlers that destroyed countless spy networks and lead to the deaths of well over a hundred agents.
“A Spy Among Friends” is a sad story in many respects, but there are some hilarious moments where you’ll just shake your head at the stupidity that allowed Philby to thrive and at the self-serving “revisions” of history that took place after his defection. Best of all, the book is loaded with the same sort of suspense that addicted me to spy fiction in the first place. For fellow addicts, and for anyone who is fascinated by the human behavior that makes history come alive, “A Spy Among Friends” makes a great read.