Of all the unresolved cold war mysteries, arguably the most intriguing are the motives of members of the Cambridge espionage network that was foiled in 1951, forcing the notorious British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to flee to Moscow. The third man, Kim Philby, was ousted from MI6, the British intelligence service, but escaped prosecution for lack of evidence (he later escaped to Moscow). Why would members of the British upper class pass thousands of classified documents to Soviet intelligence? What was in it for them?
John le Carré, among others, has considered these questions at length. In the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré’s spycatcher George Smiley assesses the Russian mole in British intelligence as follows: “Bill was a romantic and a snob. He wanted to join an elitist vanguard and lead the masses out of the darkness…. [Smiley] imagined Bill’s Marxism making up for his inadequacy as an artist and for his loveless childhood.” But ultimately, le Carré dismisses this explanation and settles instead “for a picture of one of those wooden Russian dolls that opens up, revealing one person inside the other, and another inside of him.”
During the cold war itself, few people were interested in a serious exploration of such treason. The idea that Burgess, Philby or Maclean might have acted out of sincere belief or misplaced idealism did not seem a legitimate argument. Even friends from the Cambridge left wrote about “neurotic personalities and incipient schizophrenia” when trying to explain their spying for Moscow.
Their clandestine escape sent ripples of suspicion and visceral distrust that reverberated for years on both sides of the Atlantic. It helped fuel an upsurge of puritanism and homophobia (Burgess became a symbol of the “evils” of homosexuality: predatoriness, blackmail, betrayal, mistrust), and conveniently tied them up with Communism. Maclean was cast as a respectable but weak man brought low by Burgess’s machinations.
In a large sense, however, the 1951 flight left a lasting imprint on Western intelligence. It showed that even the best intelligence service could be compromised by a single person–which indeed was the case in the period 1949-51, when Philby was the liaison between the CIA and MI6, Britain’s external security agency, and was privy not only to everything worth knowing but also knew the intentions of the West, given his access to top people in Washington and London. This made counterintelligence, or the catching of moles, as important if not more so than the gathering of intelligence itself. Security chiefs in London, supported by the paranoid CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton in Washington, were convinced that there was a giant and incredibly successful Soviet conspiracy to penetrate Western intelligence at the highest level. For a while, everyone was under suspicion. It was rumored for a long time that Labour leader and Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a KGB plant and that Roger Hollis, the chief of Britain’s domestic security agency, MI5, and CIA Director William Colby, were double agents.