Friday, November 8, 2019

Kim Philby's My Silent War (book review)

Harold “Kim” Philby was the most famous spy of the 20th century, and arguably the most successful. A few years after defecting to the Soviet Union he wrote his autobiography, My Silent War. He wasn’t sure that the KGB (for whom he still worked actively) would allow the book to be published but in 1967 a series of articles in the British press revealed so much about his career that there was no longer any point in suppressing his memoirs. My Silent War was published in both the Soviet Union and Britain in 1968, and was a major success.

It’s not just fascinating for its insights into Philby’s extraordinary career. It’s also a vastly entertaining account of the reality behind the espionage business. Philby was a man of considerable wit and charm and this comes across in the book.

Of course it’s almost impossible for any reader to approach this book without confronting the issue of betrayal. For some the fact that he was a KGB agent who successfully infiltrated the British Secret Intelligence Service (the SIS or MI6 as it’s more commonly known) simply makes him a traitor. But there are many different kinds of betrayal, and many different kinds of loyalty. You can betray a friend, or a lover. You can betray a country. You can betray a religion, or a political ideology. Philby certainly betrayed his country but he never betrayed his political beliefs. Having become a communist at the age of 21 he remained steadfastly loyal to those beliefs, beliefs which he believed would in the long term be in Britain’s interest anyway. You can certainly believe that Philby was wrong, but there’s no doubt that he sincerely believed he had made the morally correct decision. For Philby also class loyalties trump national loyalties and it’s probable that for many people in Britain at the time it was his perceived betrayal of his class that was most disturbing.

Philby was recruited by the KGB (or at least it’s predecessor as the organisation underwent several name changes) in 1933. He worked as a journalist and was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and in the early stages of the Second World War. He candidly admits that he wasn’t a particularly useful agent. In fact the KGB had pretty much written him off as a dead loss. That all changed when he managed to get himself recruited (largely by his own efforts) by the SIS. He was recruited by a chap named Guy Burgess.

Amusingly, when he sent his first reports back the Soviets thought he must have joined the wrong organisation. They could not believe that the farcical comic-opera outfit he described could actually be the famous British Secret Intelligence Service. But, sadly for the British, it was indeed the SIS. To be fair they became marginally more professional as the war progressed.

Philby did more than get himself recruited. He rapidly became a rising star in the bizarre secret world of British intelligence. By the early postwar period he was head of Section IX, in charge of operations against the Soviet Union.

Depending on your point of view it’s either depressing or amusing that the picture painted in Our Man in Havana by Philby’s friend and fellow SIS member Graham Greene of the SIS as a bunch of absurd bungling amateurs was very close to the truth. Mind you, Philby’s opinion of the CIA was even lower and he regarded the FBI as a complete joke. On the other hand he considered MI5 to be efficient and professional.

When he wrote the book Philby was still working for the KGB so obviously he had to be extremely reticent about KGB methods and about revealing hints as to the identity of still-active KGB agents in Britain. So if you’re hoping for revelations about the inner workings of the KGB you’ll be disappointed. What you do get are extraordinarily interesting insights into the workings of British and American intelligence agencies, and into the precarious world of the double agent. Philby’s problem was that he had to advance himself into a senior position in the SIS so he had be an efficient SIS officer, whilst at the same time he had to do whatever he could to ensure that SIS operations were unsuccessful.

Even if you consider Philby to be a bad man you’d have to admit that he was a brave, intelligent, resourceful bad man. He displayed extraordinary coolness and quick thinking even in situations that seemed hopeless. When his cover seemed to have been irretrievably blown after the defections of Maclean and Burgess he kept his head. He knew he was very strongly suspected but he gambled (correctly) that there was no evidence against him that would stand up in a court of law. So although his escape plan had been carefully worked out he waited for a decade to put it into action.

One thing that is rather amusing is that the success of the Cambridge spy ring was made possible by class prejudices. When it was discovered that there were major security leaks from the British Embassy in Washington the British intelligence services wasted years investigating menial embassy staff because it was unthinkable that the leaks could have originated with Donald Maclean, who was after all a gentleman and had been to the right schools. This class prejudice worked in Philby’s favour as well.

Philby offers no apologies for his conduct. He made his choice and he stuck to it. I emphasise that I'm not in any way arguing that he was right. But whatever you might think of him My Silent War is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the subject of espionage. And it’s incredibly entertaining.

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