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Tinker Traitor Communist Spy

By: Michael Taube
March 21, 2019

e have always been fascinated by the mysterious world of espionage. John le Carré’s early career in MI5 and MI6, Britain’s intelligence services, were the basis for his novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Russia House and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the British Secret Service agent known as 007, is universally familiar. Mr. Moto, Jack Ryan, the Pink Panther, Mission: Impossible, and even Austin Powers fill movie theaters with ease.

But fictionalized spies don’t always match the real McCoy. For every Culper Ring—the spy ring that provided information to George Washington about the British—there were homegrown American traitors like Benedict Arnold, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Aldrich Ames.

There’s also the Cambridge Five. The members of this infamous spy ring—Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross—attended Cambridge University in the 1930s. The Soviet Union recruited them to steal British government secrets and intelligence, and their espionage was so successful that even the KGB reportedly had serious doubts about their authenticity. All five members died without being prosecuted for their crimes.

Roland Philipps has an unusual link to Maclean. He’s the grandson of Sir Roger Makins, the last man in the Foreign Office to see the spy before he fled to the Soviet Union. Philipps’s A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean, is a unique, lively, and often personal account of a spy that some historians still remember, but the general public has largely forgotten.

Maclean didn’t have the other Cambridge Five members’ wealthy background, but he still came from good stock. His father, Sir Donald Maclean, was trained as a solicitor, went into politics, and, from 1918-1920, was Liberal Parliamentary Party leader and Leader of the Opposition. By all accounts, the son was a very successful student who had high marks, strong morals, edited the school magazine, played cricket and rugby, and was regarded as “way ahead of the others” by his contemporaries.

Philipps describes him as the “ultimate insider at the school, liberal and not too showy, high-achieving without being seen to try too hard.” He was a natural keeper and supplier of secrets, so much so “he was able to maintain his two lives in balance for decades, until the division between them, and not being sufficiently recognised in one of them, became too much for him to bear.”      

His route to Communism was a common story in post-Second World War Europe.

Maclean already came from an established Liberal family, and his politics were fairly left-wing. Many of his classmates at Gresham’s School were either liberals or socialists. One of his good friends, James Klugmann, who joined him at university, later became the British Communist Party’s official historian.

Cambridge remained firmly conservative in the 1920s, but as Blunt, one of Maclean’s fellow spies, later noted, “Quite suddenly, in the autumn term of 1933, Marxism hit Cambridge…. I found that almost all my younger friends had become Marxist and joined the Party; and Cambridge was literally transformed overnight.”  

Maclean didn’t immediately shift to Communism, but gradually absorbed some of its more dogmatic teachings. During a 1932 debate, he argued “bloodshed was inevitable, either by an imperialist war or by a communist revolution” and viewed Communism as the only vehicle for peace. His father’s sudden death later that year freed him to cheerfully and publicly embrace his allegiance to the Communist cause. This led to “full throated political engagement (and probably sexual experimentation),” two common themes at his post-secondary institution. 

In time, he mulled over the possibility of working at the Foreign Office. His association with Philby had pushed this idea along, and he discussed it with Klugmann, who became his guide through the Communist world. He became a Soviet agent for NKVD (later re-named the KGB) in 1934 with the original codename Orphan, and joined the Foreign Office a year later after claiming he had abandoned Communism and moved back to the political center.

A Spy Named Orphan takes on a life of its own when Maclean becomes a double agent. Philipps notes that he became the perfect spy by learning the fine art of keeping himself hidden while remaining a model of conformity in plain sight. It was a strategy he successfully employed right under the noses of a soon-to-be horrified British government.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact during the Second World War caused the Cambridge Five some consternation, including Maclean. He had kept “a close eye on the talks and was well aware of the consequences of their failure from the British perspective.” He convinced himself the Soviet leadership’s role was “subjectively aimed at building socialism,” but was “objectively stunted and twisted its development” to the point of near-destruction. When the pact dissolved, and the British and Soviets were on the same side, it led to a vast increase in the coded traffic to and from Moscow and made life easier for Maclean to do his dirty work without continual suspicion or fear related to his motives.

Maclean and his wife, Melinda, the daughter of a Chicago oil executive he met in Paris in 1939 and married a year later, went to the U.S. during the war. In his capacity as a British diplomat, he had access to every paper going through the Embassy in frenetic wartime Washington. He was the first to arrive in the mornings, and devoured the overnight cables to find pertinent information to send to Moscow. According to Philipps, “Maclean’s ability to absorb, summarize and redirect these was legendary.”

The most interesting chapters relate to Maclean’s decision to disappear from the Foreign Office (with Burgess) and go to the Soviet Union in 1951. MI5 had intercepted some messages that related to Soviet espionage, and the FBI was getting ready to bring him in for questioning. Stories about his disappearance claimed the two men had taken “Hush-Hush Data”—and the direct allegation was Maclean “had worked on the atom bomb itself, the subject of the century” and “fertile ground for media fearmongering.”

Maclean would ultimately spend nearly twice as long living and working in Moscow as he did as a spy in the Foreign Office. He reunited with his wife and children in the Soviet Union in 1953, but their semi-public meeting was strained. The years apart had hurt their marriage, and Maclean knew he had caused a great deal of damage. The polished diplomat had turned into “a Russian-speaking unknown who had betrayed his own children,” and the consequences would be difficult to repair.

In 1970, he published British Foreign Policy Since Suez. Despite continuing to support Communism over American “economic aggression,” Maclean criticized the Soviets for being drawn into the arms race and their inability to resolve the creative and “dark” tendencies of their political system. Philipps suggested that Maclean’s book’s compelling argument “with hindsight…reads like an early plea for the glasnost he would not live to see.”

Indeed, Maclean died in 1983 and was remembered as a good and just man by some like-minded souls, and as a spy who “ran against the grain of conventional thinking” by those who recognized the true extent of his treason. Thanks to A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean, the mystery surrounding the spy called Orphan is a little less mysterious.