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A Spy Among Friends

Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal


Ben Macintyre


New York: Crown, 2014

Hardcover. xii + 368 pp. ISBN 978-0804136631. $27.00


Reviewed by Eric J. Morgan

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay



The true motivations of Kim Philby, perhaps the most damaging Soviet spy during the years spanning the Second World War and the early Cold War, remain elusive. For decades Philby, who rose precipitously through the ranks of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, to become chief of counterintelligence while also serving as a spy for the Soviet Union, has fascinated biographers and intelligence enthusiasts, and served as the inspiration for numerous fictional characters in novels and films, including the mole Gerald in spy novelist John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. We cannot help but be drawn to Philby’s mesmerizing life, which continues to haunt us more than a quarter century after his death.

Ben Macintyre’s gripping new book, A Spy Among Friends, is a taut, fast-paced tale, often reading much like a le Carré thriller (le Carré contributed an afterword to the book relating his story of declining an opportunity to meet Philby in the Soviet Union at the end of his life). Yet Philby’s deeds were anything but imagined, and while the Cold War has been over for nearly twenty-five years, his life remains captivating and worthy of continued scrutiny. Macintyre, a journalist and author of several additional books on espionage including: Agent Zigzag : A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal; Double Cross : The True Story of the D-Day Spies; and Operation Mincemeat : How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, weaves a complicated story into a clear and compelling narrative, exploring the labyrinthine depths of the Cold War’s secret intelligence world as well as the strong class divides of Great Britain. Other books—including David C. Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors, Phillip Knightley’s The Master Spy, Yuri Modin’s My Five Cambridge Friends, and Philby’s own frustratingly opaque My Silent War—have offered their own analysis on Philby and the Cambridge Spy Ring, but Macintyre’s narrative style and journalistic flair add new life to this story.

Harold Adrian Russell Philby was born in 1912 to Harry St John Philby, a noted Arabist ad adviser to King Ibn Saud. Philby attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he studied history and economics. There he became close friends with several young men—Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean—who would all send secret information to the Soviet Union as members of what become known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. Philby was recruited as a Soviet spy in 1934, eventually passing the names of dozens of Western agents over the following decades to his masters in Moscow. During the Second World War as Great Britain was attempting to stave off Nazi Germany, Philby befriended two men who became his closest of confidents: Nicholas Elliott, who joined MI6 in 1939, and James Jesus Angleton, a young counterintelligence officer in the United States’ Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. While both men deeply valued Philby’s friendship, Philby would betray them both, his duplicity at least partially responsible for the CIA’s becoming tied in knots during the 1960s and early 1970s due to Angleton’s paranoia and ensuing mole hunt.

As the book’s title suggests, Macintyre’s text is not a thorough biography of Philby’s life, rather a study of friendship, loyalty, and deception. Macintyre begins his tale in an apartment in Beirut, Lebanon in 1963, where two spies—and old friends—are “combatants on opposing sides of a brutal conflict” [1]. On one side is Philby, and on the other is Nicholas Elliott, the latter desperately trying to gain a confession from his old friend. The relationship between Philby and Elliott—and, to a lesser extent, between Philby and Angleton, who rose to become the chief of counterintelligence at the CIA—drives Macintyre’s narrative as he tries to unravel the mystery that is Philby. Indeed, secrecy and betrayal are everywhere. Philby not only betrays his country, but also his friends and his wives. He wears a constant mask and, through a combination of charm, intelligence, and cunning, all shrouded in a heavy haze of booze, Philby fooled everyone.

Macintyre chronicles Philby’s entry into the Communist cause, his friendships with Elliott and Angleton, the strained relationships with his four wives, the various close calls Philby maneuvered through as he was nearly unmasked on several occasions, and his gradual decline and ultimate exile to the Soviet Union. Throughout Macintyre shows the reader how much—and paradoxically how little—Philby did care about his friends. Philby’s deep attachment to his fellow travelers at Cambridge mattered far more than ideology. For it was Philby who enabled Guy Burgess’ antics during their time together in Washington, D.C. and it was Philby who helped arrange the escape of Donald Maclean in 1951 once it was clear that Maclean was soon to be discovered as the Soviet mole Homer, uncovered in the decrypting of the wartime Venona cables.

Why did Philby betray his country and friends, with his actions leading directly to the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of people? To Macintyre, Philby’s motivations were not ideological or political—in fact, Macintyre argues, Philby never exuded a strong understanding of Marx or Communist doctrine—but rather the game itself. While he was deeply critical of the West and Britain’s class system, Philby relished the ability to prove that he was smarter and more cunning than everyone. It was a game that he was remarkably good at, and that success provided Philby with great satisfaction. In a final correspondence with Nicholas Elliott, Macintyre writes, Philby “hoped to find out if, in the end, he had really won the battle of manipulation, whether he had outmaneuvered Elliott or the other way round” [282]. Even at the end of his days, exiled in a Moscow that he did not love and that did not love him, Philby needed to know that he had won.

Frustratingly, Macintyre’s mesmerizing story adds deeper complexity, rather than clarity, to the vexing enigma of Kim Philby. While our picture of Philby is inarguably clearer through Macintyre’s excellent narrative, it is also somehow more murky, as in adding yet another mirror to a maze of looking-glasses, further distorting an already twisted image. Eleanor Philby, Kim’s third wife, was probably right when she wrote, “no one can ever really know another human being” [285]. While we will never know the depths of Kim Philby—and I am not convinced that he, the most modern Janus, even knew himself—Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends is by far the most compelling narrative of Philby’s mystifying and spellbinding life.


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