Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Crown and the Mole

ANTHONY BLUNT: His Lives, By Miranda Carter, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: , 590 pp., $30

April 21, 2002|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation, and the author of, most recently, "Letters to a Young Contrarian."

If I declare an interest in this book, I also confess a tiny resentment. As far as I know, I was by a narrow margin the first person to name Sir Anthony Blunt, in print, as the long-sought "fourth man" of Soviet penetration in the British Secret Service. I did so in the New Statesman in 1979, narrowly beating (allowing for discrepant deadlines and publication dates) the editors of the satirical magazine Private Eye, who get the credit in Miranda Carter's book and elsewhere. This may seem a petty way of approaching a major scandal, but the struggle to publish an open secret was and is an important key to understanding the surreal world in which Blunt rose, flourished, prospered--and ultimately fell like Lucifer. I knew that Sir Anthony was the culprit, but had I simply published the fact, I could have been exposed to a very serious suit for libel. I could also have involved myself in breaking the Official Secrets Act, which defines almost all public information in Britain as state property.

However, the Fleet Street press had got wind of the fact that the guilty man's name had five letters, began with B and belonged to a person who had been at Cambridge University in the 1930s. At least one blameless don--a man named Donald Beves--had been extensively calumniated in The Times (of London) for no better reason. (Oddly enough, the author of the original rumor was a journalist with the equally suspect name of Andrew Boyle, who produced a sensational book titled "The Climate of Treason.") A climate of something more like witch-hunting had resulted. There seemed no good reason to allow this to go on, since the British authorities had known since 1964 that Blunt had been an agent of the KGB. So I went ahead and ventilated the name, body-guarding my disclosure with various careful phrases about how Sir Anthony was innocent until proved guilty and so forth.

What a relief it was when Margaret Thatcher rose in the House of Commons a short while afterward to confirm what the establishment had so long kept to itself. Her statement had one very important feature, which is missing from Carter's "Anthony Blunt: His Lives," and indeed from most accounts of the Cambridge spy saga. Seeking to explain how it was that so many double agents had infiltrated British intelligence, she said that in 1939 and 1940, there had been some rather hasty recruitment to meet the Nazi menace, and a few rather dubious characters had therefore slipped through the mesh. This was in fact, in the guise of an excuse, an enormous admission. It involved conceding that, until almost too late, the establishment spymasters had been either indifferent to Hitler or somewhat sympathetic to him.

That ugly but plain fact, with its corollaries, had provided the future traitors with their justification as well as their opportunity. Kim Philby, the most successful mole of all time, had pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer in order to get himself recruited by MI6. He had gone to Spain to report glowingly from the Franco side and joined the pro-Hitler Anglo-German League. His collaborators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, were not so flamboyant in their deception but were motivated by a similar hatred and contempt for an upper class that had been so collusive with fascism throughout the 1930s. Until his death in 1995, one of the most successful of the British double agents, John Cairncross, lived unprosecuted in France, where he was an acknowledged expert on Moliere, Racine and Corneille. He was distinctly proud of having sent the Soviet Union wartime information about tanks and other materiel, which is credited by historians with having helped the Red Army to win the Battle of Kursk.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|