DECEIVING THE DECEIVERS: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, S.J. Hamrick, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004.
I like a James Bond spy thriller, replete with the latest technology, as well as the next guy. Le Carre’s Cold War-inspired George Smiley series. Even better. So when I expected to get the real ‘scoop’ on the actions of the Kim Philby-led Ring of Five in England that performed heroic spy service for the Soviet Union I found instead mostly skimpy historical conjecture by Mr. Hamrick. The central premise of his book that the Ring of Five was led by the rings in their noses by Western intelligence made me long for one of Mr. le Carre’s books. Apparently the only virtue of the opening of Cold War archives has been not to bring some clarity about the period but to create a cottage industry of conjecture and coincidence that rivals the Lee Harvey Oswald industry. Interestingly, the New York Review of Books (April 26, 2007) in its review of Mr. Hamrick’s book brought in the big guns. The review by Phillip Knightley, who actually has done some heavy work sorting out the Philby case, politely, too politely, dismisses the claims as so much smoke. No disagreement there from these quarters.
Intelligence gathering, as we are painfully aware in light of the Iraq fiasco, is a very inexact science. So mistakes, honest mistakes unlike the fudged Iraq intelligence, are part of the price for increased knowledge about what your enemy is up to. This writer makes no bones about his admiration for Kim Philby and the others who came over to the side of communism, as they saw it. That they were traitors to their English upper class upbringing, to boot, only increases their appeal. One can argue all one wants to about whether the information they provided to the Soviets was good, tainted, ignored or thrown in the waste paper basket. The question for history is did they subjectively aim to aid the cause of socialism. And did they come to regret their youthful decisions. From all the evidence, especially in the case of Philby, they did not. Until someone comes up with the ‘smoking gun’ that the Ring of Five’s work was all a sham socialists should still honor their memories. And that of Richard Sorge in Japan. Also Leopold Trepper and his “Red Orchestra” in Europe during the German Occupation. And, dare I say it, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States.