Just as the Dreyfus Affair in late nineteenth century France continues to echo through modern politics in that country, so the “Philby Affair” continues to haunt the postwar politics and the intelligence communities of Great Britain and the United States. Kim Philby apparently became a Soviet mole while at Cambridge in 1934, joined the British secret services in the early days of World War II, eventually became head of British countermeasures against the Soviets, and was assigned to Washington in the early 1950’s. He was implicated in the escape of two other Soviet agents within British Intelligence, recalled to London, and dismissed from the service. He was eventually “white-washed” and later reemployed by the secret services and, using the cover of a newspaperman, was assigned to Beirut, whence he defected to Russia in 1963; he died in Moscow in 1988.
Anthony Cave Brown has written the most detailed and balanced account of the Philby affair to date, and has, for good measure, thrown in a biography of Kim Philby’s father. The title of the work is, however, a bit deceiving, implying as it does that both the father and the son were traitors. The son probably was, but the father, although often engaging in conduct not in the best interests of the British Empire, was in no way in the position of violating anyone’s trust or acting in violation of any sort of oath or agreement that he may have had with any agency of the British government. In short, St. John Philby never committed treason, and Cave Brown never accuses him of it.
It is natural that Cave Brown should have finally come to the Philby story, for he has, in a sense, been preparing himself for this book since he began his work on secret intelligence history withBodyguard of Lies (1975), on the schemes of deception practiced by the Allies during World War II. He next coauthored On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War II (1981), about the Communist involvement in various worldwide intrigues. Cave Brown drew closer to the Philby affair with The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan (1982), the biography of the founder of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II ancestor of the CIA. The next book followed naturally: “C”: The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill (1987). These last two books had to deal with Kim Philby, and the present volume brings that particular affair to the forefront.
Anthony Cave Brown’s work is characterized by exhaustive research, plenty of detail, as good a job as possible of tracing the ins and outs of exotic and obscure matters that were never intended for public scrutiny, and a refusal to theorize beyond the evidence. This book, which benefits from the recent opening of Soviet records and the memoirs of various Russian KGB officials, is notable for the number of times that Cave Brown says that Kim Philby “probably” or “may have” or “could have” done or been responsible for something—but that there is simply no way to tell from the available evidence. Cave Brown’s restraint in refusing to theorize beyond the available evidence is refreshing when dealing with a subject that often generates more heat than light. Unlike a number of other writers on Philby, Cave Brown does not seem to have any ax to grind or partisan policy to defend.
In spite of an attractive personality, attested by friends, acquaintances, and enemies alike, Kim is personally less interesting than his father. H. St. John Philby came of solid bourgeois English stock, born in Ceylon, educated in England, and first employed in the Indian Civil Service before World War I. He was an argumentative and passionate man, who frequently saw himself as much put upon by Establishment and Imperialist bureaucrats and functionaries. He always was convinced of the rightness of his own opinions and attributed opposition to prejudice and personal spite. He fairly quickly became an anti-imperialist and even a socialist, but his anti-imperialism and socialism were always personal and peculiar to him, rather than a subscription to a political or social creed.
During World War I, he was assigned to the Middle East, where he became most knowledgeable on Arabic matters. Ultimately, he became an adviser and confidant of Ibn Saud and did his best to see that Saud became the dominant force in Arabia. In 1924, Philby resigned from government service (just before he was about to be fired) and returned to Arabia to help and support and intrigue for Ibn Saud. He continued, sometimes in favor with Saud, sometimes out, to meddle and intrigue in Middle Eastern matters for the next thirty-five years. He came to be regarded by official circles back in London as the greatest nuisance and positive force for trouble in all the Middle East. St. John Philby “went native,” converting to Islam, taking an Islamic wife (while still keeping the long-suffering one he had back in England, who seems...
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