Going Straight

Neal Ascherson

  • After Long Silence by Michael Straight
    Collins, 351 pp, £11.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 00 217001 9
  • A Matter of Trust: MI5 1945-72 by Nigel West
    Weidenfeld, 196 pp, £8.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 297 78253 3

It is certainly time for a long silence. The long clamour about those who have come so strangely to be called ‘the Cambridge spies’, revelations malevolent, piteous or merely inaccurate, ought to be wound up after the publication of Michael Straight’s contribution. Very possibly, Anthony Blunt will one day write such a book himself. But the names have almost all been named, the questions of motive worn smooth, the titles and pensions (some of them) stripped like epaulettes, the spell in the pillory served. Let’s get the blanket over this parrot and enjoy a spell of peace.

The parts of Straight’s autobiography which deal directly with the Cambridge Communists and the mess they left behind them form only a small proportion of the book. Most of it deals with the interesting but now forgotten period of American politics in the Forties and early Fifties before the full onslaught of McCarthyism, when a certain leftish ‘liberalism’ was declining in conditions of gathering Cold War. But the Cambridge pages seem more accurate, more understanding, than any previous narratives. More on the subject can only be the endless, aimless kicking over of dead leaves which will always absorb the feature editors of newspapers.

‘Cambridge spies’? Michael Straight was recruited by Anthony Blunt one day in 1937. He was to be a ‘sleeper’ who would achieve some high position in the United States appropriate to his wealth and distinguished family, and would there wait for some Russian prince to kiss him awake and give him his spying instructions. But, as a matter of fact, Michael Straight never spied at all. In 1938, a disappointingly low-level Russian calling himself ‘Michael Green’ appeared in Washington and acquired from Straight a few mildly private memoranda on general themes prepared for the State Department. Straight also handed over some essays in which he suggested to Stalin that his foreign policy was destructive and mistaken: ‘Green’, if he had any sense, probably burned these rather than risking his own neck by posting them on to the Kremlin. And that was all. This Alice took one step through the looking-glass, turned in alarm to retreat, and found his way blocked by his own reflection scowling and mouthing the word ‘traitor’.

So he lived with his ‘secret’, which really consisted only in his knowledge that Guy Burgess and his lieutenant Blunt had at one time served Soviet Intelligence. One could hardly call this a double life. Straight told his wife about Blunt soon after his recruitment, and agreed with her that he should see ‘Green’ no more. Indeed, as editor of the New Republic, as chairman of the American Veterans’ Committee and as a liberal supporter of Henry Wallace, Michael Straight became for a time a quite vigorous and effective opponent of the Communist Party of the United States in the years before the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy got into their stride. He was lucky to escape their attentions almost completely, although it is legitimate to wonder how he would have behaved – testifying and ‘naming names’, or risking prison by pleading the Fifth Amendment – if he had been put in the HUAC dock. Straight explains that he was ‘willing to confront Communism’, but only when the Party tried to take over an organisation in which he was a participant; he did not wish to join any general ritual of denunciation. In this way, he fought to deflect Party influence from the Veterans and the Wallace campaign because he feared that the Communists would devalue and eventually ruin the organisations which they sought to control: with friends like these the ‘liberal’ cause in the United States needed no enemies on the right. His vehemence seems to have puzzled both old comrades and opponents on the left, who, of course, knew nothing of certain meetings with Anthony Blunt in another country.

The moment of decision came in 1963, when Kennedy asked him to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Straight does not conceal the fact that it was the need to face an FBI vetting that made his mind up: four times before, he had gone to the British Embassy in Washington or to the FBI to confess, but had drawn back at the last moment. Now he told the FBI what he knew. He named Anthony Blunt (Guy Burgess had long been in Russia), and gave MI5 what they needed to persuade Blunt, in return for the promise of immunity, to talk. He named others too, including Leo Long, but claims in this book that he was able to exonerate many more from suspicion of espionage.

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