Forster’s apparently evergreen remark, about choosing to betray your country rather than your friends, has always seemed to me to be – as well as an exercise in moral casuistry – the father and mother of a false antithesis. I mean to say, who ever is actually faced, or has been faced, with such a choice? In 1917 or thereabouts, Siegfried Sassoon confided to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to ‘go public’, as a decorated front-line officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front. Graves had him put away for ‘shell-shock’, for his own good. That was certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country. Kim Philby, who actually did set out to betray a country as well as a class, was also strikingly disloyal to his friends (though they, almost irrespective of politics, seem to have been loyal to him). In order for Forster’s Choice to come up in your own life, you must be able to plead that there is something tremendously the matter with either a. your country or b. your circle of friends. When Willy Brandt put on the uniform of a country that was fighting his own – the action for which the German conservatives never forgave him – he was not thinking: ‘Pity about my friends, but I feel I have to betray my country.’ Nor, if he had elected to betray his friends, could he have argued that he was doing his country much of a favour.
A third consideration may obtain. What if, as is generally the case, your country has its repulsive and attractive sides, and so do your friends, but there is something wrong with you? Some crucial bit of the moral or the rational animal that is, in your own case, simply lacking? Nobody would be the best judge in their own cause here, but I haven’t talked to anyone in the past week or so who doesn’t believe that this was and is true of Richard Gott.
I don’t say this with any sense or intention of accommodating to the prevailing wind, since Gott has disliked me intensely for more than twenty years and last January wrote a loopy letter to this journal, blaming James Fenton and myself for once queering his pitch at the New Statesman. ‘Effete onanist’ was one of the things he said about me. About himself he wrote with even more feeling: ‘In those days, I had no revolutionary ideology to sustain me, nothing but a simple belief that Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Agostinho Neto, were admirable men who had been doing interesting things.’ So I write this in no spirit of revenge. I couldn’t think any less of Gott than I already did, and he couldn’t make much more of an idiot of himself than he already had. Mao Tse-tung as humble land-reformer: the Guardian chronicler as blissed-out idealist with no axe to grind … that’s what the CIA and the neo-conservatives wanted you to say. (You don’t suppose for a moment that – no, forget it.) Worse still, Gott’s memory of these disputes is deficient, since the really bitter quarrel concerned not so much Angola or Vietnam but the Khmer Rouge, whose work James Fenton had observed at close quarters.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995
In the course of his extended comment on the exposure of Richard Gott’s links to the KGB (LRB, 12 January) Christopher Hitchens writes that MI5 and MI6 were behind the revelation. Unfortunately, he fails to provide the slightest evidence for that allegation. In attempting to argue for his thesis, he manages to get just about everything wrong, including who wrote the original piece for the Spectator. The author of the piece was not Anne Applebaum, but me, as would be quite obvious to anyone who actually read it. Applebaum provided some additional research. She was not responsible for how that research was used, or for any of the opinions expressed in the article, many of which she does not agree with. The distinction between author and researcher is one which Christopher Hitchens will be familiar with, since when people help him with his research, he does not credit them as joint authors of the articles or books in which he makes use of their work. This is the second time Hitchens has gone into print making the same mistake. For some reason, he seems to have a difficulty in recognising the truth on the topic.
Here are some more examples of the same problem: 1. Hitchens alleges that I am a ‘right-winger’ and a ‘Young Conservative’. I have never voted Conservative in my life, as Hitchens very well knows, since he reads the Guardian, and the Guardian has published that fact on two separate occasions. 2. Hitchens also says that he knows I have ‘extensive connections to the conservative “security” milieu’. I do? It’s news to me. Perhaps he could provide some evidence for this intriguing claim. The last time I knowingly came into contact with anything recognisable as the conservative ‘security’ milieu was when I received an early morning visit from Special Branch. I was working for Duncan Campbell, then chief correspondent for the New Statesman. The men from Special Branch thought I had been given inside information about how Campbell had managed to write so accurately about the Zircon spy satellite. The quality of their reasoning – their unshakeable conviction that everything was part of a plot to undermine ‘their’ side, together with their total indifference to evidence – was weirdly similar to Hitchens’s. It occurs to me that he would make an excellent officer with Special Branch. They all think in exactly the same way as he does.
3. Hitchens archly asks: ‘Why deny, before anyone has asked, that “our own security services are involved”?’ Since his article attacks me because he thinks the security services were involved in my article, the answer to that question is obvious. But my reasons were not primarily strategic. I denied that Gott’s name had come from the security services because it had not come from the security services – something which Hitchens seems to find as difficult to accept as the fact that I wrote the article on my own. Incidentally, what would Hitchens have written had I not stressed that I had arrived at Gott’s name without any help from the security services? On the basis of his article, you can be sure that he would have taken the absence of a denial as ‘proof’ that the security services were the real source.
4. ‘If the Spectator have been steering so clear of “our” side,’ Hitchens asks rhetorically, ‘how can they know that MI5 and MI6 possess names of compromised people “in public office”?’ But you do not need MI5 and MI6 to work this out. Oleg Gordievsky knows it, as do several retired KGB officers who still take an interest in British affairs. Even Hitchens cannot think KGB officers in Moscow in receipt of KGB pensions are part of an MI5 and MI6 conspiracy. Furthermore, despite Hitchens’s view to the contrary, it does not follow, from the fact that Gordievsky is in receipt of an MI6 pension, that he and MI6 are ‘two sides of the same coin’ – any more than it follows, from the fact that the London Review is kept afloat by government money, that its editor is following a secret agenda set by the Government. Hitchens may think you are a government agent. But be assured – I do not.
5. ‘The Spectator quite obviously doesn’t think our own side is protecting traitors.’ But that is quite obviously what I do think, since that is what I said. What, after all, did our security services do in the case of Anthony Blunt? They knew he was a traitor more than twenty years before he was exposed. And if the security services had had their way, his name would never have come to light. He was identified not because MI5 and MI6 decided to expose him, but through the determination of a journalist, Andrew Boyle, to break the conspiracy of silence through which MI5 and MI6 protected Blunt.
Home Affairs Editor
Christopher Hitchens’s comments on the imbroglio surrounding Richard Gott and the timing of the revelations about his relationship with the KGB are troubling to all those concerned for freedom of expression. Hitchens writes: ‘One can’t escape the question of whether the Gott revelation has anything at all to do with the Guardian’s role as a challenger … of state corruption.’ The suggestion has certainly been widely repeated, and widely believed; nor has anyone, so far, refuted it. More important, if it is true, no remedy has been advanced against potential repetition of such a flagrant government effort to punish a respected newspaper for performing its watchdog function. The general lack of government transparency may be measured by the absence of any mechanism whereby the general public could receive reassurance about the truth of these serious allegations.
By the way, it seems to have gone unnoticed that Richard Gott’s phrase about taking ‘red gold’ should be credited to Sir Walter Scott, who wrote ‘From the red gold keep thy finger,’ a warning Gott would have been wise to heed.
Executive Director, Article 19
Christopher Hitchens suggests that Forster’s remark about choosing to betray one’s country rather than one’s friends was an exercise in false antithesis, and cites as an example Robert Graves’s dealing with Siegfried Sassoon ‘in 1917 or thereabouts’, which he declares was ‘certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country’. But Sassoon did not, as Hitchens asserts, confide ‘to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to “go public”, as a decorated frontline officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front’. On the contrary, he sent Graves a copy of a statement which he had already circulated to leading journalists and politicians, and in which he declared that ‘this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’
Hitchens’s statement that ‘Graves had him put away for “shell-shock”, for his own good’ is not only simplistic in the extreme, but might suggest, through its use of inverted commas around ‘shell-shock’, that Sassoon was in fact in a sound state of mind. The previous November, when Sassoon and Graves had both been in a more balanced state, the two soldier-poets had agreed that although the war was profoundly immoral, and they hoped that the politicians would bring it to an end as soon as possible, their first duty (and indeed their only honourable course of action) was to return to the Front, there ‘to make things easier for the men under our command’. In 1917, however, Sassoon was severely wounded while leading an attack; and by June, when he was back in London, he was so badly shell-shocked that he was suffering from terrifying hallucinations and ‘saw corpses lying about on the pavement’. It was while he was in this terrible state that Bertrand Russell and other pacifists persuaded him to ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’. Realising that Sassoon’s defiance would do nothing to shorten the war, but would certainly lead to a court-martial – an ordeal which might permanently unbalance him – and could even lead to a firing-squad, and knowing that it was in direct opposition to the views which Sassoon had previously expressed (and would express again after his time at Craiglockhart), Graves persuaded his friend to go before a Medical Board, which soon realised that Sassoon was in a state of mental collapse. Was this betrayal? Or was it rather salvation?
Richard Perceval Graves
Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995
Alasdair Palmer’s distraught letter (Letters, 9 February) is written under a mistaken impression, and is also wrongly addressed. He seeks to clear himself of the allegation that he is a. a Conservative and b. a writing colleague of Ms Anne Applebaum. On the first point, having thought of him as an associate since Cambridge days of Christopher Andrew, and more recently of Oleg Gordievsky, I happily accept his assurance that he is really a chum of Duncan Campbell’s. I can’t help him on the second. Ms Applebaum’s name was on the article, portentously listed as supplying material from Moscow, no less, and she has since written her own thoughts on the implications of l’ affaire Gott. Having read these thoughts, I can quite see why Mr Palmer or anyone else might wish to put some distance between himself and their author, but it would have seemed ungallant of me to have left her out. What has become of gallantry at the Spectator? Not my problem, thank goodness.
I did not assert that MI5 and MI6 were behind the Gott disclosure. Rather, I gave the reasons why a reasonable person might suspect such a connection. One of these reasons had to do with a certain protesting-too-much tone in the Spectator itself. Allow me to quote from Mr Dominic Lawson, describing Palmer’s modus operandi in a recent interview with the Independent on Sunday (22 January):
In this case let’s say X is Gott. So what Palmer did was to say [to Gordievsky]: ‘Of course we all know about X, that’s not interesting, but what we want to know about is Y.’ To which Gordievsky agrees X is in Fact a traitor and moves on to discuss Y. So Gordievsky was tricked, and when he realised he was very angry.
The interviewer, Mr Henry Porter, had the same reaction as any normal person, which was to inquire: ‘How did Palmer know which name in place before Gordievsky? And, more interesting, why, when Gordievsky is said to be so angry with the Spectator, did we find him last week in its pages attacking the Guardian?’ His provisional conclusion, which was to observe, ‘How very odd,’ is one that I must say I share.
Expending masses of your space to pounce on every imagined paranoia in my original article, Mr Palmer does not comment on my one act of generosity towards him. I seconded his admirable proposal for a clarifying inquiry into the political choices made by MI5 and MI6, and suggested that he and his colleagues might in turn support the Early Day Motion before Parliament, which calls for a hearing on the possible party-political interventions made by the fragrant Ms Stella Rimington. He is silent on this idea, and directs at me the complaints that he should properly level at Dominic Lawson and Anne Applebaum. Deuced odd, as the man said.