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.

‘With that, my role as an informer came to an end.’ Michael Straight is sad that he informed, but not sorry. He offers no windy ideological justifications, but says: ‘I believed simply that the acceptance of individual responsibility is the price we must all pay for living in a free society ... I was convinced ... that sooner or later, my one-time comrades would wish to sever themselves from any shred of allegiance to the Soviet Union.’ Blunt asked to talk to him for a few minutes alone before the MI5 interrogator joined them for the final confrontation, and actually thanked him for what he had done. ‘We always wondered how long it would be before you turned us in.’ As Straight puts it, some equilibrium – not a matter of forgiveness – was regained between the two friends. When Arthur Martin, the investigator, rang the bell, they were talking about Cézanne. Blunt was disgraced, Long more grievously hurt, and Straight, after enjoying some quite respectful attention from the mass media, was eventually rubbished by the Sunday Times as just another Cambridge traitor who ‘spied for the Russians’.

Michael Straight was the youngest son of one of the grand American money-dynasties, a family of abundant and generous idealism. When he was born, Felix Frankfurter informed the baby Michael by letter that there ‘never was a better chance’ to help make the world ‘nicer and lovelier than it is’, and after his father’s early death, his mother married Leonard Elmhirst and made England a little nicer and lovelier by helping to found the community and school at Dartington Hall, in Devon. He was a withdrawn, shy boy, on whom the impact of friendship and common intellectual excitement at Cambridge was enormous. When James Klugman and John Cornford, the Panza and Quixote of Cambridge student Communism, came to his rooms in Trinity to recruit him for the Socialist Society, they found a natural, eager joiner. Dazzled by their friendship, he found his way to the Communist core of the society, of whose 600 members about one in four – according to Straight – belonged to Communist cells.

But what did that really mean? There were three types of student Communist in 1935: the open, enthusiastic activists like Michael Straight, the discreet ‘moles’ who intended to join traditional professions, and the dedicated Marxists and Party people who carried cards. Only the last group had any direct connection to the Communist Party of Great Britain in King Street, and they – on the whole – were the least likely to ‘pass through the looking-glass’ and become Comintern agents whose first duty was to conceal their beliefs. Nothing is more revealing than Straight’s own admission that, although he was eventually to accept Blunt’s summons, he was never really a Marxist at all. ‘I love the Communist students,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘even if I don’t love Communism itself.’ He abandoned the economics tutoring of Maurice Dobb, a Communist, to study with J.M. Keynes and, when he heard Keynes finally lose patience with the Marxist orthodoxy of his students (’complicated hocus-pocus’), he knew where he stood. ‘I was shaken, but intellectually I was a follower of Keynes; emotionally I was dependent upon James [Klugman] and John [Cornford]. Sadly, in those days, I separated my head and my heart.’

Michael Straight finally demolishes, it seems to me, the myth that the Cambridge Apostles – that secret debating society – were either a ‘Communist cell’ in this period or a recruiting centre for Comintern intelligence. The Communists and their sympathisers were certainly present (Blunt, Burgess travelling back from London for meetings, Victor Rothschild, Straight himself and the rest), but the Apostles clearly still responded more strongly to the older Bloomsbury emphasis on personal relationships and subjective integrity. Keynes was the most prominent personality in the Society, and what would Yagoda or Yezhov, studying reports in the Lubianka, have made of John Tressider Sheppard’s fluting explanation that to be ‘Apostolic’ one must be ‘very brilliant and extremely nice’? The connection between the Apostles and Communism, in those years, was really the reluctance of a young revolutionary generation to admit any contradiction between their own ethic and the ‘bourgeois’ values of loyalty and truth which had first formed their minds. The Apostles seemed, reassuringly, to embody and guarantee a continuity between K. Marx and G.E. Moore; Maynard Keynes was not alone in perceiving the student Communists as just the latest resurgence of a Puritanism comfortably within the English tradition.

However, there came a day which was not at all in the English tradition, but – as Michael Straight immediately recognised – in the spirit of the world described by Conrad in Under Western Eyes. On this day, not long after John Cornford had been killed in the fighting near Cordoba, Anthony Blunt invited Straight to his rooms and said: ‘Some of your friends have different ideas for you.’

Michael Straight at first rejected the proposal – really an order. For a time he twisted on the hook, but it was deeply embedded. In the end, he accepted. The order was that he should now stage a rupture with his left-wing friends and return to the United States to begin a professional career, and it was curious that the instruction came at a moment when he felt like making that break anyway. This irony made his pain worse. He understood well the significance of what he was doing. He was Conrad’s student Razumov, who realises that he is irrevocably doomed, his life for ever distorted and ruined, from the instant that a colleague who has just thrown a bomb bursts into his room and begs for his protection. Michael Straight did not then, or for many years, understand that it had been Guy Burgess, with his merciless instinct for exploitable personalities, who had marked him down for recruitment. What he did understand was that, for all his terror and disgust, he had been caught and would in the end obey.

After every book about the ‘spies’, the same coarse old thought recurs: why didn’t these men become real, active Communists? This is much more interesting than why they were ready to ‘betray their country’ – that phrase which simply prohibits any intelligent review of the contexts of Tory Britain in the Europe of the Thirties and of wartime Britain during the anti-Hitler coalition. A partial answer, which the Soviet recruits evidently came to understand and exploit, was that they lacked the political faith and courage which came naturally to Klugman and Cornford. They had conventional ambitions. They were simply not prepared to waste their talents and opportunities in committee-rooms or half-empty halls for the sake of a movement which, in their hearts, they did not believe was a credible alternative power structure with a chance of success in Britain or the United States. To join the international anti-fascist struggle, even to become covert Soviet agents, seemed actually a softer option, both intellectually (given the weakness of their Marxism) and in terms of reconciling their personal ambitions and their political conscience.

And the same Anglo-American monism – the incapacity to imagine or create an alternative political society in one’s own country – shaped their remorse and confusion in later years. Straight, as we have seen, lost his illusions about the Soviet Union and any enthusiasm for his secret assignment within a very few years. The book records two occasions in which he involved himself in an open, blazing row with a supporter of Communist systems: once in 1949 at an Apostles’ dinner, when he found himself sitting next to Eric Hobsbawm and the subject of Czechoslovakia came up, and once in Washington when Straight launched a noisy diatribe about moral sabotage and subversion against Jozef Winiewicz, then the Polish Ambassador. It doesn’t seem accidental that both are candid and reasonable men who have made no secret of their allegiances: Hobsbawm a pioneer of economic and social history; Winiewicz the most diligent of mediators between inflamed super-powers, and one of the architects of détente. The certainty of the one, the placidity of the other, tore the lid off Straight’s own inner panic and bewilderment about his own position. He felt, quite evidently, that he was in some sense still a traitor. But this moral agony would seem extravagant to his contemporaries in Continental Europe – especially, though not only, in Eastern Europe. Straight felt that he had sold his soul to the Devil and must atone by confession, self-abasement. Societies which have been divided for centuries, familiar with the cycles of civil war, repression and patriotic compromise, are a great deal less censorious and absolute about what men and women did in their political youth. It is not strange to them that one nation can entertain at least two mutually exclusive versions of its own history – as even the French do. It is not a reason for endless penance that a man in his twenties acted for a time as an informer and a bully – if it were, there would not now be such a brilliant, confident generation of middle-aged writers and film-makers in Eastern Europe. The sins of some of their youths leave Michael Straight by comparison a perfect virgin. There was indeed a time, the remote time of Darkness at Noon, when a few devoted Communists thought that the last service they could give to their Party was moral self-annihilation, the false confession. But that was long ago, and guilt has never been a major determinant of behaviour in societies with a Catholic or Orthodox background. In Protestant England and Scotland, or in the old oligarchies of New England, it is a different matter, and here Keynes, with his slightly lazy comparison of the Cornford-Straight generation to Puritans and Evangelicals, was not far from the point. What else but a background sense for original sin could have made young people who briefly helped the enemies of their governments languish for the rest of their lives under the self-imposed charge that they had played Judas to all that was decent in the human race? I closed After Long Silence amazed that a man could have made himself suffer so much for so little.

With A Matter of Trust, any reader should let mistrust be his guide. This is not an allegation that the book is a work of comprehensive disinformation about the recent history of MI5. It seems likely that most of the information in the book is true, but there is no way to be sure. ‘West’, whose actual name is not West at all, gives a number of examples of books about British Intelligence which were written at the instigation of the secret services to convey this or that impression, sometimes not even by the author whose name appeared on their covers. It is pretty plain that the main source, if not inspiration, for the book was Arthur Martin, a retired MI5 officer who took a leading part in the ‘mole-hunt’ of recent years in the security service and retains hawkish views about it. A certain cuffuffle attended publication, in which MI5 – or so it is said – sought a temporary injunction on the book to get some names removed and spare themselves the public scandal of an action against West and Martin under the Official Secrets Act.

Be that as it may, A Matter of Trust leaves behind it a disillusioning picture of counterintelligence work. The patient piecing-together of mosaics from scraps of information rendered only meagre results. Most of the big breaks came either from code-cracking by signals intelligence – a quite different department – or through the unexpected arrival of defectors from Soviet or East European secret services. Many of these defectors, the Russians especially, were very eccentric indeed. While still in place, covertly betraying their Eastern masters from Moscow or Warsaw, their information was thrifty and to the point. When they bolted to the West, which usually meant months spent at some guarded farmhouse in Virginia surrounded by crew-cut CIA interrogators of limited imagination, they rapidly developed paranoid delusions of grandeur, or the infantile tendency to lie in order to attract attention. Goleniewski, a Pole, decided that he was the rightful heir of the Tsars of All the Russias. The Russian agent Golitsyn, described by West as ‘by far the most controversial figure in the world of intelligence’, disgorged a cataract of true revelations about the penetration of Western Intelligence and government by the KGB. But, in the Russian manner, he soon became bored by his own achievement and started to denounce other important defectors as KGB plants in order to prove his claim that every member of the human species save Anatoliy Golitsyn was the puppet of Kremlin machinations.

Golitsyn’s new strategy for keeping himself entertained created fearful confusion both in the CIA and in MI5, who at once fell to squabbling among themselves about the veracity and authenticity of their own pet defectors. Golitsyn provided just enough verifiable detail to infect and enlarge the wounds of the whole Philby-Burgess-Maclean affair. If X was really a Soviet plant, then did it not follow that the MI5 officer who vouched for him might well himself be a Soviet agent, the Fourth, Fifth or Ninety-Ninth Man of all their worst dreams? On the other hand, X might be genuine but at the same time a Russian ‘discard’ – a spy whose loss had been tolerated in order to divert attention from a far more important agent buried in the vitals of British or American Intelligence.

The British security service, it is surprising to learn from West, has been largely staffed by City solicitors. Professionally accustomed to throwing doubt upon each other in court, they set about the mole-hunt with vigour but with few results. West provides a memorable picture of Mitchell, at that time deputy director-general of MI5, under scrutiny: the secret television camera in his office showed him frequently burying his face in his hands and once moaning towards the Director-General’s door: ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ Like the discovery of a map of Chobham Common in his waste-paper basket, such behaviour was held to be suspicious. It was not long before Hollis, the DG himself, came under surveillance. Why was MI5 the only intelligence organisation in the West which Golitsyn had failed to describe as riddled with Soviet agents? Why had no defector ever offered himself to MI5 but only to its rivals? No answer has ever been provided, but West, at the end of this rather demure book, suggests that the KGB may have done far more damage to the security service by simply leaving it alone to stew in its own doubt than by any amount of penetration.

As a journalist, one occasionally runs across tit-bits from this secret world, some of which make me wonder about West’s reliability in detail. I knew Horst Eitner, described here as one of George Blake’s ‘principal agents’ in Berlin, who was really just a small-time black-marketeer of information. The story about Profumo, Ivanov and Keeler was first told to me in a Fleet Street pub in December 1962, at a time when – according to Nigel West – even Sir Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, did not know about it: which is hard to credit. Blunt, on Straight’s own account, recruited him in 1937 as an agent, not – as West has it – as a member of the Communist Party. More generally, it is misleading to provide a ‘history’ of the security services in this period and simply to omit the fact that almost every British prime minister has used MI5 against the press to discover the source of Cabinet leaks. And this book overlooks the aspect of the security service which preoccupies the citizen today much more deeply than its possible penetration in the past: that in a period when state power is rapidly extending both its scope and its means of surveillance, MI5 seems increasingly to be used against the ‘internal political enemy’ rather than the threat from outside.