Reply to William Boyd 'The Price of Betrayal' in Guardian Review 22 December 2012 on the Cambridge spies
What William Boyd, like so many other Western commentators who discuss the Cold War period, fails to comprehend properly is the political climate of the Thirties and how it profoundly affected workers and intellectuals alike in their political outlooks. Fascism, as demonstrated in Spain and Italy and Moseley’s Black Shirts here in the UK, was on a seemingly unstoppable onward march. Many at that time joined the Communist Party or sympathised because they recognised that their own ruling classes were either sympathetic to or incapable of resisting fascism. Only the Communists demonstrated that they were prepared to mount the barricades to stop fascism in its tracks. This is the context in which Philby, Blunt etc. threw in their lot with Communism.
Boyd relishes in calling them all ‘traitors’ to their country and ‘aiding the enemy’. The term is more usually used in times of war for those who pass on secrets to a real enemy. Russia was our ally for the war years and certainly never threatened the West in any way, but was soon cast aside again once nazi Germany was defeated; it never called Britain or the US the ‘enemy’. It was determined to ‘defeat’ capitalism in the economic sphere certainly, but by peaceful struggle. It was we who demonised Russia as ‘the enemy’. Those with short-term memory forget that it was the US General McArthur who, even before the nazis had capitulated, called for the war to be carried forward into Russia and thus defeat both the nazis and the communists.
It can be convincingly argued that the role Philby, Burgess, McLean et al played in passing on information of (mainly) US military intentions and weapons development played a key role in stabilising the post war world and helped maintain the edgy balance of power.
Boyd also argues that Philby and the other spies ‘had to live in a world where there was no trust’ in order to ‘be successful’. They certainly did not trust the ruling elites in the UK and US – they knew first hand how devious and dangerous they could be – but they did trust their Soviet colleagues who protected them and offered them refuge when they needed it.