Thinker, Traitor, Editor, Spy

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is
Monday, August 8, 2005


The Life of Michael Straight, the Only American in Britain's Cambridge Spy Ring

By Roland Perry

Da Capo. 395 pp. $27.50

In the stranger-than-fiction sweepstakes, not many books can compete with the life of Michael Straight. It is a Washington success story turned upside down, for its rich, handsome, charming, politically ambitious protagonist is a traitor. Straight, who died last year, had Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as his early patrons. He served as editor and publisher of the New Republic, which his mother founded; he allegedly enjoyed a flirtation with Jackie Kennedy when she was first lady (and he later married her half sister, Nina Auchincloss Steers); and he rounded out his public career as an arts administrator in the Nixon years. All the while, starting during his undergraduate days at Cambridge in the 1930s, he was a dedicated communist and a covert agent of the KGB, Roland Perry asserts in this damning biography.

Straight's story began in the 19th century, when his great-grandfather made a fortune off railroads. Straight's mother, Dorothy Whitney, was an idealistic heiress who married Willard Straight, a newspaperman turned international banker. Dorothy's money launched the New Republic in 1914, and two years later the Straights' third child, Michael Whitney, was born. Two more years later, Willard Straight died of influenza. Dorothy's next husband was an Englishman named Leonard Elmhirst, whose idealism won her heart: "He was bursting with radical ideas for rural development and education -- in fact, a utopian community." Dorothy's money made his dream come true. They bought the 800-acre Dartington Hall estate in South Devon, and at age 9 Michael moved to England and continued his education in the school his stepfather started there, which offered "a heady atmosphere of sexual freedom and liberal thought." According to Perry, "seven of Straight's final-year class of ten went on to join the Communist Party." After a year at the London School of Economics, Straight entered Cambridge, then heavily populated by students who were fearful of Hitler, intoxicated by Marxist theory and ignorant of Stalinist reality. Soon recruited, without difficulty, by older communists, Straight made a trip to Russia in 1935 that did nothing to lessen his enthusiasm. His main recruiter was the elegant art historian Anthony Blunt. Perry says that Stalin himself was kept abreast of the recruitment of the rich young American who was seen as having huge potential as a spy. By Straight's senior year, it was agreed that he would stage a public break with the party, to prepare for a covert role as a KGB agent in the United States. This he accomplished by faking a breakdown after a friend was killed fighting for the loyalist cause in Spain.

In 1937, Straight and his stepfather returned to the United States and met with President Roosevelt, a family friend, who declined Straight's offer to become his private secretary but later helped him get a job at the State Department, where he was soon busy copying secret documents and smuggling them to his KGB controller. Straight's New Deal years were populated by figures well known to students of the era -- Tom Corcoran, Joe Alsop, Maury Maverick, Sumner Welles, Alger Hiss, J. Edgar Hoover -- except that most of them, in this drama, were being duped by our young hero. This period ended when Straight, with an eye to a postwar political career, joined the Army, which taught him to fly but never sent him into combat.

After the war, he offered himself to Democratic leaders in New York as a candidate for Congress, but rumors of his communist ties at Cambridge shot that down. (Amazingly, the State Department had remained ignorant of his communist past when it hired him.) He next made himself a key supporter of Henry Wallace's campaign for president. Straight's first step was to persuade his mother to make the naive, ultra-liberal Wallace editor of the New Republic, in the hope of broadening his appeal. This was part of a plan to expand the magazine's circulation from 20,000 to 100,000. In a nice bit of irony, Straight had to quit when communists began to take over Wallace's campaign. For another decade, Straight used his editorials in the magazine to polish his credentials as a liberal anticommunist. But the New Republic continued to lose money until his businessman brother forced its sale in the mid-1950s. At that point, Straight began a career as a novelist. Perry says that Straight's first two novels were set in Wyoming and Nebraska so he could spy on military installations there under the cover of research.

During the Kennedy presidency, Straight was friendly with the first lady -- they had a "strong mutual attraction," but it remained platonic, Perry reports -- and he was offered a job as an arts adviser, but refused it because he doubted he could survive an FBI check. By then, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Harold Philby had defected to Russia, and Straight feared exposure. He therefore went to the FBI and confessed his early communism but insisted that it ended when he joined the Army. For more than a decade Straight was interviewed by the FBI and Britain's MI5, but Perry insists that his revelations were simply part of a KGB disinformation campaign because "all the names given up by Straight and other key members of the ring were either known to MI5, dead or false leads." Still, Straight's confessions sufficed to get him appointed as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts by Richard Nixon, who during the 1960s had been the law partner of Straight's longtime friend and lawyer, Milton Rose. Told a sanitized version of Straight's past, Nixon reportedly replied, "Well, he's on our side now."

One of the strongest points made by Perry and other critics of Straight concerns the Korean War. Thanks to Philby, Burgess and Maclean, China's Chairman Mao knew that President Truman had decided not to use atomic weapons if China intervened in the war. Mao was thus free to invade North Korea and kill many Americans in conventional warfare without fear of the bomb. If Straight had by then been a loyal American, free of communist control, he could have revealed his old colleagues as spies and saved many American lives, but of course he did not. In 1983, Straight published a self-serving memoir, "After Long Silence." Sidney Hook, in his review in Encounter, noted that Straight's silence had "made him complicit in the hundreds of deaths that were contrived by his erstwhile comrades." All this is beyond dispute, but Perry goes off on an odd tangent in discussing Straight and Mao. Late in 1950, Straight was in Hong Kong as a journalist. Perry asks if it is possible that he might have "slipped across the border" to give Mao face-to-face assurance about Truman's intentions. Possibly but not likely, and that kind of speculation detracts from his book.

Perry is an Australian journalist and the author of two previous books on communist spies and sympathizers. In relating this sad and shameful story, he has called on numerous books already published on the Cambridge spy ring, as well as his interviews with Straight family members, FBI, CIA and MI5 agents, and KGB operatives who were Straight's controllers. Straight may still have friends who accept his claim that his spying ended when he entered the Army, but Perry argues persuasively that this polished son of American capitalism was indeed the last of the Cold War spies.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company