Everyone’s a traitor these days. Tattlers in the White House spilling their discontent? Traitors, says President Trump. The paycheck patriots who’ve taken foreign cash while in Trump’s orbit? Traitors, say Americans counting the indictments in the Russia investigation. James Comey? A traitor, asserts a Facebook page called “James Comey is a traitor.”
But there are traitors, and then there’s Donald Maclean. Now here was a card-carrying turncoat. Maclean rose swiftly and efficiently through the diplomatic ranks of the British Foreign Office, all the while delivering reams of documents to his Soviet handlers. He was a lesser-known member of the Cambridge Five — a group of top-drawer British men who spied for the Soviets before, during and after World War II and well into the Cold War, whose ranks included Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. After 15 years, Americans uncovered Maclean’s treachery (the Brits were willfully blind to it), and the spy defected to Russia, never to set foot on Her Majesty’s soil again. He was 38.
“A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean,” a scrupulous new biography by Roland Philipps, follows Maclean from boarding school in the English countryside to Cambridge University, London and Paris, to Washington, New York and Cairo, back to London and then on to Moscow. Maclean left behind no journals or memoirs, so much of his life has remained in the shadows. Philipps does an admirable job of piecing together the spy’s tale, relying heavily on a trove of previously classified files released by the British security service MI5 in 2015. Philipps also has a family connection to Maclean’s story: His grandfather was Sir Roger Makins, Maclean’s colleague in Washington at the Atomic Energy Commission (whose secrets Maclean pilfered) and also in London, where he was the last person in the Foreign Office to see Maclean before he slipped away from the dolts who had finally caught on to him.
The man Philipps wants us to see is equal parts contradiction and constancy. Maclean threw off his father’s Calvinism early, adopting communism as his creed at Cambridge. (What is it about Cambridge and Russians? A quite open community of Cambridge communists thrived in the 1930s, while more recently, a university researcher developed the app that Cambridge Analytica used to gather Facebook data and worked with Russians on data-gathering techniques. And a Cambridge lecturer whom President Trump inaccurately labeled a spy was engaged by the FBI to assess the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.)
Maclean never wavered in his commitment to communism, which was grounded in his fervent anti-fascism. Many comrades, by contrast, abandoned their youthful ideology when Stalin made a surprise pact with the Nazis just before the war. As author Arthur Koestler put it: “No death is so sad and final as the death of an illusion.” But communism was no illusion for Maclean. Communism would secure world peace. And world peace, in Philipps’s telling, is what animated Maclean’s ideology, even when that ideology warred with his patriotism. He betrayed his country but not his conscience. He hoped his country would catch up.
While at Cambridge, before he was recruited by Philby, Maclean wrote a poem celebrating those “who’ve dared”:
“Dared to leave a herd they hate
“Dared to question the church and state
“Dared to ask what poppies are for,
“Dared to say we’ll fight no more,
“Unless it be for a cause we know
“And not for the sake of status quo.”
Was this the defiant passion of a naive student? Of course, but in Philipps’s telling, Maclean cast himself in this lofty role and stuck to it for the rest of his life.
None of the Cambridge Five took money for their work, according to Philipps. At the end of the war, the Soviets wanted “to reward the agents who had made the most significant contributions to victory” with annual pensions, Philipps writes. All refused. Guy Burgess, the Cambridge Five spy with whom Maclean fled to Moscow, relented, accepting “expenses,” and “bought a gold, soft-topped, second-hand Rolls Royce on the grounds that he was such a terrible driver that a ‘sturdily built’ car was a life-saving necessity.” But Maclean made few such concessions to capitalism and didn’t even like the work of being a spy, Philipps reports. It was “like being a lavatory attendant,” Maclean said. “It stinks but someone has to do it.” And he did it well. He was methodical in lifting documents from his offices, photographing them and delivering copies to his handlers. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. Several of his handlers were recalled to Moscow and executed in Stalin’s purge, but Maclean just kept going. He excelled at his diplomatic job, too. Philipps writes that both the British and the Soviets found his ability to analyze and synthesize foreign policy problems unmatched.
Still, Maclean was such a committed alcoholic it’s a wonder that he got any spying or diplomatic work done, and that he didn’t betray his double life, given how outrageously impolitic he was when he was drunk, which, in Philipps’s portrayal, was most of the time. At a Georgetown party hosted by The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, he picked a fight with another guest and peed in Graham’s garden (a version of this anecdote made it into Graham’s memoir). Maclean had to leave Cairo, his final foreign posting, after he and his drinking buddy, writer Philip Toynbee, ransacked and defiled an apartment while scavenging for booze. In his London days, before he fled, Maclean was drunk and belligerent when he muttered to Toynbee a reference to Alger Hiss, an American accused of spying for the Soviets: “I am the English Hiss.” How happy Maclean must have been to reach Moscow, with its tubs of vodka flowing from proletariat-plated taps!
Maclean, whose first code name was Orphan and his last Homer, told no one of his secret life except his American wife, whom he met in Paris before the war. He must have been hell to live with, but Melinda Marling stuck with him, fleeing with their three children to join him in Russia a year or so after his escape with Burgess. Maclean died in Moscow in 1983 at age 69.
Philipps provides plenty of evidence for his version of the mysterious Maclean, and the details make for gripping, enlightening and occasionally exasperating reading. He is sometimes repetitive in conjuring the purity of his “tall, distinctive” protagonist’s motives. He also doesn’t fully reconcile Maclean’s near-constant insobriety with his talent for both his taxing jobs. Details from Maclean’s three decades in the Soviet Union are understandably sketchy, but there are enough to make the case that Maclean found a life among the favored class there and never regretted his choices. “His life in the Soviet Union was always characterised by an exceptional absence of nostalgia,” Philipps writes. An absence of nostalgia could apply to “A Spy Named Orphan,” too. Philipps does not make the life of his unhappy antihero seem fun.
Had MI6 spotted Maclean and Burgess in Bern, Switzerland, where they had stopped on their way to Russia, the two men might have drunk their last, because “a “decanter of poisoned scotch” had been prepared for them. The runaway pair had to wait two days for a flight out, but they showed no signs of agitation. As Philipps writes, “Maclean lay on his bed, calm and focused now that he had no agency in his immediate future, smoking and reading Burgess’s edition of Jane Austen.” No nostalgia indeed.
of Donald Maclean
By Roland Philipps
Norton. 440 pp. $28.95