The Myths of Kim Philby

Reprinted from Washington Decoded.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Ben Macintyre
Crown. 384 pp. $27

In A Spy Among Friends, author Ben Macintyre portrays Harold A. R. “Kim” Philby as a charming, glamorous double agent, a Marxist Scarlet Pimpernel, able to confound British and American intelligence officials even after his complicity as a Soviet spy should have been apparent to all. The New York Times named A Spy Among Friends one of the top 50 non-fiction books of 2014, and it has been praised by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Walter Isaacson, and David Ignatius, among others.

While the book is an entertaining read, Macintyre’s account of Philby as the Perfect Mole is deeply flawed. A Spy Among Friends perpetuates several myths: it misstates Philby how Philby was viewed by the intelligence communities in Britain and the United States; it downplays the critical role of the FBI and the VENONA intercepts in exposing Philby and his fellow “Cambridge Five” spies; and it ignores perhaps Philby’s most significant “great betrayal”—the role that he and his fellow agents, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, played in passing American military plans to Moscow during the Korean war.

Macintyre centers his narrative around Philby’s friendship with fellow MI6 official Nicholas Elliott, a story suggested by John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) as one worthy of telling; le Carré accordingly contributes an afterword to the book.  Yet this angle, allegedly the “best untold spy story of the Cold War” according to Macintyre and le Carré, isn’t particularly compelling. Elliott was a rather conventional, clubbable intelligence officer whose main claim to fame was believing in Philby until his friend’s guilt became impossible to deny. Rather than thinking for himself, Macintyre simply doubled-down on le Carré’s rendering of the Philby saga. Le Carré is famously invested, of course, in the symbolic importance of Philby-as-Master-Spy, elusive betrayer of a decadent Establishment. The famous fictional mole at the Circus, Bill Haydon, was a thinly-veiled stand-in for Philby in le Carré’s celebrated novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The Legend of Philby’s Charm

It’s true that many within Philby’s insular, hard-drinking Oxbridge circle succumbed to what Macintyre calls his “golden charm,” and were shocked when the truth emerged. Graham Greene, who worked with Philby during the Second World War, never abandoned his hero-worship of Philby, even visiting him in Moscow after he defected.

But that was not how Philby was universally perceived. Others in British intelligence weren’t as entranced. Senior MI6 official Patrick Reilly, for example, objected strenuously to the idea of Philby as future head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) when it was proposed in the early 1950s. “I’m not particularly sensitive,” Reilly later explained,  “but it was the only time in my life when I felt, ‘There is something wrong with this fellow.’”[1]

When Philby arrived in Washington in 1949 to become the British liaison to American intelligence (replacing Donald Maclean), he failed to impress many of his new colleagues. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere expressed surprise that this stammering Englishman was a top SIS official: “Kim Philby was seedy and spoke with a stutter. His clothes were loose-fitting and shabby, and his face and figure had few notable features. I could hardly believe that this unimpressive man was being spoken of as a future chief of MI-6, in line for a knighthood.”[2]

Soon, the CIA’s Frank Wisner suspected Philby of betraying Albanian émigrés, who were engaged in a series of ill-founded covert operations aimed at spurring a revolt in Communist Albania. The CIA’s counterintelligence chief, William King Harvey, came to distrust Philby as well. Allen Dulles, then the Agency’s deputy director of intelligence, also developed reservations about Philby. Dulles shared his concerns with CIA director Walter Bedell Smith in 1951, who alerted deputy director William Jackson and Jackson moved to shut off Philby’s access to top-secret information.[3]

Macintyre fails to mention any of this. He sticks to the myth of Philby’s golden charm (“Philby loved Washington, and Washington loved him”) and apparently accepts at face value Philby’s dismissive views of his American colleagues:

There was Johnny Boyd, assistant director of the FBI (“by any objective standard, a dreadful man”); Frank Wisner, head of the Office of Policy Coordination (“balding and self-importantly running to fat”); Bill Harvey of CIA counterintelligence (“a former FBI man . . . sacked for drunkenness”); CIA chief Walter Bedell Smith (“a cold, fishy eye”);  deputy CIA head and future chief Allen Dulles (“bumbling”); Bob Lamphere of the FBI (“puddingy”); and many more.[4]

Philby shared these opinions in his autobiography, My Secret War. In retrospect, it’s clear they reflect his pique that he couldn’t charm and fool the “plodding” plebian Americans the way he had some of his colleagues at home. In fact, British counterintelligence was shoddy. Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, was cleared six times by Roger Hollis, future director general of MI5 (the British equivalent of the FBI). One of the Cambridge Five, Anthony Blunt, estimated that there were twenty or thirty more Soviet moles well placed within the British government; others, like MI5’s Peter Wright, believed the numbers were higher.[5]

It was an American operation—the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cable traffic—that directly led to the unmasking of both Fuchs and the Cambridge spies. A cable that pointed to a high-placed British penetration agent, HOMER, in Washington led investigators to Donald Maclean. When Maclean, along with Guy Burgess (a second secretary at the British Embassy who was living in Philby’s house), bolted for Moscow in late May 1951, the damning links to Philby were obvious.

For all intents and purposes, Philby’s usefulness as a Soviet agent ended with the defections of Maclean and Burgess. Throughout A Spy Among Friends, Macintyre Venonaargues that senior members of the British and American intelligence establishment accepted Philby’s protestations of innocence. The record, instead, suggests that MI6’s defense of Philby was more about protecting bureaucratic turf and a reflexive closing of ruling-class ranks. There was no support for Philby in the United States, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, for one, argued vigorously for public exposure of Philby’s treachery.

After the Maclean-Burgess defections, CIA director Smith dispatched an ultimatum to Stewart Menzies, MI6 chief, demanding that London remove Philby—or Smith would cease all collaboration with the British. Smith sent a note to a British colleague about Philby:  “I hope the bastard gets his. I know a couple of Albanian tribesmen who would like to have half an hour apiece with him.”[6]

Contrary to the picture Macintyre paints, top MI6 officials also reluctantly recognized that Philby was most likely the Third Man. James Easton, assistant to Menzies, accepted the American case against Philby (“a practiced liar and . . . therefore capable of anything”). Menzies, who retired in 1952, “suffered from nightmares, apparently to do with Philby”—which is hardly the profile of a man at ease with the idea of Philby’s innocence. MI5’s Dick White informed both Menzies and his successor, John Sinclair, that Philby was a security risk and most likely guilty of espionage (White was named head of MI6 in 1956).[7]

Philby’s replacement in Washington, John Bruce-Lockhart of MI6, began his first meeting with Smith by saying, “Walter, what happened with Philby and those other bastards is the greatest betrayal I know. My job here is to make sure there is a way past that.” (Despite the reference to a “Great Betrayal” in his book’s subtitle, Macintyre doesn’t include this quote).[8]

Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan’s infamous public exoneration of Philby in the House of Commons in 1955 was driven by British political considerations, not by what MI5 had concluded about Philby’s complicity. Macintyre concedes that point, yet argues: “But within the CIA it was generally agreed that if MI6 considered him trustworthy, and Harold Macmillan had said he was innocent, then Philby must be clean.”[9]

The idea that the CIA considered Philby “clean” is laughable. Michael Howard Holtzman, one of Angleton’s biographers, noted: “This [Macmillan’s comments on Philby] did not go down well with the Central Intelligence Agency, where Angleton, along with most others was convinced that Philby was the Third Man.” Phillip Knightley observed, “After Philby, the special relationship was never to be the same again, and his treachery so poisoned the minds of some CIA officers that . . . they were never again able totally to trust even their closest colleagues.”[10]

Macintyre argues that Angleton continued to believe in Philby’s innocence throughout the 1950s. (Philby defected to the Soviets in January 1963). While Angleton may have been fooled by Philby prior to 1951 (and even then, there are suggestions that he suspected his British colleague), it’s hard to believe he would have ignored the list of lies Philby had told over the years that were documented by the FBI and MI5. Even if Angleton had remained skeptical about the case against Philby, the senior leadership of the CIA (Smith, Dulles, Wisner, etc.) had no such illusions.[11]

Philby and Korea

There are no index entries for “Korea” and “Korean War” in A Spy Among Friends, a startling omission. The most fascinating, and unresolved, questions about the Cambridge spy ring, revolve around its impact on the Korean War. In the early years of the conflict, Maclean headed the American desk in London, while Philby and Burgess had access in Washington to not only high-level strategic intelligence (for example, Truman’s thinking on the use of atomic weapons) but also to US war plans.

General Douglas MacArthur and other US commanders complained repeatedly in 1950 and 1951 that their North Korean and Chinese adversaries appeared to have advance knowledge of their plans. William Manchester, in his biography of MacArthur, KwarAmerican Caesar, wrote: “James M. Gavin, an officer untainted by McCarthyism, recalls that during his service in the last critical months of 1950, the enemy repeatedly displayed an uncanny knowledge of UN troop deployment.” According to Manchester, Gavin became “quite sure now that all of MacArthur’s plans flowed into the hands of the Communists through the British Foreign Office.”[12]

In 1955, General James Van Fleet told US News & World Report that: “The enemy would not have entered Korea if he did not feel safe from attack in Northern China and Manchuria. My own conviction is that there must have been information to the enemy that we would not attack his home base.”[13]

Anthony Cave Brown, author of Treason in the Blood (still the definitive biography of Philby) noted in a 1994 C-SPAN interview that many officials thought that “through Philby, the Soviet government learned enough about the deployment, the limitations of the force, the lengths and breadths of the strategy in Korea to be able to launch the Chinese counteroffensive at the right place, at the right time with the right weight and with terrible destructive force. If my opinion was asked for—and it often is on this case—I would say that Philby did, in fact, provide the Soviets with that type of information.”[14]

That Macintyre ignores this angle in his book may reflect both his Anglocentrism (the focus in A Spy Among Friends rarely strays from London and environs), and also, perhaps, an unconscious desire to absolve Philby of his role in the deaths of thousands of American and, yes, British soldiers. At one point Macintyre describes Philby as a “kind lover, a good friend, a gentle father, and a generous host. He had a talent for tenderness.” It’s hard to square that portrait with a man whose betrayals caused thousands of battlefield deaths and prolonged the Korean War.[15]

The Failure of British Security Policy

Armed with the VENONA decrypts and the revelations of former Soviet spies like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, US counterintelligence moved aggressively to uncover and remove highly placed penetration agents. The Truman Administration’s clumsy federal loyalty program, which prompted some 3,000 or so government employees to resign and led to few hundred dismissals, undoubtedly eliminated some active or potential moles.

In Britain, it was a different story. The American approach to security was derided as excessive, McCarthyite, and consequently there was never a proper vetting of the intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service. Had it not been for VENONA, Fuchs and Maclean would not have been exposed. It’s quite possible that Kim Philby might have become SIS chief, placing a Soviet penetration agent at the head of British intelligence. During the late 1940s and 1950s, there was no George Smiley figure ready to ferret out and unmask the traitors. It’s no wonder that British intelligence was marginalized post-Philby and post-Suez, a bitterly-resented relegation that appears to have encouraged a lasting strain of snobbish anti-Americanism by British elites, as reflected in le Carré’s decades-long negative portrayal of the American “cousins.”[16]

    A Spy Among Friends offers an entertaining and amusing account of the fading English elite in all its eccentric glory—a comic Downton Abbey view of the British intelligence establishment. As a serious work of historical scholarship, however, Macintrye’s book leaves much to be desired.


Jefferson Flanders is an independent journalist and author who has contributed to Washington Decoded in the past.  His novel, The North Building, in part explores Kim Philby’s role in passing American military secrets during the Korean War.

 

[1] Tom Bower, The Perfect English Spy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 103.

[2] Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (Macon, GA: Macon University Press, 1995), 130.

[3] Anthony Cave Brown, Treason in the Blood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 422; Leonard Mosley, Dulles: A Biography of Eleanor, Allen and John Foster Dulles and Their Family Network (New York: The Dial Press/James Wade, 1978), 284-285.

[4]Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown, 2014), 132.

[5] Robert C. Williams, Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 97.

[6] Mosley, Dulles, 285.

[7] Brown, Treason, 442-443; Stephen Dorril, MI6 (New York: The Free Press, 2000), 494; Bower, Perfect English Spy, 132-134.

[8] Quoted in Gordon Thomas, Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6 (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), 131.

[9] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 226.

[10] Michael Howard Holtzman, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press), 134; Philip Knightley, The Second Oldest Profession  (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 276.

[11] In 1950, Israeli intelligence officer Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem, encountered Philby on a visit to CIA headquarters. Kollek remembered attending Philby’s marriage to an Austrian Communist, Litzi Friedmann, in Vienna in 1934 and he promptly recounted as much to Angleton. This incident is not mentioned in A Spy among Friends. (See Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 91-92.

[12] William Manchester, American Caesar (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 597.

[13] Verne W. Newton, The Cambridge Spies: The Untold Story of Maclean, Philby, and Burgess in America (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1991), 295.

[14] C-SPAN Booknotes, Anthony Cave Brown: Treason in the Blood, Program Air Date: 15 January 1995.

[15] Macintyre, Spy Among Friends, 215.

[16] While John Bingham, the model for le Carré’s fictional George Smiley, worked for MI5 in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, he played no role in the investigation of Philby or the other Cambridge spies or George Blake, a MI6 official who betrayed scores of agents behind the Iron Curtain. See Michael Jago, The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham (London: Biteback Publishing, 2013).

©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

Chosin, the graphic novel

The battle of the Chosin Reservoir in November and December of 1950, when outnumbered American Marines fought their way out of a Chinese Red Army trap in northeast Korea, remains one of the greatest feats of arms in U.S. military history.

While every Marine knows the story of the First Marine Division’s heroic march to the sea and a number of excellent nonfiction treatments of Chosin have been published recently, the epic battle hasn’t attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers or many novelists. Korea has been called the Forgotten War, and—at least in the popular culture—Chosin has suffered somewhat from the same neglect.

Chosin, the graphic novel

To date, only James Brady’s marvelous 2007 novel The Marines of Autumn, praised as the Iliad of the Korean War by Kurt Vonnegut, has focused on the Chosin campaign. (While I begin my recent novel The North Building with the retreat from Chosin, the narrative then shifts to Washington, D.C.)

Brian Iglesias, a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq War, is out to raise public consciousness about Chosin. He has directed a moving documentary film, Chosin, which includes remarkable interviews with the Marines who battled not only seasoned Chinese troops, but also confronted brutal winter weather where temperatures dropped to 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

Iglesias and several writers and illustrators (Richard C. Meyer, Thomas Jung, and Otis Frampton) have created Chosin: Hold the Line, a graphic novel that will serve as the basis for an animated short film.

The graphic novel is told in two parts: “Hold That Line,” which follows a young Marine private, Billy French, through the pivotal struggle by the Americans to hold Fox Hill, and “To the Sea,” which focuses on two young Korean children who are caught up in the conflict and join the fighting retreat from Hagaru to the port of Hungnam, where the U.S. Navy waited to evacuate X Corps.

Much of the battle of Chosin Reservoir was fought at night and the illustrations capture the eerie scenes of snow falling, green and red tracers arcing through the gloom, the sudden appearance of attacking troops, and the intense hand-to-hand combat that often ensued. This comic panel depiction could easily have trivialized the situation; I didn’t find the violence shown to be gratuitous or unwarranted, but rather an accurate reflection of the desperate, life-and-death struggle involved.

Iglesias and his collaborators get the details right: the starkly beautiful terrain; the Thanksgiving meal served to the men freezing on their plates because of the cold; Chinese soldiers forced into frontal mass wave attacks by Red Army political officers ready to execute any who balked at advancing (a tactic pioneered by Lenin in the 1920s); the camaraderie of the Marines who were vastly outnumbered but never broke faith.

The second story told in the novel features the heroic march of the “Chosin Few” to the sea and considers the impact of the war on Korean civilians. One of the less-known aspects of the campaign was that American commanders decided to evacuate nearly 100,000 Korean civilians along with the troops. It’s likely many of the Koreans would have been executed by the Communists as traitors if they had been left behind. An estimated million descendants of the Hungnam evacuees live in freedom today; historians believe the scale of this humanitarian move was unprecedented.

It would be fitting if Iglesia’s efforts culminate in the Chosin story being told in longer form—a full-length feature film would be ideal. If 300, a recounting of the courageous Greek stand against the invading Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, succeeded at the box office, why not bring a stirring tale of modern American bravery to the screen?


Copyright © 2014 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Julian Adler: TR Tackles College Football

Julian Adler, a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, recently won the Theodore Roosevelt Public Speaking Contest, which is organized annually by the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA), for the New York City public schools. (I’m Julian’s proud uncle).

His topic—Teddy Roosevelt’s intervention to save college football—has a family connection: Julian’s great-grandfather, Carl S. Flanders, played center on the 1905 undefeated Yale team and was named a Walter Camp All-American (second team). Julian will follow Carl’s lead and head to New Haven to join Yale’s Class of 2018 in the fall.

The text of Julian’s award-winning speech follows.


TR Tackles College Football

Julian Adler

If you were one of the 112 million people watching the Super Bowl this year, you might have seen—through a veil of tears—the Seattle Seahawks obliterate the Denver Broncos. Some people blamed Payton Manning, and others praised Russell Wilson. But the real unsung hero is none other than our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt.

College football

One hundred years ago, football was in trouble. The sport, played mostly by college students, was virtually unregulated, and lent itself to gruesome injuries. The 1905 season was nicknamed “The Death Harvest,” leaving 137 players hospitalized and nineteen corpses on the field. As mothers received notices of their children dying at school, there was a popular movement to make football illegal altogether. “The once athletic sport,” wrote the Beaumont Express, “has degenerated into a contest that in its brutality is little better than the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome.”

Now, Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate of what he called “the strenuous life.” Friendly competition, he believed, brought out the best in people, and should be encouraged. But even Roosevelt admitted that the brutality of football had gotten out of hand. And, moreover, Roosevelt’s son, Theodore Jr., had started playing the sport.

“What to do?” thought Roosevelt. How can football be saved, without putting the lives of its players at risk? How can an American pastime be maintained without having to chance death? As Roosevelt thought about the issue, more and more colleges started dropping football from their campuses. Stanford banned the sport in 1905 followed by Columbia, Northwestern, and Duke. But it wasn’t so much the sport itself, thought Roosevelt, but rather how unregulated it was that was the problem. As Roosevelt wrote to a close friend toward the end of 1903, “I can make an effort to minimize the danger.”

In 1905 Roosevelt invited representatives of all the major colleges to the White House. He explained that football was on the verge of death, but didn’t need to be as long as reforms could be made. This was not the easiest argument to make.

These universities truly hated one another. It was more than rivalry—it was a way of life. After losing the 1894 football game to Yale for instance, Harvard cut off all official communication with the University for over two years. Four years later Harvard students were arrested for shooting a bulldog—the symbol of Yale—in Harvard Yard. Moreover, there was a great deal at stake. Each one of these games drew over 50,000 people and there was a lot of money to be made and not much incentive for reform. But in the course of one day, Roosevelt convinced these universities to establish an intercollegiate league. This Intercollegiate Association of the United States, renamed four years later as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is better known today as the NCAA.

I love this story.

And it’s cute to think that Roosevelt took such a personal interest in student sports. But in a larger sense, his actions reflect and demonstrate all the qualities that make him remembered. All the qualities that make him loved.

Teddy Roosevelt, 1903

We see Roosevelt preserving something distinctly American. Just as he did with the creation of the National Parks, Roosevelt ensured that something on the verge of destruction survived for future generations.

We see Roosevelt saving something from the evils of itself. Just as he did with his “trust-busting,” Roosevelt regulated an existing system to make it better, and the competition more constructive.

We see Roosevelt caring for his children. TR was famous for having his kids running around the White House, and playing with them. And with regulating football, Roosevelt is caring for his son, and exercising his famous paternal qualities.

We see Roosevelt stepping in as a third party to foster negotiations. Just as he did with brokering the Russo-Japanese peace treaty, Roosevelt gets two fiercely opposed sides to come together and reach an agreement.

And finally, we see Theodore Roosevelt acting like…Theodore Roosevelt. Just as with his rough riding and hunting and cowboying, Roosevelt displays the rugged masculinity for which he was so famous. Of football Roosevelt once wrote, “it’s like life—the principle to follow is simple: hit the line hard; don’t foul, don’t shirk, hit the line hard.”

This may seem like a small story—a small aspect of Teddy Roosevelt’s life and career—but it is exactly stories like this that make him worth remembering. It is exactly because of stories like this that we talk about him, and write about him, and think about him today. He was a man who cared for much, and fought and strove and struggled to protect the things he cared about. In virtually any anecdote you tell about him, you can see reflected his boundless energy and his desire to improve the world around him.

My point is that with a man like Teddy Roosevelt you don’t have to search hard to see why he is great. You don’t have to pick his grandest action to see the characteristics for which we remember him. In everything he did we see his love for country, for his fellow man, and for just plain old fun.

And you don’t have to be a fan of football to appreciate that.


Copyright © 2014 Julian Adler
All rights reserved

Alan Furst’s evocative Mission to Paris and the City of Light

Mission to Paris

Authors and artists have swooned over Paris, the City of Light, for decades. Alan Furst, who has written some eleven other literary spy thrillers, is no exception. His most recent novel, Mission to Paris marries a traditionally-plotted story of espionage with an extended celebration of the joys of living in the world’s most stylish city.

If you have a taste for spy novels, or a fondness for Paris, you can’t go wrong with Furst’s latest.

The protagonist of Mission to Paris, Frederic Stahl, an American film star of Austrian origins who lived in Paris as a young man, has returned to the city in the late summer of 1938 to make a movie, as stormclouds gather other Europe. Stahl loves Paris: “being back in his old quartier was as though a door to heaven had been left open.”

We see Paris through Stahl’s eyes, and senses:

Walking slowly, looking at everything, he couldn’t get enough of the Parisian air: it smelled of a thousand years of rain dripping on stone, smelled of rough black tobacco and garlic and drains, of perfume, of potatoes frying in fat. It smelled as it had smelled when he was twenty-five.

Yet Mission to Paris is a spy thriller, so Furst must interrupt Stahl’s Proustian memories with conflict and danger. The movie star’s return to Paris is quickly complicated by a Nazi plot to make him one of a growing number of agents of influence in France arguing for appeasement. Furst has researched how the Reich Foreign Ministry looked to bribe, blackmail, and pressure potential recruits in French commerce, the press, and the government to undermine the French will to resist German aggression.

Ah, the French will to resist! The Allies and Charles de Gaulle pushed the myth of the French Resistance hard, but historians have generally debunked it. The historical record suggests that very few in France’s ruling elite actively resisted the Nazis, either before or after hostilities commenced. Widespread pacifism and defeatism reflected the searing wound that the brutal trench warfare of World War I had inflicted on the French psyche—Nazi propaganda and Fifth Column efforts really were superfluous. The French simply didn’t want to fight another war.

French Communists stopped any agitation against Hitler after August 1939 and the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Churchill was so skeptical of French resolve that he ordered the destruction of the French fleet in Algeria in 1940. (When he was asked, after the war, about the impact of French Resistance, Nazi leader Albert Speer responded: “What French Resistance?”)

Nonetheless, a few brave souls in France did oppose the Fascists, so it doesn’t require a complete suspension of belief to imagine that Frederic Stahl would resist being manipulated by the Nazis. This somewhat apolitical actor discovers that his decision—which doesn’t at first seem consequential—will alter his comfortable life, and the ensuing complications will drive the plot of Mission to Paris. Recruited for courier work by an American diplomat/spy, Stahl becomes involved in a risky intelligence operation underway in Berlin. When the “political warfare bureau” of the German Foreign Ministry realizes that Stahl is only feigning cooperation, he becomes a targeted man, and the last third of the novel finds him on the run along with an attractive refugee who has become his lover.

Furst has a marvelous ability to evoke time and place. He takes us to the Paramount studios outside Paris and captures the easy camaraderie of the actors on set; he depicts the open malevolence toward the French Republic among the guests at an elegant Seventh Arrondisement party of aristocrats and German sympathizers; and he describes the sudden violence when a student street march is attacked by right-wing thugs. Furst knows how to paint a word picture: “Winter Paris, Christmas coming, the Galeries Lafayette would have its toy train running in the window, station roof glittering with granular snow.” These superb snapshots of Parisian life make Mission to Paris more than just another genre thriller.

In some of his earlier novels Furst left the reader wondering about the fate of his main characters. Fortunately that’s not the case with Mission to Paris. Frederic Stahl’s brief foray into the world of espionage ends with a straightforward resolution. Furst knows that we’re rooting for Stahl and—wisely, I think—decides against an ambiguous (if not entirely plausible) ending and instead chooses to celebrate the moral courage of a inherently decent man confronted by evil.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to purchase The North Building, the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders. You can also find his critically-acclaimed Herald Square at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage a spy thriller tour de force

It’s hard to write a credible historical spy thriller. You have to get the history right while fashioning a narrative that will keep the reader turning the page. Writing a literary historical spy thriller is even harder: you need to balance believable characters, well-crafted prose, and a consideration of larger themes while maintaining suspense.

Istanbul Passage

Joseph Kanon achieves that balance in his latest novel, Istanbul Passage, which should be regarded as a tour de force for the genre. It’s no surprise that Kanon’s fiction is compared to that of John le Carré and Graham Greene—he tackles the same moral ambiguities that surface in the world of espionage.

Kanon sets his story in Istanbul just after the close of World War II. Turkey stayed on the sidelines for most of the war (entering on the side of the Allies only after it was clear that they would prevail) along with the other countries that remained neutral: Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.

A few novelists have explored the tensions and ambiguity involved in neutrality: C.J. Sansom looked at life in Franco’s wartime Spain in Winter in Madrid, and Robert Wilson wrote two well-received mysteries set in Portugal during the war, A Small Death in Lisbon and The Company of Strangers .

Istanbul Passage begins in the early days of the Cold War. The novel’s protagonist, Leon Bauer, is a businessman working for the R.J. Reynolds Company who has been helping American intelligence on the side (“An errand boy when I happened to be going to the right place”) and discovers not only does he find clandestine work exciting, but also that he’s good at it. When Bauer takes delivery of a Romanian defector and things go terribly wrong, he finds himself drawn deeper into the struggle between Soviet and American intelligence.

Kanon excels in his portraits of the people in the novel—the portly, amoral document forger; the well-connected Turkish socialite who began life in a harem; the bored diplomatic wives; the competing Soviet and American agents; the Mossad operative who must deal with local corruption, Western indifference, and British hostility. The novel brilliantly evokes the Expat world of post-war Istanbul—the foreign diplomats and businessmen who have created their own closed society. Kanon also weaves into the plot the efforts of Mossad agents to help Eastern European Jews evade a Royal Navy blockade and make their way to Palestine. And then there is the Turkish elite, caught between the two emerging powers, and trying to decide which side to land on.

Kanon touches upon some of the themes of accountability and expediency that surfaced in his 2001 bestseller, The Good German. Where should American intelligence have drawn the line when working with those who were part of the Nazi war-machine? What was the morality of making use of those in the Cold War struggle who could be tried on war crimes charges? (We know the answer in Europe: the Allies made use of the Gehlen organization despite its Nazi past). Should the “enemy of my enemy” be enough to justify making alliances?

My only (minor) quibble with Kanon’s book is that I kept waiting for Kim Philby, the infamous mole, to appear, and he didn’t. In September 1945, Konstantin Volkov, the deputy head of the NKVD in Turkey, walked into the British Consulate in Istanbul intent on defecting. He offered to expose Soviet agents in Turkey and Britain. Cold War history might have been different if Philby, the head of MI6’s Russian Desk at the time and a Soviet agent, hadn’t been the official tasked with handling the defection. Philby delayed his arrival in Istanbul long enough for word of Volkov’s planned escape to reach Moscow Center; a heavily-bandaged Volkov was then seen being hustled board an airplane bound for Russia. Had Volkov made it to London he could have exposed the penetration of the British Foreign Office and MI-6 (the Maclean-Burgess-Philby ring).


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Click to purchase The North Building, the new Cold War thriller by Jefferson Flanders. You can also find his critically-acclaimed Herald Square at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.