Espionage, Cold War; Continent: Europe, North America

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben MacIntyre

  • 366 pages (306 pages of content, including the Afterward by John le Carré)
  • Ian Fleming even makes a cameo in this story, so top that.

Cambridge alumni and eccentric characters, drunken parties, plus all the classic spying locations from Istanbul to Switzerland: this book is the way to get your James Bond fix while reading at the beach this summer. MacIntyre begins his story before World War II, just before Nicholas Elliott enters Cambridge and meets Kim Philby. Clever, aristocratic and charismatic, Kim Philby travels in all the right circles at Cambridge and among Britain’s upper crust. Both Elliott and Philby distinguish themselves during World War II. As most of the action unfolds, however, the power balance is shifting in Europe, one in which Moscow plays a much more prominent role. MacIntyre needs to show you both men early in their lives and the social climate in which they lived, otherwise what follows seems implausible.

Class Warfare in MI-5 and MI-6

Communism is the new enemy for most of the book, and espionage in Britain is organized into MI-5 and MI-6. MI-5 focuses on domestic operations, while MI-6 works abroad. Traditionally, MI-5 draws its operatives from a police background and has a blue-collar culture. On the other hand, MI-6 commonly recruits sophisticated sorts, people who speak multiple languages and are accustomed to international travel. In short, it hires educated young aristocrats. The two agencies sometimes struggle to work together, given the class differences. MI-6 in this story is a classic old boys’ network in which getting a job (or not being executed for treason) has to do with who will vouch for you – your old headmaster, the father of your best mate on the polo team, et cetera. It’s a club that presumes none of its members identify with the ideals of Marxist philosophy. After all, well, one hardly numbers oneself among the proletariat if the family occupies the local manor house, does one? Bad assumption, as it turns out.

Philby has embraced Communism’s principles since his university days, even cultivated as a spy by his Soviet contact at Cambridge (Nicholas Elliott knew Philby at Cambridge, but didn’t socialize with Philby’s Communist friends). Kim Philby hasn’t been fully on-board with MI-6’s goals since his date of hire there. As he works his way up at the agency, he runs his own field agents just unsuccessfully enough not to get fired. Moscow loves his access, so they carefully avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg – although Philby worries about how close they cut it sometimes. He also becomes popular in the very closed intelligence community, and as happens in so many professions, colleagues who party together tend to talk shop. Operations run by Philby’s dinner companions and party guests also fail pretty regularly. Moscow kills other people’s field agents or soldiers based on his reports to them, but also checks the urge to act on every one of them. Philby sweats bullets, but his MI-6 contacts don’t give him a careful look as a double agent.

In the meantime, MI-5 an MI-6 frequently need to work together, and MI-5 smells a rat. They haven’t been able to convince the MI-6 boss that Philby is double-crossing king and country. Regarded by the MI-6 crowd as less sophisticated, they can’t get taken seriously by MI-6 leadership, including his longtime friend, Nicholas Elliott. They have no reason to go soft on an MI-6 agent themselves except for the red tape involved, and these formal rules as well as the professional courtesy expected at the higher ranks of intelligence prevent them from gaining access to him.


Kim Philby has other problems besides living on the edge of execution for treason. His wife grows more unstable by the year, and Philby’s frequent extended trips abroad provoke suspicion in the mind of an unhappy spouse. Her instability becomes a serious risk to Philby’s cover. She and Kim have been close to Nicholas Elliott and his wife throughout their marriage, socializing often. Elliott feels sympathy for her, as Philby does seem to behave erratically sometimes. In the meantime, Philby himself is reaching the stages of alcoholism where it’s tough to function. Spies of his era are stereotypically a hard-drinking lot, so he blends in for a long time, but now the wheels are starting to fall off.

When at long last MI-6 can no longer disregard the evidence, Nicholas Elliott feels most betrayed among Philby’s MI-6 colleagues. After all, he has been his personal friend since their university days and has stuck up for Philby when suspicions first fell on him. When at last Philby can no longer maintain the double agency, he meets Elliott the way Hollywood might script a meeting of British spies: they meet for tea in a Beirut apartment. Elliott politely tears into him with questions while agents in the next room listen.

Overall Impressions

MacIntyre’s book about Kim Philby reads like a spoof of classic Hollywood spy thrillers. It’s so on the nose sometimes as to be laugh-out-loud funny, and certainly the author is going for the effect. That said, it’s still sobering to think about how an old boys’ network could protect this guy for so long. People died because Philby’s professional colleagues couldn’t accept the notion that one of their own might betray them. A reader has to believe the agencies in this story have evolved in the intervening decades. But have all of their kin worldwide?

For all my fellow Yankee patriots, don’t get too smug about this one. One of Philby’s best friends was highly placed CIA agent James Jesus Angleton, who met him regularly for dinner to talk shop. Angleton went on to become chief of CIA counterintelligence, where the stinging memory of Philby’s betrayal can only have fed an unrelated mole hunt that would mark Angleton’s career.

Image Source: USSR stamp issued in 1990 with a portrait of Soviet spy, Kim Philby. Uploaded by Wikimedia Commons contributor Mariluna.


4 thoughts on “Espionage, Cold War; Continent: Europe, North America

    • This book was great fun to read, although it does make you cringe to think about how fast and loose played with national security. This author has also produced a number of other books that might appeal – I haven’t read them yet, but they’ve gone on the list after this one! Thanks for commenting!

  1. I enjoyed this one very much too, but agree with your point that while we all love a good spy story it’s important not to forget that people actually died as a result of the actions of these double-agents. The class thing was interesting – it’d be nice to think that Britain was less class-ridden today, but a report out only yesterday suggests it’s still down to who your parents were that most determines who get the prestige jobs in government and out of it…

  2. Pingback: Spies, World War II; Continent: Europe | History Reading Challenge

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