Walter Isaacson never fails me. He makes me aware of new ideas and always presents them in thoughtful ways and with powerful writing. Such is the case of his book review for A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre.
Isaacson reviews the book that shows how friendship was central to the often-told story of Kim Philby, the famed spymaster and Russian mole. The whole article is worth your time, with the intersection of friendship and espionage making for a most compelling case to pick this book up for a read.
The story of Philby and his fellow Cambridge University double agents has been told many times, most notably by Phillip Knightley and Anthony Cave Brown, as well as by Philby himself and two of his four wives. Macintyre, who draws on these and other published sources, was not able to pry open any archives or uncover startling new revelations. Instead, he came up with a captivating framing device: telling the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a fellow Cambridge-educated spy who was, or thought he was, Philby’s trusted friend. In doing so Macintyre has produced more than just a spy story. He has written a narrative about that most complex of topics, friendship: Why does it exist, what causes people to seek it and how do we know when it’s real?
Elliott not only became Philby’s friend, he began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” He even bought the same expensive umbrella that Philby liked to sport. What he did not know was that Philby was a double agent working for Russia. That meant he had a different angle on their friendship. “Nicholas Elliott was a rising star in the service and a valued friend,” Macintyre writes, “and no one understood the value of friendship better than Kim Philby.”
There he became friends, in the Philbyesque sense of that word, with another excessively fascinating character in this book, James Jesus Angleton, who was rising in the ranks of the C.I.A. “Angleton was a little like one of the rare orchids he would later cultivate,” Macintyre writes, “alluring to some but faintly sinister to those who preferred simpler flora.” He was obsessed with rooting out spies and moles, but he missed the biggest one in his midst, indeed became enamored of him. Just as Elliott took to carrying around the same umbrella as Philby, Angleton wore the same homburg hat.
Like almost every character in this book, Philby and Angleton were ferocious and competitive drinkers. They would meet at a clublike Washington saloon and oyster bar, Harvey’s, and match each other drink for drink. As they exchanged confidences, Angleton was at a deadly disadvantage: He didn’t know that Philby wasn’t on his team.
Macintyre’s book climaxes with a psychological duel over tea, cloaked by a veneer of gentility, which led to some subsequent meetings and a partial confession from Philby. But instead of arranging an arrest or abduction or assassination, Elliott told his erstwhile friend that he was going to Africa for a few days before the process of interrogation resumed. On his own in Beirut, Philby immediately contacted his Russian handlers, who whisked him on a freighter to Moscow, where he lived the rest of his life in exile.
Why did Elliott let Philby escape? At first it seemed as if he and the British intelligence service were bumbling fools. But Macintyre offers a different theory, one made plausible by his book’s narrative. After extracting Philby’s confession, Elliott may have intentionally left the door open for him to flee. Perhaps he even nudged him to do so. The old boys’ network had nothing to gain from further revelations or a public trial. It also probably had no stomach for punishing one of its own.
At first Philby reveled in the fact that he had escaped. It was only after a few months in Moscow that it dawned on him that he may have been pushed. He smuggled Elliott a letter suggesting that they secretly meet in a place like Helsinki to clear things up. “Our last transactions were so strange that I cannot help thinking that perhaps you wanted me to do a fade.” Elliott rejected him with a cold, blunt response.
One new piece of evidence comes from the former spy John le Carré, who tackled the Philby case in his novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Le Carré interviewed Elliott in 1986 and resurrected his notes to write an afterword for this book.
He asked Elliott whether he and his MI6 colleagues ever considered having Philby dragooned back to London. “Nobody wanted him in London, old boy,” Elliott replied.
Le Carré followed up: “Could you have him killed?”
To that Elliott gave a disapproving response. “My dear chap,” he said. “One of us.”
That neatly encapsulates the underlying theme of this book, one Macintyre explores with both insight and humor. What does it really mean to be “one of us”?