The Peripatetic Reviewer

It was Dame Rebecca West who defined the meaning of treason in the atomic age. Under the pressure of the cold war, espionage and defection have been intensified with consequences both serious and baffling, as we find in reading The Philby Conspiracy, the Book-of-the-Month Club selection for July. This is the real-life detective story of how and why three conspicuous members of the British Establishment, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and H. A. R. Philby, known as “Kim,” became Communist spies and of what damage they accomplished before they defected to the Soviet Union. It is the composite story by a journalistic team of staff members of the London Sunday Times, who have reconstructed the lives of the three conspirators, leading up to the influence which each exerted at his zenith: Philby as the head of the Soviet section of the Secret Intelligence Service; Maclean in Washington at the center of the Anglo-American atomic energy program and with full access to the CIA files; and Burgess, diplomat, drunkard, and boastful homosexual, who was constantly being dried out and promoted by the Foreign Office.
They were all Cambridge men, two of them Trinity, and at Cambridge in the early thirties it was fashionable to deride both king and country. Abroad fascism was on the rise, and at home Ramsay MacDonald’s sellout of the Labor Party had left the young rebels no hopeful alternative except Communism. Or so it seemed.
The Philby Conspiracy
by Bruce Page, Phillip Knightley, and David Leitch
(Doubleday, $5.95)
My Silent War
by Kim Philby
(Grove, $5.95)
True Grit
by Charles Portis
(Simon and Schuster, $4.95)
A Field Guide to Wildflowers
of Northeastern and North-central North America by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny
(Houghton Mifflin, $4.95)
Of the three, Philby was much the cleverest, a hard worker and a hard drinker, who with his useful stammer had an undeniable appeal for both men and women; Burgess, handsome and ruddy, was the more charming, and the most outrageous in his behavior; Maclean, the “nervous Nelly,” fretted by sex, was the first to be suspected and the first to break under the eventual strain. As John Le Carré reminds us in his brilliant introduction, there are big gaps in the record. Who was the Soviet recruiter? he asks. Did he recruit only gentlemen and only from Cambridge? It seems unlikely.
What we do know is that Kim Philby was a dissenter by birth. His father, St. John Philby, was a renowned Arabist and a Muslim convert, who had left the Indian Civil Service for a series of shady deals in the Middle East and whose contempt for Whitehall was outspoken. The relations between father and son are shadowed, but there is every reason to believe that the son acquired his father’s contempt and that when he went down from Cambridge in June of 1933, he had already entered the Soviet counterintelligence service. He maintained his cover for thirty years and during that time he penetrated more deeply into British secrets and supplied his Soviet masters with far more damaging information than either Burgess or Maclean did.
After his graduation Philby spent a year in Vienna, where he witnessed the fascist putsch and learned the technique of his trade from a competent Soviet instructor. He then returned to England with Nazi funds with which to publish a proHitler magazine; the magazine did not prosper, but Philby did. Two years later he was in Spain, the accredited correspondent of the Times, and his dispatches were so daring that he was personally decorated by Franco with the Red Cross of Military Merit. At the outbreak of World War II the Times reassigned him to the British headquarters in Arras, and when he was finally evacuated from France, his assurance and his competence were such that he was eagerly recruited by the British Secret Service.
Part of Philby’s penetration was made easier for him by the interservice jealousy. He was a good deal more intelligent than the policeman types in the rival agency, MI5, and the book concedes, somewhat grudgingly, the skill with which he eliminated Volkov, a dangerous Soviet informer, and the deadly accuracy with which he was able to anticipate and terminate the movement of British agents, particularly in the Albanian Subversion. When portraits are as accusing as this they tend to ignore the skill of the villainy. Burgess, whether as a drunkard or a blustering homosexual, was not a pretty sight, but he had another side, as witness the fact that he was indulged by Harold Nicolson, used as a model by Evelyn Waugh, and accepted with friendliness by Cyril Connolly until his departure. Maclean was not a scientist, and though he may not have comprehended the scientific theory on which the atomic bomb was based, he was in a position, however briefly, to filter helpful information to the Kremlin. “Burgess and Maclean,” said Secretary of the Army Brucker in February, 1956, “had secrets of priceless value to the communist conspiracy.”
Why were they condoned? The answer can only be inferred. Macmillan, who first defended Philby before Parliament, had a private contempt for espionage and would not believe that a man so long trusted could be a traitor. Edward Heath, when it was his turn, felt that the Conservative Party could not stand another scandal, and so for seven years more Kim continued his activities as a double agent whose primary loyalty was to Moscow.
A clearer answer to the mystery comes from Philby himself in My Silent War, a book which was begun five years ago in Moscow. This is no act of confession but a stylish, and within limits, candid, affirmation of why he deserted “a crumbling Establishment” to volunteer as an agent for the Soviet Union, “the inner fortress of the world movement.” Philby writes well, and in his crisp, sophisticated manner he gives a withering picture of the confusion and apathy in the British Secret Service, which even as late as the summer of 1940 did not possess one single agent between the Balkans and the English Channel. “SIS,” Philby writes, “is the only British service authorised to collect secret information from foreign countries by illegal means,” but Churchill had a fondness for appointing agents who were instructed to report back only to him, and the overlapping and rivalry within the entire secret organization created a flap which Philby with his orderly mind set about correcting.
Here is the secret of Philby’s success: “The first duty of an underground worker,” he tells us, “is to perfect not only his cover story but also his cover personality,” and Philby worked at his English career with a capacity and discretion which won him both trust and promotion. His story of how the SIS cracked the German code and consistently double-crossed the Abwehr in Spain is fascinating. His account of the conflict between the “Brains” and the policemen is much funnier than the one the journalists have written. His penetrating, witty comments on J. Edgar Hoover (who distrusted all British agents) and his estimates of the contributions made by Graham Greene, Bill Stephenson, and Malcolm Muggeridge are vastly entertaining, whatever their bias. The plain truth is that Kim Philby could not have wormed his way up to a post which permitted him to direct the SIS agents operating in the Soviet Union without recommendations based on his “solid and conscientious work,” and he covered his tracks so skillfully that when at last he was named in Commons the evidence was so flimsy that he could bluff his innocence in an impeccable news conference. Wrongheaded and a traitor, but certainly a cool operator.
True Grit begins as a terse and exciting story of the frontier days in Arkansas when the judge and his marshals were only a degree or two more honorable than the men they put to death. The action comes to us through the retrospect of a spinster, Mattie Ross, whose father was robbed of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash by a no-good tenant, Tom Chaney, a bachelor twenty-five years of age. The murder occurred in Fort Smith, and in the dead of winter the fourteen-year-old Mattie left home intent on finding the men who would help her capture the murderer. She visited the horse dealer in Fort Smith and talked him into repaying the $110 which her father had spent on some now useless mustangs; had the body shipped home; and then asked the sheriff to name his best marshal. He told her, “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a work.” She bribed Rooster with $25 down and another $25 to come, and with him and a Texas ranger she rode off in pursuit of the killer.
This is a Western with a difference. The hardihood and the fighting are depicted in a vernacular which curiously is both prim and primitive and in a series of escapades reminiscent of Jesse James and The Perils of Pauline.
Like Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson made his approach to the world of nature as an artist, studying at the Art Students League and for two years at the National Academy of Design before embarking upon the bird paintings and study which were to make him the best-known field ornithologist in the world. For a time he free-lanced as an illustrator in New York City, and John Kieran remembers him as one of the founders of the Bronx Bird Club, thrashing through the cattails of the Van Cortlandt Park marsh shouting and clapping hands to scare up the Virginia rails and soras that used to breed there or pass through on migration. Today, tall, filled out, and with inexhaustible energy, he is known by his friends as an “owl” worker instead of a “lark” worker: he gets brighter as the day goes on, and in his studio at Old Lyme, Connecticut, he works through the night and is hard to waken once he has turned in. When he has to appear on a morning telecast he sends himself a telegram the night before with instructions that the messenger boy should not leave until he is sure that the recipient is out of bed.
Peterson’s hearing is as acute as his eyesight. When he was working on the Field Guides which have made our American birds familiar to millions the world over, he would occasionally take a break and go to a movie, and his wife would hear him mutter “nighthawk” as the bird passed over the flat-roofed building and over the sound of the reel.
Twenty years ago on Cape Cod Peterson began making the drawings of wildflowers for his new handbook, A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America. Margaret McKenny collaborated with him, she working on the text, he on the legends and the 1344 illustrations in this gay and handy book. On hundreds of zigzags through the East and midlands Peterson drove his beach wagon at a snail’s pace, one eye on the country road, the other on the flowers. In the case of rare orchids, or gentians which he knew better than to pick, he drew them lying flat on the ground; those he picked he kept fresh in plastic bags until he could get to the next tourist cabin. In his suitcase he carried a 200-watt daylight bulb, and once this was screwed in he could begin his owl work. He has been known to keep going for thirty-six hours at a stretch, and the deadlines he sets himself for his paintings, his writing, and his lectures run down but do not exhaust his batteries.
Wildflowers are woven into our earliest associations: the violets and lady’s-slippers the first signal of spring; the musk mallows which speak to us from the summer marsh; that toughie the dandelion which travels everywhere; the wild azalea and cardinal-flower I look for in the great ponds of Essex County; the meadows full of devil’s paintbrush and wild lupine we pass on our drive to Canada; the purple loosestrife which so quickly covered the bombed areas of London.
Wildflowers have traveled with Western men from Greece to the Roman legions, from the legions to Britain, from Britain to the new world, and on to the extremities. On a recent trip to Tierra del Fuego Peterson reported that nine out of ten wildflowers by the roadside there were of European origin. It is a fact that the transients, the wildflowers from Europe, have taken root in the disturbed areas of America, whereas our native species have held the fort in the undisturbed areas. In the railroad rights-of-way you may find a little of both; this ground has been so little changed that one may find traces of the original prairie growths planted there centuries before the iron horse. It is man’s instinct to familiarize himself with his environment, and we are grateful to Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny for making their horde of knowledge so available and so pleasurable to receive.