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The Atlantic Monthly | September 1988
The Fifth Man

A reflection, prompted by an obituary, on a famous episode in the annals of espionage
by George A. Carver, Jr.
he death in Moscow last spring of Harold Adrian Russell (Kim) Philby closed a chapter in the most celebrated espionage case of the postwar years—but not the book. Philby, of course, was the most prominent of the Britons who were recruited in the late 1920s and the 1930s while they were students, many at Cambridge, to serve the Soviet Union as they penetrated the British government and its intelligence services. The best-known members of this "Cambridge Comintern," after Philby, were Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt—the last publicly identified only in 1979 as the long-suspected "fourth man." Burgess and Maclean fled to Moscow in 1951, and Philby joined them there (from Beirut) in 1963. These four men have now all died, leaving behind the question, Was there a still-unidentified fifth man, of comparable importance? As a career intelligence officer and one who has known many of those whose lives were touched by the Philby affair, I have thought frequently about this mystery. Philby's death called it to mind once again.

he conventional wisdom, buttressed by Philby in his memoirs (My Silent War), is that in February of 1951 Philby, who was working at the British Embassy in Washington, learned through his official duties in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) that the net was closing around Donald Maclean—then the head of the American Department at the Foreign Office, in London. Philby alerted his embassy colleague and fellow Soviet agent Guy Burgess, who was then living in Philby's house, and, with Soviet concurrence, induced or directed Burgess to go to London to warn Maclean. (Burgess accomplished this by getting himself arrested three times in one day, for speeding, causing the ambassador to send him home.) The official version of what followed is that a tip from Philby to Maclean, through Burgess, prompted Burgess and Maclean to flee to France on Friday, May 25, 1951, and ultimately to the Soviet Union. Maclean had been scheduled to be brought in three days later by MI5, Britain's FBI, for interrogation by William (Jim) Skardon, the man who had skillfully wrested a full confession from the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, and under whose questioning the already very tense Maclean was bound to crack. In 1979 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated flatly in response to questions in the House of Commons, "It was Philby who warned Burgess to tell Maclean that he was about to be interrogated." This is a neat and tidy account, with no loose ends. Its only defect is that it is implausible. Though Philby undoubtedly did warn Burgess, and Burgess warned Maclean, and though plans were thus readied for the pair's escape if necessary, Philby is not a logical source for the "go" order that actually precipitated their flight.

To begin with, Burgess showed absolutely no sense of urgency about getting back to London after his February conversation with Philby. He did not leave Washington until April, took the Queen Mary instead of flying, and did not reach London until May 7. In behavior both Burgess and Maclean were decidedly erratic, but for the next eighteen days—through the morning of May 25—neither conducted himself in any way out of the ordinary or gave any outward hint that he was contemplating or preparing for flight. Quite the contrary. Maclean's rocky marriage was in one of its up phases. Maclean and his American wife, Melinda, were again living together—near Tatsfield, a suburban village in Kent—and she was expecting their baby in early June. Burgess had made plans to spend May 25-27 on a naughty weekend in France with a new male friend, an American whom he had met on the Queen Mary.

On Thursday, May 24, senior officers of SIS, MI5, and the Foreign Office had a long discussion about Maclean during which it was finally decided to bring him in for questioning by Skardon—if the Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, approved. A meeting with Morrison was scheduled for the following morning. It was also decided, however, that even if Morrison gave his approval, as expected, Maclean would not actually be picked up until Monday, May 28. The official explanation for this decision was that at the time it was not considered a significant delay—not significant enough, at any rate, to disturb anyone's weekend.

hat story always rung at least a quarter tone off. It made no professional sense not to bring Maclean in on Friday, as soon as Morrison gave his approval, to let Maclean fret over the weekend and then face a cool and rested Skardon on Monday morning. I am inclined to believe, as others have been, that it took deft maneuvering on someone's part to get the process delayed by this critical weekend without raising any eyebrows.

May 25, 1951, was Donald Maclean's thirty-eighth birthday. He had a late, leisurely lunch with friends, whom he made plans to see again in early June, went to his club for another couple of drinks and there cashed a check (for only five, pounds), briefly returned to the Foreign Office, and then caught his normal commuter train, the 5:19 from Charing Cross (where MI5s "watchers" abandoned him, as was their custom). Absolutely nothing in Maclean's behavior on that day gave any hint that he was thinking about leaving England.

On that same fateful Friday, Guy Burgess slept until around 9:00 in his London flat, was given a cup of tea by his live-in lover of many years, Jack Hewit, and made some phone calls to other friends, subsequently interrogated, scheduling several future social appointments. Nothing in Burgess's demeanor or behavior suggested that he then had anything on his mind except the weekend he had made plans to spend with his new American conquest.

At some point near or shortly after 10:00 A.M. a senior MI5 officer and the head of Foreign Office security held a brief meeting with Herbert Morrison, in the Foreign Secretary's office, at which Morrison promptly approved Maclean's interrogation. At almost the same time (the sequence here is not entirely clear) something—presumably a warning delivered in person or by phone—suddenly changed Burgess's whole pattern of behavior. From that moment the previously languid, unconcerned Burgess was a whirling dervish.

In a state of obvious agitation, Burgess kept a 10:30 A.M. appointment with his American friend in the lobby of a Green Park hotel, ten minutes' walk from Burgess's flat, and explained that their weekend might have to be scrubbed, because, as the American later said that Burgess had explained, "a young friend of mine in the Foreign Office is in serious trouble. I am the only one who can help him." Burgess promised to call the American back, but never did. He rented a car, bought a suitcase, packed an assortment of clothes, grabbed £300 in cash and some savings certificates—plus his treasured copy of Jane Austen's collected novels, and Hewit's overcoat—drove to Tatsfield, had dinner with Donald and Melinda Maclean at their home, and then took Maclean to the Southampton dock. Burgess and Maclean abandoned the car and were the last two passengers to board the S.S. Falaise, the midnight ferry to St. Malo, in France.

hatever contingency plans had been made by Burgess at least for Maclean's eventual departure (Burgess is known to have been working with Blunt on the matter, and their Soviet controller, Yuri Modin, was in London, apparently to assist), it is most unlikely that the Friday-morning alert came to Burgess, in London, from Philby, in Washington, either directly or indirectly (by way of the Soviets). Barely possible, perhaps, but most unlikely. From across the Atlantic, five time zones removed, Philby could hardly have kept abreast of a fluid situation in London, even if he had virtually instant access to all relevant official cable traffic received from England. In any event it would have been operational folly for Philby to use the telephone in this situation, especially to call Burgess, particularly before the days of direct dialing. Any Washington-to-London call would have had to go through at least two operators, either or both of whom might have kept call logs.

Despite Prime Minister Thatcher's 1979 statement, it is much more plausible that the source for Burgess's May 25 alert was not Philby but someone in London—not Blunt, then an art historian, no longer in MI5, but rather someone in a position to know. Only in a bad novel would any such warning, initiated from Washington, reach Burgess just about the time that Morrison was approving Maclean's interrogation. The actual warning call to Burgess could, of course, have easily been made by a London-based Soviet agent, or by some other Soviet agent, but even if this is what happened, it is still more likely that someone in London, rather than Philby, apprised the Soviets that Maclean was to be interrogated the following Monday.

Burgess and Maclean's last-minute escape is the most dramatic sign that there may have been a fifth man, but it is far from the only sign. A host of allegations by defectors, of communications intercepts, and of inexplicably botched or compromised MI5 counterespionage operations all point to a similar conclusion.

If there actually was such a fifth man, the pool of serious candidates, with the requisite access and seniority, is very small. Indeed, it probably consists of no more than three people.

One is Guy Liddell, who was the deputy director general of MI5 from 1947 until he retired, in 1952. He, Burgess, and Blunt were friends, and Liddell was very much a part of the hothouse wartime circle revolving around Victor Rothschild's 5 Bentinck Street flat, in which Burgess and Blunt both lived. During the war Liddell ran MI5's counterespionage division, where Anthony Blunt was his personal assistant. Philby had a high regard for Liddell, whom he described in My Silent War—with Empsonian ambiguity—as "an ideal senior officer for a young man to learn from." In 1944 Liddell assisted Philby in the successful bureaucratic knifing of Philby's then superior, Felix Cowgill, so that Philby could become the head of SIS's expanding counterintelligence effort (which Philby terms his "Fulfillment"). Liddell, however, was greatly admired, professionally and personally, and has many staunch defenders. These include Sir Dick White, Philby's nemesis in both MI5 and MI6, both of which White headed, and Peter Wright (of Spycatcher fame), one of the most avid of all mole-hunters.

The two others are Graham Mitchell and Sir Roger Hollis. In 1951 Mitchell was in charge of counterespionage; he became deputy director general of MI5 (under Hollis) in 1956 and retired in 1963. He drafted the patently mendacious, demonstrably erroneous 1955 white paper on the Burgess-Maclean defection. On the strength of that document the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, gave Philby what the latter would call the happiest day of his life by publicly affirming Philby's innocence in the House of Commons—declaring, in a statement that Mitchell helped draft, that Philby was not the third man ("if indeed, there was one"). Hollis became deputy in 1953 and moved up in 1956 to be director general until his retirement, in 1965. Mitchell and Hollis were the subject of a series of investigations during the 1960s. Both were eventually declared innocent of any wrongdoing.

s noted above, the official position of Her Majesty's Government is that Burgess was warned by Philby, period; that Hollis and Mitchell have been investigated and exonerated (Liddell has never been subjected to formal scrutiny); and that these matters are now closed. Closed they will remain, at least officially. For different but, in each case, strong political reasons, neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party would want to re-open this painful chapter in British history, or would see any point in doing so.

In a larger sense, however, the Philby affair, with all it connotes, remains wide open—and will stay open for a long time, perhaps perpetually. The literature on the subject is voluminous (a partial bibliography would fill several pages) and continually growing. It seems unlikely, however, that the full truth will ever be known or that the matter will ever be laid totally to rest. Serious students will doubtless always be divided with respect to many key points. There will probably always be disputes about the motives of the people involved, about the real significance and impact of their activities—and about their legacies, if any, in the form of continuing penetrations.

As Kim Philby disappears into the mists of memory, the conspiracy that bears his name has assumed its rightful place among that small group of historical conundrums about which our curiosity seems destined never to wane.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 1988 by George A. Carver, Jr. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1988; The Fifth Man - 88.09; Volume 262, No. 3; page 26-29.