The Best Books in 2014 / Part ThreeDecember 31, 2014 1 Comment
In the previous two articles I listed and provided a brief introduction to the first 13 of the 14 best books of 2014. We’ve now come to what I consider the best book of the year. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by my choice. Continue reading . . .
In the previous two articles I listed and provided a brief introduction to the first 13 of the 14 best books of 2014. We’ve now come to what I consider the best book of the year. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by my choice.
Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown Publishers, 368 pp.).
I’ve always been fascinated by the Cold War and especially the espionage that characterized the battle between East and West. My favorite novelist is John Le Carre, author of a dozen or more books that are focused on this period in world history and who was himself briefly employed by MI6 (the British version of our CIA). Le Carre actually writes a concluding Afterword to this book.
Many of you may never have heard the name Kim Philby (b. 1912). He was, without question, the most deceitful and destructive spy of the 20th century. Philby was a graduate of Cambridge University (1933) where he was initially recruited by Russian intelligence. Not only did Philby sell his services to the enemy, he evidently persuaded four other Cambridge fellows to join him in what would become the most horrific spy scandal ever known (the other four were Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Anthony Blunt, and possibly John Cairncross).
Philby was able to maintain his cover from the late 1930’s until his final exposure in the spring of 1963. He had been under suspicion for nearly a decade, not only by British intelligence but also the CIA and FBI (J. Edgar Hoover never wavered in his belief that Philby was a double agent). But nothing could be proven, and Philby insisted through it all that he was a loyal British civil servant.
The depth of human deception and lying displayed by Philby is almost beyond comprehension (he was, in addition, a chronic alcoholic and adulterer). It is difficult to comprehend the dozens, if not hundreds, of secret operations that he sabotaged, together with the countless men and women who were captured, tortured, and eventually killed, all because of Philby’s pathological commitment to communist philosophy. Perhaps the worst dimension of his life of lies was the way in which he betrayed his two wives, his children, and his numerous “friends” who stood by him and defended him when accusations of his duplicity were forthcoming. Said Philby:
“I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first.”
One of the odd ironies of the Philby case is that his destructive ways could have been far worse had it not been for the fact that Joseph Stalin suspected that he was still loyal to Britain and thus chose not always to take action based on the information supplied by Philby.
Philby’s closest lifelong friend and fellow agent with MI6 was Nicholas Elliott. Elliott defended Philby for years, unable to bring himself to acknowledge that the man whom he thought he knew so well could have been so treacherous. It was Elliott who was given the task of extracting a full confession from Philby, at which he was only partly successful. Some believe that Elliott (on orders from MI6) allowed Philby to slip away at night while in Beirut and escape to Moscow. Speculation is that this was to avoid an embarrassing public trial in Britain (embarrassing for both the English and Philby).
Philby died in Moscow on May 11, 1988.
There have probably been dozens of books written about Philby and the “Cambridge Five” but none of them can compare with this masterpiece by Ben Macintyre (writer at-large for the Times of London). It reads less like a work of non-fiction and more like a spy novel and is one of the more captivating books that I’ve encountered in quite some time.