Sunday, October 14, 2012

Spies like us

What causes someone to betray his country? I have in mind the so-called Cambridge Five, viz. Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Victor Rothschild.

The Cambridge Five was, in turn, a subset of The Cambridge Apostles.

I find this question interesting for a number of reasons. I lived through the second half of the Cold War. My parents were contemporaries of the Cambridge Five. I grew up on Cold War spy thrillers like The Quiller Memorandum; The Manchurian Candidate; Smiley’s People; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

In addition, there are parallels between the Cambridge Five and the American liberal establishment. Indeed, our current president has a Bolshevik philosophy.

What factors might predispose a man to betray his country? Are there any common denominators?

We might begin by turning the question around: “Why would most folks never consider becoming traitors?”

Offhand I can think of three reasons:

i) There’s a generic reason. They’d have too much to lose if they were caught. This is what deters many people from committing serious crimes.

ii) In addition, some people think it would be morally wrong.

iii) Finally, I suspect most folks wouldn’t do so because they are emotionally invested in their country. They identify with their nationality. That’s who they are. They love their country. They love their countrymen.

Kim Philby rationalized his treason by saying “that in order to betray, one must first belong,” while Blunt quoted E. M. Forster: “If I have to choose between betraying my country or betraying a friend, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”

Of course, these are excuses which try to ennoble their perfidy. So we have to take that with a grain of salt.

But it may also contain a grain of truth. For both these statements reflect a degree of detachment or alienation. And the sentiment must be sincere to some degree, for if it’s scarcely conceivable that they’d sell out their countrymen unless they felt, at some level, that they didn’t belong.

Of course, for normal people, Forster’s dilemma a false dichotomy. Your country isn’t just some abstraction, over against your friends. For instance, if you’re American, your friends and relatives are typically American–unless you’re an immigrant.

A country is many things: a history, culture, geography, and people. And that’s part of our socialization. It shapes who we are. If we grew up in a different country, we’d turn out somewhat differently.

That’s why many entertainers who have an international career retire to their native land. They retain that fundamental attachment.

We also need to draw another distinction. Some Germans thought Marlene Dietrich was a traitor because she sided with the Allies. But I expect Dietrich thought the Nazis and their sycophants (e.g. Leni Riefenstahl) were the real traitors. She probably thought of herself as a loyal German–just as members of the French Resistance viewed themselves as the true patriots, while they viewed Vichy officials and other collaborators as the real Quislings.

In that sense, love of country is sometimes consistent with fighting against your country, but that doesn’t involve a rejection of your country. Rather, that’s a case of ousting foreign invaders. A Reconquista.

That, however, is not the outlook of the Cambridge Five. To my knowledge, these are the overlapping factors:

Boarding school

They were all sent to those notorious all-male boarding schools at an early age. As such, they didn’t have a normal social life, growing up in a family, with their mother, father, and siblings. Rather, this was severely disrupted during their formative years. And their social isolation undoubtedly retarded their emotional maturation. The normal social bonding that occurs in childhood.


Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were homosexual. Moreover, the Cambridge Five moved in a social circle where that was more common, viz. Forster, Keynes, Turing, Wittgenstein. A homosexual subculture.

Homosexual existence is lonely and self-alienating. It’s not at all like making a life with a woman. Having that to come back to after working outside the home, or returning from a trip.

Not like going to see your son play football at the local high school. It’s not emotionally rooted in your family and community.

Conversely, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean were heterosexual roués. That, too, reflects emotional restlessness. A lack of domestic stability. Inability to grow up and settle down.


As alumni of Ivy-League prep schools and universities, moral and intellectual snobbery is a powerful temptation. To view yourself as the best and the brightest. A breed apart. Look down on working-class and middle-class values. Disdain ordinary God-fearing churchgoers.

And elitism requires an ideology to distinguish itself from the unwashed masses.


The Cambridge Five were Marxists. And they moved in social circles (the Cambridge Apostles, the Bloomsbury Group) where atheism was fashionable.

Atheism has a different honor code. Disdaining conventional morality and piety.

For instance, Philby was apparently a true believer in Marxism. A convinced ideologue. And that, in turn, generated the paradox of the ruthless idealist. A man sending colleagues to their death for the greater glory of the enemy regime.

For some reason, Marxism has a magnetic attraction for some men and women. It’s especially appealing if you don’t have to live under it.

There were some disenchanted Marxists, viz. Koestler, Orwell, Dos Passos. But others, like Philby, turned a blind eye to the atrocities.

In addition, atheism has fringe benefits. Debauchery and infidelity are natural allies. Since sodomy and philandery are opposed to Christian ethics, atheism absolves the practioner of annoying guilt feelings. That’s reflected, not merely among the Cambridge Five, but among the Cambridge Apostles and the Bloomsbury Group.

So these seem to be related factors that made it easier for them to double-cross their countrymen.

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