A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

Kim Philby

Kim Philby

A Spy Among Friends is a study of the overlapping careers of three spies from the 1930s to the 60s: the MI6/KGB double agent, Kim Philby; his friend and fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliot, and James Jesus Angelton, the CIA officer who befriended of Philby during the Second World War.

It is an elegantly written narrative, generally compelling, filled with anecdote (not least on some of Pope John XXIII’s resistance activities), and at times chilling, particularly regarding Philby’s betrayals to the KGB, including of German anti-Nazi resistance and of agents that he was personally running. Almost without exception these people were liquidated.

The psychology that could enable a person to commit such casual bloodshed is examined through the frame of Philby’s friendships with, and (less lethal) betrayals of Elliot, Angelton and his wives, all of whom fell for his charm, but never knew the real man.

I found Elliot, Philby’s friend, defender, and ultimately his accuser, though charming, not much more sympathetic than Philby. While loyal to his country and service his complacent class-ridden arrogance was a central feature in his presumption that his close friend Philby must be above suspicion merely because of his class and upbringing. MacIntyre’s research and a brief afterword by John le Carre, who met Elliot on a number of occasions, suggests that, while not treacherous, Elliot’s role in the final unmasking of Philby may not have been quite as honourable as he always maintained.

Overall the book is an entertaining excursion into a slice of Cold War history and a reminder of the perils of unquestioningly accepting the crass arrogance and privilege of the ruling classes.

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