In the 1930s the Soviet Union recruited almost 40 Cambridge University students
as spies during a time when many British and American intellectuals were
challenging the politics and economics of the West. Many disillusioned students
joined the so-called Communist International, or Comintern, an organization
that billed itself as a means to unite Communists of all stripes from around
the world but was actually a mechanism to promote a purely Soviet brand of
Though many of the Cambridge recruitees engaged extensively in espionage for
years after they left Cambridge, only Harold "Kim" Philby, Donald Maclean, and
Guy Burgess—the so-called "Cambridge Three"—succeeded in securing both
British and American secrets at the highest levels of government. They gained
access to information about U.S. counterespionage efforts, plans for atomic
bomb production, and military strategies during the Korean War and were able to
pass this information on to the Soviets.
Of the tales of the Cambridge Three, that of Kim Philby is the most shocking,
perhaps because Philby rose higher than the other two professionally, lasted
longer wihout being discovered, and seemed to take more seriously the specific
aim of betraying his country, the U.S., their secrets, and their
Philby, nicknamed "Kim" after a spy character in a Kipling story, attended
Cambridge University from 1929 to 1933, majoring first in history and then
switching to economics. At Cambridge, Philby became friends with Maclean and
Burgess, and the three of them shared a mutual interest in Marxism. After all
three were recruited into espionage for the Soviets, their handlers directed
them to discover all they could about counterespionage practices in the U.S.
After graduation, Philby married Alice "Litzi" Friedman, a communist, in her
native Vienna. The newlyweds traveled to Spain, where Philby took a reporting
job covering the Spanish Civil War for the London Times. He posed as a
Fascist there, and by 1939 he was forced to separate from Litzi lest her
communist reputation be discovered. (Philby later divorced Litzi, was widowed
by his second wife, divorced by his third wife, and remarried a fourth
At the end of the Spanish Civil War Philby took a job in the British Secret
Intelligence Service's counterintelligence division, "the heart of the secret
world," as he called it in his memoir. Philby swiftly rose through the ranks of the
SIS, becoming one of its most trusted agents, and for almost eight years acted
as a mole for the Soviets. Though twice during his SIS career in Britain Philby
came dangerously close to being discovered—on both occasions, Soviet
intelligence officers defecting to Britain hinted that a high-ranking Foreign
Office official had been a Soviet agent since the 1930s—he managed to avoid
detection for more than 30 years. In 1945 he received the Order of the British
Empire for his intelligence work during the war.
In 1949 Philby was given a position in Washington, D.C. as the British
intelligence liaison to the CIA and FBI, a highly sensitive position in which
he would have access to information about most U.S. intelligence operations.
Burgess and Maclean also held top positions in the U.S., both of them at the
Not long after Philby was installed in his new post, a Washington codebreaker
briefed him on the results emerging from his work decrypting a collection of
cables, the so-called Venona decrypt operation. One decrypt, Philby learned,
mentioned Homer, a Soviet agent who worked in the British Embassy in Washington
from 1944 to 1945.
Philby knew that his crony Maclean was Homer. He warned the KGB that Maclean
would probably soon be exposed. He also warned Burgess and Maclean and urged
them to defect. Then, in a move to protect himself, Philby cabled the SIS in
London, reminding officials that two Soviet defectors had described a mole in
the Foreign Office who had been working for the Soviets since the 1930s. This
reminder, he thought, would almost certainly intensify suspicions about Maclean
and deflect them from himself, especially once SIS and U.S. officials learned
that Maclean had recently fled.
Philby was wrong. Though Burgess and Maclean did escape successfully to the
Soviet Union in May of 1951, Philby immediately came under suspicion by the SIS
and U.S. intelligence. Amazingly, however, for ten more years he evaded
full-scale incrimination, largely because many officials, both in the Foreign
Office and in the British Parliament, simply refused to believe the spiraling
evidence against him. If the evidence were true, they reasoned, it would prove
an outrageous embarrassment to both the United States and British governments.
Finally, in January 1962, more than 30 years after his recruitment by the
Soviets, British agents confronted Philby with enough evidence to convict him
of espionage. He was offered immunity from prosecution if he would cooperate
and divulge what he knew about the Soviet spy network. Philby agreed and
allowed SIS officials to record his admissions for three long days, though he
was never taken into custody. After the third day, Philby escaped to Russia
aboard a Soviet ship arranged by the KGB.
Philby became a Russian citizen, married a Russian woman 20 years younger, and
after his death on May 11, 1988, was buried with the honors of a KGB general.