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The Cambridge Five

The Cambridge Five Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

November 5, 2023

Any history of Cold War Espionage must include the Cambridge Five, a group of students who attended Cambridge University in the 30s and 40s and went on to hold influential government careers useful to the KGB. As a story of national betrayal, it is instructive of the power of ideology.

Why did they work for foreign intelligence against their own national interest? Their motives were not fear or greed, but principle. They were disgusted by the fascist movements in Europe at the time and thought the Soviet Union had the right answers. They did not understand that the USSR was ruled by an essentially fascist government operating under the cloak of an economic theory.

Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross each worked in important areas of British society. Philby’s service as liaison between British and American intelligence adversely affected both countries and when discovered, created a strain of distrust between allied intelligence organizations.

Maclean worked for the British Foreign Office, and Cairncross had access to classified information in various jobs, including at the vital British signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility at Bletchley Park. Burgess became an influential journalist, and as an art historian Blunt maintained connections with the royal family.

These agents fed sensitive information to the Soviets into the early 50s, when suspicion caused two of them, Maclean and Burgess, to defect to Moscow in 1951. Philby was exposed by investigation in 1963 and also defected as a result.

Anthony Blunt, who recruited John Cairncross, confessed in 1964 and was granted limited immunity. His role became public in 1979, when he was stripped of his knighthood. After admitting in private memoirs that his support of the Soviet Union had been the biggest mistake of his life, he died in 1983. His memoirs became available to the public in 2009.

Cairncross came under suspicion at the same time as Maclean and Burgess, lost his job at the Foreign Office, and emigrated to the US where he taught romance languages. Later, he lived in Europe before his death in 1995. In various interviews by interrogators and the press, he admitted passing information to the Soviets during the war, but consistently denied betraying the interests of his country.

The history of the Cambridge Five informs many of the characters and plots in the writing of John LeCarré, whose seminal literary works of espionage fiction often deal with the theme of betrayal.