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Revealed: the panic that followed the defection of the Cambridge spies

Comrades in treachery: Donald Maclean (left) and Guy Burgess. PA/PA Archive

New papers released from the National Archives spell out the dismay and disarray that followed the dramatic defection of Cambridge spies, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess more than 60 years ago as colleagues and friends struggled to come to terms with the treachery of two men they had considered to be erratic and promiscuous, but not traitors.

The papers also shed light on the Foreign Office’s obsession with Burgess’ sexuality which led to the introduction of harsh measures which would blight the lives of homosexuals employed in the Foreign Office for the next four decades.

Given the nature of the activities of the Cambridge spies, the value of the official government record in relation to their treachery will inevitably have some quite obvious limitations. Yet one area where this material has particular value is in shedding light on the fallout that followed within the Foreign Office, at both a departmental and a personal level.

Departmental distaste for security matters is immediately made apparent – while there was a wealth of personal knowledge about both men and their at times erratic behaviour, very little of it was “officially” known. As a report prepared at the request of the then prime minister, Clement Attlee, was forced to admit:

As a result of intensive investigation by the Security Service and of statements volunteered by friends and acquaintances … we have learnt a good deal about their character and personal behaviour which we did not know before.

Never ‘peach’ on a friend

Prior to their disappearance, colleagues and friends within the Foreign Service had been reluctant to make formal reports, even when they had cause to question their behaviour. To do so – to tell tales – would have been considered to be in bad taste. Lord Gladwyn, by this time Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, recalled Burgess as: “about the most unreliable man I ever met” and questioned “whether I should not at an earlier stage have expressed to someone … my own doubts about Burgess’s character”.

Yet despite considering him a “positive menace” and “a deplorable selection for the Foreign Service”, Gladwyn added:

On the other hand, one never wants to blacken somebody’s character if one can help it and to say nothing is often the line of least resistance.

Lord Pakenham now provided details of Maclean’s recent behaviour, reporting that at a recent dinner Maclean: “was drinking very heavily … His whole behaviour gave the impression that he was definitely unhappy and distraught and that he would be capable of any rash and violent act.” (Underneath this an official has scribbled: “This reinforced what we have heard from other sources”).

Back in the USSR: a press release signed by Maclean and Burgess after their defection. PA / PA Archive/PA Images

Nor at any point did the Foreign Office appear to have been made fully aware of Maclean’s behaviour during his posting to Cairo, during which time he committed a series of drunken assaults. George Middleton, head of the personnel department at the Foreign Office, conceded:

We never really got a full picture from Cairo of the extent and seriousness of his breakdown there … I had heard vague rumours of domestic quarrels but these are so common that I had not paid much attention … I had also heard rumours that he was drinking rather heavily. But there was nothing to suggest that his work was anything but first-class … Having known Donald pretty well for a number of years I did not take any of the scandal-mongering very seriously.

Even in the aftermath of their disappearance, and with the need to ensure: “an adequate check on the personal behaviour of members of the Foreign Service”, the Foreign Office was loath to institute “a system of spying which would be both repugnant to our traditions and destructive of morale”.

Telegrams sent by Maclean to his wife Melinda after he defected. National Archives

To complicate matters, the Foreign Office’s own internal security department locked horns with personnel over who held responsibility for personal security. It is acknowledged in the documents (by no less a figure than Dick White, who would go on to head both MI5 and MI6) that, had there been a “complete pooling of information” between the security and personnel departments, then Maclean “would certainly have been suspect somewhat earlier”.

‘Homosexual tendencies’

The disappearance of Burgess and Maclean also led officials to focus on the standard of personal conduct inside the Foreign Office. This led to policy developments on the employment of homosexuals that would blight the careers of many diplomats for almost five decades until the 1990s.

As the full sordid details of the case – drunkenness, violent behaviour and sexual promiscuity – began to emerge, a committee was established, chaired by Sir Alexander Cadogan, former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, to report on security standards across the Foreign Service. Informally, the purpose of the inquiry was described in somewhat different terms – MI5 deputy director-general, Guy Liddell, recorded in his diary that: “there is to be a highly confidential enquiry in the Foreign Office about the security risks of employing homosexuals”.

Harold ‘Kim’ Philby, fellow spy who is believed to have tipped Burgess and Maclean off and prompted their defection. PA / PA Archive/PA Images

Alongside a range of relatively minor changes to relations between the security and personnel departments and the Foreign Office reporting system, the committee’s final report paid particular attention to homosexuality, on account of the “homosexual tendencies” the men were “alleged to have had”.

It recommended changes to the future employment of homosexuals, who were felt to have not only the potential to “bring discredit on the Service”, but were also considered to constitute a particular problem as:

In this and some other countries some forms of homosexuality involve offences under the criminal law. A practising homosexual is therefore especially liable to blackmail, and on this account represents a serious security risk.

As such, the report suggested that they needed to be “carefully watched”. While the report demurred from setting down “hard-and-fast rules” to deal with homosexuals in the Foreign Service, the concerns expressed were quickly followed up. During a meeting in February 1952, officials set out “specific guidance” to protect the public reputation of the Foreign Office, with “categories” of homosexual misconduct established to prevent any future scandal.

In the least serious of cases, suspected homosexuals would be investigated and, if necessary, warned that “if the stories persist, his usefulness to the Service will inevitably be diminished”. In cases where homosexuality had been established but there was no risk of public scandal, individuals would be warned that “if any future case of homosexual practices comes to notice he will have to leave the Service, since there was some risk of scandal”.

In what were considered the most serious cases, where an individual had brought disgrace on the diplomatic service, they would be dealt with under “disciplinary regulations”. These categories were later approved by the the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden.

The persecution of homosexuals in the Foreign Office remains an important, if often overlooked, legacy of the Burgess and Maclean scandal.

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