In this illuminating biography of Donald Maclean, author Robert Cecil draws on a close family connection and a path that in many ways followed that of Maclean’s. They went to the same children’s parties because their respective families knew each other well. Cecil followed MacLean to Cambridge, but they weren’t there at the same time. They were later to become colleagues in the Foreign Office/Diplomatic Service. Whilst both were posted to Washington DC immediately after World War Two had ended, both would regularly journey to New York; Cecil to attend the lectures of the Russian mystic and philosopher PD Ouspensky, Maclean to meet his Soviet controller. Indeed, Cecil asked Maclean’s advice on the problem of travelling to NY in the working week. There were no red-eye shuttle flights back then. Maclean’s advice: “make it [the time] up by working on a Saturday afternoon.”
This is a magnificently researched book. Cecil draws on this meticulous research in addition to his own personal knowledge of the man, Maclean, and those closest to him. It is also clear that colleagues of Maclean were prepared to speak openly to Cecil, whom they liked and trusted, when they would have refused other biographers. The result is a book that brings Maclean and the period vividly alive.
The book covers all the relevant periods including Maclean’s recruitment as an agent by the Comintern (Communist Internationale); his early years in Paris; marriage to Melinda; his breakdown in Cairo; and ultimate flight, with Burgess, to the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of a wholly fascinating book deals with Maclean’s years in Washington from 1944-48, a time when crucial decisions about the post-war world were being made. Maclean was assigned top secret work connected with the development of the atomic bomb–the ‘Manhattan Project’ or ‘Alloy Tubes’ as it was dubbed by the British. He was undoubtedly Stalin’s best source in Washington, and Russian knowledge of US nuclear capabilities fuelled the atomic-weaponry race. Maclean’s treachery did immense damage to Anglo-American relations.
The blurb for this book also mentions another “casualty, which Cecil is well-placed to describe…” “… to the gentlemanly culture of the Foreign Office and the sense of trust within the Service.” The author does describe it well from an insider’s perspective. It made me shudder as to how ineffectively the secrets of the country were guarded. It seemed to be a classic case of ‘the old boys’ network’ at work rather than some benign “gentlemanly culture” as per the book description.
Of course, another casualty was Maclean’s family life. His children were brought up in Soviet Russia. His marriage was in tatters after his wife, Melinda, had joined him in Russia. Despite his treachery, I did have some sympathy for him as he clearly loved his wife and children. It was also clear he was a true idealist. He did not engage in spying for money or the thrills. He did it as a true believer in Marxism. Sadly, his religion-like fervour blinded him to the truth.
I received a free digital copy of this book from the publisher Thistle Publishing. I was under no obligation to review it and all opinions expressed are my own.