Cold War pen pals: Red spy Kim Philby, Graham Greene


Secrecy: Old letters shed new light on British novelist Graham Greene's longtime, complicated friendship with Soviet spy Kim Philby.

April 17, 1999|By Sam Allis | Sam Allis,BOSTON GLOBE

BOSTON -- Kim Philby was the most devastating Soviet mole ever to penetrate the British secret service. Graham Greene was one of the century's great novelists and an iconoclast. Together, they forged a complicated friendship that lasted half a century and flummoxed the rest of the world.

When Philby was exposed as a double agent in 1963, Greene earned the opprobrium of their native England by publicly defending Philby's treason. Greene maintained that Philby merely followed a higher morality than country -- his belief in communism.

But theirs was a friendship woven of deceit as well as loyalty. How much did Greene know of Philby's secret life as a spy? Did Philby betray Greene as well as England? Did it continue into their final years?

Tantalizing insights into these questions are tucked away in the John J. Burns Library at Boston College, where some of their correspondence is preserved in the 60,000-item archive of Greene's manuscripts and letters. The college purchased the papers in 1994, three years after Greene's death at 86. Philby died in 1988 at 76.

The letters may be no more than the musings of two duplicitous old men who chose to stay in touch as they aged, Philby from his apartment in Moscow, and Greene from his villa in the south of France. But they could also represent feints by each man to mislead the other -- and his country.

Is Philby, a full KGB colonel, speaking for that outfit in his letters? Is Greene passing all that Philby writes to British and American intelligence officials, as his biographer believes? Does it matter?

Both write elliptically, and glide past unspoken questions of complicity as they exchange mordant judgments on the Ayatollah Khomeini, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and other questions of the day.

Philby -- the model for John le Carre's spy story "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" -- was recruited by the Soviets as a student at Cambridge to spy for them. His deception over the years was brilliant, and he rose to the highest ranks of British intelligence before he fled to Moscow, one step ahead of British agents sent to arrest him.

It was Philby who recruited Greene, already an established writer, into British espionage during World War II. The two became drinking partners and fast friends.

Greene's attraction to Philby was anchored in part by his instinctive support of the maverick. "Greene liked odd men out," says Norman Sherry, his biographer. "He was against powerful figures."

Greene also was entranced by Philby's fluent ability to deceive, a theme in Greene's fiction. "Greene admired Philby's ability to wear a mask so perfectly," says Sherry, who knew Greene for 13 years.

Sherry says that the only argument he ever had with Greene was over Philby. "Somewhere in his early life, Greene said that you're absolutely doomed if you are betrayed by your friend," he recalls. Sherry reminded Greene of this comment and Greene replied, "Yes, yes, I still feel that way."

But when Sherry raised Philby as betrayer in this context, Greene became furious. "Greene got so damned angry that I'd caught him out," he concludes.

`Chilling certainty'

Philby's letters are marbled with comments on global politics and humor. Questions of deceit and betrayal aside, they reflect the freshness of contemporary comment on what we today know as history. And what Greene once described as Philby's "chilling certainty in the correctness of his judgment" pervades his letters.

In a missive early in 1980, for example, Philby dismissed Khomeini with the snotty disdain of a member of London's venerable Garrick Club while identifying with acuity the source of his fundamentalist strength that remains relevant today, in and outside Iran:

"I tend to take the view that the ayatollah is a hateful old fraud and that his precious Islamic republic is meaningless. But the point is that he stands for a very powerful negative -- revulsion against great power domination -- which is not confined to Muslim peoples. And, for the time being, we have to live with him. So what?"

Regarding "this infernal Afghan business," Philby wrote, "I need hardly tell you that I am very unhappy about it; what may surprise you is that I have met no one here who is happy about it. Was it essential to take up the military option, as it is called nowadays?"

Is all of this misinformation? At one point, Philby sought to assure Greene that he spoke for himself. "When you next buy Pravda at your local news agent," he wrote, "you will see that I am expressing my own views, not those of the government."

Yet in one letter in 1980, Philby promises to pass on "to the competent authorities" a Greene idea of joint action between the Soviet Union and the United States in hot spots around the globe such as Iran.

Sherry, a Briton who has been working on his Greene biography for more than 20 years, is convinced that Greene gave his Philby correspondence to Western intelligence.

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