The Titans Clash: Graham Greene vs. John Le Carré on Kim Philby
In 1968 two major British novelists, Graham Greene and John le Carré, clashed in a bitter public dispute about Kim Philby’s ethics and the effect of his treason. A product of Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge, Philby had been recruited in 1934 to spy for the Russians, and went to work for SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service) where he became chief of British espionage against Russia. The most famous British spy and double-agent, Philby was finally uncovered in 1963 and defected to the Soviet Union that year.
Both Greene and le Carré became increasingly anti-American after the invasion of Vietnam and the massive anti-war protests in 1968, but Greene relished the damage Philby had done to the United States and le Carré did not. Greene had been Philby’s colleague and friend, while le Carré did not know him personally. Greene, unlike le Carré, was impressed by the audacity and cunning of Philby’s deception, which lasted—despite the suspicions he aroused—for three decades. Greene admired Philby’s secret sacrifice, le Carré thought it was pathologically evil. Greene believed that personal loyalty was more important than patriotism, le Carré was loyal to his country and to the secret service. Greene’s reasoning was perverse, his tone cool; le Carré’s arguments were logical and incandescent with anger.
Greene and le Carré had both worked as British spies, Greene in West Africa and England during World War II, le Carré in post-war Germany and Austria. Both novelists used this experience in their fiction and created memorable characters who mirrored their conflicts as spies: between personal affection and the discipline demanded by the work, the desire for love and the need for isolation and secrecy. Both novelists wrote about deception and betrayal, were fascinated by Philby and described his life and character in their novels. Greene, who had satirized the ineptitude of
the secret service in Our Man in Havana (1958), portrayed the fictional Maurice Castle, who absconded to Moscow for the same reasons as Philby, in The Human Factor (1978). The mole’s story in le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), resembled Philby’s career in several significant ways.
The beliefs of both writers were influenced by their ambivalent attitude to their fathers. Referring to his conflict between fidelity to his fellow students and to his father, the headmaster of his prep school, Berkhamsted, Greene acknowledged, ‘Perhaps my childhood experience of divided loyalties has helped me to sympathize with people like Kim Philby.’ Le Carré, who argued that Philby had inherited the negative traits of his father, had also grown up under the shadow of a treacherous parent. His charismatic, con-man father, Ronnie Cornwell, had three wives and several children, molested his son, shared a bed with a wife and mistress, was unfaithful and brutal to all his women, and infected le Carré’s pregnant mother with syphilis. Ronnie’s friends were sinister, his associates violent, and he was on several occasions caught, convicted and imprisoned. Le Carré fantasized about killing him, and his attempt to escape his father’s influence was— like Philby’s—a crucial part of his life. But Greene admired his father; and though le Carré had a grudging admiration for Ronnie’s Philby-like deceptions, he really hated him.
Greene’s short introduction to Philby’s My Silent War (1968) is a specious and unconvincing defence of the spy. He calls the book ‘an honest one, well-written, often amusing . . . a dignified statement of his beliefs and motives.’ Greene states that ‘his account of the British Secret Service is devastatingly true. . . his character studies are admirable if unkind.’ Greene fondly recalls working for Philby’s counter-espionage branch during World War II: ‘No one could have been a better chief than Kim Philby when he was in charge of the Iberian section of V. . . . I remember with pleasure those long Sunday lunches at St. Albans [north of London] when the whole sub-section relaxed under his leadership for a few hours of heavy drinking.’
He states that ‘if one made an error of judgement he was sure to minimise it and cover it up, without criticism.’ But a secretary in section V later
remembered how cold-hearted Philby could be in his handling of staff. She recalled coming into Greene’s office one day: ‘He was gripping the chair and his eyes were glinting with anger. I asked him what was the matter and he said: “I’ve just had a caning from the headmaster.”’ Though Philby was eight years younger than Greene, he became a father-figure and administered a prep school punishment.
Greene quotes with approval Philby’s remark, ‘It cannot be very surprising that I adopted a Communist viewpoint in the Thirties,’ and ignores the great difference between being a Communist and a traitor. Though Philby got away with his espionage and was never arrested, imprisoned or executed, Greene weakly argues, ‘After thirty years in the underground surely he has earned his right to a rest.’ But few would agree that Philby had earned a right to anything.
Alluding to John 8:7, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone,’ Greene concedes ‘perhaps he did [betray his country], but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?’ But he does not define the deliberately vague ‘something’ or ‘someone,’ nor explain what is ‘more important than a country.’ Apart from Philby, very few people in the secret service were traitors, whom Dante condemned to the lowest circle of Hell. It was precisely Greene’s Old Boy and Establishment attitudes that protected Philby and enabled him not only to survive but also to prosper as a spy. He ignores the fact that Philby’s treason helped Stalin remain in power after he had killed millions of innocent people in the Ukraine famine, the Purge Trials and the Gulag archipelago.
Greene remained staunchly devoted to Philby and became his most prominent and only defender. In 1949 Philby had sent his own foreign agents into Albania and then betrayed them to the Russians, who immediately captured and shot them. Greene’s cold-blooded justification could have been conjured up by the KGB. The Albanian rebels ‘were going into their country armed to do damage to that country. They were killed instead of killing.’ In another twisted argument, the Catholic Greene compared Philby
to the rebellious English Catholics who in 1588 had hoped for the victory of the Spanish armada, the invasion of Protestant England and the restoration of the true faith:
He was behaving well from his point of view. He was running great risks for a cause he believed in. I think you can draw a comparison between Philby and certain Catholics in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who sincerely believed that the victory of Philip of Spain would be for the good of their country, and became involved in plots against the Queen.
Greene corresponded with Philby for twenty years and called him, with farfetched compliments, ‘a good and loyal friend’ and ‘a distinguished officer of the KGB.’ In an interview of 1978 he stressed their personal friendship, over-valued Philby’s capacity for drink and repeated, ‘I was very fond of him. He was amusing. . . . He was a good drinking companion and he was a very nice and agreeable boss. And at the time he was fighting the same war [against Nazi Germany] as I was.’ Philby reciprocated Greene’s warm feelings. ‘When asked in 1975 what he would like if he had a magic wand, he replied: “Graham Greene on the other side of the table, and a bottle of wine between us.”’ Philby got his wish. In 1987 alone Greene visited the Soviet Union three times and met Philby on four separate occasions. When I met Philby’s Russian wife, Rufina, at Phillip Knightley’s London house, she was fiercely loyal to her late husband. She had told Greene that the three days the Philbys had spent with him in Moscow ‘were among the happiest of her life.’
In a letter of January 1990 Greene declared, ‘I never believed in the prime importance of loyalty to one’s country. Loyalty to individuals seems to me to be far more important.’ Since Philby was his friend he forgave him for treason. Greene publicly proclaimed this paradoxical belief in ‘The Virtue of Disloyalty,’ a 1969 speech made at the University of Hamburg when he was awarded the Shakespeare Prize. Ignoring the crucial distinction between a dissident and a traitor, Greene insisted, ‘One cannot help putting a higher value on what rulers have regarded as disloyalty. . . . Isn’t it the
story-teller’s task to act as the devil’s advocate, to elicit sympathy and a measure of understanding for those who lie outside the boundaries of State approval?’ Greene’s claims for the novelist were valid, but they did not apply equally to traitors in the real world.
In his essay ‘The Spy’ (1968), a slightly longer version of his introduction to My Silent War, Greene suggested that Russia and Britain were equally corrupt and exclaimed, ‘moral judgements are singularly out of place in espionage.’ He repeated this belief in his Observer review (February 18, 1968) of Page, Leitch and Knightley’s Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. Referring to Philby’s colleagues and fellow-spies, he callously maintained, ‘No harm done by Philby, Burgess and Maclean can outweigh the entertainment they have all given us.’ But the hundreds of Philby’s victims in Albania and throughout Europe were not at all entertained when they faced the firing squads.
In a revealing unpublished letter of April 1968 to Macgibbon and Kee, the publishers of My Silent War, Greene referred to ‘my not very serious introduction to Philby’s book.’ Greene liked to shock his readers and jolt them out of their complacent ideas. This letter suggests his introduction may have been a characteristic provocation that deliberately defied moral standards, a devil’s advocacy that was not meant to be taken seriously, but had badly misfired. Though he repeated his views in public, he disowned them in this private letter. His repeated efforts to justify Philby, his sanctified sinner and secret sharer, made him look both gullible and fatuous.
In 1968 le Carré wrote a long introduction to Page, Leitch and Knightley’s book on Philby. His first sentence—‘The avenger stole upon the citadel and destroyed it from within’—alludes to the Greek capture of Troy with their deceitful wooden horse. He argues that, like the Trojans who actively participated in their own destruction, the British secret service actually helped Philby, the enemy from within. Strongly affirming his opposition to Greene’s views, le Carré states, ‘I have no affection for Philby and no admiration.’ He calls Philby an ‘aggressive, upper-class enemy. . . spiteful, vain and murderous,’ and expresses outrage at his lifetime of deceit and
‘his determination to destroy us.’ Le Carré also provides a caustic summary of Philby’s career:
a boy of twenty gives himself body and mind to a country he has never visited, to an ideology he has not deeply studied, to a regime which even abroad, during those long and awful purges, was a peril to serve; [and] remains actively faithful to that decision for over thirty years, cheating, betraying and occasionally killing.
He states that when Philby was finally unmasked and had to flee for his life, ‘Russia, for so long an illusion, was threatening to become a reality.’
Le Carré then zeroes in on Philby’s ‘brutal memories of his father,’ St. John Philby, an advisor to King Saud, notorious anti-Semite, British spy and traitor. ‘From his father,’ he writes, ‘Kim acquired the neo-fascist instincts of a slightly berserk English gentleman’ and ‘his richest asset as a spy: an effortless familiarity with the quarry.’ Like le Carré’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, to the very end St. John Philby ‘remained dependent on the people he deceived.’ Knightley told me that le Carré’s introduction had helped to sell an additional 10,000 copies of his best-selling book.
In 1977, after le Carré’s blistering attack, Philby sent Knightley an ironic letter. Using the royal ‘we,’ he feigned indifference to the wounds inflicted by his adversary and alluded to le Carré’s profitable use in his novels of Philby’s own charismatic character: ‘From le Carré’s introduction to your book, I get the vague impression, perhaps wrongly, that he didn’t like me. But we are generous, and have no objection to contributing to his vast affluence.’
Le Carré’s furious obsession with Philby continued in his long afterword to Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014). He wrote that ‘I now have it on pretty good [undisclosed] authority that Philby knew he was dying and was hoping I would collaborate with him on another volume of his memoirs. I refused to meet him.’ Le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman, adopting a sceptical attitude, reported that, in
contrast to Greene:
he has talked repeatedly about his refusal to meet Kim Philby when the opportunity arose on a visit to Moscow in 1987. By 2010 . . . this decision had become elevated to one of the highest principle. ‘I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand. It was drenched in blood. It would have been repulsive.’
Le Carré would have liked to encounter his intriguing literary inspiration, but only with the final proviso: ‘He also said at that time, “he would dearly love to meet Philby—purely for zoological purposes, of course!”’
In his 1968 review of the Page-Leitch-Knightley biography, Greene fiercely condemned le Carré’s ‘wild speculations’ and his ‘vulgar and untrue portrait of Philby.’ In 1974, when tempers had cooled, le Carré—returning from Vietnam—sent an emollient and flattering letter to Greene, who was twenty-seven years older and had published his first novel two years before le Carré was born. He recalled Greene’s generous and influential praise of his first successful novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (published in 1963, the year Philby defected to Russia), as ‘the best spy story I have ever read.’ Le Carré wrote:
After our passage of arms over Philby a while back it is a little difficult for me to write to you. But I should hate you to think that the dispute either soured my gratitude to you ten years ago, or— for what it is worth—my admiration for your work. . . . The Quiet American which I re-read in Saigon seems to me still as fresh as it did nineteen years ago, and it is surely still the only novel, even now, which does justice to its theme. But the sheer accuracy of its mood and observation, is astonishing.
Graciously accepting his bid for détente, Greene replied that he had ‘never for a moment felt that our little passage of arms over Philby was a serious one,’ and invited his old combatant to visit him in Antibes and talk about Indochina.
Philby, an expert manipulator, may have exploited his old friendship with Greene in order to persuade the novelist to propagandize on his behalf. In a letter to Greene of November 1982, Philby, who loved all the attention, commented on this intense triangular drama. Assuming his typically ironic and self-serving tone, he insisted that le Carré’s ideas were fictional rather than realistic and that Philby’s old friend Greene had a much better grasp of his character:
I had been startled by the news that you had broken up a close friendship for so trivial a cause as le Carré’s attack on me. I was happy to learn that there had been no close friendship and therefore no breach. I don’t think that le C’s preface could have added much to his reputation, except perhaps as a writer of fiction. Overconfident, long-range analysis of someone you have never met, is a risky business.
But the damage had been done, and it was clear that le Carré had won the battle and Philby was still out in the cold.