Spies And Traitors | Michael Holzman

Books | Review

non-fiction | espionage | cold war | history | politics

First published 2021

Copy of Spies and Traitors lying on dark grey material

A book about the relationship between Kim Philby and James Angleton. Kim Philby (1912-1988), radicalised at Cambridge University, joined the Communist underground in Vienna, was recruited by the Soviet secret service and spied for them while working for MI6 until his defection to the USSR in 1963. James Angleton (1917-1987) was educated at Yale and Harvard and graduated in 1943. He joined the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) and after an apprenticeship in the UK, where he was taught espionage by none other than the master spy himself, Kim Philby, Angleton went on to set up a spy organisation in Italy during the Second World War and eventually became the head of counterintelligence for the CIA until his forced retirement in 1974.

The two men worked together in Britain and America, sharing boozy lunches and dinners and discussing the different ways the British and Americans were and could destabilise the various communist governments in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. While Angleton thought he and Philby were on the same side, trying to stop the spread of Soviet-style communism, Philby was sharing everything he knew with the Soviets. The information he gave them caused a number of covert operations to fail and changed the course of the Cold War forever.

The shock of the betrayal shaped Angleton's future actions, devastated the CIA and ruined the careers of many CIA officers. He became convinced that if Philby had infiltrated British intelligence, then the KGB must have infiltrated the CIA. This obsession led to a decade-long search for a mole who was never found.

Philby's life has inspired a whole literary genre: the spy thriller. He was so highly regarded by the KGB that his image still appears on stamps issued by the Russian Federation. He was an expert on Middle Eastern politics and a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. Shortly before he was discovered to be a double agent, he had returned to journalism, writing about the conflicts and political turmoil of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.

My Verdict: The subject is really, really interesting and I found both men to have very impressive lives, but the way this book is written is really odd. It's almost like it's Holzman's collection of notes for the actual book he's going to write. I was happy to learn so many things I never knew before, especially about how the Middle East as we know it today came to be. I also had no idea how much the actions of Philby and his fellow double agents, known collectively as the Cambridge Five (Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross), affected the direction of the Cold War. Reading this book in 2023, with the Ukraine war still in full swing, it is clear that the Cold War never really ended and we have now entered a new part of it. America and the West didn't win, but neither did Russia, and everyone is just too proud and stubborn to admit it. This was a very interesting and well-researched book, although it could have been better written.

Review Award | 3.5/5

Posted 03.04.2023

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