Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. And sometimes fiction is the only way to truly understand fact. There is no historical topic that better encapsulates these two seemingly contradictory points than the Cambridge Spy Ring.
The Cambridge Spy Ring – or the Cambridge Five, as it is sometimes called – is one of those strange and fascinating footnotes of history. Its details are not particularly well known – I have spoken to British historians and historians of Communism that have never heard of them. But if you start digging into the history of the early CIA, or MI5, of the network of spies that criss-crossed Europe and America during the Cold War, five names begin to emerge: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Carincross. All five men attended Cambridge University in the 1930s, when fear about Hitler and the possibility of approaching war consumed Britain, the Soviet Union was still displaying a mask of power of benevolence, and intellectuals in the American, European, and British Left were enthralled by the promises of Communism. All, save for Carincross, were from wealthy, well-connected families of the British establishment. All went on to take key positions in British intelligence and government. And all, from the 1930s to the 1950s, acted as agents for the KGB and passed British and American secrets to the sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy Soviet Union.
There’s something we love about spies. From James Bond, to Spooks, to crime show dramas, they fill our popular culture and our imagination. Tales of spies like the Cambridge Five are even more difficult to resist. Not only do they have the appeal of that sneaking, underhand quest for information, but they pose tantalizing questions: what made these men betray their country? How did they go so long unnoticed and undetected? Will we ever know how much they really did, or what they really thought?
It’s the last question that interests me today. In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed and classified Cold War files on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to be released, new information has emerged about the many spies who worked during the Cold War, including the Cambridge Five. But spies lie. They are trained to hide the truth. Double agents and traitors have all the more reason to do so. Even when the spies no longer have fear of being caught – or already have been – what reason do they have to spill secrets they have kept close for decades?
In my mind, this is what makes spy fiction, even about real spies, so intriguing. The tantalizing personalities of the Cambridge Five make fictionalizing their lives and thoughts even more tempting. Burgess’ flamboyance and Blunt’s academic reticence, Philby’s cold-blooded charm and Maclean’s schizophrenic loyalty, even Cairncross’ (poor, forgotten Cairncross) own personal class struggle. The more you know about these men, the more you realize you will never know.