A Spy Named Orphan: the Enigma of Donald MacLean by Roland Philipps

Another volume of Cold War riches from recently declassified files!  This entry follows the life of Donald McLean, one of the Cambridge Four Five.  Written by an insider, Philipps is the grandson of Roger Makins, former boss of Donald MacLean and the last person from the Foreign Office to see him before he disappeared and defected, A Spy Named Orphan is a sympathetic portrait of MacLean as a true believer whose alcoholism and personal difficulties may be traced to his split loyalties to Britain and the Soviet Union. MacLean is the star of this book, unlike others, in which he plays second fiddle to Kim Philby.  

Philipps departs from the argument made by S. J. Hamrick in Deceiving the Deceivers (2004)  that MI6 Knew about MacLean from 1949 and used him (and Philby) as a conduit of disinformation to the Soviets. Both books rely heavily on the Venona cables for evidence, but come to very different conclusions. Philipps contends that MacLean was successful in hiding his activities up until a few months before his defection, reverting to earlier arguments that the clubbiness of the British Intelligence Services blinded them to several spies right under their noses and that, combined with their unwillingness to look foolish again after Fuchs and several other debacles on both sides of the Atlantic, allowed MacLean to escape with Burgess in 1951.

Hamrick writes that we will likely never know for sure and because the principles have passed away and there are still classified documents that are unavailable, he is correct. Philipps, though, did have access to some documents declassified in 2015 as well as the personal papers of Donald MacLean’s brother Alan.  Hamrick’s argument rests largely on supposition about what is missing from the historical record and the motivation of the British Security Services for keeping mum. What Philipps gives us is a portrait of a tortured soul who spied because he couldn’t stand the rigid class society he lived in.  

Unfortunately, the sheer volume and type of secrets (atomic!) that MacLean passed during the years from 1938-1948 makes it very difficult to sympathize.  Philipps also seems to think that MacLean’s raging alcoholism did not keep him from doing both his diplomatic and espionage jobs very efficiently.  If true, the reader wonders what might have happened if MacLean had applied himself to improving Britain’s policies rather than giving its secrets to the enemy. Philipps tries to reconcile the depth of MacLean’s treachery by reminding the reader that the USSR was a wartime ally.  Sure, but Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, too. And the political purges and Lubyanka disappearances, of even his handlers, seem not to have caused Donald to question his loyalty to the Communist cause. Philipps tries to make MacLean seem ideologically pure, and it is true that  Communism as an idea had been popular all over in the 1930s, but the Soviet incarnation, especially under Stalin, cannot possibly have been what the dreamers of the Depression had in mind. Definitely not a workers’ paradise.

This reader can only see MacLean as an anti-hero.  Flawed and destructive, but not completely without redeeming qualities. It is a shame, really, that what many of his contemporaries praised as foreign policy genius was wasted in treason and awash in liquor.  Philipps claims that he was animated by a desire for world peace.  As a senior official in the Foreign Office he could have had a seat at the table to make that a reality. What might the world have become if MacLean and other powerful people had worked as hard for their countries and by extension, the world, as they did against them?

Though meandering at times, A Spy Named Orphan is a mostly readable account of Donald MacLean’s life. Perhaps a bit too admiring of him for this reader’s taste, nevertheless it is well-researched and includes personal anecdotes and details about his relationship with his American wife, Melinda, than are in other, similar sources. MacLean himself was betrayed by Melinda once the two were in Moscow–she took up for a time with Philby, a notorious womanizer. I guess sometimes what goes around actually does come around.

Published by Robin Henry

Independent Scholar and Book Coach specializing in Historical Fiction and Literary Fan Fiction.

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