• CMTU History

Episode #5: A Spy Named Orphan

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

After World War II, the globe was divided in half between the capitalist West and the communist Soviet Union. Even though no shots were fired during the Cold War, the intelligence agencies of these two spheres were constantly vying for critical information that could give their side an edge.


In the United Kingdom, Donald Maclean graduated from the right school. He attended the right university. He came from good British stock. And he entered public service just as his country desperately needed intelligent and capable young men to help combat the rise of fascism in continental Europe. Donald Maclean was also a Soviet spy.


The latest guest on the podcast is Roland Philipps, and he is the author of A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean. Roland went into publishing on graduating from Cambridge and until recently was the publisher of the author John Murray. He has edited leading novelists, politicians, historians, travelers, and biographers. A Spy Named Orphan, his first book, arises from lifelong connections to Donald Maclean and Roland's grandfather was Roger Makins, Maclean’s boss at the Foreign Office. He is currently working on a new book about Special Operations Executive, the Double-Cross system, Collaboration and Resistance in the Second World War.




Key Points in Today's Podcast Some of the major topics I discuss with Roland in this episode are:

  • the aspects of Donald Maclean's personality that helped him become a successful spy

  • how Maclean was recruited by agents of the Soviet Union and became part of the "Cambridge Five"

  • Maclean's successful career both as a diplomat in the British Foreign Office and as a Soviet agent

  • how the stress of leading a double life led Maclean to alcoholism

  • how Operation Venona finally tracked the identity of "Homer"

  • Maclean's eventual defection to the Soviet Union



Personal Reflections In September 2018, a little over a month prior to this writing, British Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that two Russian nationals were responsible for the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the United Kingdom. The ramifications of May's proclamation were staggeringly real and current: the spy game between Russia and the West is still ongoing.


Living in an age where "mutually assured destruction" and the Iron Curtain are a distant memory, many of us have tended to relegate espionage to the arena of entertainment. Spies are the stuff of James Bond and the Mission Impossible movies. But it's important to remember that espionage, tradecraft, and government moles existed, and it wasn't all that long ago!


In talking with Roland Philipps and reading A Spy Named Orphan, I was of course struck by the ease with which Maclean stole information and forwarded it on to his handlers. This can largely be attributed to inadequate security procedures. What I found more stunning was how resistant British intelligence was to the idea that one of their own could be a spy even after the evidence of Maclean's deceit was staring them directly in the face. He simply didn't look like what spy should look like. I think Maclean's story is just as much about our ability to deceive ourselves with our own prejudice as it is about how effectively foreign agents were able to infiltrate western governments.


For the Ever Curious If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider checking out these resources:

Books by Roland Philipps

Trinity Six by Charles Cumming - What if there was a sixth unknown member of the Cambridge Five? This fast-paced spy thriller addresses the possibility.

The George Smiley Novels by John le Carré - George Smiley has become a British literary icon and has appeared as the protagonist of several of le Carré's novels. Borrowing from his experience working with MI6, le Carré began publishing his novels in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War.


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre - Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge Five, rose to lead Britain’s counterintelligence during the Cold War—while he was secretly working for the USSR. Based on personal papers and never-before-seen British intelligence files, A Spy Among Friends is Ben Macintyre’s is a high-water mark in Cold War history telling.


Episode 18: The Cambridge Five by The History of the Cold War Podcast - In this episode, host Jeff Hogue provides an overview of the entire Cambridge Five: who they were, how they worked for the Soviets, and what became of them after their time as spies.







© 2018 by Can't Make This Up History Podcast.

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