The Cold War was a time of intense drama and spawned some of the most memorable movies and novels about espionage such as the John Le Carre novels. The Cold War was open yet restricted rivalry between the two superpowers and their respective allies, which developed after World War II. This war never escalated into full-fledged face-to-face military combat between the two powers, but always remained at the tipping point. Bloody proxy battles were fought as in the Vietnam War. This was also the time when some of the most famous double agents or moles were uncovered. The most notorious of these was Kim Philby. Born in 1912 in Ambala, Haryana, he was a British intelligence officer until 1951 and the most successful Soviet double agent of the Cold War period.
His ideological transformation happened when he was a student at the University of Cambridge when he became a communist and in 1933 he became a Soviet agent. Until 1940, he worked as a journalist and Guy Burgess, a British secret agent who was a Soviet double agent, recruited Philby into the MI-6 section of the British intelligence service.
Towards the end of World War II, Philby became head of counter-espionage operations for MI-6, and he was ironically responsible for combating Soviet subversion in western Europe. In 1949 he was posted to Washington as chief MI-6 officer and as the top liaison officer between the British and US intelligence services. While he was at the helm of this highly sensitive post, he revealed to the USSR the Allied plan to send armed anti-communist bands into Albania in 1950, thus assuring their defeat. He also tipped off the two Soviet double agents in the British diplomatic service, Burgess and Donald MacLean, that they were suspected, which gave the men enough time to escape to the Soviet Union. He kept transmitting information about MI-6 and the Central Intelligence Agency to the Soviets under the nose of the unsuspecting MI-6.
Finally, after Burgess’s and MacLean’s defection, the needle of suspicion fell on Philby, and he was relieved of his intelligence duties in 1951 and dismissed from MI-6 in 1955. He then started working as a journalist in Beirut and finally fled to the Soviet Union in 1963. His betrayal was now out in the open and shocked the political establishments and shook up the CIA and MI-6. He settled in Moscow and eventually reached the rank of colonel in the KGB and published a book My Silent War (1968), which detailed his audacious exploits. Philby was a lifelong and committed communist. His loyalties lay with the Soviet Union and not with his motherland. His perfidy was apparently responsible for the death of many western agents, whose activities he betrayed to the Soviets. He died in his adopted country in 1988.
His mentor Burgess was a British diplomat who spied for the Soviet Union in World War II and early in the Cold War period. While a student in Cambridge in the 1930s, Burgess was part of a group of students such as Maclean, Philby, and Anthony Blunt who fervently disagreed with the notion of a capitalist democracy. All these men were recruited by the KGB to become secret agents, and Burgess kept supplying critical information from his posts as a BBC correspondent from 1936 to 1938, a member of the MI6 intelligence agency from 1938 to 1941, and a member of the British Foreign Office from 1944.
It was too good to last, and in 1951 Burgess was recalled from his post as second secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, DC. His dismissal from the Foreign Service was imminent and then he learnt that a counter-intelligence investigation by British and US agencies was closing in on his Cambridge colleague Maclean. To escape prosecution, both men fled England.
Burgess died of a heart attack in 1963. It was later revealed that the ‘fourth man’ in this spy ring was his former Cambridge colleague Blunt. Blunt, a respected art historian and member of the queen’s household, was the one who had contacted the Soviet agents to arrange for Burgess and Maclean’s escape from England.