08/12/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Gentlemen at War

I just finished reading a terrific book on the Kim Philby case, Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends. A wonderful page-turner, better than most novels, it reveals a great deal about history as well.

Kim Philby was at the core of the biggest spy scandal of the twentieth century. A member of Britain's elite upper class, he attended Eton and Cambridge; you can't go higher than that. Yet, while in college at those hallowed groves, he decided to join the communist party, and start spying for the USSR. No one has ever successfully explained why he did this, one of the greatest betrayals of all time; John Le Carre gave one possibility in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

But because of who he was, because of his background, no one believed that was possible, and instead gave him total entre to MI6, Britain's equivalent of our CIA. Philby thus became the ultimate double agent, a British spymaster who was sending everything he knew--which was already a lot and growing more each day--to KGB headquarters in Moscow. Just as one example of what this meant was Operation Valuable, an attempt to insert insurgents into Communist Albania with hopes they might overthrow the regime. Philby let the Soviets know, and their forces were waiting. As Macintyre noted in an interview with Amazon, the result was that "hundreds were killed, and many entire families were wiped out." It gets even better, however. In the early 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Philby became the MI6 liason in Washington, when Washington and London's intelligence cooperation was at its strongest. Everything from both sides, every operation, the identities of most agents, passed his desk. And got sent to Moscow. Untold numbers were rounded up, to be interrogated, tortured, sent to gulags or executed. Yet it took decades before Philby was exposed.

Macintyre poses this as a conflict between MI5--Britain's internal counterintelligence agency, their equivalent of the FBI--and MI6, their CIA, or external intelligence service. This was not just a battle of different functions, however, but of class. According to Macintyre, MI5 "tended to recruit former policemen and soldiers, men who sometimes spoke with regional accents and frequently did not know, or care about, the right order to use the cutlery at a formal dinner." Their mission was simple, clear cut, and middle class: "they enforced the law and defended the realm, caught spies and prosecuted them."

MI6 was at the other end of Britain's great class divide. As Macintyre described it, their personnel was "public school and Oxbridge; its accent more refined, its tailoring better." Comparing the two, "MI6 was White's Club, MI5 was the Rotary Club; MI6 was upper-middle class (and sometimes aristocratic) MI5 was middle class (and sometimes working class). In the minute gradations of social stratification that meant so much in Britain, MI5 was... a little common, and MI6 was gentlemanly, elitist and old school tie... MI5 looked up at MI6 with resentment; MI6 looked down with a small but ill-hidden sneer." MI5 sought to protect country, to expose the spy in their midst. MI6 instead sought to protect class, and foiled any attempt to nab Philby, one of their own (in a YouTube video of Philby delivering a lying, self-justifying statement, he speaks in precise, clipped tones that make Henry Higgens sound like a fishmonger).

But there are crucial foreign policy implications as well, far beyond a spy scandal. The gentlemen of MI6 (and their counterparts in the CIA) called themselves "Robber Barons", adventurers in a holy war, men that could--and should--go anywhere, do anything to win. They were "swashbuckling types with an acute sense of their own importance and little respect for civilian authority. They believed in covert action, taking risks, and, whenever necessary, breaking the rules." They perceived their work as "a sort of patriotic religion, a...bulwark against barbarism."

Thus, they were above it all; like Philby, albeit on opposite sides of the Cold War fence, their allegiance was to an ideal, not to the law. For these adventurers, this required a total commitment, but was also great fun as well. Nicholas Elliot, Philby's cloest friend in the service, remembered those days as, "You know, looking back all the things we got up to--all right, we had some belly laughs--my God, we had some belly-laughs--we were terribly amateurish, in a way." The CIA was cut from the same mold, but in their quest for another romp, these Anglo-American public schoolboys changed people's lives, and the world.

Take Iran, for example, still of enormous concern. In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddegh became prime minister. A true democrat, he opposed both the royalist regime of the shahs and the communists. A nationalist as well, he wanted to revise arrangements overseeing Iran's rich oil reserves. At that time Britain's Anglo-American Oil Company had total control, garnering all the profits from this fabulous resource. Mosaddeagh did not seek to nationalize the oil, simply proposing a 50-50 split with the Iranian people, who he felt had some ownership rights as well.

For that hubris, the CIA and MI6 ran a coup that overthrew him. After all, he was not aligned with the West (not with the East either, but still not a true believer). And what right did someone like that--foreign and thus far below even middle class--have to what was perceived as Britain's oil? Mosaddegh was replaced by the Pahlevi dynasty. By 1979 they were no longer even barely tolerable, and a fundamentalist Islamic revolt took place in Iran, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He was succeeded by such figures as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran's bid for nuclear weapons is a matter of the gravest concern today.

The gentleman adventurers did not just cover up for Philby, a member of their class; they also changed the face of the world. After all, they always believed it was both their right and their duty to do so.