Re-reading Ron Rosenbaum’s Secret Parts of Fortune, I’d like to nominate as Person of the 20th Century…Kim Philby. In a previous post, I mentioned him briefly when I discussed James Jesus Angleton, a fascinating and controversial figure from the CIA.
He’s probably the most famous double agent in history, ultimately fleeing the West to the Soviet Union and living there until his death.
But Person of the Century? Hear me out…
During WWII, Churchill gave Philby’s briefings the highest priority. He was about the only double agent that Stalin actually trusted and who valued his reports. In Portugal, he was running a team of Nazi double agents so successfully that the disinformation that they put out was immediately routed to Hitler himself, who personally reviewed them and gave them great weight. Yes, he simultaneously had the ear of Stalin, Churchill, and Hitler.
While he was in Portugal during the war, he had a protege there, by name of Graham Greene (yes, the famous English author). Philby was promoted to head of counter-intelligence. Greene was offered Philby’s job, but not only did he decline it, but he accepted a transfer to another division.
There is suspicion that Green had begun to become suspicious of Philby’s activities and took the transfer to get away from him. Later he wrote the screenplay for the movie ‘The Third Man’, a movie about Harry Lime, an immoral character playing a complex political game. Philby’s real first name is Harold (as in Harry; interestingly enough, his nickname comes from Kipling’s Kim, a novel about spying / politics in Central Asia; was his destiny marked from an early point?).
The Third Man has made many all-time best movie lists. Did Philby inspire one of the recognized best movies of all time?
Even more bizarrely, when he started coming under suspicion of being a double agent, he was actually accused of being The Third Man (after Burgess and Maclean were previously discovered to be spies).
Was he accused of being the fictional person that he in fact inspired?
In the previous post, I mentioned that the discovery of Philby being a double agent so un-nerved Angleton that he embarked on a paranoid mission that ultimately ended up virtually destroying an entire generation of CIA leadership.
In reaction to Angleton’s obsession, the CIA over-reacted and dramatically down-scaled their counter-espionage efforts. This willful ignorance led to the rise of Aldrich Ames, who managed to feed intelligence to the Soviet Union for close to 10 years, shutting down several spy rings and causing at least 10 known deaths.
For a crucial period in the 80’s, the United States did not recruit any additional Soviet assets because they knew that they were somehow compromised. During this same time, they were so reluctant to do counter-espionage efforts that it took them nearly a decade to discover Ames, a known alcoholic whose monthly credit card bills alone exceeded his pay-check. The action and reaction to Philby’s betrayal hurt the CIA for decades.
Did Philby’s defection trigger a chain of events that ultimately led to a paralyzed CIA that harbored a Soviet spy?
The KGB never did trust Philby after he defected. He expected to be treated like a hero of the people, but, especially for the first couple of years, he was basically a prisoner. On top of that, he was shocked at what he saw. He was still living under the 1930’s idea of socialism that had originally seduced him into betraying his country.
The land of Stalinism, and later Brezhnev, horrified him. The lack of freedom. The pervasive fear. He hated it. As much as he could, he railed against it and possibly even helped to change it.
There’s a theory that, as Gorbachev began to implement Glasnost, that Philby served some kind of back door role to the Thatcher government, encouraging them to take it at face value and to lend their support to it.
Did Philby, who did so much to extend the Cold War, work to end it?
And, oh yeah, in the 30’s, he went to Spain. He originally went there on behalf of his actual leftist beliefs, to embark upon a plot to assassinate Franco. While there, he began to build up his counter-identity as a right wing acolyte. He was so successful at it that he ended up getting the highest order of merit, presented by Franco himself.
So, yes, in the Spanish Civil War, he managed to start the war plotting to kill a dictator and ended the war by being rewarded by said dictator.
Kim Philby, Person of the 20th Century.