September 22, 2005


Last of the Cold War Spies: The Life of Michael Straight—The Only American in Britain’s Cambridge Spy Ring.  By Roland Perry.  Da Capo.  $27.50.

     This is for devotees of Cold War trivia only.  There is a lot of detail here: Australian journalist Roland Perry has done an enormous amount of digging and unearthed a huge amount of information about the infamous Cambridge spy ring – one of whose members, Kim Philby, became one of the most notorious spies of the 20th century.  But people not already immersed in Cold War studies and real-world spy stories are likely to find the book simply boring.  The details of the recruitment, life and false confession of Michael Straight, the only American in the Cambridge group, are fine for a course in modern history but make for a daunting read.

     In addition to Philby and Straight, the Cambridge spy ring included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt.  All handed secrets over to Soviet intelligence for decades.  Straight confessed in 1963 that he had done so until 1942, but Perry argues convincingly and with overwhelming evidence that the confession was false and that Straight was a KGB mole for decades more – even while serving Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

     This sounds like quite a revelation, but the pileup of fact bites upon fact bites makes it hard to care.  Consider, for instance, Straight’s first assignment, which was to drive a wedge between Barbara Rorthschild and her influential husband, Lord Victor Rothschild, by having an affair with her (though both the Rothschilds were already infamous for their frequent adulteries).  “Not long into the evening,” writes Perry, “Barbara suggested that she and Straight go for a walk through darkened cloisters.  Straight, still in two minds but caught in the daring and risk of the moment, went with her.  Once out of sight, she embraced and kissed him.  Barbara wanted an affair to begin immediately.  Straight was uncertain, not knowing how Victor would react if he found out.  Barbara was persistent.  [Anthony] Blunt kept encouraging her and tried to push Straight.”  And so on and so forth – much ado about not very much, dating back to 1936.

     The level of detail here really is impressive: a Russian agent says his name is Michael Green, and Perry notes, “Green, alias William Greinke, Michael Ademic, and other names, had at least two code names for communications back to Moscow – MER and ALBERT.  His real name was Ishak Abdulovich Akhermov.”  And so it goes, on and on, an endless recital of facts and names and places in which tidbits of real interest (e.g., Straight founded Communist fronts while running his family’s magazine, The New Republic) have to be picked out gingerly from a morass of minutiae.  Despite its double subtitle, Last of the Cold War Spies ultimately seems to have little to tell 21st-century readers – at least those not already enamored of the Cold War as historical artifact.

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