Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess was born in Devonport, Devon, in 1910. He was educated at Eton, Dartmouth Royal Naval College and Trinity College, Cambridge. While at university he metKim Philby, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. All of them became secret supporters of the Communist Party.

In 1934 Burgess renounced his communism and with Kim Philby joined the Anglo-German Fellowship, a pro-Nazi pressure group. However, in reality, he had become an agent of the Soviet Union.

Burgess worked for the BBC until 1938 when he joined Section D as a propaganda expert. During the Second World War Burgess he found work in the Press Department of the Foreign Office.

In 1945 Burgess became PA to Hector McNeil, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. In December 1947 Burgess moved to the Information Research Department. The following year he joined the Far Eastern Department and held this post until 1950 when he became the first secretary at the British embassy in Washington.

In October 1950 Kim Philby warned Burgess and Donald Maclean that they were being investigated by MI5. Burgess returned to London and in May 1951 he defected with Maclean to the Soviet Union. This created serious problems for Guy Liddell as he was a close friend and they were often seen together at parties, clubs and the opera.

Guy Burgess died in 1963.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Sir Robert Birley, interviwed by Andrew Boyle for his book The Climate of Treason (1979)

Guy wasn't in when I arrived so I entered his room in New Court and waited (during the summer of 1931). There were many books on his shelves, and I'm always drawn to other people's taste in reading. As I expected, his taste was fairly wide and interesting. I noticed a number of Marxist tracts and textbooks, but that's not what really shocked and depressed me. I realized that something must have gone terribly wrong when I came across an extraordinary array of explicit and extremely unpleasant pornographic literature. He bustled in finally, full of cheerful apologies for being late as usual, and we talked happily enough over the tea-cups.

(2) Miriam Rothschild, letter to Andrew Boyle (1979)

I considered him (Guy Burgess) intelligent, but rather babyish, with the slightly protruding teeth of the thumb-sucker. He was voluble to the point of spluttering, obviously neurotic, good looking with curly hair and fresh complexion, and his chief attraction was vitality and rather boyish enthusiasm. Before he graduated he talked the usual left-wing stuff, overemphasized the fact that he joined the hunger marchers on their walk to London, and was obviously sincere about his sympathy for the underdog. But so was everyone else.

One of his outstanding weaknesses was his total lack of debating ability. In those days I used to argue with him, taking a conventional Socialist line, while he wanted a bloody revolution and was a self-styled Marxist. On one occasion I reduced him to floods of tears and there after felt he was scarcely fair game and I hadn't the heart to bait him in general discussions.

(3) Cyril Connolly, The Missing Diplomats (1952)

Guy Burgess, though he preferred the company of the able to the artistic, also moved on the edge of the same world. He was of a very different physique, tall-medium in height, with blue eyes, an inquisitive nose, sensual mouth, curly hair and alert fox-terrier expression... He swam like an otter and drank, not like a feckless undergraduate, as Donald was apt to do, but like some Rabelaisian bottle-swiper whose thirst was unquenchable. . . . With all his toughness, however. Guy Burgess wanted intensely to be liked and was indeed likeable, a good conversationalist and an enthusiastic builder-up of his friends. Beneath the terribilita of his Marxist analyses one divined the affectionate moral cowardice of the public schoolboy.

What was common to both Burgess and Maclean at this time was their instability: both were able and ambitious young men of high intelligence and good connections who were somehow parodies of what they set out to be. Nobody could take them quite seriously: they were two characters in a late Russian novel.

Donald was seldom heard to talk politics. Guy never seemed to stop. He was the type of bumptious Marxist who saw himself as Saint Just, who enjoyed making the flesh of his bourgeois listeners creep by his pictures of the justice which history would mete out to them. Grubby, intemperate and promiscuous, he loved to moralize over his friends and satirize their smug, class-conscious behaviour, so reckless of the reckoning in store. But when bedtime came, very late, and it was the moment to put the analyses away, the word 'preposterous' dying on his lips, he would imply a dispensation under which this was one house at least, tills family, these guests, might be spared the worst consequences, thanks to the protection of their brilliant, hunger-marching friend whose position would be so commanding in the happy Workers' imminent Utopia.

During the Spanish War, I saw much less of Guy Burgess who had joined the BBC in Bristol. A terrible thing had happened - he had become a Fascist! Still sneering at the bourgeois intellectual, he now vaunted the intensely modern realism of the Nazi leaders: his admiration for economic ruthlessness and the short-cut to power had swung him to the opposite extreme. He claimed to have attended a Nuremberg Rally.

(4) Guy Burgess gave information to Harold Nicolson about a meeting between Ernest Bevin and Vyacheslav Molotov in 1947. Nicolson wrote about it in his book Diaries and Letters (1966)

"Now, Mr Molotov, what is it that you want? What are you after? Do you want to get Austria behind your Iron Curtain? You can't do that. Do you want Turkey and the Straits ? You can't have them. Do you want Korea? You can't have that. You are putting your neck out too far, and one day you will have it chopped off.. .. You cannot look on me as an enemy of Russia. Why, when our Government was trying to stamp out your Revolution, who was it that stopped it? It was I, Ernest Bevin. I called out the transport workers and they refused to load the ships. Now again I am speaking to you as a friend... If war comes between you and America in the East, then we may be able to remain neutral. But if war comes between you and America in the West, then we shall be on America's side. Make no mistake about that. That would be the end of Russia and of your Revolution. So please stop sticking out your neck in this way and tell me what you are after. What

do you want?"

"I want a unified Germany," said Molotov.

"Why do you want that? Do you really believe that a unified Germany would go Communist? They pretend to. They would say all the right things and repeat all the correct formulas. But in their hearts they would be longing for the day when they would revenge their defeat at Stalingrad. You know that as well as I do."

"Yes," said Molotov, "I know that. But I still want a unified Germany."

And that was all he could get out of him.

(5) Lord Greenhill, writing about Guy Burgess in The Times (7th September, 1977)

His conversation was always entertaining and sometimes of arresting interest. He was at his most congenial on someone else's sofa, drinking someone else's whisky, telling tales to discredit the famous. The more luxurious the surroundings and the more distinguished the company, the happier he was. I have never heard a name-dropper in the same class.

(6) Goronwy Rees, A Chapter of Accidents (1977)

He (Guy Burgess in 1950) was now perpetually taking sedatives to calm his nerves, and immediately followed them with stimulants in order to counteract their effect; and since he always did everything to excess, he munched whatever tablets he had on hand as a child will munch its way through a bag of dolly mixtures until the supply has given out. Combined with a large and steady intake of alcohol, this consumption of drugs, narcotics, sedatives, stimulants, barbiturates, sleeping pills, or anything, it seemed, so long as it would modify whatever he happened to be feeling at any particular moment, produced an extraordinary and incalculable alteration of mood, so that one could not possibly tell what condition he would be in from one moment to the next. On the whole, however, it was fair to assume that sooner or later he would lapse into one of those moods of morose silence to which he was more and more frequently liable.

(7) Harold Nicolson, diary entry (25th January, 1950)

I dined with Guy Burgess. Oh my dear, what a sad, sad thing the constant drinking is! Guy used to have one of the most rapid and acute minds I knew. Now he is just an imitation (and a pretty bad one) of what he once was.

(8) When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the Soviet Union in 1951 Kim Philby was interviewed by Dick White. Philby wrote about the interview in his book, My Secret War (1968)

Taking the line that it was almost inconceivable that anyone like Burgess, who courted the limelight instead of avoiding it, and was generally notorious for indiscretion, could have been a secret agent, let alone a Soviet agent from whom strictest security standards would be required. I did not expect this line to be in any way convincing as to the facts of the case; but I hoped it would give the impression that I was implicitly defending myself against the unspoken charge that I, a trained counter-espionage officer, had been completely fooled by Burgess. Of Maclean, I disclaimed all knowledge.... As I had only met him twice, for about half an hour in all and both times on a conspiratorial basis, since 1937, I felt that I could safely indulge in this slight distortion of the truth.

(9) Goronwy Rees met Anthony Blunt on 28th May, 1951. Rees disagreed with Blunt when he used E. M. Forster's view that betraying one's friend was worse than betraying one's country. He wrote about this meeting in his autobiography A Chapter of Accidents (1977)

He (Anthony Blunt) was greatly distressed and said he would like to see me. On Monday May 28th he came to my house in the country, and on an almost ideally beautiful English summer day we sat by the river and I gave him my reasons for thinking that Guy had gone to the Soviet Union: his violent anti-Americanism, his certainty that America would involve us all in a Third World War, most of all the fact that he had been and perhaps still was a Soviet agent. He pointed out, very convincingly as it seemed to me, that these were really not very good reasons for denouncing Guy to MI;. His anti-Americanism was an attitude which was shared by many liberal-minded people and if this alone were sufficient reason to drive him to the Soviet Union, Moscow at that moment would be besieged by defectors seeking asylum. On the other hand, my belief that he might be a Soviet agent rested simply on one single remark made by him years ago and apparently never repeated to anyone else; in any case Guy's public professions of anti-Americanism were hardly what one would expect from a professional Soviet agent. Most of all he pointed out that Guy was after all one of my, as of his, oldest friends and to make the kind of allegations I apparently proposed to make about him was not, to say the least of it, the act of a friend. He was the Cambridge liberal conscience at its very best, reasonable, sensible, and firm in the faith that personal relations are the highest of all human values.

I said Forster's antithesis was a false one. One's country was not some abstract conception which it might be relatively easy to sacrifice for the sake of an individual; it was itself made up of a dense network of individual and social relationships in which loyalty to one particular person formed only a single strand. In that case, he said, I was being rather irrational because after all Guy had told me he was a spy a very long time ago and I had not thought it necessary to tell anyone. I said that perhaps I was a very irrational person; but until then I had not really been convinced that Guy had been telling the truth.

(10) Vladimir Petrov, Soviet agent interviewed by Australian authorities in 1955.

The volume of material Burgess supplied was so colossal that the cipher clerks of the Soviet Embassy were at times almost fully employed in enciphering it so that it could be radioed to Moscow, while other urgent messages had to be dispatched in diplomatic bags by couriers.

(11) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

The security authorities were, of course, aware of leakage of information from the Foreign Office to the Soviet Government. They knew of this in January, 1949, but the information was so vague that it could not be traced to any individual. Highly secret investigations at a level which would be over the head of the Foreign Secretary and known only to the Prime Minister had begun, and by mid-April, when I had been Foreign Secretary for a month, the suspicion was focused on two or three officials. A fortnight later Maclean was regarded as the principal suspect, and on 25 May I sanctioned a proposal that Maclean should be questioned. Within a few hours Maclean, accompanied by Burgess, was making for France.

Burgess was the more lively and the more potentially dangerous partner. I did not meet him, so far as I can recall. I gathered that he was an intelligent and rather bumptious young man - a typical young career diplomat. As personal assistant to the Minister of State, Hector McNeil, he had access to most secret documents. McNeil liked him, regarded him as a live wire, with a pleasant manner and considerable intelligence; indeed, he had pressed for Burgess as his personal assistant.