There is a scene in one of the John le Carre spy novels when Connie Sachs, who works in archives in Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), captures the approaching twilight of Empire better than many an academic history. “Poor loves,” she says of the postwar generation of British intelligence officers. “Trained to Empire. Trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”
Connie, if she were still alive, would be shaking her head in bewilderment at the media frenzy that has followed the publication of Christopher Andrew’s book, The Mitrokhin Archive, and the outing of some elderly British traitors who gave our secrets to the KGB.
“Poor loves,” she would say. “Made to shoulder the guilt for our decline. Had to be someone’s fault. Blame it on them. Makes everyone else feel better.”
Perhaps, Connie, perhaps. But don’t forget that the fuss about Melita Norwood, the 87-year-old great-grandmother who was a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association and who is now reviled for passing on atomic secrets from her workplace, was set in motion by the SIS itself. Vasili Mitrokhin worked in the KGB archives and smuggled out thousands of notes he had made from secret files. He sat on them after his retirement in 1985. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he turned up at the British Embassy in Riga with samples.
The SIS then sent into Russia one of its officers who, risking his life because he did not have diplomatic cover, went to Mitrokhin’s dacha and got his full material. All this was a great coup for the SIS. It could have told a real James Bond story to boost its flagging public image.
So why has it been so shy about publicising this part of the operation? Facts are hard to come by in the spy world, but it is rumoured that the officer responsible was none other than Richard Tomlinson, now notorious as an SIS dissident who broke the Official Secrets Act, served a prison term and is now being hounded around the world by the SIS as he tries to tell his story.
So the SIS made Mitrokhin and his archive available to Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge history professor who had written before about the SIS, mostly in glowing terms. Originally Melita Norwood played a minor role in the story because although identified, she had never been prosecuted. This was for the simple reason that she did nothing of very great importance.
But the SIS operation to burnish its image now took a wrong turn. The media loved the “granny spy” story and turned on the SIS and MI5 for not catching her earlier. And when ministers and ex- ministers tripped over each other in their anxiety to shout “nobody told me about her”, questions began to be raised about the accountability of both services. They could have told the truth and replied, “Well, we didn’t tell you about her because she wasn’t important enough”, but that would have detracted from the whole story.
But even if she did pass on important secrets, could she, as the former attorney-general Sir Nicholas Lyell said on BBC television, have put Britain “in great peril”? Go back to Los Alamos one day in December 1943. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr had just arrived in the United States to join his fellow scientists to work on the first atom bomb. Greeted by J Robert Oppenheimer, he immediately asked: “Is it big enough?” That is, was the Allies’ bomb big enough to make nuclear war impossible?
Well, so far (touch wood) it turns out that it was. No country has dropped an atomic bomb on another since 1945. But this was only because both superpowers soon had a bomb and the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) meant that as long as neither leader went crazy, the world could rest safely each night.
What was Norwood’s role? The most serious accusation against her is that she enabled the Soviet Union to develop the bomb earlier than the west expected. But the Russians would have got the bomb on their own anyway. They did not lag behind in nuclear research before the war and, if it had not been for the German invasion, they might well have achieved a chain reaction before the Americans did in Chicago in December 1942. The most important single piece of information about the bomb was that it worked. After Hiroshima, the chances of keeping that secret were nil. In case there were any doubt, the Americans released, in 1945, the Smythe Report on Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. The Soviet Union bought a copy, rushed through a translation and distributed 30,000 copies to Soviet industry within six months.
That does not itself excuse the activities of the atom spies, but we should ask: why were there so many of them? The answer is that the scientists believed that developments in nuclear physics were so important to the future of the world that they should not be the monopoly of one nation. By 1954 even Churchill had come to this view. According to a cabinet paper he said that the tragedy was that the west did not tell the Soviet Union everything it knew about the atomic bomb when the United States still had the monopoly.
Norwood has said she felt that the USSR was slipping behind and that this was dangerous for peace. As Stalin put it when the Americans used the bomb on Hiroshima, “the equilibrium has been destroyed”. Once it had been restored, it was a nuclear stand-off, reasonably predictable most of the time but given to the occasional dangerous hiccup, such as the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, when President John F Kennedy and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, took the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
Writing about it on the 30th anniversary, I got a tape of Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary at the time, explaining what almost went wrong in chilling detail: “American warheads did not contain the electronic device which prevents a local commander from launching his missiles without an okay from the president himself.” Neither did the Soviet warheads.
“Kennedy,” said McNamara, “recognised that in the face of a conventional Soviet attack on western Europe, although local commanders did not have the authority to use their nuclear weapons, nonetheless, rather than be overrun by the Red Army, a local US commander might initiate the use of nuclear warheads.”
In short, a nuclear exchange that would have ended our world could have been started by an American army captain in Germany or a Red Army sergeant in Cuba, and it was an acceptance of this likelihood that helped to push Kennedy and Khrushchev into an agreement. Once the electronic key was introduced, ensuring that only a national leader could start nuclear war, the balance of atomic power was restored.
We are still in the dark about whether Norwood really made a contribution to establishing this balance. But if she did, you could say that she deserves a medal – and not just a Soviet one.