The Undercover Egghead

The Undercover Egghead: Sir Isaiah Berlin and Political Warfare

Sir Isaiah Berlin is seen by many as the consummate British intellectual of the 20th century. A Russian Jew born in Riga, he witnessed the bookends that enclosed what was arguably that century’s most significant phenomenon – the Russian experiment with communism. Fiercely critical of any totalitarian government, he revisited and elaborated in academic discourse and made popularly known the notions of positive and negative liberty, and argued for the virtues of a society that accepts and endorses plurality of values. By revivifying a line from the Greek poet Archilochus that contrasted the unitary vision of the hedgehog with the more nuanced perspective of the fox, Berlin shed new light on a whole host of historians and thinkers and brought new insights to a non-academic audience. More a historian of ideas than a philosopher, Berlin dazzled with his wide reading, his rich examples, his lively anecdotes, and his dry humour.

Yet a paradox remains about Berlin’s broader career beyond academia where he undertook a number of roles in the sphere of propaganda and intelligence gathering, which can be described under the blanket term of ‘political warfare’. While undeniably a member of the intelligentsia, he constantly maintained that he never had anything to do with ‘intelligence’. For example, in a memoir about his uncle, he writes: ‘Needless to add, I never worked for any intelligence organization, British or any other, at any point in my life, and had no contact with such bodies, when I was a British Embassy official during the war or at any other time.’ This is an astonishing claim: he left behind much evidence to the contrary and occasionally would even boast of his secret contacts. Such denials do not therefore do justice to the actions that Berlin pursued in a number of causes: some open, some clandestine, some official, some personal. Berlin’s desire to conceal such initiatives suggests that he may have felt a deep mental discomfort when he recounted his memories to his biographer towards the end of his life.

Berlin’s activities can be assigned to five major categories. In the first, he gathered information from sources in the Soviet Union between 1935 and 1956. Secondly, he acted as a spy/emissary for Chaim Weizmann and the Jewish/Zionist movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He expressed desires to go to Moscow in 1940 (when the Soviet Union was an ally of Germany) and presented such plans as a ‘plot’ in letters to family and friends. He also conspired with Guy Burgess, a member of the Cambridge Five, and Harold Nicolson to secure a posting to Moscow on secret government business, ostensibly as a press attaché, but plausibly as a pretext to reach the US (at least) to take up private causes. Lastly, he worked as a propagandist for British Security Coordination in New York and later interpreted political events for the British Embassy in Washington.

  1. i) Information Sources in the Soviet Union:

Berlin’s writings rely on a familiarity with the literary climate of the Soviet Union that could be gained only by exchanges with members of the intelligentsia in that country. Yet he did not travel there frequently: after an abortive effort in 1940 he visited for a few months in 1945, ostensibly for government-sponsored research that did not turn out as planned, and again more briefly in 1956. On these occasions, he incurred the wrath of Stalin and, after Stalin’s death, the KGB by making unauthorized visits to literary figures such as Akhmatova and Pasternak as well as to relatives. In 1956, his distant relative Efraim Halevy – who was later to become head of Israel’s Secret Service organization, Mossad – accompanied him on a furtive visit to Berlin’s Aunt Zelma. In addition, his father, Mendel, had been accused of spying (Stalin treated all such foreign representatives as spies and unauthorized contact with members of the Soviet citizenry was illegal) during an enigmatic visit to Moscow in 1935. Mendel, whose British naturalisation documents describe him as a timber-exporter, was reported to be in Moscow with a timber delegation but escaped his minders to visit his brother Lev. The unfortunate Lev was later arrested and tortured, accused of being complicit in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’ against Stalin in 1952. The brothers were suspected at this time of being links in a chain, passing information illegally to Isaiah Berlin, although whether such information was passed is not clear.

A conundrum ancillary to this aspect of Berlin’s intelligence-gathering is an extraordinary letter, not yet published in the printed works, which appears on the Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy. Written by Isaiah Berlin to his father, with a presumed date of Autumn 1935, it appears to respond to a number of questions from Mendel about Britain’s probable response to European events, specifically about threats from Mussolini and England’s guarantees to France. The letter from Mendel that this item responds to has apparently not survived, but why Mendel should have developed a sudden interest in the broader political climate in Europe immediately after his return from Moscow, and why such a request was made in writing as opposed to being offered in a friendly domestic chat, is puzzling. In 1940, the Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky informed his interrogators from MI5 that all visitors from trade delegations, especially those with relatives still in the Soviet Union whose safety could be threatened were firmly pumped for information when in the Soviet Union. Mendel Berlin would have been an excellent pipeline via his son to All Souls College, where the British intelligentsia mingled with the country’s leading politicians. It is possible that the NKVD applied pressure on Mendel to provide intelligence on British preparations and intentions concerning the impending conflict.

  1. ii) Emissary for Zionism

The peak of Berlin’s enthusiasm for the Zionist cause was reached in the late 1930s after he met Chaim Weizmann, about whom he frequently wrote in terms of idolatry in his letters. Arie M. Dubnov concludes that Berlin was used by Weizmann as an ‘inside informer, placed in a strategic position close to the British elite’s nerve system’. Berlin used his connections with the elite at Oxford to pass on information he gleaned about British plans for Palestine such as the composition of the Peel Commission, announced in August 1936. During the eventful year of 1940 such concerns dominated Berlin’s thinking. His move to the US in that summer is frequently reported as an accidental by-product of his aborted trip to Moscow, but Berlin’s clear desire to return to Europe to see Weizmann and his pretence that the job offered to him in the office of British Information Services was not permanent or binding, may reveal that his long-term interest was as much to help the Zionist cause as to contribute to Britain’s war effort. This conclusion has recently been confirmed by items in the diaries of David Ben-Gurion, the leader of a Zionist labour party in Palestine and later to become Israel’s first prime minister. Ben-Gurion records a meeting with Berlin in New York just before Berlin set sail for Lisbon in October 1940, in which they discussed promises of material support from the Soviets and planned strategies for reporting back to Harold Laski in Britain.

Berlin may have contacted Laski on his return to the UK, but a more significant event was a visit he paid on Weizmann on November 6th when he expressed his eagerness to counteract the anti-Zionist propaganda that other government representatives had issued while in the US. The Weizmann papers show that Berlin had managed to persuade the British Embassy of the necessity of appointing a special representative for Jewish affairs at their office in Washington. In a way, this was the position that had previously been offered to Berlin.  He did eventually work for the British Embassy, but not until early 1942 when the US had entered the war and his propaganda role with British Security Coordination was no longer required. By this time, the need for his skills was one of a more general nature: broadly surveying the American political scene rather than providing a specifically Jewish perspective on it. Yet Berlin continued to pursue his private goals. His undercover work continued: he admitted to his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, that, during the summer of 1943, on hearing of a joint Anglo-American plan to issue a statement condemning ‘Zionist agitation’ he had leaked the details of it to American Zionists who were thus able to forestall and cancel the announcement by means of their own remonstrations.

Efraim Halevy would later pay tribute to Isaiah Berlin’s contribution to the state of Israel. In the Seventh Isaiah Berlin Annual Lecture, delivered in Hampstead on November 8th, 2009, he said: ‘Shaya, as we called him, was not a neutral bystander as history unfolded before our eyes. He was often a player, at times a clandestine one, as when he met me in the 1990s to hear reports of my many meetings with the late King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Crown Prince Hassan, who had been his pupil at Oxford.’ Berlin was a far more active negotiator on behalf of the Zionist cause than he ever admitted and his dealings with prominent Jews in Palestine, Great Britain, the US and the Soviet Union placed him in a pivotal position in the years before the Israeli state was founded.

iii) Secret Plans for Moscow

Berlin revealed in several letters written during his time of inactivity in the United States that he wanted to get to Moscow. This longing apparently preceded Guy Burgess’s approach to him and even his professed desire to help with the war effort, perhaps over-unctuously articulated in a letter to his All Souls colleague, Lord Halifax. For example, in one of his most revealing letters, to the Communist Party member Maire Gaster, written in January 1941, Berlin refers directly to more sinister goings-on. He describes his role to her as ‘a courier with a bag’, suggesting that his function was to import secret material into the Soviet Union. He colours his account of the aborted trip to Moscow with the extraordinary phrase ‘a plot in which even Mrs Fisher [the wife of H. A. L. Fisher, Warden of New College] assisted’. He repeats to his parents his continuing desire to get to Moscow despite the objections of British diplomats and, very curiously, reports that the Russians, mainly in the person of Constantine Oumansky, the Soviet Ambassador, are still eager to see him execute his mission.

iv) Conspiring with Guy Burgess

The episode of this abortive journey to Moscow receives mainly routine treatment in the various histories and biographies of the key characters. As Michael Ignatieff tells the story, on the basis almost exclusively of Berlin’s conversations with him, the facts are briefly stated though a little bizarre. Early in the summer of 1940 Guy Burgess surprised Berlin by bursting into his rooms at New College asking him to join him on a trip to the Soviet Union. Burgess, who was at the time working for D Section of MI6 – responsible for sabotage and subversion – was probably anxious to make contact with his spymasters after Moscow had carried out a purge of the London station. He had persuaded the Ministry of Information that Berlin, a native Russian speaker, should be appointed as press officer to the newly appointed ambassador at the embassy in Moscow, Stafford Cripps. Berlin and Burgess left Liverpool for Moscow via the US but never completed the journey. In Washington, Burgess received the news that he was to be recalled to London and was fired by MI6 on his return. Meanwhile, Cripps refused to sanction Berlin’s presence in Moscow: the Foreign Office belatedly got wind of the whole scheme and scrapped it. Berlin, apparently not a government employee like Burgess, was left to pursue his own devices and eventually found an influential position assisting the British propaganda effort in the US.

Further research has shown that this account is probably a travesty of what really happened. Berlin himself gives multiple, conflicting accounts of the events of that summer. To begin with, evidence provided by John Cairncross and Tom Driberg (not normally the most reliable of chroniclers, but in this case there seems no reason for them to lie) suggests that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Berlin had been on intimate terms with Burgess and had mixed with him socially on frequent occasions. Secondly, Burgess’s claims that his mission to Moscow was driven by an MI6 need to exchange intelligence with that department’s Soviet counterparts must be seen as completely spurious given Burgess’s role and reputation and the timing of the event at the height of the Nazi ̶ Soviet pact. Much more likely is that Burgess, as the ringleader and chief courier of the group of Oxbridge-educated agents of Stalin was anxious to inform his Soviet masters – who had withdrawn any contacts in London out of fear that their network had been compromised by recent defections – that the group was still willing, active, and committed, and to advise them of the recent interviews MI5 interviews with the Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky. It is possible that Burgess wanted Berlin to accompany him as interpreter in Moscow to help him ensure that his messages to his Soviet handlers were not distorted. Krivitsky, who had been specially brought over under conditions of the highest secrecy from the US via Canada, had come close to identifying Cairncross, Maclean and Philby to his MI5 interviewers. Having conferred with his fellow moles, Burgess seems to have been the point-man who was determined to set the NKVD on Krivitsky’s trail.

Other evidence suggests that Burgess and Berlin were engaged on a shared D Section mission. Bickham Sweet-Escott was then an officer in D Section and later in SOE (Special Operations Executive), the group into which D Section was folded after Churchill re-organized the security services. In his work Baker Street Irregular, Sweet-Escott clearly identifies Berlin’s mission to Moscow as one engineered by D Section, strongly suggesting that Berlin had been recruited by the same Colonel Grand for whom Burgess was chief ideas-man. Burgess may have come up with a scheme to deliver propaganda to the Soviet Union, one that was listened to with sympathy. Astonishingly, Harold Nicolson, in sections of his diaries that are unpublished, records that both Burgess and Berlin knew before they left that their mission to Moscow would not take place, presumably because of the disbanding of D Section just before they were due to leave. Yet they were nevertheless both able to embark on their ship to the United States.

It cannot be purely coincidental that, as soon as he had spoken to another member of the Oxbridge Spies, Michael Straight, in Washington, Burgess was called back to the UK. His mission to Moscow was no longer required. Straight was then able to tail Krivitsky and alert his contacts at the Soviet Embassy in Washington to Krivitsky’s movements.  In March 1940, Burgess made a trip to Paris with the writer Rosamond Lehmann, on the spurious pretext of working with Paris radio. He absented himself for a while: Lehmann, who was the lover of Goronwy Rees, an Oxford don and also a Soviet agent, guessed what he was up to – visiting his contacts at the Soviet Embassy, on this occasion probably delivering the news of the interrogations of Krivitsky.

Krivitsky’s fate was sealed. Once Trotsky had been assassinated in August 1940, he was next on Stalin’s list. In a classic set-up of falsified suicide, he was found murdered in a Washington hotel in January 1941. Berlin is silent on all aspects of Burgess’s enterprises during this period claiming, for instance, that they never discussed his plans during their long boat journey across the Atlantic. Every other prominent figure who ever worked at all closely with Burgess during this time is similarly evasive or deceptive about their associations with him. Most extraordinarily, despite this clumsy adventure with Burgess, Berlin was never called in to be interviewed by Special Branch after Burgess’s later defection.

v) Working for the BSC and the British Embassy

Berlin claimed that his work in New York was for an entity described as ‘British Information Services’, newly set up as part of the Ministry of Information. Yet this group shared offices at the Rockefeller Center with the multipurpose department known as ‘British Security Coordination’ (BSC), an amalgam of MI5, MI6 and SOE interests in the Americas. No personnel used were wasted; their task was propaganda, to assist in gaining the support of the US for the war cause and the country’s eventual entry into the conflict on the side of the Allies. At first Berlin presented his employment there as a surprise, as something he undertook reluctantly. Yet research indicates that his appointment may have been hard-wired. In particular, Berlin was probably a close acquaintance of, and collaborator with, Alexander Halpern, a dominant and central figure in BSC, but one who tried to keep his involvement in British intelligence secret until his dying day.

Halpern’s key role for BSC was to organize the acquisition and control of a radio station in Boston, WRUL, that was used to subtly disseminate British propaganda. Halpern had a history of allegiance with British interests: a member of Kerensky’s government before the Revolution in Russia, he had been a legal adviser to the British Embassy in Moscow and had worked for British intelligence after he arrived in the United Kingdom. He too was employed by D Section, and his interest in radio as a medium for influencing opinion dovetailed with Burgess’ expertise in broadcasting and propaganda. As a Russian Jew, he also had close cultural and ideological affinities with Berlin. John Cairncross records him and his wife, a famed beauty of notorious pro-Soviet sympathies, holding salons in London late in 1939 at which other academics and future intelligence agents mingled with Berlin and Burgess. Yet Berlin claims he never knew Halpern until his name was mentioned to him by one Istorik in New York in 1941. Berlin wanted to hide his involvement with Halpern; he clearly felt that there was something dishonourable about any ties to British intelligence before the war.

At the end of 1941, Berlin transferred to Washington, in his words, ‘to take charge of political surveys’. While performing a well-appreciated job informing the British Government of the realities of the American political scene throughout the remainder of the war, Berlin continued his private work as a Zionist emissary.

Lastly, Berlin was involved with a secret document caused ‘Casual Sources’. The historian Verne Newton has reported that the British Embassy in Moscow wrote up a report of ‘casual sources’ (contacts considered treasonous by Stalin), a report that was kept under the tightest secrecy. Reference was made to it in an exchange between the Foreign Office and the embassy in Moscow. This was noticed by John W. Russell, a press attaché who had served in Moscow and who was now supervised by the spy Donald Maclean in Washington. Russell sent London a cable, almost certainly cleared by Maclean, asking that he and Isaiah Berlin be provided with a copy of the Casual Sources report. ‘We make this request partly out of idle curiosity, partly out of a genuine need to keep abreast of developments in the U.S.S.R.’, the cable pleaded. The Moscow Embassy and the Foreign Office refused because of the danger. Maclean then intervened, promising that it would not get into the hands of Americans, and the Foreign Office finally relented. The report no doubt ended up in the hands of Stalin. When questioned by Verne Newton, Berlin gave an evasive and unsatisfactory response, claiming he never knew of the existence of such a document.

Why was Berlin so coy about his intelligence activities? After all, such activity supporting the war effort was a highly respectable pursuit for many Oxbridge dons, many of whom would have liked to write with pride about their projects had it not been for the Official Secrets Act.

Some evidence suggests that, before he became Prime Minister, Churchill attempted to forge a secret back-channel to Stalin, maybe prompted by his meeting with Burgess in 1938, that could have involved Cadogan, Nicolson, Cripps and Laski, even, and then Berlin, Oumansky and Ben-Gurion. This strategy may have been adopted to help the Jews in Palestine as well as to build a relationship with Stalin even though the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in force. In May 1940, at a time when Churchill was manipulating Hitler to make him believe that the country was divided, that Churchill’s, leadership role was at risk and that Britain was ready to sue for peace, Burgess and Berlin may have been used to orally convey a highly confidential message to Stalin – or his stooge, Oumansky – that the process was a feint. As the Battle of Britain started and Churchill’s position became more secure, the need for secret negotiations presumably waned. Any possible relationship may also have been jeopardised by the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States in the middle of June 1940. The Hess episode in May 1941 also alerted Stalin’s suspicions. Given the highly sensitive nature of such communications, those privy to them were no doubt especially tight-lipped about their involvement – especially after Burgess’s unmasking as a Soviet agent. Such a scenario could help explain Berlin’s constant denial of any intelligence dealings.

It is also possible that propaganda and deception conflicted with his intellectual beliefs. He wished to maintain the façade that, as a leading intellectual, it was beneath his dignity to deal in such underhand exploits and he may have regretted some of his more dubious relationships. He also recognized a clash between the British Government and the goals of Zionism which had led to him being disloyal to his adopted country.

Berlin was a man of the Left. He was a confirmed ‘New Dealer’ and enthusiastically welcomed the Labour Party’s win in 1945. Yet he was a hesitant converter of ideas into political philosophy. As Noel Annan wrote, in Our Age: ‘He did not pronounce on public issues. No one could say what his views were on trade union reform, the balance of payments, university entrance or the poverty trap. He remained marginal to the central issues of any region of national life.’ Despite the claim to the contrary that the Soviet defector Anatoly Golitsyn made there is no evidence that Berlin was ever a Soviet agent: he was more like his friend Victor Rothschild, a man of influence who could be manipulated and sometimes performed dubious activities under his own initiative. He was a consistent critic of totalitarianism, but it was not clear where his brand of social democracy drew the line. His life thus contained a central paradox. As an aesthete and intellectual, he enjoyed the comfortable liberal life of the Oxford common room and the London salon and felt generally accepted in this privileged circle. Yet his impulses towards egalitarianism and ‘social justice’ led him to favour some socialist causes as well as some of the less liberal aspects of the Zionist movement, and, maybe out of a strong sense of friendship, to maintain allegiance to some questionable characters way past their sell-by date. Ultimately, his lack of candour over his intelligence activities reflects an uneasy conscience over his contribution to the shaping of the century.