Donald Duart Maclean destined for a brilliant political career from childhood. His Scottish father was the prominent politician Sir Donald Maclean Sr., a member of Parliament, leader of the "independent Liberals," and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and President of the Board of Education. Known for his independent views and high moral character, he was motivated by a genuine concern for people’s welfare, unlike the vast majority of politicians.
Donald junior entered Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, in 1931.
Soon, Maclean joined the communist student group, serving as secretary at one point. He spoke at rallies and participated in workers' demonstrations against government policies. Obviously, he had to conceal his political activities and convictions from his high-ranking father. But in 1932, Sir Donald passed away, shortly after taking up his ministerial post.
Among Maclean’s closest friends at the University was Guy Burgess with whom he passionately debated politics and critiqued the capitalist world order. Donald saw himself as a teacher and hoped one day to become a political scientist. He used to say to his Cambridge friends that he dreamed of going off and teaching English to Russian children. Having faith that the Marxist-Leninist system would prevail, Donald believed that "the world revolution will end in English, and so the Russian people should know English."
With the recommendation of Kim Philby, Maclean started to work for Soviet intelligence in 1934 He was given the alias "Waise" ("orphan" in German, in reference to his father’s death two years earlier); later he would go by "Stuart," "Lyric" and "Homer."
Maclean made his decision to serve the Soviet Union and the communist movement amid the economic woes of the Great Depression and the growing threat of Nazism in the 1930s. Together with his comrades, he was alarmed by the enormous economic and social inequality that he witnessed all around. They believed that only the teachings of Lenin and the discipline of the Communist International (Comintern) could save Britain from economic and social injustice and mobilise for the fight against the ascendant Nazis.
One of his first assignments was to identify fascist sympathisers among the country’s ruling class and elites. He exceeded expectations.
Initially, Maclean was not planning to work in the British Foreign Office. However, his contacts at the Soviet station in London argued that he would be of greatest use to Soviet intelligence in a diplomatic career.
In October 1935, Maclean, who had been conferred the diplomatic rank of third secretary, joined the Western Department of the Foreign Office, with a purview that included France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, as well as the League of Nations, shortly after the Soviet Union gained membership. He had access to all documents that passed through the Department. In those years an astonishing complacency prevailed in the Foreign Office: there was no compartmentalisation —
officers from different departments had access to each other’s files, and top secret documents could be taken out of the office.
Soon Maclean began regularly transmitting secret Foreign Office documents to his handlers in London. Soviet operatives would copy them the same night and send them to Moscow, returning the originals to Donald the next morning. For urgent copying of critically important materials, he was given a special camera.
Considering the volume and value of the materials received from Maclean, and in order to better protect him, Soviet foreign intelligence’s "illegal resident" in London, Theodore Maly, requested a dedicated liaison for Donald
However, the British counterintelligence service was not completely flat-footed: in
the middle of 1937, one of the employees of the Foreign Office, a former communist, was arrested. After that, Maclean and other members of the Cambridge Five went dark temporarily. However, the crackdown appeared to stop there, and judging by the documents that would continue to pass through the hands of Maclean, his position in the Foreign Office remained secure.
In the spring of 1938, the dedicated liaison arrived. Her name was Kitty Harris, aka "Gypsy," aka "Norma." On 4 April 1938, she made contact with Maclean using a code phrase. A photographer by trade, she rented a flat as a studio by day, and by night she photographed the documents Maclean brought from the office. The calculation was that meetings between two young people would look quite natural and would not attract unwelcome attention.
Indeed, the cover made so much sense that the pair actually fell in love. The flow of information to Moscow remained swift, and when in September 1938 Maclean was transferred to the British Embassy in Paris, it was decided Kitty Harris was to follow him there.
Maclean’s appointment to a post as important for Britain as Paris was gratifying, and he was pleased with the promotion. "Donald Maclean, having served in the Foreign Office for two years, has proved himself as an excellent cadre. He is charming, intelligent and refined," stated his letter of reference to the Ambassador to France.
While working in Paris, Maclean passed along information not only on relations between Britain and France, but also reports from British ambassadors in other countries, particularly Spain, where the Civil War was nearing its disastrous conclusion.
But there was a problem. Taking photographs of documents inside the embassy was out of the question, as everything there was in open view. And while Gypsy had settled in a hotel in Paris, there was the risk that a housekeeper would notice the special photographic equipment required. As a result, Donald to remember the substance of each document and then convey his summary to Gypsy, who would relay it to the Moscow Centre.
Of course, a summary that has been committed to memory, no matter how accurately, is not the same thing as a photographic copy. So, when in July 1939 Maclean communicated an important piece of information about Finland, the Centre passed along its appreciation but also the urgent request to see a physical document, given that the situation in Karelia was deteriorating, diplomatic negotiations were at a standstill, and war with Finland already seemed inevitable.
The need for a "photo studio" like the one in London was clear. Gypsy rented a flat in Paris and moved in with all her photographic equipment. A steady stream of secret documents began flowing to Moscow again.
In the late summer of 1939, the connection between the Paris station and Gypsy — and by extension Donald — was suddenly lost. The officers of the Paris station who had maintained operational contact with Kitty and Maclean were recalled to Moscow. On 25 November 1938, Lavrentiy Beria had become chief of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), and the ensuing purge of NKVD staff in Moscow disrupted the foreign intelligence service.
Kitty Harris assessed the situation and took a gamble by coming to the Soviet embassy. But the risk paid off and she made contact with someone new inside the station.
The visit to the embassy fortunately did not result in any trouble, but the real danger for Gypsy lurked elsewhere. First, the Centre received a message from Washington saying that a former member of the Bureau of the Communist Party of the United States, Benjamin Gitlow, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), named Kitty Harris as a Comintern agent, and later an agent of Soviet intelligence. Furthermore, additional details on Gypsy were given by Walter Krivitsky, an "illegal" Soviet intelligence agent in Western Europe who defected to the United States. The threat to Harris and Maclean had grown serious.
However, Maclean was forwarding extremely valuable information. With the Third
Reich looming in Europe, the Centre took the risky decision not to stop working with the agents or to withdraw Kitty. Gypsy continued to provide regular updates to Moscow.
But other problems were to emerge. Donald fell for a wealthy American student at the Sorbonne, Melinda Marling, and his personal relationship with Kitty came to an end. She was heartbroken but continued to work as a liaison.
On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded France. Just a month later the French
government surrendered and the French army laid down its arms. Kitty and Donald met for the last time, with the Nazis only a few dozen kilometres from Paris. Maclean was evacuating with the British Embassy.
The embassy was gripped by panic as everyone prepared for a rapid withdrawal. But Maclean and several other employees stayed focused, developed an evacuation plan, destroyed most of the documents, and took out the most important files. Donald even managed to marry Melinda two days before the Germans took Paris. He and his young wife were the last to leave the empty embassy building. They reached the coast by car and returned to Britain on a torpedo boat. Maclean’s courage and composure
were recognised by the Foreign Office leadership.
The materials that Maclean provided to Soviet foreign intelligence prior to World War II amounted to about forty boxes in the archives in Moscow, each containing about 300−350 pages of secret documents — over 12,000 pages in total. During the Great Patriotic War, from 1941 to 1945, the Centre received an additional 4,593 documents from him.
Upon returning home, Maclean was assigned to the headquarters of the Foreign Office, with access to documents of the Admiralty, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Supply. Melinda joined her parents in the United States to escape the air raids.
In December 1940, when London was facing daily bombardment, Donald Maclean wrote to the Moscow Centre:
"This work is as important for me as it is for you, if not more, because this is my life, this is what I live for. I will do everything in my power to carry it out securely. I cannot say that I love this work, but I admit that for me it’s the best way to participate in our great struggle. I am resolved to hold on until I am called away from this post."
Donald Maclean later turned his attention to nuclear issues, in particular in his role as first secretary of the British Embassy in Washington and in his work on the Combined Policy Committee that coordinated top-secret activities of two organisations involved in the creation of the atomic bomb: the Manhattan Project in the US and the Tube Alloys programme in the UK. Maclean was the Committee’s secretariat co-director from the British side.
With Europe weakened by war, the United States emerged as the leading power in world politics once the Axis was defeated. The Soviet leadership tried to secure its due, considering that the country had borne the brunt of the war and had undeniably made the greatest sacrifices to defeat the enemy both in Europe and in Asia. But they were stymied by the US administration. While European governments could live with some of the Soviet claims, US President Harry Truman was uncompromising. When Stalin tried to ensure Soviet access to the Mediterranean Sea, for example, he was rebuffed by the Americans.
Maclean, "Homer" then, revealed that Truman was pursuing a containment strategy aimed at halting the spread of communism. Maclean’s information was confirmed by Kim Philby, who was working in Washington at that time.
But in October 1947, Maclean noticed that several British counterintelligence officers were in the United States working with the FBI to identify sources of suspected leaks. The counterintelligence efforts in the British embassy had clearly intensified. A British counterintelligence officer told Maclean confidentially that the Americans had already arrested two Soviet agents and that the FBI had information on several other suspects, but insufficient evidence. "Homer" even asked the Centre to lay low for a while. However, the information he delivered was so valuable that the Centre encouraged him to keep at it, offering to increase security protocols and limit his meetings with the handler to once a month.
In the summer of 1948, Maclean was appointed Counsellor of the British Embassy in Egypt. At only 35 years old, he became the youngest British diplomat to reach such a high rank. But the enormous stress of the war and post-war years, aggravated by the harsh climate, took a toll on his health. One of Donald’s letters at that time included an urgent plea: "Get me to Moscow!"
In 1950, he returned to Britain, where he headed the American department of the Foreign Office, while continuing his work with Soviet intelligence. In the meantime, counterintelligence teams from MI5 and the FBI kept up the search. In June of 1950, the Americans managed to partially decipher one telegram, sent from the Soviet station in the US to Moscow back in 1945, a report on secret Anglo-American negotiations. Counterintelligence began to check anyone who might know anything, with suspicion falling on two people, one of which was Donald Maclean, as Kim Philby would come to learn.
Donald was placed under field surveillance. In order to rescue its valuable agent, Soviet intelligence planned and executed an operation involving Maclean’s old friends, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess who were covering each other. Back in Washington, Guy with his usual virtuosity feigned drunkenness and staged a couple of car accidents, causing the embassy to immediately send him back to London, where he could warn Donald.
On the evening of Friday, 25 May 1951, Burgess dropped by Maclean’s flat. The friends then departed together, ostensibly to celebrate their reunion at the club. But instead, they arrived at the port and a few minutes later were standing on the deck of the steamboat that would carry them away from British shores forever. Through France, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia they quickly made their way to the Soviet Union, arriving in Moscow two days later on 27 May 1951.
For their own safety, they were initially "hidden" in Kuibyshev, now Samara, before permanently relocating to Moscow in 1955 Donald Maclean became a consultant to Soviet foreign intelligence.
He went on to work as a senior fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, where he would remain for 20 years, completed his doctoral thesis on British Foreign policy after the Suez Crisis, which was published as a book, and established himself as a highly respected scholar.
Maclean mastered Russian, joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, actively participated in the work of the IMEMO’s party organisation and became a member of its academic board. By becoming a teacher and a scholar, he fulfilled the dream of his youth.
His achievements in the field were widely recognised. Maclean was decorated with the Soviet Order of the Red Banner, like his comrades of the Cambridge Five, and also with the Order of the Red Banner of Labour.
Another prominent British intelligence officer and Soviet agent George Blake said of
Maclean: "He became a member of Soviet society and helped build communism." Two years after Maclean’s arrival in the Soviet Union, his wife Melinda and their three children came to visit him. However, they could not imagine making a life for themselves in the Soviet Union, so his family returned to the West, while he remained in Moscow.
As George Blake recalls, "Donald had many friends and acquaintances, the staff
respected and loved him… He turned down any privileges, preferring to live a modest life. For the entire fourteen years I knew him, he did not touch a drop of alcohol, although there were periods, including after his arrival in the USSR, when he drank heavily. ‘Instead of becoming an alcoholic,' Maclean once mused, ‘I became a workaholic,' which is evidenced by the steady stream of reviews, reports, articles and books he authored. He raised an entire generation of Soviet experts in British domestic and foreign policy."
Donald Maclean died of cancer on 9 March 1983 A funeral service was held in the assembly hall of the IMEMO. According to one attendee, it was "a touching farewell to a man who was greatly respected and loved by everyone who knew him, not only as a legendary intelligence officer, but as a kind and honest comrade, a real English gentleman in the best sense of the word." Distinguished scholars spoke of him as a remarkable colleague, while the leadership of the intelligence service stressed his contribution to the defeat of Nazism and to the cause of peace in the world.
In accordance with Maclean’s will, his body was cremated, and the ashes brought by his son Fergus to Great Britain and buried in the family vault in London. A portrait of Donald Maclean hangs in the library of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, among other legendary personalities who worked there.