Thursday, June 18, 2015
In the '30's, the Soviet Union was envisioned within the elite English universities as the best hope of blunting the impact of Hitler on Europe and the world. Communism was viewed as a viable governmental model, even as stories leaked out of the USSR of mass killings in the name of the people. As the coming war loomed, the English intelligence community started recruiting likely candidates for intelligence work. The vetting process mostly consisted of someone within MI6 knowing someone from college or family friends and asking if they wanted to do important work for the crown. Open collegiate affiliation with Nazi-favorable organizations was far more likely to generate suspicion than similar affiliation with the Communist party.
In 1937, Kim Philby was a party member and, through university contacts, volunteered his services to the Soviet Union. From that point forward, he was a loyal contributor to the Soviet cause until after retiring from spying decades later. Since he rose to key positions within MI6, including the liaison with the CIA in the 1950's, he was able to inform the Soviets of every major effort to spy on the USSR from immediately after WWII into the 1960's, resulting in the deaths of probably 100s of agents and those who were innocent civilians who might have had an anti-Soviet leanings in post-war eastern Europe. When Philby came under increased suspicion after two close friends defected, MI6 did everything in its power to protect Philby from various probes from the English equivalent of the FBI, MI5, and from U.S. inquiries, including the FBI. When MI6 finally came to realize the allegations were probably true, it appears they let him defect rather than face an inquiry that would have brought discredit to MI6.
This is a fascinating account of an agency supposed to be one of the best in the world. I found it depressing that the English class system had such a profound negative effect on decades of intelligence work. This is a must read for followers of spy novels and intelligence history.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
The story focuses on a Renaissance scribe who rises to the peak of his profession to become a key member of the papal nonsecular hierarchy. One of the reasons for this rise is his excellent grasp of ancient Latin. When he is no longer part of that heirarchy, he goes on a quest for rare pre-Christian books by famous Latin pagan thinkers. He discovers a text that was alluded to by other writers and is so impressive that when it makes it into print in the post printing press era, it may have had a profound effect on the thinking of key scientists and philosophers for centuries to come.
The discovered text is "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius. It is a dense, two hundred plus page poem that within lies a strikingly modern view of the world and a condemnation of superstition. The story of its discovery and impact is a tough one to tell because the time of discovery was so complex and connecting the text to modern outcomes is so nebulous.. Mr. Greenblatt does a very good job of focusing on the scribe, Poggio Bracciolini, and using his life to give understanding to the 15th century and how rooted in the past most of Europe was at the time, due in great deal to control of the church. Think being burned at the stake for saying the earth is not the center of the universe. However, going back to the creation of "On The Nature of Things" and proceeding all the way to Thomas Jefferson, "The Swerve" contains a lot of connections that boil down to they might have read the book or they might have said this and that. With the lack of actual descriptions by those historical figures that provide that connection, these multiple suppositions may be true but take away from what is an excellent piece of history and a revelation of the thinking of ancient thinkers.
Thursday, June 04, 2015
For those not familiar with the Lusitania, it was an English ocean liner in the mold of the Titanic and was torpedoed by a German submarine in WWI. That event was one of the tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war on the side of England and France. Prior to that the U.S. was neutral and there was a strong sentiment in the country to stay that way. Unlike FDR's desire for the U.S. to enter WWII much earlier than we did, President Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war.
Of the individuals in the book, the one's I found most interesting were the captains of both the Lusitania and the submarine, some of the passengers that both survived and parished, and the quiet dealings of the English government and military. England knew the submarine was in the area, took steps to safeguard its naval vessels while providing confusing information to the steam ship line managment regardig the safest way for the Lusitania to proceed. They also provided no escort at all for the ship, even though a number of destroyers were in the area. A good case can be made that England would just as soon have a disaster like the sinking of the Lusitania to force the U.S. into the war and their actions and inactions were an effort to achieve that end. Give it a read and decide for yourself.