John le Carre has confessed he thought of defecting.
In an interview intended to publicise his new novel The Most Wanted Man, John le Carré revealed to The Sunday Times that he had contemplated defecting when he had been working for the British Secret Intelligence Service in Germany during the early 1960s.
Le Carré, a pseudonym for David Cornwell, joined SIS in 1959 and departed five years later when his first Cold War book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, became a hit as a movie starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom. Previously Cornwell had been an informant for MI5 and then an MI5 officer, an unusual career path into SIS.
The admission that he had become fascinated by life in the east, though never tempted to become an ideological defector, was quite extraordinary, prompting a front-page story implying that Cornwell had truly considered defection. Of course, Cornwell must have known the impact his remark would have made and how it would be reported, and indeed the story was published elsewhere. Did he deserve this treatment?
In the same interview Cornwell suggested that Kim Philby, whom he wished he had met, had sent countless agents to their deaths in Albania (actually, he did not) and appeared to subscribe to the equally fallacious claim that his SIS role had been “effectively wrecked” by Philby. The chronology disproves this latter assertion. Philby was dismissed from SIS in November 1951 and Cornwell did not join the organization until 1959, so there is no reason to suppose that Philby had ever heard of him.
Setting aside the question of whether Cornwell ever really contemplated moving east, the phenomenon of defection remains controversial, and most of the KGB officers who took up residence in the west feel they are still vulnerable to retribution. Aleksandr Litvineko was assassinated in London by ingesting the lethal toxin polonium-210, and Oleg Gordievsky has claimed that he too was attacked last year.
Whilst Anthony Eden is known to have ordered the assassination of George Grivas in Cyprus and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby all died peacefully, untroubled by fears of British revenge. Would le Carré have survived in Moscow?