Last of the Cold War Spies: The Life of Michael Straight by Roland Perry

Conservatives in the United States has always considered liberals unpatriotic at best, but more likely traitors to the American way. On talk radio and Fox News, talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh excoriate the media on a daily basis for its “liberal bias”. When a Republican candidate seeks to tar a centrist Democrats with a pejorative term, he calls his opponent a “liberal”. Anne Coulter even recently wrote a book called Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terror. By the beginning of the 21st century “liberal” had become a dirty word, and not only on the Right. And for this we can thank Michael Straight.

Who was Michael Straight? Born into money, he spent his adult life jet setting around the globe, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. He served in government under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s, edited the prestigious liberal magazine the New Republic in the ’50s, partied with the Kennedys in the ’60s and, despite his liberal background, worked for President Richard Nixon in the National Endowment for the Arts. He even wrote three novels. His life couldn’t have been more interesting if Ian Fleming had penned it. Which, in fact, it could have been, since today, Straight is mostly remembered for being a Soviet spy.

Straight was a member of the infamous espionage ring known as the Cambridge Five. While studying at Cambridge, Straight was recruited by the USSR and after graduation his Soviet control sent him to the United States to begin his life as a spy. Straight later claimed he broke with Russia in 1942, but he didn’t turn himself into the FBI until 1963.

In Last of the Cold War Spies: The Life of Michael Straight, Australian journalist Roland Perry sets out to prove that Straight’s 1963 confession was a lie. The book is billed as a simple biography, but his true goal is to prove definitively that Straight’s entire resume is a scam, every job a cover to protect his secret life. Like a prosecutor desperate to make a case, Perry works backwards from a presumption of guilt.

Perry lacks hard evidence and what proof does exist usually favors Straight’s claim. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, KGB and GRU documents were made available to Western researchers from the Soviet archives. Though incomplete and often obtained in a manner frowned upon by academics — publishers often paid hard currency for access and some authors refused to share the documents — the papers filled in many details about Cold War-era espionage. In The Haunted Wood, a book based on access to one trove of documents, Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassilev claim that documents show Straight did break with the Soviets in 1942. This would seem to be incontrovertible proof that Straight was telling the truth all along.

But trivial matters like documents never stand in the way of Perry and his target. In his preface he writes: “Many espionage writers rushed for Moscow gold and collaborated with KGB agents to create works that were dependent on what was supplied by Russian intelligence.” He even refers to these books and articles as “a gigantic KGB con”, with the intelligence agency supplying only what the West already knew along with heaping topping of disinformation. He could be referring to The Haunted Wood, which has been criticized extensively, though mainly by the left. With this maneuver, Perry can continue his persecution, but it is up to the reader to decide if a reasonable doubt has been raised.

There is no smoking gun, so Perry examines each phase of Straight’s life and sees dastardly deeds wherever he treads. Donations to the ACLU? Civil liberties benefit the USSR by easing the way for spies. Money given to Amnesty International? Straight bought the Soviets influence in the organization. By the end of the book, Perry’s paranoia comes to rival that of John Jesus Angleton, the notorious counter-espionage chief at the CIA who saw spies in every dark corner and behind every door. Straight’s confession was good enough for Nixon — “Well, he’s on our side now,” was the former President’s take when informed of Straight’s espionage activities — but not, it seems, for Perry.

Only in the example of the defector Walter Krivitsky, a former Soviet agent who possessed information regarding the Cambridge ring, does Perry’s provide riveting evidence. In 1941, Krivitsky was found dead in his hotel room, likely murdered by Stalin’s hit men. Perry shows that Straight worked in an office at the State Department near the agent in charge of Krivitsky and was in position to pass the information on. Three days after Krivitsky’s death, Straight left his government position to become editor of the New Republic.

Last of the Cold War Spies only comes alive in moments like this, when Perry has a story to tell. His chapters on Krivitsky read like passages from a lost LeCarre novel. His recounting of Anthony Blunt’s trip to Germany following the end of World War II to retrieve papers that could incriminate the English Royal Family could be straight out of Evelyn Waugh. Unfortunately, the rest of the book bogs down in could haves and might haves.

Perry clearly sees Straight as a man of pure evil and he is unable to provide any hint of Straight’s motivation beyond his desire to serve the Soviets. It’s clear that there was more to him than an urge to do commit acts of treason. Where is Straight, the man? He’s nowhere to be seen in Last of the Cold War Spies.

PopMatters