Neil Root the author was born in London in 1971. After completing an MA in novel writing at Manchester University he has written five books to date on true crime, none fiction subjects. These include amongst them Who Killed Rosemary Nelson? and the book being reviewed here, Twentieth Century Spies.
This book is a fascinating investigation into the most high profile cases of spying scandals of the twentieth century. The reader is gripped from the first page and the book is all but impossible to set down. For those regulars on The Pensive Quill, many of whom will be familiar with recent scandals and revelations regarding the Northern Ireland 'troubles' such as Scap and Donaldson, the book offers an intriguing insight into the world of espionage and betrayal.
Neil Root attempts to give an insight into the motivation of those involved by looking at their early life experience and socialisation and the shaping of their own world view. He takes into account the times they were living in and the atmosphere as well as the prevalent attitudes of the day in trying to assess the motives that would lead to their ultimate acts of betrayal. The reader can decide whether it was from ideological reasons, fear of exposure, financial gain or simply pure egotistical excitement that ultimately led those involved to commit their crimes. Or perhaps a combination of all or several of the above. The reader is also left to decide if those involved were traitors, heroes or scapegoats and there is no shortage of emotional twists and turns when reading of the events within the pages of this book. It is easy to read and flows very well. A very enjoyable book if at times a melancholy experience.
The book is just under three hundred pages long and is laid out in ten chapters with each chapter looking at a particular spy scandal and those involved. The first chapter is about Margaretha Zelle, better known to us as Mata Hari. This chapter actually set the tone for the rest of the book for me. Having never read about Mata Hari the legend in any detail, I assumed she was a devious, sexually manipulating femme fatale spy who was responsible for all sorts of deception and betrayals which had caused untold damage to some or other state interests. What this book shows was a desperately unlucky girl trying to make a life for herself in a man's world, who fell foul of devious double dealings during the First World War.
Born in Holland and educated in good schools until the age of thirteen when her father went bankrupt, she suffered a further blow when her mother died when she was fifteen. Margaretha spoke several languages including Malay. She had learned this while in Java, Indonesia with her Dutch military husband of Scots descent named McLeod. He was a womaniser and wife beating heavy drinker. Both their young children were poisoned allegedly by a servant who McLeod had mistreated. The boy died but the girl survived. She had married him after answering an add in a paper seeking a spouse in order to escape a life with uncaring relatives. Out of the frying pan and into the fire springs to mind. After the incident the marriage broke down and McLeod took the daughter with him.
After escaping the husband she eventually attempts to make a life for herself in Paris as an exotic dancer taking the stage name Mata Hari, Malay for 'eye of the dawn'. Basically this reader was left with the impression that once she had established herself and become successful she was desired and manipulated by men in both the German and French intelligence and was eventually sentenced to death for espionage even though it is claimed she gave only old and of little use information to the Germans. The files relating to her case are due for declassification in France this year 2017. Her most recent biographer Pat Shipman believes she was the scapegoat and victim of Georges Ladoux, the head of French intelligence who recruited her. Ladoux was later arrested himself as a double agent and admitted that Mata Hari may well have been the victim of a deliberate German hoax.
Until further in depth reading on the subject is undertaken, this reader was left with the impression of her having created a successful career for herself in the entertainment world after a horrible life up until then. She had always been desirable to men and was even more sought after by powerful men during her dancing success in Paris. She was also possibly a conduit for German and French intelligence agents who ultimately threw her to the wolves when the time was right. It was similar to a sad Marilyn Monroe type experience for the Dutch lady, in which for now at least, she appears more victim than villain. The reality of her story seems far removed from the sensationalism associated with the name Mata Hari.
The details in the book are a wonderful insight into the working of the various intelligence agencies. Certainly Ladoux would not be the first to be the head of an agency or department working for the very people he was supposed to be hunting. This happened with the Cambridge ring of five at one stage too, with one of them head of a department responsible for seeking Russian agents in Britain. The grooming and manoeuvring of agents into positions by the Russians which were best suited to their needs screams of high level penetration and manipulation by them within SIS (Mi6) and Mi5.
As in the Mata Hari case, the Profumo scandal was to provide another gullible, convenient scapegoat, readily available for slaughter. This time it was Stephen Ward. An osteopathic practitioner in London who became friendly with stars and celebrities and who was ultimately used by MI5 in an apparent attempt to work a honeytrap operation against a Soviet intelligence agent, Captain Yevgeny Ivanov. This went horribly wrong when it was discovered the girl and friend of Ward being used as bait, Christine Keeler, was also sleeping with the British MP and Minister for War, John Profumo. The chapter on the Profumo affair gives detailed insight into the life of Stephen Ward and the working and underhand dealings of the intelligence services. It was known that Ivanov was socialising in certain circles and that he was friendly with the social elite of London. However nothing was done about it until the scandal which journalists had uncovered was exposed under parliamentary privilege. Amazingly, or perhaps not, the person least guilty in all of the goings on, Stephen Ward, was made scapegoat and it is believed murdered. This was made to appear as suicide by overdose.
The case of the Cambridge five was the result of ideological conviction in the fight against Nazism in WW2. The incredible thing here is that they were all aware of each others involvement with Russian intelligence. How they could operate under the stress of knowing that one being exposed would almost certainly spell disaster for the rest is incredible. Although one or more did end up with serious depression and drink problems and no bloody wonder. This seems to be a constant theme too with these agents. Whilst this and other scandals exposed within British intelligence services proved highly embarrassing for the British in the aftermath of WW2, the Americans had no shortage of Russian moles themselves in later years.
The FBI had uncovered Aldrich Ames who was working for the CIA and had brazenly walked into the Russian Embassy and offered his services. His motivation was money. He handed a Russian agent documents detailing every Russian agent working for the CIA for $50,000 in a diner. Holding back only two names who he was friendly with and liked. Getting divorced and remarried left him needing cash. Simple as that. He ended up getting scores of agents killed and did untold damage to USA security. He was paid upwards of $8,000,000 in less than a decade. Even though he was on an annual salary of just $60,000 he bought a house costing $500,000 + with cash and was driving a Jaguar car. His monthly phone bills were $8000 supposedly as a result of his Columbian wife making constant calls home. He suddenly had begun wearing designer clothes and living the high life very openly. When his home was eventually raided he had dozens of CIA files in his garage and computer discs full of sensitive information just laying around the place. Incredibly the CIA never noticed. Or perhaps because of other recent exposures of penetration they were reluctant to look too closely internally for fear of further embarrassment. The FBI did the job for them.
It is a similar story for a young British double agent John Vassall who was trapped in a compromising situation with homosexual men in Moscow. He was presented with photos and with homosexuality being illegal in the UK in the 1960s he turned. He was also paid large sums of money and lived in Dolphin Court apartments near Westminster spending money faster than it could be printed. It is believed his life experience as a gay male in the UK during his formative years made him amenable to become an agent for the Russians and angry enough to seek revenge on his own country. When asked in Parliament how Vassall had managed to live such an exuberant lifestyle above his meagre salary without it coming to anyone's attention, British Minister for Defence Peter Thorneycroft replied, “How many of us are living above our incomes in London squares?”
As I say, this is a fantastic read, flows well and is impossible to put down. At three hundred pages, roughly, it gives enough information without getting bogged down in boring detail. There are ten chapters about different spying scandals and the motivations vary from agents turning for reasons of financial, ideological, sexual exposure or entrapment to those largely innocent victims and pawns of darker much uglier forces covering their own tracks. Indeed a common theme of this espionage game, and one we are now becoming all to aware of here in Ireland after the dirty little war, is the constant practice of dark evil people having a ready scapegoat, dupe, or fall-guy, whatever you want to call it, close to hand. Those untouchables pulling the strings at a safe distance keeping a ready made victim close by for whenever needed. This book tantalises the reader into seeking more detailed information on the same subjects of each of the chapters and the bibliography and reference section provides plenty of authors, books and sources where we can find it.
One over bearing feeling I had after reading it from the perspective of someone who lived through the troubles here and knowing what we now do about the dirty war was, in comparison to global espionage, Northern Ireland was certainly small potatoes. Never the less, this book gives a solid foundation for a whole new understanding of what was going on. Keep our kids away from evil like this.
Neil Root, 2010. Twentieth Century Spies Summersdale Publishers. ISBN-13: 978-1849530224