Recently Ben Rhodes wrote a piece published in “The Atlantic” on John le Carre aka David Cornwell, “The Double Life of John le Carre.” I disagree with some of the conclusions Ben reaches in his essay. Additionally, when describing Cornwell’s trip to Vietnam in 1974 Ben believes the Viet Cong were the ones winning the war.
Here’s a comment I wrote to Ben: When I was in London in the early 90s I met Frederick Forsyth, the author, when I attempted to purchase his souped-up Mini Cooper. I commented on his books. He dropped the names of a couple of MI-5/6 types with whom I liased and I ended up being invited to a party and then to other people’s parties and so on. You know how the social scene works. I met David Cornwell on a few occasions at some of these soirees. He was a stereotypical Oxford don type with his thick eyebrows (what is it with the English and their caterpillar eyebrows?) And he had one helluva combover.
He suffered guilt feelings about his undergraduate days spying on his classmates, many of whom had become prominent citizens. He failed to see the efficacy of what he was doing, for had it been done correctly in the 1930s it might have precluded the Cambridge Five or even the less well known Oxford Five both of which still had to be discovered when David was spying on his classmates. Perhaps they would have been if MI-6 had taken counterintelligence seriously in those days. Which it did not. Even in Cornwell’s days CI was rather a back burner affair. Then Philby defected. The Cambridge Five’s most productive spy was found out but not arrested. He pretty much was allowed to defect with the MI-6 officer sent to collect him blaming Philby’s tradecraft ability on his escape. Sure and tomorrow there will be apricots. (that’s an Arabic expression for yeah sure.) Just think how a trial, even a supposedly secret one, would have rocked the Western world. MI-5 didn’t find Philby earlier because after all Philby was “one of us” or at least that was the prevailing attitude of the elite who served in MI-6. One simply didn’t spy against England. It just wasn’t done. But Philby wasn’t one of them. He never had been. See Philby biography). Cornwell, also, was not one of them. The proper schools, yes, although Oxford was after the Army and a stint at the University of Bern. From a bankrupt family one must wonder from whence occurred the resources to live and study abroad. Not only did Cornwell’s educational history not track with his peers in MI-6 but his father was not only a convicted felon but an associate of those criminal masterminds and thugees, the Kray brothers. So there was no question about a proper family? His father was also an alcoholic who sometimes struck his son and was most times gone on some great con, he was not the type of person whose son would wind up in the 1950s MI-5 and then be loaned to MI-6.
Not being one of “them” caused David to suffer from an inferiority complex that morphed into a deep seated loathing of the society in which he lived and the agency for which he worked . In his writing career he was consistently spit venom at all the intelligence officers save Smiley whom he modeled on two of his mentors. He also shredded the national efforts in the cold war and then the war against terrorist groups. He was no patriot.
He turned down honors his government offered, but gladly accepted those from other countries. Rhodes takes Cornwell at face value about leaving intelligence work because Kim Philby had blown Cornwell’s cover. But this was not the case. No, it was because with his background and having been in Philby’s outer circle he was suspect. That and he just wasn’t any good at the job, not because he didn’t have the tools to be but because he didn’t want to be.
Cornwell admitted, in a 2008 interview with Agence France Press, that he seriously considered defecting to the Soviet Union, because he was disillusioned with his side. It is doubtful that having three of the Cambridge spies including Philby, in residence, that the KGB would have found room at its table for a rather inept low-level spy handler with little to offer. He would be one, among others, MI-6 would sacrifice when the CIA demanded the English service clean what had become an Aguean stable of spies. That is another of the reasons Cornwell so disliked the service. He felt as if it had sacrificed him to appease the Americans. And in truth, it had.
Rhodes does make rather an amateur mistake, for someone otherwise well informed, describing Cornwell’s trip to Vietnam in 1974 when he was researching “The Honourable Schoolboy.” He claims that during Cornwell’s visit the Viet Cong were winning he war. But the VC had been destroyed as an effective force during Tet in ’68. That is when the NVA moved South in force. They put many of their people into black pajamas and pointy hats to give the illusion the VC was still a player. It was not. In fact Giap was so disillusioned by the losses during Tet he thought of ending the war. It was only when the North Vietnamese saw how the U.S. media was reporting Tet as a humiliating American defeat that the NV command authority began pouring NVA regulars into the country.
David Cornwell was a good writer, an abysmal spy, and a disillusioned individual with nothing to pledge his allegiance to. He was haunted by what he felt as social inferiority and guilt for betraying his classmates. He felt a person out of time and place. These emotions helped him craft the characters for his books. He said he would rather be known as a writer who had once been a spy, rather than a spy who had become an author. If that were true then he should have tried his hand at a genre other than spy books. But only spy books provided him the venue for releasing the poison he felt had corrupted his blood. How much did he hate his country? Near the end of his life he petitioned and received Irish citizenship. He died an Irishman. Ireland hated England for ten centuries so Cornwell finally ended up where he felt at home. He did defect, but not to the Russians.