Article by Matthew Bellamy
On May 25th, 1951, Guy Burgess arrived at the house of Donald Maclean. The two Foreign Office diplomats packed a few bags and boarded the Falaise, a pleasure boat headed to Saint-Malo. Though Burgess shouted “Back on Monday!” to one of the dockworkers as he boarded the boat, neither man would return to England. Burgess and Maclean were defecting to the Soviet Union; they had both been recruited to be Soviet agents while at Cambridge in the 1930s, and had been feeding Moscow high-level intelligence ever since.
The resulting scandal of their decades-long treason and their sudden defection upended British and American intelligence and governmental work. The “missing diplomats,” as they were euphemistically called in the press, instigated a soul-searching inquiry in public discourse into how the British intelligence apparatus had missed two of its own betraying their country for the Soviet Union.
Elsewhere in my work, I argue that the eventual uncovering of the entire Cambridge Spy Ring was perceived by the public as a symbolic betrayal of the principal assumption of the British secret service: that the “gentleman,” meaning the ruling-class, Oxbridge-educated male, was above reproach, and thus could be trusted with national safety and security in the most dangerous of contexts. Here, however, I wish to focus on how it affected the characterization and reception of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, whose adventures began to be published at the same time as the Burgess and Maclean defections were being investigated.
For many with a history in intelligence work, like Fleming himself, the defections of Burgess and Maclean was a bitter pill to swallow. As Fleming’s friend Cyril Connolly wrote in an article series called “The Missing Diplomats” the defections were so unexpected in part because Burgess and Maclean were “members of the governing class, of the high bureaucracy, the ‘they’ who rule the ‘we’” (15).
Quickly though, public discourse seized upon a key aspect of the Burgess and Maclean case that served to differentiate them from previous cases of espionage: homosexuality. Burgess’s homosexuality, and allegations that Maclean was also gay or prone to “homosexual tendencies” when he had been drinking, became convenient scapegoats in a public imaginary steeped in homophobia. For example, an article about Burgess in the November 23, 1955 issue of The Times claimed that the Burgess scandal had taught the Foreign Service the lesson that there was a connection “between a weakness of character, a particular form of perversion” and security breaches.
It was easier to blame homosexuality as a kind of “moral weakness” inherent in Burgess, or to posit that he had been blackmailed by the Soviets into selling secrets because of his homosexual conduct (a common enough speculation), rather than to admit that members of the upper-echelon of British state service might legitimately believe in Communism.
Over the next few years after the defection, the scandal lingered as a series of unanswered questions, Parliamentary hearings, and tell-all monographs—and thus it continued to gnaw away at public faith in the intelligence bureaucracy. An editorial in the Daily Mail from 1955 lamented that “since it must have been notorious in the Foreign Service that the two men were corrupt and homosexual, it is legitimate…to ask if they were protected by…powerful defenders.” Similar questions were asked in Parliament by Alfred Robens and others in the opposition (“British Subjects”).
In this atmosphere, Bond can be seen as a kind of reboot, an answer for a public that had deep doubts about the effectiveness and competence of its intelligence apparatus in the midst of the Cold War. In other words, Fleming’s stories allowed the public to once again see spies as heroes, as trustworthy servants of the state. As author and critic Ben Macintyre has said, Bond was “the ideal antidote to Britain’s postwar austerity, rationing and the looming premonition of lost power” (99). I suggest that he is also a response to the damage the “missing diplomat” scandal did to public faith in intelligence work.
The first few Bond books confront both the historical fact of the defections and the prevailing discursive link between homosexuality and betrayal. Referencing Burgess and Maclean explicitly and implicitly allowed Fleming to craft Bond by contrast, as a new mold of pop cultural hero and as rehabilitation for the domestic intelligence worker. The Bond-ian template of the superspy linked masculinity, heterosexuality, trustworthiness, and the capacity to inflict and endure violence in the name of the state. For this template to have any cultural resonance, it had to smooth over any doubts that the men charged with guarding and gathering national secrets were untrustworthy. This meant scrubbing Bond, who after all is not all that dissimilar demographically from Burgess, of any hint of the defector. Most obviously, Bond is serially straight. Bond’s “weakness for women” as his KGB file calls it in From Russia, with Love is more than wish fulfillment.
By virtue of not being its opposite, homosexuality, Bond’s straightness is actually a reassurance of his loyalty to Britain, a trait central to his mythic status as superheroic spy. For example, though Bond worries about “the sexual twilight” of “masochistic infatuation” with Le Chiffre while being tortured by him in Casino Royale (1953), he not only resists the temptation to give in to this homoerotic desire and tell Le Chiffre what he wants to know, but also in his recovery longs to test his “manhood” by sleeping with Vesper (113; 155).
As one can guess, Bond ultimately has no problems performing. He treats Vesper first as a test of his own virility but very quickly discovers that his fascination with her is not just as a sexual object—he becomes obsessed with and aroused by the idea that she has a secret he cannot know (which, granted, she does—she is a Soviet double agent). Bond’s misogynistic pleasure in penetrating Vesper’s privacy as well as her body allows him to experience what he calls “the sweet tang of rape” in each sexual encounter (156). Bond resists giving Le Chiffre any of his secret knowledge, thus passing the “supreme test of will” by refusing homosexual desire and its symbolic attendant, treason (113). Bond then seeks to forcibly possess Vesper’s body and her secret knowledge, a secret that once known directly benefits MI6. Taken together, these are a double confirmation for the reader of Bond’s straightness and his spying prowess.
By the time Fleming wrote From Russia, with Love (1957), Burgess and Maclean had resurfaced in the U.S.S.R. and, due to debate in Parliament and a rush of biographical writing about the two, the pair loomed even larger in the public imaginary. Perhaps as a result, FRWL does the most of the early Bond novels to engage with the legacy of Burgess and Maclean on the public conception of an intelligence worker, and is the most explicit attempt to entrench Bond as the cultural image of the British spy. (In fact, this is a plot point in the book—SMERSH targets Bond precisely because of his symbolic value to MI6).
Bond is introduced in the novel offering a defense of MI6 from charges that intellectualism, homosexuality, and treason are inherently linked among the upper echelon of intelligence officer. During a committee meeting to determine whether intellectuals should be recruited into MI6 following the Burgess and Maclean defections, Bond’s is the only voice arguing that they should be, in order to match the Soviet’s facility for human intelligence and long-term mind games. Bond even suggests that Burgess himself might be induced to double-up against the Soviets if he had the right handler (103). His point of view is met by the committee chairman with resistance:
“So you [Bond] suggest we should staff the organization with long-haired perverts. That’s quite an original notion. I thought we were all agreed that homosexuals were about the worst security risk there is” (103).
Bond, in his defense of the service, doesn’t exactly agree: “Not all intellectuals are homosexuals,” he retorts (103). Note Bond does not attempt to refute that homosexuality is a security risk, merely that the intellectual, Oxbridge gentleman that staffed much of the intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracies, many of whom were Fleming’s personal friends, were not inherently gay, and thus, following this particular logic, potential or actual Communist agents. Bond may defend this kind of intelligence staffer, but the novel makes sure the readership knows that Bond himself is “a man of war” and that “peace was killing him” (97).
Characterizing Bond as a man of action who “mistrust[s] anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot” yet nevertheless willingly defends the established hierarchy and order of MI6 widens the potential audience of the character considerably, a nice way for Fleming to have his most famous creation appeal to multiple sides of the debate (230). I don’t mean to suggest that the Bond novels were written as deliberate propaganda, but part of Bond’s wide appeal in the 1950s lay in providing a symbolic reassurance that the UK’s Secret Services were capable, strong, loyal, and stable.
Part of the wish fulfillment aspect of Bond—just as necessary to the mythos as the girls and gadgets—is his steadfast, if at times begrudging, loyalty and his ability to complete any mission. For a public confused and disparaged about the competence and security of their intelligence community after the Burgess and Maclean defections, Bond was a welcome relief, a return to the comforting fantasy that the world was sensible and those in charge knew what they were doing. That this fantasy derives much of its cultural resonance and import from the continued villainizing of homosexuals, especially those in state service, is a direct consequence of the lingering effect the Burgess and Maclean defections had on both the character of Bond and the cultural milieu he entered and helped to shape.
“A Question Unanswered.” The Daily Mail, 9 Nov. 1955, p. 1.
“British Subjects at the Ports.” The Guardian, 8 Nov. 1955, p. 2.
Connolly, Cyril. The Missing Diplomats. The Queen Anne Press, 1952.
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. Thomas and Mercer, 2012.
–. From Russia With Love. Thomas and Mercer, 2012.
Macintyre, Ben. For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond. Bloomsbury, 2008.
“Personal Habits as Danger to Security.” The Times, 23 Nov. 1955, p. 5.
Matt Bellamy is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. His work primarily concerns the intersections of gender, sexuality, class, technology and spy fiction in the making of the modern intelligence agency. His favorite Bond book is From Russia, with Love, and his favorite Bond film is Skyfall.