Agents of Betrayal

A reconsideration of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.

By Lawrence Osborne

Governor’s Palace, Havana, Cuba, c. 1899. SMU Central University Library.

In his introduction to Kim Philby’s My Silent War, published in 1968, Graham Greene laid out the case for betrayal as an understandably human problem that needed, in the end, to be forgiven. Philby, the aristocratic son of the orientalist and Islamic convert H. St. John Philby, served as a high-ranking British intelligence officer and Soviet double agent until his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963. “The end, of course, in his eyes,” Greene wrote of the luckless traitor (who died in Moscow in 1988),

is held to justify the means, but this is a view taken, perhaps less openly, by most men involved in politics, if we are to judge them by their actions, whether the politician be a Disraeli or a Wilson. ‘He betrayed his country’—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?

It’s a well-known passage that has been used many times to cast a baleful eye on Greene’s own love affair with communism. Philby, he goes on to observe, possessed the same “chilling certainty” as the Catholics who worked for the Spanish under Elizabeth I. It was the “logical fanaticism of a man who, having once found a faith, is not going to lose it because of the injustices or cruelties inflicted by erring human instruments.” Communism or Catholicism: faiths not easily discarded for simple reasons of decency. It was, one might conjecture, faith itself that made Philby attractive to Greene over and beyond the allure of a considerable personal charm.

The two first met and became friends while employed as operatives in MI6. Recruited into the agency in 1941 by his own sister and posted to Sierra Leone, Greene remained involved in espionage for years thereafter, though the details are somewhat murky. In a memoir, Ways of Escape, he recalled spending much of his time in Freetown hunting demijohns of Portuguese wine and bottles of Canadian Club, passing his wretched nights marking points on the walls for each roach he and his lone colleague obliterated, and, of course, writing a novel. His attempts to run agents into nearby Vichy colonies were a failure. The boredom and absurdity of this life would come back to haunt his fiction, but West Africa was where Greene first fell in love with a place—as he put it, paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, where he lost his “virginity” to a loved place.

When Greene was assigned to work on German Abwehr activities in Portugal two years later, Philby became his supervisor. He was eight years younger than Greene; they were part of the same interwar generation. Betrayal and class self-hatred were in the air, and the hysterias and terrors of the 1930s could be seen as a natural incubator of youthful error.

There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.

—Francis Bacon, 1625

Greene’s yearning for rebellion began early. In another memoir, A Sort of Life, he recounts how at Oxford in 1924 he volunteered to spy for nationalist German underground factions in the occupied Ruhr. He saw them as a sort of disenfranchised underdog under the heel of French occupation. “Now I look back,” he reflected, “there seems something a little bizarre about my Oxford days. They certainly do not recall those of [Cardinal] Newman or the early pages of Brideshead Revisited; perhaps they were closer to [Donald] Maclean’s and Kim Philby’s at Cambridge.”

Greene had read a book of stories by a writer named Geoffrey Moss called Defeat that described the attempts of German patriots to establish “a Palatine Republic between the Moselle and the Rhine.” Inspired by the injustices inflicted upon the recently defeated Germans, Greene sent a letter to the German embassy in Carlton Gardens and proposed himself as a spy and propagandist for the German cause. Returning to his rooms at Balliol College, Greene found his armchair occupied by a “fat blond stranger” who announced himself as Count von Bernstorff, first secretary to the German embassy. They had agreed, to Greene’s considerable surprise, to take him on as an amateur freelance agent.

Greene suffered from a lifelong craving for adrenaline rushes, as demonstrated by his account in A Sort of Life of playing solitary Russian roulette in lonely woods with a loaded pistol when he was a teenager. It was, he later admitted, a result of the boredom that often overpowered him. Boredom was his worst fear, and the antidote to boredom, apart from faith and writing, was intrigue, melodrama, and sex. These are probably everyone’s antidote to boredom, but intrigue in Greene’s case led directly to randomly loaded pistols and escapades as a spy.

What followed was like something out of one of his own later “entertainments,” as he called his more commercial novels. “My days after that,” he remembered,

seemed to be filled by Germans—there was a very pretty Countess von Bernstorff, the diplomat’s cousin, who left a scented glove behind in my room to be added to my adolescent harem of inanimate objects; a young man with a long, complicated title, who claimed a nobler and longer descent than the Hohenzollerns; and a mysterious, wizened, narrow figure with a scarred face, Captain P., whose full name I have now forgotten. Captain P. would turn up at irregular intervals, like someone who looks in at a kitchen door to see if the kettle is boiling. Now that I have worked in the Secret Service myself, I feel I should have smelled him out immediately as an intelligence officer.

Off went the young Greene to the Ruhr with twenty-five pounds from the German embassy, accompanied by an equally youthful Claud Cockburn. The trip was an enjoyable freebie, and an espionage farce. They knew perfectly well that they were going to be useless to their erstwhile employers. In Bonn they followed Senegalese troops around, hoping to witness outrageous criminality against the Germans, but were disappointed. In Heidelberg they were introduced to a shady character called Dr. Eberlein, “in plus fours,” who ran a kidnapping business that snatched up German collaborators with the French who were then whisked back into Germany to be tried as traitors. “There was a delightful sensation of being hated by everyone,” he wrote to his mother, later adding, in A Sort of Life (with nodding reference to the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps), “We flirted with fear and began to plan a thriller together rather in Buchan’s manner.”

The Hired Assassin (detail), by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, 1852. © Wallace Collection, London / Bridgeman Images.

When Greene later suggested to the Germans that he go back to the Ruhr as an actual spy, he received a letter accepting the offer, which he read “with a measure of pride.” “Today,” he reflected, “I would have scruples about the purpose I served, but at that age I was ready to be a mercenary in any cause so long as I was repaid with excitement and a little risk.”


Greene’s free holiday at the expense of the gullible Germans would resurface thirty years later in the plot of his most famous satire of the espionage world, Our Man in Havana, published in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. The novel centers around James Wormold, a clueless, small-time vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana who has been recruited by British intelligence to spy on unusual developments in revolutionary Cuba. As his recruiter, a hideous, slang-prone agent from London named Hawthorne, believes, Wormold is suitably anonymous and insignificant, ideal qualities in a spy. Desperate to get paid so he can spoil his teenage daughter, Milly, he regrettably lacks any information of value. Over his usual morning daiquiris at the Wonder Bar, he spells out the dilemma to an old friend, the ancient and sympathetically ludicrous Dr. Hasselbacher, who convinces him to try his hand at deception:

“You are a lucky man, Mr. Wormold. That information is always easy to give.”




“If it is secret enough, you alone know it. All you need is a little imagination.”

Hasselbacher, between nips of Scotch, goes on to explain, “There is something about a secret which makes people believe...perhaps a relic of magic.”

Wormold begins to pass on enigmatic drawings of his vacuum cleaners to his superiors, who take them for images of nuclear installations. Hawthorne’s London boss, the Chief, is ripe for the deception, as the innocuous diagrams serve only to stoke his fearful imagination:

“The ingenuity, the simplicity, the devilish imagination of the thing...See this one here six times the height of a man. Like a gigantic spray...I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.”


“Is that desirable, sir?”


“Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.”

Beatrice, a secret-service assistant from London, is soon flown out to aid Wormold and seems to suspect almost at once that he is a f raud. Meanwhile, the sinister chief of police, Captain Segura, starts dropping in on him with alarming frequency, seeking to coerce f rom him both confidential information and Milly’s hand in marriage. Wormold’s fabrications quickly pile up and take on a life of their own, until he is swept along by them with dire consequences.

The idea for the novel first occurred to Greene around 1943, after noticing that the Abwehr agents in Portugal were beginning to spend their time “sending home completely erroneous reports based on information received from imaginary agents. It was a paying game”—especially when your own government was in decline. “It is wonderful how the conception of honor alters in the atmosphere of defeat.”

It struck Greene that he could play the game himself, and easily at that. While stationed in West Africa, a report had reached him of a Vichy airfield in French Guinea that supposedly contained a building that housed an army tank; as he informed his superiors, he suspected the building was nothing more than a storeroom for old boots, and the agent who supplied the information was functionally illiterate. “I had emphasized the agent’s disqualifications,” he wrote, “so that I was surprised when I earned a rating for his report of ‘most valuable’...So it was that experiences in my little shack in Freetown, recalled in a more comfortable room off St. James’, gave me the idea of what twelve years later, in 1958, became Our Man in Havana.”

Commissioned by the director Alberto Cavalcanti to write a screenplay, Greene drafted a single-page outline in the 1940s and at first set the story in Estonia in 1938. The film was abandoned, however, and the story set aside. Then in the early 1950s he visited Cuba and fell in love with Havana’s “louche atmosphere.” He went there, he admitted, for

the sake of the Floridita restaurant (famous for daiquiris and Morro crabs), for the brothel life, the roulette in every hotel, the fruit machines spilling out jackpots of silver dollars, the Shanghai Theater, where for $1.25 one could see a nude cabaret of extreme obscenity... Suddenly it struck me that here in this extraordinary city, where every vice was permissible and every trade possible, lay the true background for my comedy.


“Literature,” Greene wrote, “can have a far more lasting influence than religious& teaching, and my father’s enthusiasm for Robert Browning was the bacillus of a recurring fever.” Greene’s father, the formidable headmaster of Berkhamsted School, would spend hours mapping out elaborate storyboard-like sequences for his teachers’ lessons, a little like the head of some sprawling secret organization, but his taste for Browning implanted in his son—by the son’s own account anyway—an attraction to shadowy pathologies. Greene considered the following lines from “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” as he put it, “an epigraph for all the novels I have written”:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious atheist, demirep

That loves and saves her soul in new French books—

We watch while these in equilibrium keep

The giddy line midway.

This describes many of Greene’s tormented protagonists, holding their tenuous giddy lines midway. And it also describes many of the traitors he actually knew and rather liked. There was in them a drama being played out, often unconscious and pathological, that he understood and pitied and that could be called the enigma of betrayal.

Philby and the rest of the so-called Cambridge Five—the British intelligence officers who, like Philby, had been recruited by the Soviet Union while attending that university—had watched the Depression and the rise of fascism from the cloisters of Cambridge, and they felt an anguished guilt. Philby went to Vienna to help refugees from Nazi Germany and fell in love with the Jewish communist Litzi Friedmann; Guy Burgess, a more ambiguously bohemian figure—his house at Chester Square was the core of London bohemia even during the Blitz—was more of a camouflaged sleeper, seemingly able to live multiple lives simultaneously. Both could have been creations of Greene himself.

Secrets are rarely betrayed or discovered according to any program our fear has sketched out.

—George Eliot, 1860

Philby was known as the Third Man who had tipped off Burgess and Donald Maclean to their imminent arrests, and Greene’s script of that name for Carol Reed’s 1949 film is perhaps his ultimate fable of betrayal. Harry Lime, the sly and seductive dealer in contraband penicillin who has faked his own death but who reappears to his old childhood friend Holly Martins, is an American version of the aristocratic spooks and double-dealers that Greene knew from his own espionage years.

A recent biography of Burgess, by Andrew Lownie, is titled Stalin’s Englishman. Greene himself was never any such thing—though he sympathized with communist movements, he was never an overt communist—but he remained loyal both to Philby and to the tenebrous idea of disloyalty itself. (He even gave a speech in Hamburg in 1969 with the merry title “The Virtue of Disloyalty.”)

The rigid class order of late Edwardian Britain certainly played its part in creating a boy inclined to a certain brand of disloyalty. At school this scion of a wealthy and cultivated family with exalted literary connections secretly consorted with “two or three town boys of what was called then the working class.” “One summer,” he recalled, “I used to meet them in secret near some rubbish dumps beside the canal.” Snobbery and social paranoia were ubiquitous. His mother was outraged when the daughter of a tripe-seller was able to marry an officer in the Inns of Court. Even the boys at Berkhamsted who were “train boys”—meaning they traveled to school every day on trains—were socially despised. The hierarchies of the English public-school system and the society they reflected, Hindu caste-like, appear to have grated on Greene even as they benefited him.

At one point in the novel, Captain Segura tells Wormold that humanity can be divided into the “torturable” and the “nontorturable,” and that the torturable classes were the poor “in any Latin American country.” Wormold admits to his ignorance on the subject of “class distinctions in torture,” at which point Segura explains:

Dear Mr. Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement...One reason why the West hates the great communist states is that they don’t recognize class distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people.

The diagnosis is naive, of course, and alas it is not really Segura’s. In any case, with the class hierarchies of England came cruelty and sadism, and the weak, even the upper-class weak, were the torturable class. Greene himself made much of the cruelty he suffered at school, most of it at the hands of two boys called Carter and Watson. “Childhood was the germ of all mistrust,” Wormold thinks, and his creator would have agreed.

It was his own childhood that seemed to Greene in later life as the embodiment of frustration, for all its immense domestic civilization. A betrayal, in some way, of life itself. “I imagine,” he wrote,

that a man condemned to a long prison sentence feels much the same. I cannot remember what particular item in the routine of a boarding school roused this first act of rebellion—loneliness, the struggle of conflicting loyalties, the sense of continuous grime...Or was it just then that I had suffered from what seemed to me a great betrayal?

Years later, when he was in Malaya in 1951, Greene unexpectedly came upon the grown-up Watson while buying Christmas whiskey in Kuala Lumpur. While Greene had fantasized for years of humiliating his erstwhile nemesis in public, the actual meeting with Watson was a polite anticlimax. They chatted about Latin classes and polo and he learns that Carter is long dead. “I wondered,” Greene wrote, “all the way back to my hotel if I would ever have written a book had it not been for Watson and the dead Carter, if those years of humiliation had not given me an excessive desire to prove that I was good at something.”

The Cairo gang, a group of British intelligence operatives, Dublin, 1920. © Sean Sexton Collection / Bridgeman Images.

Carter, indeed, reappears in the novel—now metamorphosed into a seedy and déclassé British double agent posing as a rival vacuum-cleaner salesman. The British in general come off rather badly in this bitter Caribbean romp. Late in the book, Wormold is summoned to Jamaica to confer with Hawthorne. Isn’t it good, the man from London says, to be back on British territory? But Wormold, having glimpsed the haphazard squalor of most British colonies on his way through Kingston—the ramshackle streets, the chicken-coop houses made of tin, the badly organized gimcrack architecture—thinks back to the colonial Spanish splendor of the Cuban capital and thinks, “Havana was not so bad.”

Later, after Carter has tried to poison him at a trade-association lunch, Wormold realizes his lucrative little game is not as innocent as he had once supposed. Beatrice at one point tells him, as if he needed reminding, that despite all his awareness of the sham of the spy game, the money is real enough. “What happens after work is real,” she adds. “I mean, your daughter is real and her seventeenth birthday is real.” Wormold eventually comes to the same conclusion, but his conscience gnaws at him and he cannot find a decent way out of his own imbroglio. It is, after all, his exasperation with never-ending poverty that has driven him to his fraud, which never seemed consequential. Toward the end of his misadventure, just after he has blurted out the truth about his duplicity to Beatrice, he asks her, “Haven’t you any more loyalty than I have?” To which she replies:

“You are loyal.” “Who to?”


“To Milly. I don’t care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations...I don’t think even my country means all that much.There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”


He said, “I suppose they could take away my passport.”


“Let them try.”


“All the same,” he said, “it’s the end of a job for both of us.”

Beatrice is here announcing Greene’s own credo, more or less, a version of E.M. Forster’s dictum about preferring to betray one’s country than one’s friends. It’s the credo of a man who has emerged from an immensely powerful country whose survival he can more or less take for granted. Nor is it far from the ethos of the Cambridge Five, who practiced their own form of loyalty to one another, if not to the country that had pampered them.


In 1986, toward the end of his life, Greene showed up at a dubious Moscow congress where Genrikh Borovik, president of the Soviet Peace Committee, eventually arranged for him to be reunited with Philby. The two had corresponded for years. Rufina, Philby’s wife, has left a curious image of the venerable writer, on a return visit five months later, appearing ghostlike amid the snows of Moscow for a forum styled “For a Nuclear Free World and the Survival of Mankind”:

He came to dinner. I stood waiting for him at the curbside watching the passing cars. Greene stepped straight out of his Chaika into a pile of snow on an uncleared patch of pavement. We picked our way carefully along a narrow path which had been trampled in the snow, me in the lead, Greene following, gingerly attempting to walk right in my footsteps and gripping my hand hard as his city shoes slipped and slid. In the end, I delivered him safe and sound into Kim’s embrace.

It’s likely that Philby and Greene talked over the nature of disloyalty and betrayal as they reminisced about an England that had, in fact, largely disappeared. Though not because of any spy’s treachery. Greene had remained loyal to his friend all his life, and he prided himself on knowing what transpires within a traitorous heart, perhaps because he too felt that nothing was worth killing for—dying would be another matter.

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