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The British Secret Service and Anglo-Soviet Relations in the 1920s Part I: From the Trade Negotiations to the Zinoviev Letter*

  • Christopher Andrew (a1)

On the morning of Saturday 25 October 1924 Philip Snowden, the Labour chancellor of the exchequer, was woken by the sound of J. H. Thomas, the colonial secretary, hammering on his bedroom door. ‘Get up, you lazy devil!’ Thomas is reported to have said. ‘We';re bunkered.’ What Thomas really said was probably more vivid but less printable. The cause of his excitement was the publication of the Zinoviev letter, the greatest Red Scare in British political history. Allegedly written by Zinoviev, president of the communist International, to the British Communist party on 15 September 1924. this sinister document instructed British Communists to put pressure on their sympathizers in the Labour party, to ‘strain every nerve’ for the ratification of the recent treaty with the Soviet Union, to intensify ‘agitation-propaganda work in the armed forces’, and generally to prepare for the coming of the British revolution. A copy of the letter was first obtained by the Daily Mail, then circulated by the Mail to the rest of Fleet Street. It was published in the press four days before the general election of 29 October 1924, at a critical moment in the life of the first Labour government. Until its publication Labour leaders felt their election campaign was going well. Afterwards they changed their minds.

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1 Snowden, Philip Viscount, An autobiography (London, 1934), II, 710.

2 Taylor, A. J. P., Beaverbrook (London, 1972), pp. 223–41.

3 Strang, W., ‘Note on arguments used to support the contention that the Zinoviev letter is a forgery’, 17 Nov. 1924, Public Record Office, FO 371/10479; Crowe, Sibyl, ‘The Zinoviev letter: a reappraisal’, Journal of Contemporary History, X (1975), 415–16.

4 Grant, N., ‘The “Zinoviev letter” case’, Soviet Studies, XIX (19671968), 270–1.

5 Parl[amentary] Deb[ates], H[ouse] of C[ommons], 5th series, vol. 215, col. 63; Grant, ‘Zinoviev letter’, pp. 274–5.

6 Chester, L., Fay, S. and Young, H., The Zinoviev letter (London, 1967), ch. 5.

7 Grant, , ‘Zinoviev letter’, p. 264; Butler, W., ‘The Harvard text of the Zinoviev letter’, Harvard Library Bulletin, XVIII (1970), 52–3; Crowe, , ‘Zinoviev letter’, p. 410.

8 Parl, . Deb., H. of C., 5th series, vol. 189, cols. 673–4. A committee of the outgoing Labour cabinet, set up on 31 October to examine the letter's authenticity, found it impossible to reach a decision ‘in the short time available‘ before the government's resignation on 4 November. The committee of the Baldwin cabinet had more evidence, as well as more time, available to it.

10 ‘History of the Zinoviev incident’, 2nd revise, 11 Nov. 1924, FO 371/10479.

11 Sir Hugh Sinclair to Crowe, 6 Nov. 1924, ibid.; Crowe, , ‘Zinoviev letter’, pp. 417–18.

12 S.I.S. activities were strictly confined to areas outside the United Kingdom. The special branch played no part in providing or corroborating the Zinoviev letter (SirChilds, Wyndham, Episodes and reflections (London, 1930), p. 246; Marquand, D., Ramsay MacDonald (London, 1977), p. 388. Evidence of the letter's receipt must therefore have come from M.I. 5.

13 For earlier examples of these reports, see below, pp. 692, 701. The flow of Sovnarkom minutes continued after S.I.S. had obtained a report of its discussion of the Zinoviev letter on 25 October 1924. Reports of further Sovnarkom meetings were circulated to the cabinet by Austen Chamberlain on 22 December 1924 (copy in FO 371/10480) and in January 1925 (copy in Cambridge University Library, Baldwin MSS 230). The first of these reports provided further corroboration for the Zinoviev letter. Chicherin was alleged to have told Sovnarkom that ‘the letter upon its receipt had been destroyed by Comrade Inkpin [secretary–general of the British Communist party]’.

14 The ‘irrefutable evidence‘ which the intelligence services claimed to furnish on the weekly transfer of funds from the Russian trade delegation to the British Communist party must surely have come, at least in part, from within the party (see below, p. 692). During the 1928 commons debate on the Zinoviev letter, the attorney general, Sir Douglas Hogg, appeared to hint at the previous existence of a Communist informer. He alleged that one of the reasons for the left-wing call for a government enquiry into the letter was ‘to find out who, in the ranks of the Communist party [apparently meaning the British party], gave away the secret’ (Part. Deb., H. of C, 5th series, vol. 215, col. 93).

15 Chester, , Fay and Young, Zinoviev letter, p. 48.

16 Part. Deb., H. of C, 5th series, vol. 189, col. 674.

17 See below, pp. 688–91.

18 ‘History of the Zinoviev incident’, 2nd revise, 11 Nov. 1924, FO 371/10479.

19 Britain was not, of course, the only country to intercept Soviet communications. During the post-war period France and the United States were able to decrypt at least some Russian telegrams. A number of other governments also intercepted from time to time the correspondence of Comintern and the Soviet Communist party. Peters, the British envoy in Moscow, reported after the publication of the Zinoviev letter: ‘The general view [of the diplomatic corps] is that, whether this particular letter is or is not genuine, other letters of similar tenor are constantly being despatched by the Communist International to various countries.’ Peters reported the ‘somewhat similar case’ of a letter from the Soviet Communist party intercepted by the Finnish government in 1922, whose authenticity had at first been denied by the Russian government: ‘When it was established, by means of examination of the typewriting, that it was the work of the same machine as that on which various undoubtedly genuine circulars had been typed, the Soviet authorities took the fresh line that it was the work of a female typist, Miss Eva Korhonen, and that the committee of the party had nothing to do with it. The matter was dropped, as so many of these matters are.’ Peters to MacDonald, no. 1027, 4 Nov. 1924, FO 371/10479.

20 The extent of the expurgation varies with the type of raw intelligence. A substantial number of special branch reports have been left by the weeders. On the other hand, an attempt has been made to remove from the files all trace of intercepted diplomatic telegrams. On British official sensitivity to the history of the intelligence services, see Christopher Andrew, ‘Whitehall, , Washington, and the intelligence services’, International Affairs, July 1977.

21 Andrew, Christopher, ‘Déchiffrement et diplomatic: le cabinet noir du quai d'Orsay sous la Troisième République’, Relations Internationales, III (1976), no. 5.

22 Paul to Jules Cambon, 8 Mar. 1912; Paul to Henri Cambon, 18 Mar. 1913. On the Cambons ‘ suspicion of the French cabinets noirs, see Paul to Henri Cambon, 26 Feb. 1900 and 1 Nov. 1902 (letters in the possession of M. Louis Cambon).

23 Gooch, J., The plans of war: the general staff and British military strategy c. 1900–1916 (London, 1974), p. 32.

84 Cabinet memorandum, ‘Reduction of estimates for secret services’, 19 Mar. 1920, House of Lords Records Office, Lloyd George MSS F/9/2/16 (not to be found in the Public Record Office). The Foreign Office did, however, conduct some intelligence operations on its own account before 1914, notably in the Middle East, where the ‘secret fund’ was used both to win friends and to obtain information.

25 Admiral SirJames, William, The eyes of the navy: a biographical study of Admiral Sir Reginald Hall (London, 1955); Ewing, A. W., The man of Room 40: the life of Sir Alfred Ewing (London, 1939); Beesly, P., Very special intelligence: the story of the Admiralty's operational intelligence centre 1939–1945 (London, 1977), ch. 1.

26 Cabinet memorandum, ‘Reduction of estimates for secret services’,19 Mar. 1920, Lloyd George MSS F/9/2/16.

27 The Foreign Office did not, however, relieve the Admiralty of ‘responsibility for payment of the Code and Cypher School’ until April fools day, 1922. W. H. Robinson (Foreign Office) to C. E. Horsey (Admiralty), 18 Mar. 1922, FO 366/800.

28 Cabinet memorandum, ‘Reduction of estimates for secret services’, 19 Mar. 1920, Lloyd George MSS F/9/2/16

29 Long to Lloyd George, 9 Jan. 1919, Lloyd George MSS F/33/2/3.

30 Churchill, to George, Lloyd, 19 Mar. 1920, Lloyd George MSS F/9/2/16.

31 Lockhart, R. H. Bruce, Memoirs of a British agent, 2nd edn (London, 1974), p. 277.

32 Reilly, , ‘Memorandum on the situation in Russia’, 5 Aug. 1921, Lloyd George MSS F/203/3/6. For Churchill's views and the Foreign Office reaction see Gilbert, M., Winston S. Churchill, IV (London, 1975), 760–1. Churchill was also a keen supporter of another ‘master spy’, Paul Dukes; see Churchill, to George, Lloyd, 20 Nov. 1919, Lloyd George MSS F/9/1/19.

33 Parl. Deb., H. of C, 5th series, vol. 147, col. 2043.

34 Cabinet memorandum, ‘Reduction of estimates for secret services’, 19 Mar. 1920, Lloyd George MSS F/9/2/16. Details of the S.I.S. budget are given in an appendix to this article.

35 Andrew, , ‘Déchiffrement et diplomatic’, pp. 5963.

36 Yardley, H., The American Black Chamber (New York, 1931).

37 Hankey, to George, Lloyd, 8 Sept. 1920, House of Lords Record Office, Davidson MSS (uncatalogued).

38 In 1920 Hankey believed that the Germans were ‘decoding messages’ (ibid.). The German foreign ministry records show that during the war the Germans had decrypted some Italian diplomatic telegrams. Cf. Kahn, D., The Codebreakers: the story of secret writing (New York, 1968), p. 436.

39 According to Hankey, ‘…the Russians were the first to introduce us to this system of de–coding, and I believe one of our most skilful experts was and is of Russian origin’ (Hankey to Lloyd George, 8 Sept. 1920, Davidson MSS). Feterljain's identity is revealed in Frunze to Lenin and others, 12 Dec. 1920, Meijer, J. M. (ed.), The Trotsky papers 1917–22 (The Hague, 1971), 11, 369.

40 Churchill, to Chamberlain, Austen, 21 and 22 Nov. 1924, Birmingham University Library, Chamberlain MSS, AC 51/58 & 51/61.

41 George, Lloyd, ‘Memorandum on the proposal to expel Messrs Kameneff and Krassin’, 2 Sept. 1920, Lloyd George MSS F/203/1/4.

42 Hankey, to George, Lloyd, 8 Sept. 1920, Davidson MSS.

43 Ullman, R. H., Anglo–Soviet relations, III: The Anglo–Soviet accord (London, 1972). My own account owes much to Ullman's lucid analysis.

44 For evidence that these messages (not discussed by Ullman) were already being intercepted at the beginning of the trade negotiations see, for example, Lloyd George MSS F/12/3/50.

45 Ullman, , Anglo-Soviet accord, pp. 253–62, 301–7.

46 See below, p. 695.

47 Documents on British foreign policy 1919–1939, 1st series, XII, no. 835.

48 SirKaye, Cecil, Communism in India [1920–1924], 2nd edn, ed. Saha, M. (Calcutta, 1971), pp. 15; SirPetrie, David, Communism in India 1924–1927, 2nd edn, ed. Saha, M. (Calcutta, 1972), pp. 59. Kaye was director of the intelligence bureau of the Indian government's home department from 1919 to 1924; he was succeeded by Petrie from 1924 to 1931. Their books (originally distributed only to intelligence personnel) provide valuable summaries of most intelligence material available to the raj, with the notable exception of decrypted Soviet telegrams (evidently considered too secret for inclusion). The first editions of their works are available only in the Indian National Archives; there is no copy in the London India Office Library. Significantly the Indian editor of the reprint, though a Marxist, does not suggest that any of the intercepted documents cited by Kaye and Petrie (which include Comintern communications) were forgeries. Space does not permit an extended analysis of Indian intelligence work in this article.

49 Ullman, , Anglo–Soviet accord, ch. IX.

51 Ibid., pp. 287–9. Sinclair, D.N.I. 1919–21, was already the dominating figure in British intelligence. After a brief tour of duty as chief of the submarine service he returned to intelligence work in 1923 with the official title of ‘head of the secret service’.

52 conclusions, Cabinet, 15 Sept. 1920, Cab. 23/23. This leak is not discussed by Ullman.

53 Hankey claimed that the cabinet decision not to publish the intercepts was due mainly to his warnings on the danger of ‘compromising' G.C. & C.S. Diary entry by Hankey, 15 Sept. 1920, Churchill College, Cambridge, Hankey MSS 1/5.

54 Frunze, to Lenin, and others, 19 Dec. 1920, Trotsky papers, 11, 369; Ullman, , Anglo–Soviet accord, pp. 308–9. Ullman implies that British indiscretions in September had helped alert the Russians to the breaking of their codes. This appears unlikely. The Russians did not decide to change their codes until after Frunze's warning three months later. British intelligence chiefs, unaware of Frunze's warning, naturally concluded that British indiscretions were to blame. Ullman also implies that the flow of Russian intercepts was now ‘to dry up’ for a considerable, if not indefinite, period. In fact the flow resumed less than four months later.

55 Foreign Office confidential print, no. 11861, ‘Violations of the Russian trade agreement, 1921’ (copy in Cambridge University Library), pp. 21, 25, 45–7. This remarkable unpublished document, which the weeders appear to have overlooked (perhaps because of its innocuous title), reproduces fifty files, most including top secret intelligence material.

56 Ibid., pp. 47–8, 63, 75–7.

57 Ibid., pp. 45, 70–2.

58 Ibid., pp. 90–6.

59 Ibid., pp. 113–17.

60 Ibid., pp. 108, 109–n.

61 Ibid., pp. 153–4.

62 Printed memorandum on ‘classification of reports’, attached to intelligence report of 10 May 1922, Lloyd George MSS F/26/1/30.

63 Owen O'Malley, ‘Memorandum on Soviet policy, March 1921–December 1922 (secret)’, 6 Feb. 1923, p. 11, India Office Library, Curzon MSS, Eur. F 112/236.

64 Ibid., pp. 18–20, 29–32.

65 Cabinet conclusions, 3 May 1923, Cab. 23/45. Cf. Curzon to Bonar Law, 5 May 1923, Davidson MSS.

66 Cmd. 1869.

67 Cmd. 1874.

68 Gregory, J. D., untitled memorandum on Russia, 8 Jan. 1924, Cvirzon MSS, Eur. F 112/236.

68 Gregory believed that one reason for the ‘almost complete lack of evidence of hostile activity by Soviet representatives in the East’ was ‘the fact that we are perhaps not now in a position to interpret the wireless messages which were the chief source for our charges in May last’ (Ibid.). The break in the flow of intercepts was to be a temporary one. How temporary, however, it is impossible to say on the basis of the evidence at present available. By the spring of 1925 G.C. & C.S. was once again decrypting Russian telegrams but it may have done so earlier. I intend to deal with the period from the Zinoviev letter to the rupture of Anglo-Soviet relations in a later article.

70 Lloyd George's comment was recorded by Fisher, H. A. L. in his diary on 9 Sept. 1920. Gilbert, , Churchill, IV, 429.

71 Curzon, to Crewe, , 2 Feb. 1923, Cambridge University Library, Crewe MSS 12.

72 Title written by Curzon on envelope containing the intercepts, Curzon MSS, Eur. F 112/320.

73 Curzon, to Crewe, , 13 Oct., 12 Nov. and 12 Dec. 1923, Crewe MSS 12; Curzon to Baldwin, 9 Nov. 1923, Curzon MSS, Eur. F 112/320.

74 Roskill, S., Hankey: man of secrets, II (London, 1972), 353–4: Chester, Fay and Young, , Zinoviev letter, p. 108.

75 Yardley, , Black Chamber, pp. 262–3; Kahn, , Codebreakers, pp. 178–9.

76 Churchill to Austen Chamberlain, 21 Nov. 1924, Chamberlain MSS AC 51/58. Churchill would scarcely have made such a claim in a letter to the foreign secretary (who could easily check it) had he been uncertain of its truth. He had been at pains to compare the circulation of intercepts under the MacDonald and first Baldwin governments in order to urge a return to the practice of the latter. The Foreign Office's motives in withholding intercepts from MacDonald for some time may, however, have been less sinister than Churchill's letter suggests. Even allowing for Crowe's deep fear of Bolshevism, his even deeper sense of personal honour would scarcely have allowed him to conceal important information from the prime minister. But since MacDonald, as part–time foreign secretary, did not deal with much day–to–day diplomacy, Crowe may have felt for some time after the loss of the Russian diplomatic codes that no intercept was sufficiently important to require the prime minister's personal attention.

77 Parl. Deb., H. of C, 5th series, vol. 206, 26 May 1927, cols. 2257–8.

78 The Times, 5 Mar. 1928.

79 Chads, , Episodes, p. 209.

80 Marquand, , Ramsay MacDonald, pp. 314–15.

81 Childs, , Episodes, pp. 224–5. Indian intelligence was also on the look–out for forged documents; Petrie, , Communism in India, pp. 7782.

82 FO 371/10478.

83 Memorandum by Gregory, J. D., 8 Jan. 1924, Curzon MSS, Eur. F 112/236.

84 Foreign Office confidential print, no. 12733 (coPy m Cambridge University Library), pp. 91–2.

85 Minute by Maxse, 3 May 1924; Mounsey (Foreign Office) to Home Office, 12 May 1924. FO 371/10478.

86 Marquand, , Ramsay MacDonald, pp. 361–3.

87 Part Deb., H. of C, 5th series, vol. 215, 19 Mar. 1928, col. 60.

88 Crowe, , ‘Zinoviev letter’, pp. 411–14; Chester, Fay and Young, , Zinoviev letter, pp. 191–5; Sunday Times, 15 Feb. 1970.

89 Part. Deb., H. of C., 5th series, vol. 215, 19 Mar. 1928, col. 62.

90 The news of Reilly's execution during his 1925 Russian mission was revealed by an OGPU defector in 1927. It has since been confirmed by a best–selling Soviet ‘history’ of ‘OGPU. There have also been other, highly speculative, versions of how the ‘master spy’. met his fate. See Lockhart, R. Bruce, Ace of spies (London, 1967).

91 Petrie, , Communism in India, pp. 72–3. Further intercepted Comintern communications, reached Indian intelligence, probably from S.I.S., during 1925. Ibid., pp. 73–4.

92 Calhoun, D. F., The united front: the T.U.C. and the Russians 1923–1928 (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 64–5. When and in what form a report of Zinoviev's speech (later published) reached the Foreign Office is unclear. In view of its access to much more confidential Comintern information, however, it is unlikely that the Foreign Office received no report of the speech.

93 Diary entry by MacDonald, 31 Oct. 1924, quoted in Marquand, , Ramsay MacDonald, p. 383. The only contribution of Marquand's generally admirable biography to the history of the Zinoviev letter is to print the relevant extracts from MacDonald's diary. Marquand takes no account of research on the letter published since 1967.

94 ‘History of the Zinoviev incident’, 2nd revise, 11 Nov. 1924, FO 371/10479.

95 Crowe, , ‘Zinoviev letter’, pp. 420–4.

96 Marquand, , Ramsay MacDonald, p. 381.

97 ‘History of the Zinoviev incident’, 2nd revise, 11 Nov. 1924, FO 371/10479.

98 Diary entry by MacDonald, 31 Oct. 1924, quoted by Marquand, , Ramsay MacDonald, P. 384.

99 Crowe, to MacDonald, (copy), 25 Oct. 1924, FO 371/10478.

100 Chester, , Fay & Young, Zinoviev letter, pp. 95100

101 Gilbert, , Churchill, III, p. 359.

102 James, , Eyes of the navy, pp. 112–14.

103 Parl. Deb., H. of C., 5th series, vol. 147, 3 Nov. 1921, col. 2044.

104 Chester, , Fay and Young, Zinoviev letter, pp. 99100.

105 Letter from Marlowe published in The Observer, 4 Mar. 1928.

104 Chester, , Fay and Young, Zinoviev letter, pp. 95–6, 100–8.

107 Ibid. passim. Im Thurn later extracted £10,000 from Conservative Central Office, allegedly to recompense the unidentified source who had informed him of the letter and had, he claimed, subsequently taken refuge in Argentina under a false identity. The Argentina story is an implausible one. Im Thurn also sought a knighthood for his own part in the affair.

108 It is impossible to reconstruct the precise pattern of contacts between retired and serving intelligence personnel. But that there were such contacts, and that classified information reached retired agents, seems certain. Hankey's diary for 28 Nov. 1920 records a dining dub of past and present intelligence officers at which current espionage activities by Germany and Japan were among the subjects discussed. Hankey MSS 1/5.

109 Chester, , Fay and Young, Zinoviev Utter, pp. 106–7.

110 See, on this committee, Sir Duncan Wilson's forthcoming biography of Leonard Woolf.

* For advice and criticism on various points I should like to thank Maurice Cowling, David Dilks, Georg Kreis, Harry Hinsley, Henry Pelling, Anil Seal, and Zara Steiner.

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