J M Thomson: A most unlikely spy

Intersecting Lines: the Memoirs of Ian Milner
Vincent O’Sullivan (ed)
Victoria University Press, $29.95

When Joseph McCarthy emerged from what had hitherto been the sane and liberal State of Wisconsin the 1950s assumed the lurid appellation of his name. Junior Republican Senator from 1948‑56, he launched a campaign against communism with fanatical zeal directing it at the upper middle‑class educated white Anglo‑Saxon Protestants who occupied key positions in the administration, the judiciary and the universities. He particularly hated artists and intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish, and in this he received more than a sympathetic hearing from the head of the FBI itself, the sinister J Edgar Hoover.

He denounced civil servants for their treasonable sympathies with communism beginning with the State Department, holding them responsible for the American inability to give continuing support to Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime in China from 1946‑9 and for the subsequent loss of the country to the Communists. This became a dominant theme of the period: the new China was isolated and received almost no diplomatic recognition, certainly not from New Zealand. That a principal reason for the communist takeover lay with the military and administrative failures of Chiang Kai‑Shek proved irrelevant to the Senator, whose witch-hunting activities embroiled thousands of innocent citizens and wrecked the lives of hundreds. Only a few honourable souls such as Lillian Hellman stuck to their values and refused to testify against friends or colleagues.

President Truman, who had stepped into the shoes of Roosevelt after his death in early 1945, reversed the tolerant policy towards Russia of his predecessor, who erred in the other direction, notably in his trust of Stalin and open hostility towards the territorial possessions of the fast-diminishing British Empire. Truman could not have liked the Senator’s campaign methods but he proved impotent in the face of the growing hysteria. McCarthy employed the techniques of the born demagogue. His denunciations were made up of innuendoes, half‑truths, vicious smears and the use of the concept of “guilt by association”. These fuelled the media, especially the powerful new mirror of the times, television.

In 1953 McCarthy succeeded in having himself elected chairman of the Senate Sub‑committee on Investigations and from then until the following year was the most powerful figure in America. He next decided, unwisely, to extend the range of his influence and attacked the army leadership, followed by an onslaught against his fellow senators. Nemesis inevitably came. His conduct was censured in 1954 and he fell. He died disgraced, in 1957. His influence lingered on, principally because it corresponded to an intense suspicion of communism felt by the free democratic countries, compounded by the disturbing revelations of how the all‑embracing Russian espionage web had penetrated not only British atomic bomb establishments through the spy Klaus Fuchs, but also, later the Portland naval base in Britain and innumerable other top security areas. Burgess and McLean, Petrov, Philby and Blunt were to follow.

Russia itself contributed to this cliff‑hanging atmosphere of a possible all‑out atomic war, not only in the Stalin era, but in those of his successors, who from time to time threatened the west with a strike and immediate extinction. “We will bury you first”, was an epithet I recall from the days of Khruschev. The political vocabulary of the period was brutal. Such was the background to the eruption that followed the disclosure of a Russian spy ring in Australia in 1954, in what is known as the Petrov case.

In 1954 Vladimir Petrov, third secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected to the west. His wife Eudokia, was rescued just as she was being shepherded aboard an aircraft by the KGB. Highly dramatic pictures from the airport were flashed around the world. Australia, suddenly precipitated into the front‑line, set up a Royal Commission on Espionage which reported in 1955.

The report included a statement on Ian Milner, former First Secretary of the Department of External Affairs in Canberra, where he had been placed in charge of the newly formed post‑hostilities division concerned with projected post‑war defence plans, base sites after the war and the appraisal of foreign policies in other countries. Milner also belonged to the defence post‑hostilities committee, which included members from the Defence Department and the armed services. In this position he had access to numerous confidential documents. In 1946 he had been appointed to the United Nations administration in New York where he served at times on the Greek Boundary Commission, the United Nations Palestine Committee and as secretary to the United Nations Commission on Korea. Milner was compromised by the report, largely on the basis of uncorroborated evidence. Milner’s handling of classified documents “gave rise to grave suspicions as to the use he made of them”. Without questioning him even by telephone (he was freely available in Prague) he was held to have been a Russian agent.

In 1950 Ian and his first wife Margot had visited Czechoslovakia so that she could receive treatment from an eminent medical specialist for the arthritis which was handicapping her piano playing. The country had originally attracted him as “a new progressive democracy”. He had friendly contacts with the English department at Charles University and in 1951 was invited to lecture on the Romantics and nineteenth‑century literature. This led to further teaching so he resigned from the United Nations to pursue a distinguished academic career, notably as a translator. He learned of the Petrov Commission’s report in Prague and submitted a sworn statement at the British Embassy there, defending his innocence.

Milner’s reasons for going to Prague were not quite as idealistic as had been assumed and illustrate the complexity of his personality. In New York he had worked with an attractive young graduate of Vassar and a member of the Czech United Nations delegation, Jarmila Fruhaufova. A strong emotional relationship developed, unknown to Margot Milner, and Ian himself discloses (p32) that although he was “curious to see how things were here, behind the Iron Curtain … I was mostly interested in, well … Jarmila, who became my wife”. The first marriage was dissolved in 1958 and Margot Milner left Prague to live in London. Milner’s personal statement in response to the Australian commission forms the epilogue to the book and is discussed in detail in Vincent O’Sullivan’s admirable introduction.

The effect of the Petrov affair on New Zealand was to make the security services even more vigilant. Fear of communism was widespread, as the statement on the crippling 1951 wharf dispute by William Sullivan, Minister of Labour at the time, shows. It was not an industrial dispute but “part of the cold war, engineered by Communists to advance their cause and the cause of Russia”.

China was still forbidden territory. In 1956 when the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries invited a New Zealand delegation to visit them, the names suggested included the poet Alistair Campbell and the university lecturer James Bertram. The Education Department refused leave to Campbell and the council of Victoria University College created difficulties for Bertram. Nevertheless, Bertram eventually joined the group along with the painter Evelyn Page, Margaret Garland, Ormond Wilson and others. “The attitude [of the New Zealand Government] was petty, the policy implied out of date, out of touch with political and human realities”, wrote Charles Brasch in the June 1956 issue of Landfall. These sentiments were echoed by Dr J C Beaglehole in letters from London to his friends in New Zealand. The issues became a mini‑cause célèbre.

Ian Milner became persona non grata in New Zealand and close watch was kept on his wife. When Margot Milner visited this country in 1957, Shirley Magee (now Tunnicliffe) interviewed her for Women’s Viewpoint in Wellington. Shirley had spent a year in Moscow from Easter 1955/6 as Governess to the British air attaché, the New Zealand‑born Air Commodore Peter Donkin, who “to his wife’s embarrassment still kept his New Zealand passport. She disliked having what she called ‘a colonial one’.” During this period the British spies Burgess and McLean were “unveiled” in Moscow, as it were. Shirley Magee had also been friendly with a young member of the embassy staff, John Vassall, later convicted as a Russian agent. On her return to New Zealand she broadcast a series of talks on her experiences in Moscow which led to her being invited to take over the women’s programme in early 1957.

The interview with Margot Milner proved immensely successful because of their shared experiences of communist regimes. Next day when Shirley McGee went to the studio to arrange for the broadcast the technician informed her that there had been a defect in the tape and nothing had been recorded. She found this difficult to believe. Nearly 10 years later, in 1966, two members of the SIS came to Nelson, where she was now living, to quizz her on her Russian experiences. This was sparked off by an enquiry from a member of a visiting Russian trade delegation as to what had happened to her since her return to New Zealand.

Such vigilance appears less theatrical when one takes into account that the 1930s Communist cell in Cambridge had included a brilliant New Zealander of Irish extraction, Desmond Costello. After graduating in classics from Auckland University College in 1932 he arrived at Trinity that same year on a travelling fellowship. He became active in the college’s group before he became an assistant lecturer in classics at Exeter University in 1936. After joining the army he gained a reputation as an intelligence analyst during the German invasions of Greece and Crete in 1941, following which General Freyberg appointed him as his divisional intelligence officer during the subsequent North African and Italian campaigns. His direct access to the British German code‑cracking machine, Ultra, made him supremely important to the Russians. That Costello was a bit “left‑wing” did not deter the New Zealand Prime Minister from appointing him in 1944 as second secretary to their legation in Moscow with the cheery assurance: “It won’t hurt to have one or two Communists in Moscow”, writes John C Costello (no relation) in his The Mask of Treachery (1988).

Costello’s subsequent career was colourful. He served in the New Zealand Embassy in Paris until 1955, then became professor of Russian at Manchester University. M15 eventually became aware of his activities through the defection in 1961 of Anatoli Golitsyn, the senior KGB officer who revealed that it was “Paddy” Costello who had provided New Zealand passports in Paris for Peter and Helen Kroger (the former New York Communists Morris and Lena Cohen) who were convicted as belonging to the so‑called Portland spy ring for stealing anti‑submarine secrets. M15 placed him under surveillance and observed his meetings with suspected Russian agents, but the evidence was insufficient to lay charges. Only after Anthony Blunt had confessed his own involvement to the security forces in April 1964, naming Costello as another Cambridge recruit, did a case seem possible, although it still did not rest on primary documentary proof. By the time of Blunt’s confession it was too late. According to The Times obituary, Costello had died “unexpectedly at the age of 52” on 24 February 1964.

Ian Milner was the son of one of New Zealand’s most powerful headmasters, Frank Milner of Waitaki, usually known as “The Man”. His father’s obsessively dogmatic ideas about the civilising role of the British Empire and its mission throughout the world imprinted themselves on the minds of generations of schoolboys. These included Charles Brasch, James Bertram and Douglas Lilburn, who rebelled in his own way by submitting a piano sonata instead of an exercise in imperialistic rhetoric for his vacation essay. This episode with a displeased Milner did not prevent a later collaboration when the composer wrote the music for the school song to words by its headmaster. John McIndoe recalled a more human side of Milner, for when he had made an attempt to run away on his bicycle and had encountered a South Canterbury downpour which forced him to shelter under a friendly macrocarpa tree, he felt fate had compelled him to return. At the school gates he encountered Milner scything grass. “Ah, McIndoe, you’ve decided to come back to us”, he said, and invited him for afternoon tea, immaculately served by a maid in the headmaster’s rooms.

Ian Milner’s biography of his father, Milner of Waitaki (1983) was not entirely successful, as how could it have conveyed the still unresolved contradictions in the relationship between father and a son who had become an idealistic Marxist socialist. Intersecting Lines, seamlessly woven together by Vincent O’Sullivan, is on an altogether different level. It stands alongside John Mulgan’s Report on Experience, Charles Brasch’s Indirections and most recently James Bertram’s Capes of China Slide Away. Each of these figures plays an important role in the memoirs. The author creates skilful atmospheric vignettes throughout such as that of the mailroom at Waitaki, “a nose‑tickling blend of drying canvas, starchy glue, inked rubber‑stamps, and sheaves of paper on dusty shelves”, of cricket by the sea and his own incompetence as the school’s bugler. Earlier, when at primary school in Nelson, he had found himself in “a colonial transfer of Victorian lower middle‑class gentility. Women wore the right hats to church, club and croquet lawn”. There are vigorous pen portraits of a multitude of characters, from his own father to the poets Denis Glover and R A K Mason, to the Conservator of Forests at Hanmer Springs, Bert Roach, Professors of English Frederic Sinclaire and Winston Rhodes, the young philosopher Isaiah Berlin at Oxford and an unforgettable description of an embarrassing first dinner in hall at Oxford. His love of George Eliot flows over into discerning comparisons between New Zealand regional settings and characters and those in her novels. His publications in this area include an essay on the role of the historical imagination in her works.

He also responds to Hitler speaking at a mass rally in Germany in the 1930s: “Not to see the danger of the man ‑ psychopath and all ‑ and his power of mass manipulations would only make things easier for the Neville Chamberlain’s waving paper promises in the air of peace in our time”. Chamberlain’s own limited experience had prevented him from recognising that Hitler was a psychotic phenomenon of exceptional depravity. After the move to Czechoslovakia and the Petrov Affair, first attempts to gain Ian Milner academic fellowships in New Zealand in 1968 foundered. The Universities of Auckland and Canterbury withdrew their invitations under pressure in a storm of acrimonious public discussion. He revisited his old school in 1971 and in 1980 returned with his wife Jamila to work on his father’s biography. He charmed the literary circles he moved amongst.

Vincent O’Sullivan believes Ian Milner had always intended to complete his memoirs but gave priority to his work on Czech literature. How significant is it that they end in March 1956 with his personal statement to the Australian Commission and say virtually nothing on life in Communist Prague? The only reference to the Russian invasion is ambiguous: “The high summer of 1968, just a month before the fraternal tanks arrived, Jim and Jean [Bertram] spent several days with us in Prague …” Can the use of the word “fraternal” tanks be a form of irony or have the quotation marks fallen off? Sir Cecil Parrott, former British Ambassador in Prague, happened to be revisiting the city at that time: “At first the Soviet tanks were stationed at various points in the centre of the town, where they were the object of continuous protest and reproach by the Prague public,” he writes in his autobiography The Serpent and the Nightingale (1977). “It is hard to convey the full horror of that act of aggression: an act of an ‘ally’ against an ally, a Communist party against a Communist party, of four signatories to an agreement against the fifth, with the ink scarcely dry on the documents which enshrined it. What was even more chilling was the way it took place.”

In his spirited defence of Ian Milner, Vincent O’Sullivan rightly scorns the failure of the Australian commission to make a convincing case. Once one had met Ian Milner it was difficult to imagine such a highly intelligent and literate man as a spy. One tended to have the same response to such accusations as did Sir Cecil Parrott to espionage charges laid by the Czech Government in 1977: “This was no novelty. I had been accused of this twice already… Naturally it was nonsense. Ambassadors do not spy … They would be utterly hopeless at it, and so would I.” The so‑far undisclosed records of the KGB and the equivalent Czech authority may perhaps throw light on this still unresolved issue?

Paul Millar’s excellent bibliography leads one to hope that he will compile a selection of Milner’s contributions to the journal Tomorrow, which are rated here as highly as the fortnightly articles sent back to the Auckland Star by John Mulgan in 1936. They would provide a significant resource for students. Victoria University Press have produced the book in exactly the right mode, with an action photo of Ian Milner lecturing, behind him the words chalked on a blackboard “Why, they even… ” ‑ a quotation, but from what? The book moves between the hemispheres with ease and conviction. It is reticent in tone, tactfully and even puzzlingly passing over what another writer might have seen as occasions for the sharing of greater confidences. Nevertheless, an exceedingly difficult literary task has been completed in an exemplary fashion: this is a sensitive, finely-etched memoir by an outstanding New Zealand literary figure.

JM Thomson’s letter to The Times on the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia headed the correspondence page the following day. It subsequently appeared in a Japanese account of western responses to the military action. He first visited Prague in 1969 with the composer Geraldine Mucha, wife of Jiri Mucha, a Czech writer who had been sentenced to forced labour in a coal mine for two years, an experience encapsulated in his book, Living and Partly Living. He has many Czech musician associates and has been a longstanding friend of the first Mrs Milner.

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