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In Defense of Walter Bell: Responding to Denis MacShane

Credits: Evening Standard

Denis MacShane’s review of Jimmy Burns’ biography of Walter Bell, titled “A Faithful Spy,” left me perplexed. It seemed as though MacShane may not have fully engaged with the book’s content, instead using the review to express his hostile views on British intelligence, defense policy, diplomacy, and Brexit.

While such practices are not uncommon among book reviewers, in this case, they do a disservice to readers who could have gained valuable insights from the book.

Walter Fancourt Bell CMG, the biography subject, was a significant figure in British intelligence from 1934 to 1967. Unlike the glamorous image of spies like James Bond or the infamous betrayal of Kim Philby, Bell was characterized by his seriousness, thoughtfulness, and devotion to his country’s interests.

Denis MacShane (Credits: The Independent)

His career spanned MI6 and MI5 and played a crucial role in shaping Anglo-American intelligence relations during World War II.

Bell’s early life was marked by his socialist beliefs and interest in international relations. Despite being recruited into MI6, he maintained a deep-seated commitment to his socialist ideals, resisting the allure of communism that attracted many of his contemporaries.

His extensive travels in Europe and influential contacts laid the groundwork for his future career in intelligence. During World War II, Bell’s work in New York under MI6 cover was instrumental in fostering Anglo-American cooperation and countering Nazi propaganda.

He played a key role in dispelling American suspicions of British intelligence activities and contributed to the success of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

Bell’s career trajectory in MI6 was limited despite his contributions, partly due to his perceived maverick tendencies. However, his fortunes changed when he became the private secretary to Lord Inverchapel, the British ambassador in Washington.

Subsequently, he transitioned to MI5, where he played a crucial role in developing security relationships with newly independent nations.

Denis MacShane (Credits: The Parliament Magazine)

Bell’s personal life, particularly his relationship with his wife Katherine “Tattie” Spaatz, played a significant role in his career and personal development.

His postings to Kenya and India exposed him to the complexities of colonial administration and the challenges of decolonization. During his time in Kenya, Bell rediscovered his faith and converted to Catholicism.

Bell remained politically left-leaning later and maintained a solid moral compass. He was discreet about intelligence matters but occasionally provided insights into his work to promote understanding of British intelligence services.

His character stood in stark contrast to the sensationalized portrayal of spies in the media, reflecting intelligence work’s nuanced and often understated nature.

Walter Bell’s life and career offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of British intelligence during a tumultuous period in history.

“A Faithful Spy” provides valuable insights into Bell’s contributions and underscores the importance of understanding the complexities of intelligence work beyond the sensationalized narratives often portrayed in the media.

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