Everyone's got it wrong: Mrs Norwood is not a traitor, but a national hero

THERE IS a scene in one of John Le Carre's spy novels when Connie Sachs, who works in archives in Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), captures the approaching twilight of Empire better than many an academic history.

"Poor loves," Connie says of the post-war generation of British intelligence officers. "Trained to Empire. Trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away." Connie, if she were with us, would be shaking her head in bewilderment this week at the media frenzy after the publication of Professor Christopher Andrew's book, The Mitrokhin Archive, and the outing of some elderly British traitors."Poor loves," she would say. "Made to shoulder the guilt for our decline. Had to be someone's fault. Blame it on them. Makes everyone else feel better. And the newspapers love it." Perhaps, Connie, perhaps.

But don't forget that the fuss about Melita Norwood, the 87-year-old great-grandmother, was set in motion by SIS itself. A Russian defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, smuggled out from the KGB archives thousands of notes he had made from secret files during his working life. He sat on them after his retirement in 1985, waiting to see what was going to happen to the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, he turned up at the British Embassy in Riga with samples, and defected. SIS sent into Russia one of its officers who, risking his life because he did not have diplomatic cover, went to Mitrokhin's dacha and brought his material to the British embassy and then to London. All this was a great coup for SIS.

It could have told a real James Bond story to boost its flagging public image. But SIS was remarkably shy about publicising this part of the operation. In the spy world facts are hard to come by, but the rumour explaining this shyness has it that the officer who brought out Mitrokhin's material was Richard Tomlinson, now notorious as an SIS dissident, who broke the Official Secrets Act, was prosecuted, served a prison term, and is now being hounded around the world by SIS as he tries to tell his story.

So, instead, SIS turned to Professor Andrew, an academic who has written - usually in glowing terms - about SIS. It made Mitrokhin and his archive available to Andrew to turn into a book.

Originally Mrs Norwood played a minor role in the story because, although identified, she had not been prosecuted. If she was so important, the reader might well ask, why had the Government not charged her with espionage? The SIS operation to burnish its image now took a wrong turn. The media loved the "granny spy" story and turned on SIS and the Security Service MI5 for not having caught her earlier. When ministers and ex-ministers tripped over each other in their anxiety to shout, "Nobody told me about her", questions were raised about the accountability of both services. They could have told the truth and replied, "Well, we didn't tell you about her because she wasn't important enough", but that would have detracted from the whole story. Instead there was a concerted effort to suggest that she was very important indeed. On the BBC, the former Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, said that Mrs Norwood's espionage had put Britain "in great peril".

To decide whether this was true we need to flash back to Los Alamos, one day in December 1943. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr has just arrived in the US to join other physicists working on the first atom bomb. Bohr, greeted by J Robert Oppenheimer, immediately blurts out, "Is it big enough?" - big enough to make nuclear war impossible? It turns out that it was. No country has dropped an atomic bomb on another since 1945 - but only because both superpowers soon had a bomb and the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) meant that as long as neither leader went crazy and pressed the button, the world could sleep safely each night.

Did Mrs Norwood make this possible? Of course not. The most serious accusation against her is that she enabled the Soviet Union to develop the bomb earlier than the West expected. But the Russians would have got the bomb on their own anyway. They did not lag behind in nuclear research before the war and had it not been for the German invasion they might well have achieved a chain reaction before the Americans did in December 1942. As for betraying atomic secrets to them, the chances of keeping secret the most important single piece of information about the bomb - that it worked - were absolutely nil after Hiroshima. The American government itself thus gave the Soviet Union more than all the atomic spies put together.

The Americans followed up this unavoidable gift with a gratuitous one. In August 1945, they released the Smythe Report on Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. The Soviet Union bought a copy, rushed through a translation and distributed 30,000 copies to Soviet industry within six months. This does not excuse the activities of the atom spies - the scientists Fuchs, Nunn May, Pontecorvo, Theodore Hall, and the couriers and non-scientific spies, Maclean, the Rosenbergs, the Krogers, Ursula Buerton, and now Melita Norwood. But we should ask: Why were there so many of them? The scientists believed that developments in nuclear physics were so important to the future of the world that they should not be the monopoly of one nation, but should be shared by all.

By 1954, even Churchill had come to recognise this. According to a Cabinet paper, he said that the tragedy was that the West did not tell the Soviet Union everything it knew about the atomic bomb when the United States still had the monopoly.

Mrs Norwood has said that she felt that the USSR was slipping behind, and that this was dangerous for peace. As Stalin put it, when the Americans used the bomb on Hiroshima, "the equilibrium has been destroyed". Once the equilibrium was restored, it was a nuclear stand-off, reasonably predictable most of the time, but given to the occasional dangerous hiccup, such as the Cuban missile crisis when, in October 1962, President John F Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Writing about it on the 30th anniversary, Robert McNamara, US Defence Secretary at the time, explained what went wrong in chilling detail: "American warheads at that time did not contain the electronic device which prevents a local commander from launching his missiles without an OK from the President himself. Nowadays `Football' provides electronic safety codes."

That was not so in 1962, in either American or Soviet warheads.

"Kennedy recognised that in the face of a conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe, although local commanders did not have the authority to use their nuclear weapons, none the less rather than be overrun by the Red Army, a local US commander might initiate the use of nuclear warheads," he said.

In short, a nuclear exchange that would have ended our world could have been started by an American army captain in Germany or a Red Army sergeant in Cuba. It was an acceptance of this likelihood that helped to push Kennedy and Khrushchev into an agreement. Once this was sorted out with an electronic key that prevented anyone except the national leader from initiating a nuclear war, the balance of atomic power has maintained peace.

We are still in the dark about whether Mrs Norwood really made a contribution to establishing this balance of power. If she did, you could argue that she deserves a medal - and not just a Soviet one.

`New Statesman'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes