Donald Maclean (1913-83) was a British diplomat, Soviet agent and defector. Born in London, Maclean was the son of a British Member of Parliament and Leader of the Opposition. The young Maclean was therefore raised in a political environment and given a liberal education. In 1931 he enrolled at Cambridge University to study languages. Inspired by the Great Depression and the Russian Revolution, Maclean became an outspoken communist, writing essays and editorials for left-wing publications. He was also introduced to future members of the Cambridge Five spy ring. In 1934, the year of his graduation, Maclean was recruited into the Soviet secret service. After leaving Cambridge he joined the British Foreign Office, where he began passing information and documents to Soviet agents. In the late 1930s, he spent two years working in Paris.
In 1944 Maclean was promoted and posted to the British embassy in Washington. While there he sat on a multilateral committee on nuclear energy, so was privy to information about the development of atomic weapons. Maclean passed much of this information to his Soviet handlers, providing Moscow with insight into nuclear weapons levels. In 1948 Maclean was posted to Cairo, Egypt, where he was responsible for British military strategy in the Middle East. His life as a double agent took its toll on Maclean, who drank heavily, behaved erratically and suffered from marital problems. He returned to London and in 1951 was appointed the head of American affairs at the Foreign Office. Around this time MI5 agents working on the VENONA Project deduced that Maclean was a Soviet spy. Maclean, accompanied by Guy Burgess, fled to the Soviet Union before he could be arrested and interrogated.
Maclean adapted to life in Moscow, obtaining Soviet citizenship and working for the KGB as a foreign policy advisor. His wife Melinda, who had been aware of his double life, and the Macleans’ three children joined him in the Soviet Union in 1953. Donald Maclean died in Moscow in March 1983.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn & S. Thompson, “Donald Maclean”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/donald-maclean/.