Who was Donald Maclean and What Did He Do?

A senior British diplomat and Soviet spy, Donald Duart Maclean became one of the most infamous turncoats in British political history. So, what happened to Donald Maclean? Read on to find out.

3 January 2023

Donald Duart Maclean was a senior British diplomat and a Soviet spy, part of a ring that became known as the Cambridge Five. In just the period between 1941 and 1945, he passed over 5000 documents to the USSR, including details of the atomic bomb.

So, what happened to Donald Maclean? How did he end up passing top secret information to the Soviets? What was the story of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and what was the role of his wife, Melinda Maclean? No decryption skills are required to find out. Just read on.

Donald Duart Maclean: The Makings of a Spy

Donald McLean, Soviet Spy (Photo: Hulton Deutsch via Getty Images)

Donald Duart Maclean was born in London on 25 May 1913. His father was Sir Donald Maclean, a Liberal Party MP and Leader of the Opposition between 1918 and 1920.

He studied at Gresham’s School in Norfolk where his contemporaries included another future Soviet spy, James Klugmann. In 1931, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to read modern languages.

At Cambridge, Maclean became a well-known and outspoken communist, writing essays, editorials and reviews for left-wing publications. He also became part of a group which would come to be known as the Cambridge Five, a spy ring made up of Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

In 1934, still at Cambridge, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were recruited by Soviet intelligence operatives. They became agents of the Soviet security agency, the NKVD. This would later become the KGB.

Donald Maclean: Spy and Diplomat

Donald Maclean and his family in the 50s (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

After graduating with a first, Maclean broke all apparent ties with the communist movement and joined the Foreign Office, where he began passing information to the Soviets under his first codename, Orphan. In 1936 he became involved with the Non-Intervention Committee monitoring the activities of Germany, Italy and the USSR.

In 1939, while posted as the Third Secretary at the British Embassy to Paris, he met American-born Melinda Marling. She would become Melinda Maclean on 10 June 1940, when the two married. Despite initially claiming she had been unaware of her husband’s activities, it would later transpire that he had revealed he was a Soviet spy from the outset.

Washington and Cairo

President Truman (L) with Prime Minister Clement Attlee ( Photo: Fox Photos / Stringer via Getty Images)

After Paris, Donald Maclean spent some time at the Foreign Office in the UK working on the subject of economic warfare. He was then posted to the British Embassy in Washington DC, where he served between 1944 and 1948. During this time, he was promoted twice, to Second Secretary, then First Secretary. It was in the US that he was privy to top secret information pertaining to the development of atomic weapons, passing the intelligence to the KGB.

In 1948, Maclean was moved from the US to Egypt and the British Embassy to Cairo. There, he was appointed to the senior role of Head of Chancery. This was a turbulent time for Maclean, who was acting erratically during this period. He was also prone to outbursts, including several in which he was indiscreet about his Soviet connections.

The Macleans returned to London where he was made head of the American Desk. Here, he kept the Soviets abreast of British-American relations, including a summit between Prime Minister Clement Atlee and President Harry S. Truman and the founding of NATO.

The Unmasking and Defection of Donald Maclean

Guy Burgess (Photo: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)

Between 1945 and 1951, the US and UK intelligence agencies cooperated on Operation VENONA, in which they decrypted secret Soviet messages. In April 1951, two decoded messages finally unmasked Maclean as a spy. His old friends and fellow Cambridge spies, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, warned Maclean that his position was compromised. Fearing he would be interrogated, they enlisted the help of the Soviet government to get him out of the UK.

On 25 May 1951, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled under cover of darkness, bound for Moscow. The wider world wouldn’t know of their whereabouts until 1956, when they publicly revealed their defection to the Soviet Union and declared their communist allegiance.

What happened to Philby, Burgess and Maclean?

British double agent Kim Philby (Photo: Hulton Deutsch / Contributor via Getty Images)

Donald Duart Maclean lived in the Soviet Union for over thirty years. Having defected with Maclean, fellow British diplomat Guy Burgess also lived in the Soviet Union for the rest of his life, dying in 1963.

There are mixed reports of how Donald Maclean adapted to life in the Soviet Union. He learned Russian, obtained citizenship, earned a doctorate and worked for the Foreign Ministry and the Institute of World Economic and International Relations.

As for Kim Philby, he managed to evade detection. There was some suspicion against him, which led to his resignation from MI6 in July 1951. However, he was exonerated and only finally revealed as a Soviet spy in 1963, when he defected to Moscow. He died there in 1988.

What Happened to Melinda Maclean?

Although Melinda and their children joined Donald in the Soviet Union in 1953, it wouldn’t last. Their relationship was described as turbulent and beset by infidelity on both sides. In 1964, Melinda left Donald for Kim Philby, who in turn left her for a younger woman. Melinda Maclean eventually went back to the United States in 1979. She died in 2010.

Donald Maclean Spy: Death and Legacy

Four members of the 'Cambridge Five' (Photo: Keystone / Stringer via Getty Images)

Donald Duart Maclean died of pneumonia in Moscow on 6 March 1983 at the age of 69. None of his family were there or at his funeral. Russian broadsheet newspaper Izvestia published the obituary of Donald Donaldovich Maclean, describing him as ‘a man of high moral qualities and a convinced communist who performed outstanding services to the Soviet state.’


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