An enduring Cold War enigma: Rita Ricketts takes another look at allegations that Paddy Costello was a Soviet agent.

AuthorRicketts, Rita

Much has been written on the question as to whether or not Costello was a Soviet spy, and the debate continues. (1) This article, which includes material to be found in his letters and a diary, sits in juxtaposition to papers of MI5 and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service. The evidence they adduced to 'prove' he was a spy is largely circumstantial. Reading Costello-related papers, a different picture emerges, one of a concerned and formidable scholar trying to awaken his compatriots to the danger of escalating East--West rivalry. As Bill Pearson wrote in Landfall in September 1952, 'it is our job to take a lead in awakening New Zealanders from their fretful sleep'. (2) Writing in March 2018 in the Dominion Post, Malcolm McKinnon could publicly advance the opinion that New Zealand 'should take pride in its own independent foreign policy, to take a few deep breaths before signing on to any and every initiative of the Western powers'. Costello, lapsed Roman Catholic though he was, would have said Amen to that. But writing from Moscow in the mid- to late 1940s, and from Paris in the early 1950s, his assessments were ahead of time.

The release of MI5 papers in 2017 did little to settle the question of whether or not Paddy Costello was a spy. It is contended that the so-called Mitrokhin Archive, records smuggled out of Russia in the 1990s, corroborated MI5's findings, describing Costello as one of the KGB's leading agents in Paris operating under the codename 'Long'. MI5 rested its case on the 'evidence' that his wife Bella (Bil) ordered an application for two death certificates, dated 11 December 1960, containing the names of children who died twenty years before. The applicant was A.B. Green, who used a previous address of the Costellos. Handwriting experts certified that the application was in Bil's hand. (3) Yet the evidence of handwriting experts is notoriously unreliable, KGB agents were in the habit of obtaining the death certificates of children for their nefarious purposes and the Russian intelligence service would have had the Costellos' past addresses and would have known that Bil was under British surveillance. After Costellos death the surveillance of Bil ceased, but accusations of treachery still blacken Costello's reputation.

Costello's detractors may yet be vindicated should they ever have access to the former KGB's files in Moscow. But a reading of his letters, housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, especially those to Dan Davin, his diaries, in private hands, and letters and telegrams exchanged with Alister McIntosh suggests, as Costello was the first to admit, that he was guilty of one crime: of spelling out unpalatable truths. This proclivity was grist to the mill of Western intelligence. MI5 had charted Costello's career since his student days in Auckland in the early 1930s, when the Red Peril had been an obsession of the New Zealand government. (4) Retrospectively MI5 asked the New Zealand SIS, to dig deeper into Costello's activities during this time. Nothing turned up. A model student, who went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge, Costello had taken no part in either protests or communist activities. Yet may not he, MI5 suggested, have associated with undesirables? He certainly would have been influenced by the stirrings of 'an articulate national culture'. (5) Alan Curnow, a young writer at the time, had already rejected the ill-fitting colonial model of New Zealand as an improved version of Britain. New Zealand, would, one day, he famously wrote, 'learn the trick of standing upright here'.

Costello and his contemporaries would almost certainly have read Caxton Press's publications--writers like Anton Vogt and Denis Glover--and followed the avant-garde in Charles Brasch's Landfall. When Brasch, the editor, drifted into what were construed as 'political' waters, he was rebuked. He was warned not to pay for articles that strayed into 'public affairs and the like'. His repost was robust: 'this will not affect our policy'. (6) Was not this attempt at political censorship, somewhat redolent of Soviet censorship of the arts, rather surprising in New Zealand? (7) By 1935, with the election of a Labour government, it became more acceptable for independent ideas to extend beyond the literary and cultural into the political arena. (8) New Zealand, for instance, 'alone of other Commonwealth countries', declined to 'send a congratulatory telegram to Chamberlain after the Munich conference opened the way to the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia'. (9)

Resurfaced appetite

After the hiatus of the Second World War, New Zealand's appetite for independence resurfaced. Members of McIntosh's team, new boys on the block at the infant Department of External Affairs, where McIntosh was its first head, were considering ways in which New Zealand could not only play a greater role in its own (Pacific) backyard but also make its voice heard in international forums. J.V. Wilson, a seasoned player, who had been in on the establishment of External Affairs, was determined that small states should not get short shrift. Meanwhile, in 1944, despite his known communist sympathies and his wife's former membership of the British Communist Party, Costello had been recruited to the New Zealand foreign service and posted to Moscow. MI5 was beside itself. Costello's...

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