February 11

This Day in History

Cold War

Feb 11, 1956:

Burgess and Maclean resurface

Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, former members of the British Foreign Office who had disappeared from England in 1951, resurface in Moscow. Their surprise appearance and formal statement to the press put an end to one of the most intriguing mysteries of the early Cold War.

Maclean and Burgess had been senior officials in the British Foreign Office and in 1951, they seemed to disappear without a trace. There were rumors that they had been spies for the Soviet Union and had left England to avoid prosecution. For five years, nothing was heard of the pair. British intelligence suspected that they were in the Soviet Union, but Russian officials consistently denied any knowledge of their whereabouts.

On February 11, 1956, the pair invited a group of journalists to a hotel room in Moscow. Burgess and Maclean were there to greet them, give a brief interview, and hand out a typed joint statement. In the statement, both men denied having served as Soviet spies. However, they very strongly declared their sympathy with the Soviet Union and stated that they had both been "increasingly alarmed by the post-war character of Anglo-American policy." They claimed that the decision to leave England and live in Russia was due to their belief that only in Russia would there be "some chance of putting into practice in some form the convictions they had always had." They were convinced that the Soviet Union desired a policy of "mutual understanding" with the West, but that many officials in the United States and Great Britain were adamant in their opposition to any working relationship with the Russians. They concluded by stating, "Our life in the Soviet Union convinced us we took at the time the correct decision."

While the surprise news conference solved the mystery of where Burgess and Maclean had been for the past five years, it did little to settle the question of why they had gone to the Soviet Union in the first place. Their statement also did not clear up the issue of whether or not they had spied for the Soviet Union. Evidence from both British and American intelligence agencies strongly suggested that the two, together with fellow Foreign Office workers Kim Philby and Sir Anthony Blunt, had engaged in espionage for the Russians. Both men spent the rest of their lives in the Soviet Union. Burgess died in 1963 and Maclean passed away in 1983.

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