George Kennedy Young: Banker, Writer, Soldier, Spy

Over a remarkable and tempestuous career, George Kennedy Young rose to become Deputy Director of MI6 at the height of Britain’s Cold War. But his evermore extreme ideology prevented him from reaching the top.
George Kennedy Young (middle) stands between fellow espionage writers Andrew Boyle (left) and Major Douglas Sutherland (right). Credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
George Kennedy Young (middle) stands between fellow espionage writers Andrew Boyle (left) and Major Douglas Sutherland (right). Credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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George Kennedy ‘GK’ Young is popularly remembered as a racist intelligence officer with scant respect for authority, whose buccaneering schemes destabilised the Middle East; an arrogant meddler who believed he was ‘the spy who has been called upon to remedy the situation created by the deficiencies of ministers, diplomats, generals and priests.’ In retirement, he drifted into far-right politics. Young was highly influential inside MI6, shaping the culture of the organisation and the operations it attempted in the early Cold War. His activities influenced popular perceptions of MI6 long afterwards. Some remember his era as ‘the horrors’; those on the receiving end of his covert actions still regard MI6 as a ubiquitous hidden hand pulling invisible strings. 

Given this legacy, it is important to look beneath the caricature. Friends thought him brilliant, if flawed: an increasingly mad genius. Energetic, brave, and resourceful in equal measure, he was able to mix easily with subordinates and inspire loyalty. Bosses found him intimidating and impossible to manage. He was scornful of the prime ministers he ostensibly served. Contacts in the CIA remembered him as a big, ‘tough-looking’ man who dreamt up lunatic schemes. Populations in countries targeted by his schemes – had they known him at all – would have thought him an amoral, manipulative imperialist.

Young was born in Dumfries on 8 April 1911. Fiercely bright, quick witted and possessing a gift for languages, he studied French and German at the University of St. Andrews University and Political Science at Yale University before becoming a journalist at the Glasgow Herald. He joined MI6 in 1943, resigned after the war, and then re-joined in 1946. He soon became head of station in Vienna, a crucial post in the burgeoning Cold War, where he oversaw a staff of about 20 officers and secretaries. He recruited agents inside Austria’s communist movement whilst attempting to encourage Czechoslovak and Hungarian refugees in the UK to return home and infiltrate their own communist parties. It was slow going, but his agents warned of increasing Soviet aggression and control.

Young became rabidly anti-communist and demanded a strong response. He was bitterly disappointed, castigating diplomats and ministers alike for timidity. ‘We were not prepared to take the minimal risks of exploiting internal weakness in the Soviet Bloc by active political warfare,’ he later complained in his 1984 work Subversion and the British Riposte. ‘In autumn of 1947, it was apparent that the next Communist take-over would be in Czechoslovakia, but nothing was done to bolster up the will of those Czechs who might have resisted what was in fact a skilfully conducted bluff.’ Instead, the diplomats possessed ‘an inborn dislike of any sort of action’ and always made ‘a case for doing nothing’. This frustration became a constant theme throughout Young’s MI6 career. 

In 1951, he achieved promotion to become MI6’s Middle East Controller. Here, he became a great advocate for covert action – which he discharged with a firm hand and a barely concealed contempt for local populations. He later commented that there was ‘no gladder sound to the Arab ear than the crunch of glass, and his favourite spectacle is that of human suffering.’

Young played a key role in one of MI6’s most famous covert operations: the 1953 Iranian coup. Following Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq’s nationalisation of Iranian oil in 1951, the UK began a campaign of subversion aimed to undermine and overthrow his government. Stationed in Cyprus, Young adopted an active role, helping to plan the coup which, with US support, eventually took place in August 1953. In characteristically risk-taking fashion, Young deliberately delayed sending on a message instructing the plotters to stop when, amidst much confusion, the coup appeared to unravel. The Shah appreciated Young’s support, later telling a friend that ‘in times of crisis he is a man who can take decisions and throw caution to the winds. Young is a man who believes that friendship cuts two ways and that Britain should stand by her friends even at the risk of offending others.’

Buoyed by perceived success in Iran, Young received another promotion shortly afterwards to become Director of Requirements, the branch of MI6 working closely with political departments in Whitehall to coordinate spies and share their intelligence.

He helped to uncover a Soviet deception scheme which had long undermined MI6 operations in the Baltic, extended MI6 operations into Africa, and began planning for what would become Operation Gold, the tunnel under Berlin to intercept communist communications, another of MI6’s most famous Cold War operations. He viewed Kim Philby as a role model and, ignoring growing suspicions, waved through a deal to keep him on a retainer whilst working as a journalist in Beirut. Young then happily circulated Philby’s intelligence – from ‘our man in Beirut’.

Young continued to devise plans for the Middle East, where, running rings around his boss, he took more risks and broke more rules. In spring 1956, borrowing tactics from the Iran coup, he plotted to overthrow the Syrian, Saudi, and Egyptian governments in quick succession. As he boasted that MI6 would ‘‘do a Mossadeq’ to Nasser’, CIA officers were shocked by the ‘sheer lunacy’ of it all.

Young knew that Prime Minister Anthony Eden wanted Gamal Nasser, the Egyptian president, dead, and expressed no moral doubts about arranging it. ‘Absolute morality, absolute ethics’, he later stated, ‘just does not exist in affairs of the state.’ MI6 assassination plans ranged from using dissident military officers to poison gas, although it is difficult to know which advanced beyond clubland scheming into actual operations. After these fell by the wayside, Young supported a so-called restoration plot: to put a member of King Farouq’s family on the Egyptian throne by provoking disgruntled army officers into a coup.

He was very critical of the Suez debacle itself, characteristically railing against Whitehall timidity to follow through. More importantly though, he thought it ‘the last self-conscious fling of the old British Style’ in which the UK had failed to accept its constraints. Despite his own criticisms, he staunchly defended the British invasion at Suez against accusations of immorality. ‘And what does the charge of collusion mean?’, he asked in his 1962 work Masters of Indecision. ‘As far as I am aware, cover plans and military secrets have not yet been classified as ‘Moral’ and ‘Top Moral’. This whole moral orgy symptomized something very unhealthy in the British body politic.’ Shortly after Suez, he again pushed for a coup in Syria, this time with CIA support and funding. It too came to nothing.

In 1958, Young became vice chief of MI6. His boss, Dick White, thought the promotion might rein him in, but he soon regretted it as Young became more volatile and outspoken. MI6, Young argued, was not ruthless enough; White was too timid. Along with the rest of the British foreign policy establishment, MI6 had been infected by ‘a moralising bug’.

Young left in 1961, much to White’s relief. His independent thinking, racist views and stridently expressed criticisms of diplomats prevented him from ever becoming chief.  He took a job with merchant bankers Kleinwort Benson, where, true to form, he used contacts in Iran to make plenty of money. But, in the words of his friend and former MI6 colleague, Nicholas Elliott, he also made ‘awful balls-ups that cost them about as much as he got for them’. He kept in touch with the intelligence world and helped facilitate British covert involvement in the Yemeni civil war.

In retirement, Young drifted ever more to the right. He railed against British weakness in the face of strikes, the ‘era of industrial anarchy’, and the ‘hidden menace of public sector unions.’ He believed immigration risked disintegrating the state. All of this would be exploited by the Soviets. In response, he created a vigilante group called Unison, supposedly including businessmen, bankers, and even chief constables, ready to intervene when law and order broke down amidst a communist takeover. He claimed to have been ‘taking note of disloyal groups and subversive elements’ in preparation. There were even whispers in the 1970s that Young was plotting to overthrow the British government. From the side-lines, he continued to lobby for strident covert measures, including resurrecting wartime-style Special Operations Executive, until his death in 1990.

For all his arrogance, wild plots, and inglorious descent into far-right politics, Young’s thinking on covert operations resonates. Critical of moralism in international relations, he favoured acting resolutely against adversaries, including through bold and risky covert operations. His consistent advocacy of coups, with an assumption that malleable local populations could be bent to Britain’s will, was unwise both in terms of meeting British objectives and the impact on the target population. Yet he also knew there was more to covert action than crudeness, later recognising that ‘one must not think in terms of spectacular coups, or dramatic feats of irregular warfare, but rather of a continuous sapping process.’ Intelligence work blurred the boundaries between offence and defence. It was about sowing confusion, breeding insecurity and uncertainty, undermining faith in institutions of authority, and ‘nip[ping] trouble in the bud.’ The Russians, he argued, were eroding trust in institutions and even in Western ideas and words. He also recognised the importance of placing ‘unconventional skills’ into a ‘coherent diplomacy and defence strategy,’ and called for better integration between the various arms of state. His judgement was often poor, but these ideas remain relevant today.

Rory Cormac

Rory Cormac is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His research specialises in covert action and secret intelligence. He appears regularly on television and radio, and has written four books, most recently Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy.

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