Fifty years ago civil servant John Vassall was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment for espionage. Vassall was homosexual, and whilst working at the British Embassy in Moscow, was caught in a Soviet Secret Service ‘honeytrap’, blackmailed into passing secrets to the Soviet Union, and receiving payments for his efforts. This was one of a series of security scandals which rocked the Macmillan government in the early 1960s, feeding into a national obsession with spy culture at the time.
Mark Dunton sifts through the historical evidence asking: was Vassall a traitor or a victim? Was he ‘vain and greedy’ or ‘vulnerable and needy’? He places the Vassall affair in the wider context of negative attitudes towards homosexuality in post-war Britain, exacerbated by the popular press. Mark also addresses the long-term repercussions which followed Vassall’s trial for equal treatment of gay people working in the Civil Service.
Warning: the following material may not be suitable for all listeners.
Mark Dunton is a contemporary records specialist at The National Archives. His research interests include post-1945 British political, social and economic history and the policies of the Heath government in the early 1970s.
This talk was part of our Diversity Week 2012.