Published date: 17 December 2012

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’, and blackmailed into passing secrets to the Soviet Union, 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 to address questions such as 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.

Mark Dunton who is a Contemporary Specialist joined The National Archives in 1983 and specialises in post-1945 Britain. Mark has given numerous public talks, available to download as podcasts, and has been the lead media spokesperson on the annual release of government files under the 30-year rule since 2006. 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 is part of our Diversity Week 2012.

Document gallery

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    John Vassall RAF Service Record

    TS 58/677

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    Thomas Galbraith

    MP(TS 58638)

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    Cover of Vassall’s Confession file

    TS 58/665

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    Document from Vassall’s trial at the Old Bailey, which opened on 16th October 1962

    CRIM 14003

  • Zoom

    Statement of J K Macafee

    CRIM 14003

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    Extract from the statement of findings from a 1956 security conference of Privy Counsellors

    CAB 12980

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