Harvard University, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2007
'THE LONE GUNMEN OF THE P.R.O.'
By Professor Richard Aldrich – University of Nottingham
Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942-47, by Julian Lewis (Frank Cass, 2nd edition, ISBN: 0714653993)
Changing Direction is one of the most interesting books ever written about the early Cold War. It truly is “secret history,” in more than one sense. Part of the fascination is that the process of researching and writing the book itself interweaves the history of Cold War restrictions.
In the 1980s, when Julian Lewis embarked on this study, British historians who specialized on the post-1945 period worked under a suffocating blanket of secrecy. Although the majority of files relating to foreign policy and defense were declassified after thirty years and made their way to the Public Record Office (now called the National Archives) in Kew Gardens, many other files were deemed too sensitive to be released to the public.
A significant number of important documents at the time were designated for “retention in department” on national security grounds or were closed for fifty or even a hundred years because of their supposedly secret contents. During this same period the British government decided, also on grounds of national security, against the publication of the final book in the multivolume official history of British intelligence. As a result, publication of the final volume, written by the distinguished historian Michael Howard, was delayed by ten years. Such was the cold climate of the 1980s.
In the mid-1990s British government policy thawed. Perhaps embarrassed that the degree of "openness" seemed to be greater in post-Soviet Russia (at least for a while) than in Britain, or perhaps driven by a need to reduce storage in order to sell off more government buildings in the center of London, the British government undertook a major review of declassification policy that became known as the Open Government Initiative. Accordingly, during the mid-1990s, many national security files closed for fifty years or more began to find their way into the PRO. Closing these documents for a long time had suited the mandarins. Much of the first wave of history of the 1940s had already been written, and many international historians had moved on to later decades. Moreover, most of the officials who had taken part in the events had also "moved on" to a place where they were beyond the reach of enterprising interviewers.
Lewis's book is closely interwoven with these dramas of secrecy and revelation. Published in its first edition in 1988, it was one of the few books to penetrate the wall of secrecy that existed in the 1980s. Lewis, together with Bradley Smith and David Stafford, were among a handful of historians who really knew how to work the archives and how to circumnavigate the oppressive systems of secrecy. Poring over countless files, they found that even Top Secret documents with a "specially restricted circulation" were often sent to a dozen recipients. These valiant historical detectives – the "Lone Gunmen" of the PRO – then followed the circulation lists and chased down additional copies in obscure runs of files that had often been neglected by the declassification reviewers (weeders). Copies of documents that were closed in the Cabinet series were readily available in the files of, say, the Directorate of Combined Operations.
Lewis meticulously culled obscure files from the Air Ministry, War Office, and Admiralty to assess official British views of the Soviet Union in the period 1944–1947. He reconstructs the history of the key Cabinet subcommittees on strategic planning, intelligence, and new scientific methods of war using papers that were supposedly closed. This allowed him to tell the extraordinary story of a war within Whitehall between "hawks" and "doves" over the future direction of Soviet policy and the ways Britain should react. The drama centered on the post-hostilities planning committee, a joint Foreign Office – Chiefs of Staff planning unit that in 1944 tore itself apart over the desire of the military to rearm Germany against the Soviet Union. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke recorded in his diary at the time that the Soviet Union "cannot fail to become the main threat fifteen years from now. Therefore foster Germany, gradually build her up." The diplomats were horrified and accused the military of "fascist assumptions." Part of this struggle focused on efforts to shape assessments of future Soviet behavior produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The result was deadlock, and the JIC produced almost no assessments of the Soviet Union during the vital period from late 1944 through early 1946. Lewis leaves no doubt that the military hawks were right and the diplomatic doves were wrong.
Lewis also traces the early history of British thinking about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. He demonstrates how an early appreciation of the importance of these new weapons, together with the enhanced value of air power, led to a reorientation of British strategy. In 1946 the Chiefs of Staff, especially Montgomery, wanted to hold on to the Middle East, in part because of the strategic airfields in Palestine and Egypt and their proximity to potential high-value targets inside the southern Soviet Union. The advent of the nuclear age lent renewed value to old imperial bases. A bitter fight ensued between the Chiefs of Staff and a new Labour government led by Clement Attlee, who was determined to escape from empire.
In the mid-1990s many of these hitherto "closed" files were finally released under the Open Government Initiative. The belated declassification revealed that Lewis had missed little and had uncovered most of their contents long before. However, the new releases did allow him to publish a second edition, which further develops certain important themes. Remarkable additions include the story of the continuation of wartime deception-planning mechanisms for use against the Soviet Union and the story of "Operation Unthinkable," a detailed planning exercise for a war against the USSR in the early summer of 1945, ordered by Churchill but recognized by the Chiefs of Staff as impossible, even with the use of rearmed German forces. Lewis's book is a triumph of dedicated research and sheds light on key episodes in the Cold War whose importance is still perhaps not fully appreciated. The second edition offers an indispensable guide to some of the most fascinating and secretive aspects of early Cold War history.
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