New Forest East



The Politico magazine – Issue 1, Summer 2002

The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, by Peter Hennessy, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, £16.99

Julian Lewis on a job well done

There were many casualties of the Cold War in bitter conflicts around the world, but – apart from Vietnam and Afghanistan – few were incurred by the principal antagonists. As Peter Hennessy points out, this was

“a specialists’ confrontation, not a people’s conflict”.

Civilian engagement was very low but the potential for civilian casualties was limitless.

Most of the attention deservedly given to The Secret State so far has focused on the author’s discoveries about UK preparations for the failure of deterrence. The secret government bunker in the Cotswolds and the codename for launching our nuclear retaliation – “OPERATION VISITATION” – are the very stuff of Dr Strangelove made horribly real.

Yet, such preparations were only part of a deadly minuet designed to preserve the ultimate stalemate, and it is wrong to overlook the wider lesson which Hennessy has to teach us. This is the role of the Intelligence Services as a restraining factor in the global confrontation. Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee consistently predicted that the Soviet Union would pursue its aims of international domination by all means short of war, and that the struggle would consequently be “a very long-term affair”.

The intelligence community lacked the sources and resources which would have let it anticipate specific moves to blockade Berlin or invade South Korea, let alone the date of the first Soviet nuclear test. It was dealing with a closed society, where decisions were taken by a ruthless clique which, as often as not, had the advantage of technology stolen by sympathisers in the West. Nevertheless, the JIC held fast to its view that

“direct military conflict – World War III – was highly unlikely in large part because of the unarguably catastrophic consequences all round of a nuclear exchange”.

It was right to do so.

Hennessy retreads the path which led the post-war Labour Government to decide that the UK needed a nuclear deterrent of its own instead of relying on what would probably be a short-lived American monopoly. Less well-known is the case for the H-Bomb made in 1954, when Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff feared that the United States might be “tempted to undertake a forestalling war”. As the Prime Minister put it to the Cabinet’s Defence Policy Committee on 19 May:

“We must avoid any action which would weaken our power to influence United States policy. We must avoid anything which might be represented as a sweeping act of disarmament.”

The decision to acquire the hydrogen bomb would thus aid the UK in restraining its ally, deterring its potential enemy, and maximising its military power at a time of reductions in defence expenditure.

Nor was the ‘enemy within’ to be overlooked. It had been difficult to counter the British Communist Party during the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. A Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities was set up, with negative vetting being introduced in 1947 and positive vetting in 1950. The Security Service recognised the limitations of these methods at the outset, however, as the real danger lay in long-term infiltration by agents with little or no Communist track-records.

Possibly it was the increased emphasis on nuclear deterrence in the Sandys White Paper of 1957 which explained the relatively late emergence of an effective anti-nuclear mass movement the following year. This caused concern about blockades of military bases in peacetime and interference with military movements during a conflict. The exposure of part of the network of secret wartime Regional Seats of Government by the so-called Spies for Peace came as close as could be to crossing the border between legitimate protest and action likely to be helpful to an enemy.

With the ending of the Cold War, and the opening-up of archives never intended for disclosure, books like The Secret State make it possible to see what measures would have been taken in response to the ultimate nuclear catastrophe. Peter Hennessy, the doyen of contemporary British history, has uncovered the infrastructure of strategic retaliation. Let us hope that future potential enemies will draw the right conclusions.