Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Then It Could Be Told: book review

The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War, by Peter Hennessy. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 2002, xxi + 234 pp. ISBN 0 713 99626 9.

   Even before it starts, this book plunges the reader into the nightmare world it investigates, with endpapers (at front and back, produced more fully on pp 164-8) listing ‘Probable nuclear targets in the United Kingdom: Assumptions for planning.  This 1967 document of the Joint Intelligence Committee names 65 targets related to nuclear strike capability and 20 major cities, in every part of the country, so we can see just how close the perceived threat came to home.  The text fills in the details of what it would have meant.
   Peter Hennessy displays 'The Cold War state which British insiders built alongside the existing one, from roughly 1947 onwards' (p. xiii) and which his researches and discoveries, in the Public Record Office (PRO) and among surviving participant insiders themselves, have brought to light.  The nuclear factor was, as he says, central throughout the period and as such it is the focus of his study, presented in six fact- and figure-packed chapters (and earlier summarised to an appreciative audience in the Penguin History Lectures 2001).  Some of the material will be familiar, in general terms at least, to those who lived through that era, especially if they tried to expose and oppose the machinations of the Cold War state.  For surviving participant outsiders there may be a certain grim satisfaction in being shown how right they were, not only on the major issue of the scale of nuclear devastation and how close to the brink of it we came, but about the activities of Special Branch - they were watching quite a lot of us - and Civil Defence - no doubt many volunteers meant well, but what a grotesque farce it was.  These and other accoutrements of the Secret State are exposed extensively, though not exhaustively. 
  Although the author remains a corridors-of-power man, relishing contacts in the upper echelons, the unguarded remark of the once-powerful, and the machinations of government at the highest level, he accords sympathetic attention to the activities and viewpoint of dissidents, highlighting for example the ‘Spies for Peace’ episode of Easter 1963.  For him the surprising thing is not that a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) developed, but that it took so long, and he cites official statements and analyses which he considers would have kick-started it years earlier, if made known to the public.  In this context the Strath Report of 1955 was a primary source which was still closed to him at the time of writing but has since been opened by the PRO, perhaps thanks to his efforts in getting at and publishing its gist.  Those reviewers who have drawn the inference that after all nuclear deterrence worked (and that CND was wrong) are ignoring quite a lot of the story.  As Hennessy notes: It is simple to the point of being seriously misleading to suppose that the creation of a nuclear weapons capability on both sides of what became the Cold War offers an all-embracing explanation of why the nuclear taboo has not been broken…’  (p.xi)  It is easier to answer the question what if x number of bombs had been used (see Table) than what if they had never been invented or had remained the monopoly of one country plus or minus its allies, although in the second case, at least a vast amount of money would have been saved.
   The title gives a slightly exaggerated idea of the books coverage, largely limited as it is to the nuclear-armed aspect of the Cold War and to certain departmental sources - probably the most significant with regard to policy-making - in Whitehall: the Cabinet Office (which alone covers a multitude of sins), the Prime Ministers Office, and Defence.  One way in which the work could usefully be built on would be by looking in more detail at manifestations and ramifications of their policies.  For example, further material is available on surveillance of the peace movement, Admiralty reactions to anti-Polaris demonstrations, and on the war-games exercises and detailed plans drawn up by practically all and sundry.  To dip one’s toes briefly into these last, murky waters: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), as well as conducting elaborate Atom Bomb Target Studies all over the country (PRO: [National Archives ref.] MAF 99/562 1952 etc.) was diligent in considering matters ranging from seed supplies in wartime to monitoring of farm produce for radioactive contamination in wartime, the effects of radiation on bull semen, and the slaughter of livestock following nuclear attack.  All departments were required to think about and prepare for the prospect.  The Ministry of Labour would, via a National Service Officer, direct any person in Great Britain to perform any service of which he ['or she' is implicit] was considered capable, restrict workers from leaving jobs, and so on.  Defence Regulations covered nursing, police, fire, merchant navy; certain other industries and services.  The Home Office excelled both in scaring scenarios and hilarious absurdities, with its much-satirised sixteen pages of Advice to the HouseholderPublic control after attack was the subject of special consideration; Civil Defence Wardens, and/or your local Street (Party) Leader, would coordinate the effort and should be obeyed.  Church bells were to be rung to signify fallout coming within one hour.  Housing and Local Government proposed arrangements for emergency sanitation and storing of water.  Under a dispersal policy ‘priority classes’ including pregnant women, children, and disabled, totalling about 9.5 million or 43% of the population, were to be moved from major centres to reception areas.  Even the Ministry of Pensions and National Assistance was ready at one stage, if there was a nuclear war, for the NA Scheme to be modified and known as the War Assistance Scheme.  An Index of Official Announcements on such matters was held in readiness for eventual broadcasting. 
   One finding that emerges from documents and interviews is that the state was not so monolithic, and did not present such a united front with its allies, as opponents often tend to assume. There are recurrent allusions to anxiety about the chances of US over-reaction to Soviet ‘provocation’, and the USA wais frequently portrayed as a threat to world peace (plus ça change), needing to be restrained by British reasonableness (well, perhaps some change there), for which British nuclear clout – ‘enough nuclear power to prevent foolish decisions to our detriment by the US’ (p. 62) – was seen to be required. 
   In spite of the end of the Cold War and its effects on international relations, the final chapter reminds us powerfully that this is far from being all over, past history in a supposedly, in some ways, more secure world.  Several nuclear bunkers may now be derelict or refurbished as tourist attractions, but the top people still have their bolt-hole and every British Prime Minister has to decide whether to authorise, for posthumous implementation, mass murder on an awesome scale.  Nuclear submarines carry sealed orders, ready in the event of that say-so to go and kill - whom? - when the rest of us are dead. 
  In spite of its subject, this is an entertaining and not an over-long or difficult read, with the bonus of sharing the author’s pleasure in his research, and triumph at finding the odd significant gem whose sensitivity seems to have escaped notice, lurking in an obscure file.  While it is an excellent introduction, there are several areas in which the story could be expanded, and it is reasonable to hope is likely to be, with researchers taking an interest in the topic.  Many files are there to be explored and new ones being released all the time, so that more works of this quality and accessibility may be produced on Britain’s nuclear past, reaching as it does into our present and future.  
First published in the journal Medicine, Conflict & Survival, 2003.

From inside the book's back cover
Extract from PRO file HO 226/71:
Casualties from a heavy nuclear attack on the United Kingdom  1958
HO Scientific Advisers Branch
 Casualty estimates for ground burst 10 Megaton bombs, Table1:
No. of Bombs
No. killed (no evacuation) 000s
 The comment is added that estimates are almost certainly too low.

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