The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War by Peter Hennessy

2 October 2007

Yesterday, if I remember correctly, was the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik and the true start of the space race. I don’t happen to have any books that are particularly science-centric, but I’ve been meaning to post this review for a while now — and it takes the whole civil defence perspective of the time period into account.

The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War by Peter Hennessy

Peter Hennessy has combed through and analysed a slew of recently declassified documents that centre on the British government’s plans for what would have happen if World War III actually had come to pass during the Cold War. This topic is always a tricky one for historians to tackle, because too many viewings of Dr Strangelove tend to burn a misleading image in the mind: balding men in suits and cigar-chomping generals sitting round a table in the War Room, looking at the Big Board and listening to some scientist with a German accent talk about ‘mineshaft gaps’ and ‘ten women to every man’. The Secret State manages to present the kinds of stories that keep Strangelove in mind, but also manages to keep the nonsatirical and pathetically human element in mind. The stomach wrenches at the mental image of some unfortunate soul who had joined the Civil Service during the war trying to come to terms with the very real possibility that he might have to leave his family behind to face nuclear annihilation while he followed the Prime Minister into the Cabinet bunker tucked deep in the Cotswolds.

The Secret State touches upon a number of fascinating subjects in its 250-odd pages. The Cabinet reaction to the growing atomic rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union is engrossing, particularly the famous statement by Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in 1946 that Britain could not fall behind in the acquisition and development of nuclear weapons: ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ Hennessy also includes several copies of actual Civil Service documents about planning for nuclear attack, and a series of photographs of his visit to the real Cold War bunker in the Cotswolds — including a picture of himself going through the turnstile leading down to the shelters. (The plan to evacuate the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet to the bunker was at one point codenamed ‘TURNSTILE’.) The anecdote that got a bitter laugh out of me was the proposed plan to save the Queen from the nuclear devastation by putting her on the royal yacht and having it set out to sea until it was safe for her to return…presumably to what was left of her shattered country.

I’m always fond of Hennessy’s writing, and The Secret State is no exception. Much of the writing that’s out there on Cold War civil defence history tends to be very U.S.-centric, so it’s a welcome treat to have a well-researched, thoroughly enjoyable, and often thought-provoking account of the various plans in place to keep the government running if the missiles started flying.


One comment

  1. […] written glowing reviews of several other books by Peter Hennessy, including The Secret State and The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945. He’s certainly one of my […]

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