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The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War Paperback – 6 Mar 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (6 Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141008350
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141008356
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 13 x 1.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 257,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

History is often best understood as a series of errors and misjudgements with profound, if not disastrous, consequences, but The Secret State reverses the trend as it is the story of a group of people who, with a bit of luck and a lot of skill, actually got it right. Had you asked many politicians or military personnel back in 1952, very few would have put money on the world remaining free of nuclear war for the next 50 years, especially given the history of the first half of the 20th century. But, with a few narrow squeaks along the way, peace prevailed and The Secret State goes some way to explaining Britain's part in that achievement.

With the domino-like collapse of the Eastern Bloc communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cold War effectively ended and with it the need for many documents relating to that period to remain secret. In 1992, as part of the Waldegrave Initiative, the Conservative government, under pressure from historians such as Hennessy, began to drip-feed previously classified documents into the public domain, and to date more than 100,000 items have been released. From these, Hennessy has been able to piece together all the retaliation procedures had a nuclear strike been launched against Britain. The picture that emerges is surprisingly reassuring; many of the documents are couched in the formal stiff-upper-lip of both the military and Whitehall of the 50s and 60s, but there is a humanity and pacifism, too. Far from being the hawks of popular imagination, the military clearly went to great lengths to keep us out of a nuclear war, both by their actions at home and abroad. Britain may have been a smallish player compared to the US and the USSR in the global nuclear game, but it did its fair share of keeping the peace by curbing some of its more aggressive American counterparts. Hennessy is a past master at bringing dusty archives to life and The Secret State is one of those rare books that reflects credit not only on the author but on its subjects, too. This is a must read for anyone who has ever wondered just how lucky they are to still be alive. --John Crace --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


a fascinating new history of Whitehall and the Cold War -- The Mail on Sunday, 3 March 2002

he tells the story with a sparkling combination of wit and infectious enthusiasm -- History Today, July 2002

riveting, path-breaking and wonderfully readable -- The Times, 6 March 2002 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
The Cold War was a specialists' confrontation, not a people's conflict, though it aroused fear on a wide scale, not just among rival sets of war planners and decision-makers. Read the first page
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Simon Weston on 8 Mar. 2005
Format: Paperback
If you'll pardon the poor punning, I'm trying to say that if you expect to read about secret bases in extinct volcanoes, you'll be disappointed. However if you want to read some brilliant forensic history in an accessible and sometimes amusing style, you're in for a treat.
On a personal note it's also nice to see that High Wycombe, where I grew up, was number 3 on the Soviet target list. Perhaps the KGB hated the place as much as I do.
The UK government won't release documents. Even on weapons and plans out of date for over 20 years. So a historian has to derive a lot of information from few sources. There is often more information available from Soviet sources, and always more from the US. This has to be skillfully combined with non-classified information.
There's also a fine UK tradition of finding papers in the Public Records Office that appear to have got stuck in the wrong file at some point. Otherwise this book might not have happened.
Hennessey uses the little he can find to produce a brilliant history of the early Cold War, it's a pleasure to read as well as being very informative. A great book to read if you're at all interested in British or Cold War history.
Finally, on a topical (ish) note, he shows how the UK Government were guessing in the dark about Soviet intentions, and had laughably little intelligence to work with. All they really had was observation of Soviet forces. The rest had to be inferred. Compare this with the famous dossier on Iraq. I read 'The Secret State' just after I'd read the dossier and it was pretty clear that the UK and US governments were in exactly the same position. It's instructive to see the limits of intelligence gathering when dealing with a closed, highly repressive society, and how that affects policy.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By "scribeoflight" on 21 Mar. 2003
Format: Paperback
'The Secret State' is a book that will appeal, because of the intrinsically fascinating nature of its subject matter, to academics and non-experts alike. And it will be enjoyed by academics and non-experts alike, because Hennessy caters excellently for both readers: he is both academically rigorous in his investigation of sources and eminently proficient at the presentation of the fruits of his investigation in a compelling and engaging narrative form.
Hennessy explores Whitehall's involvement in the Cold War on different levels, looking at the politics behind 'being nuclear' in the first place, at the ongoing need for Britain to keep up with nuclear technologies as world circumstances changed and evolved (the V-bombers, for example, became obsolete, practically, when Russian air defence improved), and finally (in perhaps the most interesting chapters of the book) at the planning involved in protection of the population and government in the event of nuclear attacks. Hennessy visited the bunker, now abandoned, that would have housed the Prime Minister and two hundred others if a strike were to occur, and it is here that the stark reality of it all comes home. And in addition to the horrifying details of the potential destructive power of thermonuclear weapons, there are also lighter, more humorous moments.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 29 July 2002
Format: Hardcover
What would have happened had the Cuban Missile Affair become something more than an interesting piece of 'what if' in history? If nuclear war had broken out, what would have happened to government in the United Kingdom? Prof. Peter Hennessy, that scavenger of the Public Records Office, gives us a window on the preparations that took place in Britain during the start of the Cold War to ensure that the first rule of government - that government should always endure - should be kept. As with previous works Hennessy pierces the air of unflappability that governments like to project about their activities (especially in relation to issues around security) and unearths the underbelly of chaos and sometimes comedy that took place at times of high tension. Unmissable for historians and political scientists who should learn that government is not just what is to be found in politicians self-serving memoirs!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By "j_t_m_2003" on 27 Oct. 2003
Format: Paperback
"The Queen must be told" stated Commander Stephens RN on 5 March 1965. What she "must be told" was the "decisions to implement the various states and procedures for a transition to war". And in these, the Coldest days of the High Cold War, there is no doubt that "transition to war" meant transition to a full, nuclear war. "There is no evidence that Her Majusty or her Private Office, on receipt of Stephen's anatomy, asked for a short historical explanation of how her Cold War machine came to be as it was by the spring of 1965. But, if such a volume HAD been requested, it MIGHT have looked like this..."
Professor Peter Hennessy's book is a mixture of humour, with his students at Queen Mary's in London and horror, with the grime facts with which this book deals. It would seem impossible to make the planning and re-planning for Total War something that anyone would want to do, yet, that is what the 'Crown Princes' of contingency planning, lead by Sir Norman Brook the Cabinet Secretary, did for the years of the High Cold war, and that is what the reader of this fasinating book will do as well.
Based entirely on primary sources recently declassified, on interviews and first hand accounts with those who could be counted as the 'Crown Princes' in their day, and Professor Hennessy's extensive knowledge in the area of contemporary British history, this book is not only what I am sure is the first of many important works on Britain's Cold War, but is also a real page turner.
The paperback, second edition, is also particuarly revealing, containing as it does more declassified files, and comments or corrections to the conclusions he drew in the first edition based on a great wealth of knowledge at his disposal. Alas, it is but a start, a "work in progress" as he describes it.
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