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The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War [Hardcover]

Peter Hennessy
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 Mar 2002
Peter Hennessy is widely acknowledged to be one of the most entertaining British historians now writing. But the subject of his new book is far from conventionally engaging. Based on primary archival research and interviews with participants, for which Hennessy is also renowned, it examines in detail the top-secret retaliation procedures that were put in place should the UK be attacked in a nuclear war, and what the planners thought the consequences of such a war might be. Using recently declassified material from the Joint Intelligence Committee and its analysts, Hennessy reconstructs the picture of the Soviet threat that was presented to ministers from the last days of the Second World War to the 1960s. He maps the size and shape of the Cold War state which was built in response to that perceived threat, and traces the arguments which successive generations of ministers, the military and civil servants have used to justify the British nuclear capability. In which circumstances would the Prime Minister authorize the use of nuclear force and how would his orders be carried out? At which stage in a thermonuclear exchange would the government and the country break down? Who would have gone underground with the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet and where was the immensely secret installation they would have gone to? What was the Queen told - and when - about the possible end of her kingdom? The memory of these questions, and of the nuclear threat over their lives, is still very vivid to every adult in Britain. Peter Hennessy provides the best answers we have yet had to them.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; 1st Edition edition (7 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713996269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713996265
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 14.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 615,499 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


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

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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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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
'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
5.0 out of 5 stars What if the balloon went up? 29 July 2002
By A Customer
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
5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War 27 Oct 2003
"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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A revelation into the hidden depths of the Cold War
The Cold War ended in November 1989. This book provides much information on the Cold War and the activities of those involved. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Peter Wooton
4.0 out of 5 stars Important book
If Peter Hennessy were a religion I would convert.

This is an important history and one feels safe with Hennessy as the storyteller. Read more
Published on 12 July 2011 by D. J. Andrews
4.0 out of 5 stars The Train To Corsham Will Leave in 4 Minutes...
A book which examines the inner workings of the UK state with particular reference to the likely response to a Soviet missile attack during the period of the Cold War. Read more
Published on 30 Mar 2010 by Ian Millard
5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret State and The Cold War
This book deals with the steps taken by the British Government to protect as far as possible the United Kingdom from nuclear obliteration in the Cold War. Read more
Published on 31 Jan 2010 by R. Holt
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointed
I quite agree with the disappointed review by "Are-puh"
I ordered this book expecting further revelations somewhat in the same sort of vein as "Secret Nuclear Bunkers" but... Read more
Published on 13 Feb 2004 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Boom bang-a-bang
This is generally disappointing book, reading rather like an extended academic research project (the author is clearly overjoyed at having had access to a new batch of declassified... Read more
Published on 18 May 2002 by Mr. A. Pomeroy
5.0 out of 5 stars It's war Peter, but not as we know it!
Yet again the legendary constitutional expert, Professor Peter Hennessy, has provided a unique insight into the inner workings of Whitehall's Cold War apparatus. Read more
Published on 9 Mar 2002
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