The Secret State, 2010 revised edition review

The political historian Peter Hennessy (no relation!) gave a seminar at my school, and his knowledge of the Cold War, both in terms of civilian life and of military technology encouraged me to read his book, 'The Secret State'.

What was particularly fascinating was his inclusion of simulations of hostilities by Cabinet Office planners.  For example, a crisis began in the Baltic and the Balkans, where troops massed on the Bulgarian and Albanian borders. As international tension rose, Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee began planning for the worst, discussing transition-to-war measures, stockpiling essential supplies and urging the government to take emergency powers. In university towns, students demonstrated for peace, while in Britain’s ports, pacifist dockers refused to handle goods bound for the garrison in West Germany.

The Third World War broke out on October 20 1968, with Warsaw Pact forces pouring into Austria and Finland. The next day, crowds besieged the US and Soviet embassies, while the Cabinet authorised the Prime Minister to approve nuclear action if Nato requested it. Builders’ merchants were besieged by people wanting materials for makeshift nuclear shelters.

Gems such as these which were unearthed from Whitehall Archives by Peter Hennessy, provide a tantalising but chilling glimpse of what might have happened if history had unfolded differently.

The book was especially interesting given the narrow GCSE focus of the Cold War I was acquainted with, in which Britain and America acted as one, and no distinctions were ever drawn.  However, the humanisation of nuclear evacuation schemes illustrates that Britain was frighteningly in range of Soviet weapons, and had its own motives in the Cold War - not taking a thermonuclear blow for our American allies.  It also raised the notion of widespread public suspicion of America, as an aggressive American foreign policy would place Britain in the Soviet Union's firing line.

I highly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Cold War, or any aspect of alternate history.  It's only shortcoming is Hennessy's reliance on quoting documents and complicated flow charts.

 It gets a rating of 4/5


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