Learning to live with the bomb

In the autumn of 1962, not more than a couple of weeks after the Cuban missile crisis and with our British fleet of nuclear-armed V-bombers still on high alert, a man called Gervase Cowell, then working in our Moscow embassy, received a phone call.

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 Peter Hennessy

Penguin, pp.470, 10.99

The call consisted of three short blows of breath. A minute later, the phone rang again. Once more: three short blows of breath. Mr Cowell, under diplomatic cover, was the MI6 handler for Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, the West’s single most important asset in the Kremlin — and the calls he took were the prearranged code that Penkovsky was to use to tell him that a Soviet nuclear attack on the West was imminent.

I’d have shat a brick. Wouldn’t you? But Cowell kept his cool. He didn’t call London and get the counterstrike underway. He didn’t put his head between his knees and wait for oblivion. The sky could have been black with Russian nukes, but he didn’t, in fact, do a damn thing. He judged — correctly, as it turned out — that Penkovsky had been rumbled and his codes compromised. Cowell didn’t tell another soul that he’d just been warned about the end of the world.

And had it not been for his sangfroid, it really could have been the end of the world. To those of us who lived through only the tail-end of it, Peter Hennessy’s superb book gives a sense of quite how terrifying the Cold War’s warm patches really were.

Hennessy tells the story of a jokey 1961 encounter between Khrushchev and the British Ambassador, Frank Roberts. The Soviet leader asked how many H-bombs Roberts thought would be needed to wipe out the UK. ‘Six’, he replied. Khrushchev chided him for his pessimism. He said that ‘optimists’ estimated it would take nine — but reassured him with a twinkle that

the Soviet General Staff… had earmarked several scores of bombs for use against the UK so that the Soviet Union had a higher opinion of the UK’s resistance capacity than the UK itself.

This book is the story of the secret state built to cope with the war that never happened — from the acquisition of the deterrent to contingency planning, civil defence and the multiply-code-named plans for what to do in the event of the four-minute warning. The picture — as per the remarkable Mr Cowell — is of impressively cool heads and wise counsel.

Hennessy’s is a mandarin’s-eye view. He moves with ease at the top level of the military and political and civil service establishment — from high table to Cabinet Office to wardroom. Time and again, the information he quotes is from personal conversations with senior spooks and retired Prime Ministers, and he knows his way through Whitehall’s machinery like a native.


‘Ghastly’ and ‘dreadful’ are the adjectives that, in Hennessy’s idiolect, attach themselves naturally to the prospect of nuclear annihilation. After a detailed exposition of the ‘plans’ for post-war governance, Hennessy sums up:

Like all else to do with nuclear war, the degradation of the United Kingdom into eleven shrivelled irradiated little fiefdoms filled with wretched and desperate survivors theoretically governed by men in bunkers and probably ruled, in reality, by armed soldiers and policemen with ultimate powers over life and death (give or take the occasional surviving judge to interpolate himself or herself) is too ghastly to contemplate.

Well, quite.

Peter Hennessy’s academic diligence, formidable levels of access, and unerring sense of what is really interesting mean that — as well as outlining official procedure and bureaucratic structure fastidiously — his book is crammed with all the human stuff you want to know.

He takes you into TURNSTILE — the underground bunker that was at one point to have been the seat of post-World War III government. It’s very basic — only the PM gets his own loo. He tells you who was going to be there. A number of typists, it turns out, were marked to survive the apocalypse.

He takes you into a V-boat — one of the submarines carrying the deterrent — and describes the whoomph as a (test) missile is fired. (The trigger is a Colt .45 pistol: there’s a black one for practice and a red one for when you’re firing a live warhead.)

There are some splendid moments of Ealing comedy, too. The Armageddon-imagineers in the Home Office secretly circulated an in-house journal called Fission Fragments which included a ‘Spot The Bomb’ competition — the picture showed fall-out plumes from 2-meg H-bombs, and you had to guess where Ground Zero was. And in the Macmillan era, senior civil servants fretted about whether to join the AA so that if the PM was in his car when the four-minute warning was sounded, he could use one of their phone boxes to authorise nuclear retaliation.

The Secret State isn’t quite a new book: it was first published in 2002. But this edition has been substantially updated. In the first place, it takes advantage of newly declassified material. The humdinger is the day-by-day transcript of 1968’s exercise INVALUABLE, the real-time wargame in which the political and military countdown to Apocalypse was simulated. Apart from the Russians setting up a forward base on the moon (a joke?, Hennessey wonders) it is plausible, detailed and completely hair-raising. It ends on a cliff-hanger, with Nato’s European supreme commander requesting nuclear release. The part of the transcript saying what happened next is still classified.  

The second major change to the book is its (so far) necessarily sketchy consideration of the major change in the intelligence establishment. The Cold War was one sort of enemy; but Al-Qaeda is quite another, and Hennessy has added a few chapters setting out the story of the last decade.

Here, he is able to editorialise a little. One can detect a faint impatience with the re-arranging of deckchairs, for instance: Blair, Brown and now Cameron have successively jiggered with the structures of the various Cabinet committees that the secret services serve, and the JIC’s weekly intelligence briefing, the ‘Red Book’, was dropped on the grounds that it wasn’t read with enough attention.

It’s not as if the world’s now a safe place, and we no longer need that intelligence, is it? ‘The problem, surely,’ Hennessy remarks crisply, ‘lay with the drafters of the ‘Red Book’ and the attention spans of some of its readers.’

Amid all the bluster about replacing Trident, Hennessy sounds a pragmatic note. All it would take is one US president to renege on a couple of 50-year-old agreements, he says, and

Britain would cease to be a nuclear weapons power in about a year to 18 months. Don’t expect, however, future national security strategies to express it in quite that way.

That is a rare instance of a known known. One of Hennessy’s heroes is the late intelligence theorist Michael Quinlan. In one of his last papers he proposed a theorem which I think deserves quotation:

In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected. Rationale: What we expect, we plan and provide for; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter; what we deter does not happen. What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it, because we did not expect it.

Doctor Strangelove, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

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