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Our deadliest secret

M. R. D. Foot on Peter Hennessy's latest work

5 February 2008

12:00 AM

5 February 2008

12:00 AM

Cabinets and the Bomb Peter Hennessy

OUP for the British Academy, pp.356, 19.95

This book shows how successive cabinets have handled the deadliest secret of modern times, what to do about nuclear bombs, since the first ones went off in 1945. As the subject was so secret, not much has ever been allowed out into the public domain; but Hennessy’s scholarly skills have been such that he has unearthed all of that, and here lays it out in scores of documents in facsimile. This gives the reader an engaging sense of being himself involved in actual research; and his commentaries illuminate each paper.

He begins with the now famous memorandum by Frisch and Peierls, of March 1940, from which the whole ghastly project derived. ‘Tube Alloys’, the code name for atomic research, was so secret that Churchill never brought it before his war cabinet at all (half that cabinet, after all, had never been cleared for ultra secret intelligence). Only he, Anderson and Cherwell knew about it, at that stratospheric level; even Attlee, even Eden, even the chiefs of staff were left in ignorance. The whole (by this time Conservative) cabinet had the subject mentioned to them, once, to get their agreement before the first bombs were used; which they gave, off the cuff, on the understanding that there would be a huge saving in lives, as there was.


Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed in 1943 that the British and the Americans would continue to share atomic construction secrets after the war; an agreement broken by the Americans after Roosevelt’s death. Attlee’s innermost cabinet agreed all the same that there would have to be a British atomic bomb: a decision taken, Hennessy proves, on Ernest Bevin’s advice, against that of Dalton and Cripps who said we could not afford it. Hennessy is able through his BBC contacts to add Bevin’s comment, unrecorded in the austere cabinet committee minutes, ‘We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it’. We have had nuclear weapons ever since; partly to maintain our status as a great power, partly to help secure western Europe against Russian domination. The French have secured them too, for the same reasons; apparently at a much higher cost. One of our reasons for continuing to hold them has been a reluctance to leave the local lead in this field to the French.

His excellent photographs cover most of the principal figures involved, including one of Mrs Thatcher at the periscope of HMS Resolution.

The book includes several examples of half-turns by the wheel of political fortune. At a crucial meeting of ministers on 25 October 1946 (anniversary of Balaclava and of Agincourt), the decision was taken to order a gaseous diffusion plant, from which an atomic bomb could be built. The ministers present were Attlee, Addison, Bevin, Cripps, and (outside the cabinet) the minister of supply, John Wilmot. Wilmot had first come to public notice in October 1933, when he won a spectacular by-election victory at Fulham — on a strongly pacific ticket. Again, in November 1974 when Harold Wilson’s cabinet had to decide what had almost become a matter of routine, whether to retain the bomb-throwing capacities of our established nuclear submarine fleet, Michael Foot the leading Aldermaston marcher was present, but said hardly anything against it, so Barbara Castle felt she too must hold back her strong dislike for the proposal; neither Shore nor Benn said anything; debate in cabinet, in her diary’s phrase, ‘died away’.

Wilson had noted already the ‘long-standing convention that sensitive questions in the field of foreign affairs, defence matters and on security/intelligence are not necessarily brought before the cabinet for decision’. Exactly so: this book shows us the results. It makes depressing but most revealing reading.


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