Every Club in the Bag

R.W. Johnson

  • The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War by Peter Hennessy
    Allen Lane, 234 pp, £16.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9626 9
  • Know Your Enemy: How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World by Percy Cradock
    Murray, 351 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 7195 6048 9

Every book about the Cold War and the nuclear threat that dominated it should probably begin with a chapter about what would have been the biggest invasion in human history, dwarfing even the Normandy landings. In this case, D-Day was to be 1 November 1945. An American army of five million men was to be assembled for the invasion of Japan, with smaller but still significant contingents from Britain, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth. Despite an unprecedented advance bombardment from sea and air, which would have annihilated the Imperial Navy and Air Force, and despite the help the Red Army could provide by driving simultaneously south to Port Arthur, the casualties on the beaches of Kyushu and Honshu alone were expected to be staggering: advance estimates numbered tens of thousands dead on the first day.

Pushing on from those bridgeheads in the bitterly cold weather, the Allied Armies would come face to face with huge numbers of soldiers emerging from the tunnels in which they’d been hiding. (By this stage of the war Japanese schoolchildren, too, had been trained for suicide missions, and would be carrying satchels full of explosives.) Military planners, when asked for estimates of Allied casualties, threw up their hands and said a million, maybe more, with Japanese casualties many times that. Roosevelt and Truman, Churchill and Attlee, recognised that they faced a return to the casualty levels of the Somme and Passchendaele. Even if they won the war they would never be forgiven; and it was in this desperate state of mind that Truman took the decision – with Attlee’s assent – to drop the first atom bombs.

Had nuclear deterrence had to depend merely on scientific warnings or even the evidence of nuclear tests, it might not have worked. But nobody could doubt the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or have any difficulty imagining what even more powerful weapons – by the time of the US ‘Mike’ test at Eniwetok in 1952, they were seven hundred times more powerful – would do to their own cities.

This gave nuclear strategising and Intelligence – carried out in Britain by the Joint Intelligence Committee – a primary importance. The JIC was made up of all the Intelligence agencies and the Chiefs of Staff. It was to the wartime JIC run by Bill Bentinck that the Ultra decrypts poured in from Bletchley, to be mulled over by a team including the legendary Admiral Hall, whose Room 40 in the Admiralty had laid the foundations of modern cryptography during World War One; Stewart Menzies, head of SIS (the model for James Bond’s M); Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Strong from Military Intelligence, who had, in 1940, warned the disbelieving French that Hitler would attack through the Ardennes, and who was later appropriated by Eisenhower to become his chief of Intelligence; and the formidable Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear-Admiral Godfrey, and his assistant Ian Fleming. Their meetings must have been fun. Godfrey, brilliant but acerbic, called the RAF the Royal Advertisement Service, and dismissed the Army as the ‘evacuees’, the people the Navy had had to fish out of the sea at Dunkirk, Crete and elsewhere. Bentinck, accompanied everywhere by his small dog, Angus – known throughout Whitehall as ‘the Intelligence dog’ – had predicted Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The JIC was sceptical: the Nazi-Soviet Pact suited Germany perfectly, and surely no one in his right mind would start a war on two fronts? Bentinck, mindful of Hitler’s deep-seated anti-Bolshevism, cited the French proverb: ‘One always returns to one’s first loves – and one’s first hatreds.’

The nuclear age transformed the worlds of strategy and Intelligence. Peter Hennessy describes step by step how Britain got the bomb and what it was then used for. From 1945 on, the Chiefs of Staff took it for granted that Britain had to have ‘every club in the bag’, and the RAF began adapting the V-bomber force to deliver the bomb. Dalton and Cripps attempted a rearguard action against it in 1946, but Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, would have none of it. Smarting from the way he’d just been talked down to in Washington, Bevin insisted that being taken seriously by the US now depended on having the bomb: ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ When Stalin mounted the Berlin Blockade in 1948, Washington dithered but Bevin was adamant: the US must send B-29s to Europe immediately. This dramatically raised the potential cost of Soviet misbehaviour: the B-29 had the range to fly to Moscow and back and was the only plane with the proven ability to deliver an atomic bomb. This may well have been decisive in persuading Stalin to back down. It was the world’s first example of nuclear diplomacy – and it worked.

More important than Bevin’s amour-propre was a constant worry about American unreliability. ‘The Americans,’ according to a 1946 FO briefing paper, ‘are a mercurial people, unduly swayed by sentiment and prejudice . . . Their Government is handicapped by an archaic constitution, sometimes to the point of impotence, and their policy is to an exceptional degree at the mercy of both electoral changes and of violent economic fluctuations.’ All later British Governments shared these assumptions. Thus Macmillan, in 1958, defined the purpose of the British deterrent largely in terms of the need to retain the special relationship with the US and ‘to enable us, by threatening to use our independent nuclear power, to secure US co-operation’.

Having got the bomb, British Governments began to fear a nuclear war started not by the Soviets but by the Americans. Later, their fear would abate somewhat, but in the early 1950s especially, British premiers from Churchill on thought the US might be tempted by its brief window of nuclear superiority to launch a pre-emptive strike. Western Europe was within range of Soviet counter-strikes while the US was not, and Britain in particular harboured major US bases. This anxiety remained central for British policy-makers even once the Soviets had got the bomb, as they still lacked the means to use it against the US.

On the one hand, this situation sent British governments chasing the chimera of civilian nuclear defence. The only time that a Home Secretary – Gwilym Lloyd George in 1955 – took the matter seriously enough to propose a £1.25 billion programme, he was immediately shot down by the Chiefs of Staff, who could not bear to see such expenditure wasted on ‘passive’ measures. But in any case the wonderfully named Jigsaw (Joint Inter-Services Group for the Study of All-Out War) soon came up with the estimate that it would take only 25 H-bombs to produce ‘breakdown’ – the point at which survivors no longer want to be assets to a state which has lost the ability to govern. Missing, remarkably, from both Hennessy’s book and Percy Cradock’s Know Your Enemy, despite the fact that Cradock was JIC chairman, is any mention of the nuclear winter which would make all such calculations redundant in any case.

On the other hand, British policy-makers were also afraid of situations that might result in the US getting into a losing position – and thus being tempted by the nuclear option. Cradock knows the secrets but makes almost nothing of them – just letting drop without further comment, for example, the explosive fact that the coup against Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 was not just a CIA operation but involved the British SIS, too. This, however, is nothing compared with the revisions of Cold War history that the new perspective on Britain’s relationship to the US requires.

It emerges that while the Pentagon and MacArthur both thought the main danger in Korea was that South Korean forces were so superior to their Northern counterparts that it would be difficult to stop Syngman Rhee starting a war, the British believed that the danger came from the North and were saying as early as December 1949 that there could ‘be no doubt whatever’ that the North’s ‘ultimate object’ was to ‘overrun the South’. When, the following year, the North duly invaded the South, the important question was whether an American push into North Korea would trigger large-scale Chinese intervention. The US military and the CIA were confident that it would not, but two of the British Chiefs of Staff, Field Marshal Slim and Sir John Slessor, warned that ‘there was a real likelihood and danger of the Chinese taking this action.’ A million-strong Chinese Army duly flung the US back, Truman began fingering the nuclear trigger and Attlee flew in panic to Washington to stop him.

This terrifying experience accounts for Britain’s behaviour when the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 presented a challenge to the Truman Doctrine (‘to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’ – more precisely, Communism). If a further expansion of Communist rule was to be prevented, the US would have to intervene, possibly with nuclear weapons. Eisenhower and Dulles made it clear they were willing to do exactly that, but Churchill and Eden prevaricated, and managed to steer the matter into negotiations at Geneva. When the smoke cleared, a new Communist regime had been installed in North Vietnam and, to Dulles’s fury, the Truman Doctrine lay in ruins. Cradock hints heavily that the treatment of Eden during Suez was Dulles’s revenge. The State Department’s frustration at that time helps explain its determination to hold the line in Vietnam when it again came under pressure in the early 1960s.

Cradock clearly rated none of the premiers he served under highly, but his outrage is reserved for Eden and his contempt for Macmillan. Eden lied not only to Parliament about Suez, but also to the Cabinet and to Washington. He got the Cabinet to agree on a policy of isolating but not confronting Nasser at the same time that he was saying to the SIS, on an open phone line: ‘I want Nasser murdered, don’t you understand?’ He then made a deal with Israel which was so secret that even the Chiefs of Staff running the military operation were supposed to believe that Israel’s simultaneous attack on Egypt was a fluke. When he then infuriated the French by pulling out under US pressure halfway through the operation, he set further dominoes in motion. Adenauer, who was with Guy Mollet as news of the British ‘betrayal’ came through, soothed him with the thought that ‘Europe will be your revenge.’ And so it was. When Britain belatedly sought EEC entry, de Gaulle vetoed it on the grounds that it was a Trojan horse for the US: had not Suez proved that in the last analysis Britain would always do what America wanted, even if it meant betraying France?

The nightmare of a pre-emptive US nuclear strike wasn’t over. By 1961, the US was determined to intervene in Vietnam, and asked Britain to join it. The Chancellor and former Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, warned the Cabinet that intervention by the West would probably trigger North Vietnamese and Chinese intervention, adding that without using nuclear weapons ‘there would be every likelihood of defeat.’ The fact that China, too, would soon have nuclear capability made the situation even trickier. Astonishingly, Cradock believes that Kennedy’s frantic pursuit of a nuclear test-ban treaty in 1960 was ‘cover for a proposal to Khrushchev that the US and Soviet Union should act together to coerce Mao to abandon his [nuclear] plans. In practical terms this would probably have meant a joint attack on the Chinese nuclear installations.’

What got in the way was Khrushchev’s determination to make up for the Soviet lack of ICBMs by placing medium-range missiles on Cuba. Cradock is savage about the way in which Macmillan – ‘ce vieillard lachrymose’, as de Gaulle called him – saw this and every other crisis as an occasion for wall-to-wall summitry in which he would, of course, play a starring role. It seems that during the Cuban crisis Macmillan kept sending telegrams to Washington which his own Ambassador, David Ormsby-Gore, tore up, describing them as ‘practically incomprehensible’ and ‘wholly out of order’.

Cradock doesn’t see Cuba as a Kennedy triumph – JFK used brother Bobby’s backchannel route to the Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, to promise Khrushchev that the US would retire Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. And, according to Cradock, JFK explicitly ordered that the missiles in Turkey should not be launched without his permission even if there was a Soviet nuclear strike against them. In other words, he was prepared – if Cradock’s account is correct – to sacrifice the security of a Nato ally for the sake of American security, in a deal done without consultation and as part of a trade-off on the other side of the world. De Gaulle was right: even if you were a member of Nato you had to have your own nukes because the US would never sacrifice its cities for yours. Indeed, it is clear from Cradock that Britain’s criticism of French nuclear ambitions was hypocritical. Not only did Britain share de Gaulle’s view from the outset, but it also believed his theory that in order to deter an enemy you didn’t have to have the power to defeat him, merely the power ‘to tear off an arm and a leg’.

Cradock’s view of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is similarly revealing. There was a complete Intelligence failure: Western leaders learned about the invasion from the press. The West had never succeeded in cracking Soviet signal codes. Early on, the Russians had been meticulous about using unbreakable one-time pads. There was only one lapse, in 1948, which led to the decryption of a number of NKVD cables – the Venona transcripts – which alerted the West to the doings of Guy Burgess and all manner of others. In the very restricted circles that learned of this, the shock was huge: the enemy was within the gates – and in great numbers. Venona almost certainly led to McCarthyism. But the codes weren’t cracked again.

Nonetheless, Cradock points out, the apparent Soviet triumph in squashing Dubcek carried a huge long-term price. It was soon apparent that disagreement within what Brezhnev called ‘the Socialist Commonwealth’ would lead to military suppression. Albania immediately walked out of the Warsaw Pact, and the Chinese, after much reflection, contacted Richard Nixon – and the Cold War was lost. With the warming of Chinese-US relations, the USSR faced war on two fronts. In 1969, the Soviet Government considered the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against China – trucks carrying nuclear missiles were moved towards the border – and was curtly warned by Nixon that China was now under the US nuclear umbrella.

One important question remains, which neither Cradock nor Hennessy addresses: how could the US try to co-ordinate a US-Soviet strike against China in 1960, only to warn the USSR in 1969 that an attack on China would trigger a US nuclear response? The key – as we now know from the work of David Holloway and others – was the Soviet deployment of SS-8s and SS-9s in 1967-68. These were the first Soviet ICBMs: at last the US was under the same threat that Europe had been for the previous 15 years, and the USSR since 1945. Amid the frantic building of private fallout shelters, the peace marches and other manifestations of nuclear panic in the 1950s, no American leader had been willing to point out that there was no nuclear balance of terror, that the US was effectively immune from nuclear attack; and the Soviets had been only too willing to bluff that they could hit the US when actually they couldn’t.

The SS-8s and SS-9s changed all that. Suddenly, Nixon – McCarthy’s little helper – wanted a deal with China. More than that, he wanted détente, he wanted Salt I and Salt II and the ABM Treaty and he, the super-hawk, wanted to get out of Vietnam, even if it meant letting the North Vietnamese win after ‘a decent interval’. Such a scenario would once have led an American President to consider the nuclear option, but not now that SS-8s and SS-9s were targeted on mainland America. Even when détente was achieved, it wasn’t enough: the feeling of vulnerability continued to nag away, resulting in first Reagan’s and now Bush’s plans for anti-missile defence.

Cradock is frank about the many failings of Intelligence and the fact that, lacking the ability to decode Soviet ciphers or to place spies on the ground within the USSR, the West was reduced to high-level guessing most of the time. In this respect the USSR, like Germany before it, enjoyed an enormous advantage in the greater openness of Western democracies. They also had a Communist Party network – sometimes millions strong – in many Western countries, and the sympathy of many intellectuals, some of whom, like Philby and Blunt, were not merely willing to spy, but showed extraordinary discipline and commitment. When Stalin wanted to penetrate the Manhattan Project he was able to place more then ten agents right inside it, but there was never any prospect of Western Intelligence penetrating secret Soviet projects.

Nonetheless, Soviet Intelligence, like that of the Nazis, was generally inferior, for the same reason in each case: an inability to evaluate the information received. Either their Intelligence agencies would provide Stalin and Hitler with interpretations that corresponded with what they wanted to hear or, more often, they would simply supply mountains of raw data which their political masters could interpret in any way they liked. Even with proper evaluation procedures, as Cradock shows, there is still the problem of trying to understand how people in different cultures think. Not many guessed that Sadat would attack Israel in 1973 because, as Kissinger put it, they hadn’t grasped ‘the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect’. With poor or no evaluation, much of the work of Soviet spies was wasted: when Philby told the NKVD during the Second World War that Britain had ceased to spy on its Soviet ally, Stalin simply assumed that Philby was a triple agent. The more normal thing to do was to feed one’s master’s paranoia – a dangerous habit. Like other Soviet leaders, Khrushchev was worried about an American pre-emptive nuclear strike, so the KGB obligingly told him that such a strike had only been averted by a series of Soviet atomic tests. This apparently convinced Khrushchev of the necessity of placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

There was an impressive amount of rational planning and response at the strategic level – simply by placing missiles in silos in North Dakota or Siberia, each side was able to effect major changes in the other’s behaviour – but were the nuclear threshold ever to be crossed, rationality would disappear. The instructions to the commander of a Trident missile submarine in the event of war might have been pulled from the Goon Show. He is supposed to determine whether Britain is still functioning on the basis of whether or not the Today programme is still broadcasting. If it isn’t, he has to retrieve from his safe the PM’s letter instructing him to: 1. Put himself under the command of the USA, if it is still there. 2. Make his way to Australia, if it is still there. 3. Get on with it and take out Moscow. 4. Use his own judgment.