- Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire by Calder Walton
Harper, 411 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 745796 0
It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or the Netherlands, or Belgium, the process was smooth and friendly. Britain, so the story went, was freely granting self-government to its colonies as the culmination of imperial rule, which had always had this as its ultimate aim – ‘Empire into Commonwealth’, as the history books used to put it. If for no other reason, the myth was needed in order to make ordinary Britons feel better.
This secrecy was frustrating both to former members of the secret services who felt that some of their activities were deserving of retrospective credit – the codebreakers of Bletchley Park are the obvious example – and to historians who suspected that Britain’s secrecy laws might be hiding something important. This used to be a sensitive area. A few years ago, if you voiced this suspicion you would be called a conspiracy theorist, which was hardly helpful if you were an academic historian.
But as some of these suspicions came to look more plausible, and respectable people were prepared to corroborate them, so the government changed tack, abandoning its old blanket denial and replacing it with a strategy of ‘information management’, as Christopher Moran termed it in his recent book, Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain.[*] Historians thought sympathetic to the intelligence services were granted privileged access to closed papers in order to produce official histories. One of them was Christopher Andrew, who employed Walton to help him with The Defence of the Realm (2009), about MI5. Suddenly, one kind of conspiracy story – official plots and cover-ups – became acceptable. So Walton can now assert at the end of his book, without doing much damage to his academic reputation, that ‘the history of British decolonisation is a story of deception.’
Gradually, many of the dirtiest secrets of decolonisation were uncovered by historians, journalists and lawyers who sought redress in the courts for surviving elderly victims. The myth of an ‘orderly’ British retreat became more difficult to sustain. It may also have become less necessary, as time has passed and we have come to acknowledge the darker side of British imperialism. Any school syllabus that left out the atrocities committed by the British would immediately be seen now as the propaganda such courses used to be. Students need to learn the valuable historical lesson that any people – not just the Germans – can do terrible things.
This book doesn’t shy away from the atrocities that accompanied decolonisation, and indeed adds one or two examples. Walton’s revelations have come as a result of his researches into newly released MI5 and Joint Intelligence Committee files. (MI5, usually seen as the domestic arm of the intelligence services, also had responsibility for the empire. SIS – otherwise known as MI6 – covered abroad proper, including the ex-colonies after independence.) Walton knows MI5 well, of course, and seems to have taken a shine to it. Throughout the book he seeks to distance it from the worst late colonial failures and atrocities.
MI5 had two basic roles during the decolonisation process. The first was to provide intelligence on nationalist leaders when they were in London, where most of them came to study (usually at the LSE) and to discuss their plans. The second was to advise colonial governments on how to gather intelligence. In the first of these roles MI5 comes over as fair, moderate and reassuring, not the paranoid blimps you might expect from its reputation in some circles (and from its earlier history). In the second role its problem, according to Walton, was that local governments took little notice of its advice until it was too late. Hence the atrocities in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and elsewhere. Walton even suggests that if MI5 had been given the lead intelligence role in Northern Ireland before the 1990s, as it wanted, the Troubles would have been less troublesome. Things went downhill in the newly independent colonies only when SIS – or, worse, private security firms – supplanted MI5.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] Cambridge, 449 pp., £25, December 2012, 978 1 107 00099 5.
Vol. 35 No. 7 · 11 April 2013
Referring to the controversy surrounding the death of Patrice Lumumba in1960, Bernard Porter quotes Calder Walton’s conclusion: ‘The question remains whether British plots to assassinate Lumumba … ever amounted to anything. At present, we do not know’ (LRB, 21 March). Actually, in this particular case, I can report that we do. It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park – we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords – a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied, ‘I organised it.’
We went on to discuss her contention that Lumumba would have handed over the whole lot to the Russians: the high-value Katangese uranium deposits as well as the diamonds and other important minerals largely located in the secessionist eastern state of Katanga. Against that, I put the point that I didn’t see how suspicion of Western involvement and of our motivation for Balkanising their country would be a happy augury for the new republic’s peaceful development.
Vol. 35 No. 8 · 25 April 2013
Bernard Porter reminds us that MI6 had responsibility for our ex-colonies after independence and also that many of its dirty secrets may yet remain unrevealed (LRB, 21 March). In 1975, Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was sacked by the queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Kerr. The Australian left believed then, and still believes, that the CIA was implicated in some way, but it may be that they’ve only been carrying the can. I was a young philosophy student in Canberra at the time, driving night taxis for spare income. Two weeks before Whitlam was sacked, I picked up a British gentleman from a diplomatic shindig, who, as we drove past the PM’s residence, informed me in perfect detail of everything that was going to happen. Shocked, I asked his name. He replied: ‘I’m not going to tell you my name, young man, but you will remember this night and remember this conversation as long as you live.’
One night in late 2007, at the beginning of a long telephone conversation with Daphne Park about other matters, she told me that Patrice Lumumba was a fine fellow but said and did some crazy things when he smoked too much hashish (Letters, 11 April). She didn’t indicate her involvement in his death. The other matters we discussed concerned her tenure in Lusaka – where, she said, she gained most of her intelligence by holding grand parties on the verandas of a house she rented just outside the city. I had been told that Park – ‘everyone in town knew what she was doing’ – had approached someone with a request that they store arms for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), which had split from Zimbabwe’s founding nationalist party, the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (Zapu), and eventually became Zimbabwe’s ruling party. This made sense, given Zapu’s ties with the USSR and evidence of support for Zanu in these years on the part of some British foreign policy-makers. If anyone knows whether Park or any of her compatriots ever did run guns for Zanu, I’d love to hear from them.
University of Johannesburg
Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013
David Lea reports the late Daphne Park’s claim that she ‘organised’ the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (Letters, 11 April). Getting Lumumba sidelined was certainly high on UK officials’ wish list. In July 1960 John Profumo, the Foreign Office minister, worried that the Congo would ‘become just the sort of African slum in which Communism would be most likely to take root’. Howard Smith, later head of MI5, considering solutions to the crisis, aired ‘the simple one of ensuring Lumumba’s removal from the scene by killing him’; another FO official, Alexander Ross, agreed that ‘there is much to be said for eliminating Lumumba.’ The foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, agreed with Eisenhower in wishing that Lumumba ‘would fall into a river full of crocodiles’. Even so, British involvement seems unlikely, if only because no other evidence of it has emerged. Neither Larry Devlin, then CIA station chief in Leopoldville, nor the various Belgians who’ve testified since, have fingered Britain: surely these witnesses would have passed the buck to MI6 if they could have done.
Lumumba’s murder was a Belgian-Katangese job with US facilitation. In October 1960, without telling his government, King Baudouin gave the Katangese secessionist leader Moïse Tshombe the nod to take out Lumumba. The Belgians, with the CIA’s blessing, delivered Lumumba to his enemies in Katanga on 17 January 1961. He was flown to Elisabethville aboard a Belgian-piloted Sabena airliner and met on landing by Belgian gendarmes, who were joined at the killing site by Tshombe and other officials. Belgian officers commanded the Katangese firing-squads that shot Lumumba and two colleagues. The stakes for Nato included keeping Katanga’s mineral deposits – especially uranium – out of Soviet hands. Instead, they continued to be exploited by the Belgian firm, Union Minière.
As MI6 operative in Leopoldville, Park may have helped engineer the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s death later in 1961. Documents unearthed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa implicate the CIA and British intelligence – including SOE, where Park served in the Second World War – in a plot to remove Hammarskjöld, who was flying to Ndola to broker a UN mandate inside Katanga. By then he had switched the UN’s stance from neutrality over secession to opposition. The British, still the colonial power across the border in Northern Rhodesia, where the UN leader’s plane crashed, wanted Tshombe’s regime as a buffer against expected Communist incursion in the Congo, as did Union Minière.
Since Lea was among those who called for the current UN inquiry into Hammarskjöld’s death he might also, in the interests of clarity, tell us what else Park told him: it’s hard to believe that he left the conversation at that.
A member of the House of Lords tells another, over a cup of tea, that she had organised an abduction and murder. Three years later her fellow member of this august body writes to the London Review of Books about it. How civilised.
Vol. 35 No. 11 · 6 June 2013
In 1988, I interviewed Daphne Park for the New Yorker (the profile appeared in the issue of 30 January 1989). The interview was conducted over the course of several days, both in person and by telephone, and as time passed the tone became increasingly intimate. She once told me that one of the things she missed most when her mother died was having someone to brag to a little, and I felt that in some ways I fulfilled that function.
She discussed her posting in the Congo at length (Letters, 11 April and following). Her characterisation of Lumumba’s fate was that he had been ‘murdered’, an odd choice of words if she knew herself to be complicit. I recall clearly her response when I asked who was responsible for his death. She looked at me sharply and said, with an edge of anger (possibly directed at my ignorance): ‘The CIA, of course.’ Of the lack of any intervention on his behalf by the UN she said: ‘The UN force had very curious ground rules concerning non-intervention, which caused me to become disillusioned with the United Nations for ever,’ adding later: ‘Lumumba himself, while at the height of his power, had been beating people up, kidnapping them in public, setting his thugs on people – all under the noses of the UN.’ She spoke of Lumumba’s erratic character and also, with distaste, of the fact that he had been tortured.
All that this proves, of course, is that Daphne Park, a master of inscrutability, may have said one thing to one person, and another thing to someone else. But if she were dissembling in our interview, she was indeed a brilliant actor.
Northeast Harbor, Maine