Peter Hennessy: 'Cabinets and the Bomb'

IssueJuly - August 2009
Review by Milan Rai

Professor Peter Hennessy is a tremendously well-connected insider, who has over the years lifted the lid on Whitehall in a way that no other historian has managed. His latest book Cabinets and the Bomb is perhaps the ultimate in revelation, in that it reproduces (photographically) top secret cabinet documents relating to the most sensitive topic in British politics: the British nuclear arsenal.

62 documents from 1940 to 2007 are presented (often in full), along with explanatory text, a very useful 14-page chronology, and two brief introductions (one by Michael Quinlan, the top civil servant in this area for many years, who recently died).

The declassified papers offer an extraordinary perspective on things that were long secret. For example, the minutes of an 11 November 1964 meeting of a three-person subcommittee of the new Labour government, when the prime minister Harold Wilson, the defence secretary Denis Healey, the foreign secretary Patrick Gordon Walker, decided to renege on their manifesto commitment to cancel the purchase of submarine-launched Polaris nuclear missiles from the US.

The inner circle decided that in return for the purchase of Polaris, Britain should seek, among other things, “a greater participation by NATO powers, including guarantees by the United States Government, in fulfilment of our commitments outside NATO, since these were in the general Western interest”.

The phrase “outside NATO” (aka “out of area”) is a euphemism for imperial or neo-colonial intervention. Under the Tories, a year earlier, US president John F Kennedy indicated that British and French nuclear weapons could be used to protect “intérêts supérieurs” (now known as “vital interests”), citing “Suez or Kuwait as examples of how the ‘supreme interests’ formula might be invoked.”

This is a rich collection that deserves extended study; for the researcher rather than the activist, probably, the library rather than the peace group collection.

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