Officially Unreliable

During my research into intelligence matters, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon. Very often, writings by authors of dubious credentials, as well as informal interviews with eminent persons, are cited by professional historians in an indiscriminate and unqualified way. Whole volumes may be recommended, statements may be paraphrased or quoted, and items will appear in bibliographies, without the historian’s advising the reader on what terms the sources and publications should be treated. The now more authoritative assertions take on a new life of their own, and are referred to afresh in further works, thus consolidating what may have been utterly false in the first place. When this process occurs with official or authorised histories, the problem is particularly egregious, as the latter publications maintain an awe about them that may in fact be completely unmerited. By this process of implicit approval, more serious histories can apply a certificate of merit to works and conclusions that would have been otherwise justifiably questioned.

For example, the same day on which I started writing this piece, I came across the following passage, in Tyler Anbinder’s fascinating City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York: “Nearly every history of Civil War New York, for example, repeats the story that in June of 1863, ‘some 3,000 striking longshoremen, most of whom were Irish, were forced to watch as black men, under police protection, took their jobs on the docks.’ But this tale is apocryphal, repeated over and over since the first historian mistakenly published it in 1910. White soldiers, not African Americans, temporarily replaced the strikers in question.” (p 236)

I do not know what to call this phenomenon. It is a kind of Gresham’s Law of historiography, whereby the assembly of dubious assertions crowds out the results of more disciplined fact-finding methodologies. But that does not tell the whole story, and is not a reliable enough guide to what happens. After all, in the world of intelligence, archival sources may be no more dependable than those of private memoir, and distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ facts can be a considerable challenge. Indeed, the reverse sometimes occurs: theories and claims of apparent substance are sometimes ignored completely in favour of a highly dubious but protective political line, a default position that is provocative in itself. The phenomenon is more a kind of halo effect, whereby the seal of approval of the Official History gives a gloss to sometimes unmeritorious anecdotes, and a taint to reports that might otherwise have been considered creditworthy. It seems to be an inevitable side-effect of the practice of history-writing as public relations.

Official histories, it is true, recognize the role that personal memoir and witness statements play in complementing the archival record. The problem is that such sources frequently contain a mixture of well-documented research and practical experience, alongside the swallowing of dubious second-hand reports and even the fabrication of untruths – often out of a desire to enhance the subject’s reputation. What is needed is a rigid testing and verification of such accounts, and an explanation, when such narratives or assertions are re-presented, of the forensic case for accepting or doubting the quality of the secondary material. What is also essential is a selective reference to such material, rather than the blanket bibliography that appears to treat each listed work as having equal quality, and possessing a consistent internal integrity that it may well lack.

I plan to show examples by analysing four official or authorised histories in my sphere of research. The first is Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, published in two parts in 1964 and 1974. The second is the  five-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley and others (encompassing a foot of shelf-space in my library), which appeared between 1979 and 1990. The third is Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (titled, for some strange reason as Defend the Realm in the USA), published in 2009. The last is Keith Jeffery’s MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 (again re-titled for US consumption, rather deceptively, as The Secret History of MI6, 1909-1949), which came out in 2010. As I study these volumes, I shall also explore the different constraints under which they were produced, and the apparent methodology applied to their creation.

(I am barely going to touch, in this piece, the highly controversial and important topic of concealment or destruction of massive arrays of government files, primarily by the Foreign Office, and the secret warehouses such as that held at Hanslope Park. I refer the interested reader to Ian Cobain’s generally excellent 2016 work The History Thieves. I also regret that I have not yet been able to inspect Herbert Butterfield’s no doubt indispensable essay Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria from his 1951 publication History and Human Relations.)

Margaret Gowing was historian and archivist of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell when she was commissioned to write the official history. In her Preface, she defended the need for ‘official’ history because of the embargo on declassifying documents until 50 years after they had been created, saying that ‘the official historian’s official standing, his [sic] ties with a Government organisation, his signature of a declaration under the Official Secrets Act, make it possible for Government servants to speak freely to him and give him access to their papers”. She described her experience as altogether positive, with no obstacles put in her way, and access given to her to all government documents, with a small academic advisory committee set up to ensure proper standards of integrity were being applied, and the nation’s interests were being protected. In a ‘Note on Documentation’, she added: “In accordance with the practice of the official war histories, references to official papers that are not yet publicly available have been omitted: footnotes are confined to published material.” Her work is quite certainly an ‘official’ history.

Possibly anticipating objections, the author also asked: “What is the justification for official history at all?”, responding that ‘it lies primarily in the need for histories of recent events based on the documentary evidence, supplemented where possible from the oral evidence of people who lived through these events.’ She also said that ‘the historian and his employer bear a heavy responsibility for ensuring that an official history is written according to the strict criteria of the historical profession’. Yet the historian needs to be wary of oral evidence: on the one hand, memory may be at fault, but in sensitive areas (of which research into nuclear energy is undoubtedly one), the recollections of those involved may be subject to some censorship or distortion. Nowhere was this more clear than in the matter of espionage and the stealing of nuclear secrets, and here Ms. Gowing showed herself to be far too trusting of third-party sources (i.e. not relying exclusively either on her interviews with officials involved or on the written archive).

While Ms. Gowing overall provided a painstaking and very thorough of account of a highly technical subject, in one area she allowed herself to be manipulated. She appeared to rely almost exclusively on Alan Moorehead’s book The Traitors for her coverage of the Klaus Fuchs case, Fuchs having been convicted early in 1950 of stealing atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union. She lists it as her primary source, even though the work was facilitated by MI5 as a public relations exercise. Moorehead was guided in his research while being shown select secret papers, and his conclusions completely misrepresented the chronology of Fuchs’s recruitment by both Soviet Intelligence and by the Tube Alloys Project (which was the codename for the undertaking when it was first set up). Gowing declares that Moorehead was granted more extensive access to official information than she was, a decidedly regrettable state of affairs: occasionally she gives hints of knowledge that Moorehead does not provide (such as the FBI interview with Fuchs in prison), but her sources are not provided. She thus echoes Moorhead’s public relations exercise, defending MI5’s weaknesses in not countering communist influences more aggressively, and reinforcing the notion that Fuchs’s communist beliefs were well-concealed. In summary, she thus let down the standards that she had claimed to espouse by relying on the conclusions of a journalist, failing to demand access (at least) to the same sources that Moorehead had been allowed to inspect.

My second example, the multi-volume history of British Intelligence in WWII, is tersely introduced as one of the set of ‘official histories’. “The authors of this, as of other official histories of the Second World War, have been given free access to official documents. They alone are responsible for the statements made and the views expressed”, we are told on the page facing the title-page. The Preface, however, explains a rather more complex set of compromises. A written parliamentary reply of January 12, 1978, had reminded former intelligence officers (and current historians) of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and had attempted to make a distinction between ‘records of the Service Intelligence directorates, which will be placed with other departmental archives in the Pubic Record Office’, and other information which could not be disclosed. Yet, while this statement did not explain how such distinctions would made, or how or when the future decisions about declassification would be reached, the authors felt confident in stating that the guidelines issues have ‘not prevented us from incorporating in the published History the result of our work on records which are not to be opened’. The outcome was that the history includes a large number of assertions and conclusions that cannot be verified, since no specific source could be provided.

Furthermore, the authors rather disingenuously conclude their prefatory remarks with the following less-than-comforting statement: ‘That room remains for further research is something that goes without saying. [‘Obviously not!’] Even on issues and episodes for which we have set out to supply the fullest possible accounts, the public records will yield interpretations that differ form those we have offered.” Well, maybe so, Sir Humphrey. But if other historians are not allowed to inspect all the records that the official historians have investigated, they will be severely hamstrung. What the Government is effectively saying is that it trusts only its insiders (for Professor Hinsley was indeed one), and such confidants will clearly toe the line if they want to gain that well-earned knighthood. And the official history can thus not really be challenged, and instead monopolises the academic space, as any pretenders will not have had access to the real but very sensitive records that contributed to the account.

Notwithstanding the multiple merits of this work, which for the most part represents a solid integration of military and intelligence history, reflecting a painstaking and very thorough processing of much complex material, one has to regret the hypersensitivity of Hinsley’s political masters. Followers of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ will immediately recognise how unsatisfactory the methodology is. I have (in Chapters 4 and 5) provided two cases where the ‘interpretation’ of events by Hinsley and his team is highly dubious, and where no written record to support the assertions appears to exist. One was the endorsement of an event that probably did not take place (the claim that all work on Russian ciphers and codes stopped, on Churchill’s order, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, without any explanation as to how that decision was issued and acted upon), and the other the desperate attempt to prove a negative (that, contrary to rumours, the British authorities did not use the Lucy Ring to forward Ultra intelligence to Moscow). These two statements are not the stuff of serious historiography: they are political statements emanating from a defensive sense of security, from a belief that the authorities know best, and that the reading public should unquestioningly accept such dogma.

In reference to the main point of this piece (the unqualified use of third-party memoir), Hinsley and his co-authors are for the most part judicious, occasionally even – sensibly – challenging Churchill’s account of events. Yet the guard does drop. Hinsley has been broadly criticised for skating over technical issues concerning the interpretation and decryption of Enigma traffic.  Gordon Welchman (the main architect and creative mind behind the Ultra project, and author of The Hut Six Story) pointed out the flaws in Hinsley’s understanding, writing, in a letter from 1984: “Hinsley’s account of Bletchley Park activities during the first year of the war is wrong in almost every detail, and I do not know why.”  The challenge with methodology and technical coverage continued. Volume 5 of the History (Strategic Deception) was written by Michael Howard, who had the integrity to admit, in his Preface, that a situation where the text ‘must therefore be accepted as the only evidence of the contents of these files that can be made publicly available’, is one ‘with which no professional historian can be entirely happy’. Again, however, the historian concluded with the less than sincere comment that ‘although this is an “official” publication, it should not be regarded as the last word on the subject: nor should its judgements (for which the author bears sole responsibility) be necessarily regarded as definitive’. Howard indicated that he had the availability of foreign archives in mind when he wrote that, but the same objection arises: why should other professional historians not have the same access to confidential files as Howard did? The inevitable occurred: ‘Arise, Sir Michael’.

Where Howard lapsed was in his coverage of the Double-Cross System, whereby German agents were ‘turned’ to provide a mixture of false and harmlessly true information to their handlers. Howard passed the ball. “The technical problem of running double agents . . . . has been so well described by Sir John Masterman in his book The Double Cross System (1972) that little more need be added here”, wrote Howard. It is as if the controversy over the publication of his book, which Masterman had had to issue in the United States, since the British Government had refused permission, and threatened to sue Masterman, had been forgotten. The authorities wanted dozens of passages removed, but Masterman’s publisher agreed to only a few, and the government had to acquiesce. Dick White, who had supervised the whole MI5 Double Cross operation, was (according to his biographer, Tom Bower) infuriated by the vanity of Masterman, who had ironically been White’s former tutor, and whom White had brought into MI5. In fact, Bower claims that White only approved the project for Hinsley’s History as a method of bringing Masterman down to size. “Masterman’s self-glorification would be neutralised if the whole truth were told” , wrote Bower, paraphrasing White’s opinions.

Thus Howard’s sanitising of the whole controversy comes over as a little too fastidious, and some of the more technical aspects of the Double Cross system remained unanswered.  For example, why did the Germans not appear to question how Britain’s location-finding apparatus had not been good enough to detect the sizable and numerous transmissions sent to them by their supposed agents in the months before D-Day? (Howard reports that five hundred transmissions were made by agent GARBO alone between January and June 1944. The Gestapo would quickly have tracked down such an illegal activity. Why was Britain’s RSS group not able to do so?) Masterman, in his book, allocates only one sentence, with a footnote, on the purely technical aspects of managing double agents, and Howard sidesteps the issue by cross-referring to one of Hinsley’s Appendices, provided by an ex-MI5 officer, on the challenges of radio communications. This flabby appendix, which is somewhat embarrassing in its naivety, is also presented without commentary or explanation. True, Howard offered a much more comprehensive account of the XX project (no doubt to White’s satisfaction), and was able to introduce the previously secret dimension of Enigma decrypts to his story, but a more selective analysis and parsing of Masterman’s contribution would have been acutely appropriate. Incidentally, Howard also completely ignored the role that Soviet spies in Britain’s intelligence might have played in strategic deception, and in particular how their leaks may have affected the negotiation of joint ventures with the Russians.

Now the overall very competent Hinsley-Howard compendium has come to be recognised as a valuable authority. Yet it does not tell the whole story, it is inaccurate on much technical detail, much of its conclusions are unverifiable, and it is not discriminating enough in its selection of third-party sources. Moreover, any historian wanting to provide a review of the subject (perhaps based on those foreign sources that Howard could not consider) will be unable to inspect many of the primary materials that Howard was privileged to see, and will also not be able to interview the ‘experts’ who contributed to the official history.

Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5 is presented as being not ‘official’ but ‘authorised’, although the distinction is hardly crisp. Indeed, in his Preface, Andrew describes his response to MI5’s advertisement for a ‘part-time official [sic] historian’. The head of MI5 in the year of publication, Jonathan Evans, wrote in his Foreword that ‘striking the balance in the text between openness and the protection of national security has been a complex and demanding exercise requiring many hours of detailed discussion between Professor Andrew and members of the service, and an extensive clearance process involving other departments and services’. Evans went on to say that the History contained some embarrassing and uncomfortable information, but implied that Andrew had been given the independence to reach his own conclusions. Evans then made the extraordinary and illogical point that ‘it should not . . . be assumed that his conclusions are based solely on material in our records which is unavailable to the public’, as if a comprehensive, 850-page History could be crafted exclusively from unclassified documents. Perhaps this message of discomfiture was intended to communicate to the reading public that there could not possibly be yet more distressing secrets that could be revealed – unless, of course, questions of national security were at stake. (Evans provided a url which he claimed would explain the principles that governed MI5’s approach to the text: Regrettably that page is no longer available.)

Andrew records his occasional frustration at the constraints under which he had to work.  He confides in his readers that he felt it was important to read highly-sensitive files ‘in order to try to ensure that conclusions in The Defence of the Realm based on documents which can be quoted are not contradicted by files whose contents remain classified’. Yet that process lays an enormous onus on Andrew’s skill as an interpreter, for presumably no one else will be allowed to inspect such files that may be permanently classified. And we still do no know which documents fall into which category. For one of the most frustrating aspect of Andrew’s work is the unscholarly methodology for sources. Literally hundreds of citations state merely ‘Security Service Archives’, or ‘Home Office Archives’, and there is no indication given as to whether such documents are permanently embargoed, or which will be released after a certain time-limit.  There could be value in such a tabulation only if an internal document identified each individual source, on the basis that, if and when the archives in question were declassified and made available to the general public, an accurate cross-reference could be supplied to expand Andrew’s Notes (even as they stand, an impressive 123 pages), and allow future historians to develop more informative studies.

Moreover, Andrew certainly tilled other fields. His bibliography contains about 500 titles, quite an exhausting assignment of reading for a part-time historian: again, it is not clear whether every title was deserving of equal respect as far as authenticity and reliability were concerned. Peter Wright’s occasionally dubious Spycatcher appears in the bibliography, but Andrew admittedly qualifies his endorsement by discussing Wright’s collaboration with Chapman Pincher in the text. On the other hand, what is one to make of the fact that Andrew Boyle’s journalistic and controversial Climate of Treason appears in the bibliography, but not in the Index? Or the fact that the highly deceptive Sonya’s Report, by Ruth Werner, is also quoted as a source? At least Andrew does not list Alan Moorehead’s public relations exercise on behalf of MI5, The Traitors, but the outcome was that he completely ignored the internal crisis over the Fuchs case, where Sillitoe was required to lie to Prime Minster Attlee in order to maintain MI5’s survival after the Fuchs fiasco. But it is not clear that the bibliography offered represents ‘works in which I found useful nuggets’, ‘items for suggested further reading’, or something else altogether. It is certainly unscholarly.

Yet the apparent neglect (or ignorance) of such works poses its own set of unique puzzles. Should the fact that Andrew does not even mention, let alone analyse, Moorehead’s work, which the official historian of Atomic Energy had treated with such respect, be noteworthy? And why was Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies not consulted, given that it was largely ghosted by an MI5 officer, yet Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me is deemed worthy of mention? Why did Foote not even appear in the Index, given that he underwent intensive interrogation by MI5 in 1947? And why did Fred Copeman not appear in the History, given that he was a leader in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931 (which is covered), and later, after his conversion from Communism to Catholicism and Moral Re-Armament and his award of the OBE, acted as a consultant to MI5 during the Foote investigation, and wrote a fascinating (but maybe deceptive) memoir titled  Reason in Revolt? Etc., etc.  Should we make conclusions about books and topics that were not considered suitable for inclusion in the bibliography?

Andrew’s production is in many ways an impressive achievement. It is a fascinating account of an institution that has for too long been unnecessarily secret. Moreover, most of the history is probably accurate. But we cannot know. Andrew necessarily had to compromise his professional integrity by submitting to bureaucratic demands and possibly spurious claims about risks to national security. Many of his sources cannot be checked, and his indiscriminate reference to works of dubious merit begs the questions: if what these authors say is sometimes untruthful and unverifiable, why do you trust what they write on other matters? How do you select what you consider to be accurate? Where is the methodology that distinguishes useful and reliable facts and experiences from the self-deception of memoir, the faulty memory, the desire for self-aggrandisement, the concealment of unpalatable actions, and the shakily passed-on rumour?

Jeffery’s history of SIS, presumably no longer ‘secret’, suffers from similar identity problems. The flyleaf (of my American edition) introduces it as an ‘authorized’ history. John Sawers, the then head of SIS, states in his Foreword that his predecessor decided to commission an ‘independent and authoritative’ volume. In the Preface, Jeffery writes that, in his practice of not including source references for documents not in the public domain, he follows ‘the precedent set by past British official histories’. The work is obviously supposed to be the ‘definitive’ history, a term that Jeffery uses, for example, to characterise Gill Morton’s study of Desmond Morton, Churchill’s Man of Mystery. Yet it also is confused about its scope. The flyleaf promotes SIS in glittering terms: “The Service pioneered cryptography on an industrial scale at Bletchley Park”, but Jeffery admits that GC&CS (later GCHQ) was really only a reluctant stepchild of SIS, under Menzies’s overall supervision. Jeffery’s coverage of GC&CS is superficial (there has yet to be written an official or authorised history of that institution), and sensibly concentrates on such matters as the controversy over Section V’s distribution of the so-called ‘ISOS’ (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material coming from Bletchley Park. This spin on SIS’s responsibilities – something echoed by Sawers in his Foreword  ̶  may have been a useful way of promoting the book, but it was highly misleading.

This historian does show some concern for his professional role. He recognises the extraordinary decision that allowed him the opportunity, given the traditional secrecy that surrounded SIS (the existence of the service was not admitted until 1993), to perform his task. He appreciates the fact that he was given ‘unrestricted access’ to the Service archives. He regrets the fact that he cannot name names that have not already appeared in print. Yet he does not allow much room for alternative interpretations, or express the hope that other historians might be allowed to see what he was able to inspect.  Moreover, he is perhaps over-confident in the trustworthiness of the files he studied.  “The history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based.” That means he has been more guarded in using accounts by ex-officers of SIS. “I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention.” Indeed – but what is the methodology that distinguishes such from fact? It is not clear.

On Notes and Sources, Jeffery is a bit more informative than Andrew, although his explanations are a little ambiguous. John Sawers explains a policy distinguishing ‘information drawn from the archive’ from ‘non-release of records’ that has in practice allowed the ‘occasional official release of some Service material’ in order to facilitate the writing of biographies of ‘important intelligence figures’ – hardly a water-tight or objective guideline, one might say. He also confirms the constraints of national security, the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy of government, as well as that elusive and controversial principle, the lack of damage to the ‘public interest’, the definition of which should probably not be left to those authorities whose business is secrets. Jeffery then writes: “As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments.” Yet it is not always clear from the Notes themselves what the status of the records is: at times, Jeffery provides a serial number, and indicates that the files are retained (which fact a brief inspection of the National Archives Catalogue confirms. The institution tantalising describes many files that have not been released). At others, he refers to minutes and memoranda that have no discrete identifier, but are listed less specifically as (for example) ‘PUSD papers, FCO’. (PUSD is not listed in his abbreviations, but is presumably Permanent Under-Secretary for Defence.) It is a big step forward from the anonymity provided by Andrew, but still very unsatisfactory. There is a lesson to be learned here.

As for non-archival sources, such as memoirs and biographies, Jeffery is a little more discriminating, although that in itself raises questions. Andrew was happy including Nigel West’s highly unofficial history of MI5 in his sources, but Jeffery does not list West’s book on SIS, nor Stephen Dorrill’s, nor even Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of the wartime head of SIS, Stewart Menzies. What are we to make of that? That they were valueless? Why no mention of Isaiah Berlin’s revealing Letters? Was Berlin’s D Section mission to Moscow with Guy Burgess considered to be a fabrication? On the other hand, he does include in his bibliography the highly contentious biography of Claude Dansey by Anthony Read and David Fisher, Colonel Z, although in one of his notes he writes ‘for Dansey’s early life, see Read and Fisher’, as if the book should not be trusted for the bulk of Dansey’s career. Yet he never explains why. In Sonia’s Radio, I have pointed out that Jeffery was extremely cavalier in so blandly recommending Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (‘this book is excellent for Anglo-Soviet intelligence relations generally’) as it completely overlooks the influence that access to strategic information provided by Stalin’s spies must have exerted on negotiations. The less than completely honest statement concerning the traitors within British intelligence services remains one of the major flaws. Jeffery restricts his coverage of Philby primarily to reactions to the Gouzenko defection in 1945: Volkov (the would-be defector whom Philby betrayed the same year) does not even appear in the Index.

Thus Jeffery’s book turns out to be a rather indigestible confection, with too many loose ends, too many stories not pursued, too many unresolved questions, and too many controversies avoided. It may have been politic to avoid some topics, such as the mission to Moscow, the possible recruitment of Alexander Foote, the distribution of Ultra information to the Soviets, the entanglement with Soviet spy rings in Switzerland, all explained away in the implication that the evidence in the archive was too slim or non-existent for the episodes to be taken seriously. But we simply do not know that for a fact. And there exist far too many reports in memoirs by reputable persons of a countercultural series of activities to justify such inertia and complacency. Jeffery’s work is hardly the ‘rigorous’ treatment that Sawers advertised, and there appears to be no suitable forum for the unresolved issues to be thrashed out in a methodological and disciplined manner. Jeffery died of cancer in 2016, at the comparatively young age of 64, very surprisingly without having received any government award or honour.

What does all this mean?

First, that ‘official’ and ‘authorised’ histories should be approached with a great deal of suspicion. They may have honest and sometimes deserved pretensions as works of serious history, but should always be considered as items of propaganda. They cannot be reviewed properly in the open forums of academia and journalism, as their sources cannot be verified.

Second, that any historian who discovers facts in unpublished archives, but then has to negotiate with those who authorise his work over publicity of the same, and concede to their demands, is professionally compromised. If he or she is prohibited from expressing judgments and opinions about those events in future undertakings and teaching, effectively suppressing the truth, that person’s academic integrity is tainted, and scholarship is tarnished.

Third, while government institutions might be said to have a right to judge what is an issue of ‘national security’, they surely should not be allowed to have the last word on what is ‘in the public interest’, and hence censor what the public has a right to know. Certainly the reason given of ‘avoiding embarrassment’ that appears to dominate policies on withholding files should be excluded from any consideration. We should also always be suspicious of any person or body that assumes the omniscience to understand what constitutes ‘the public interest’. A parliamentary committee should be set up to adjudicate, or, better still, the Freedom of Information Act, which automatically calls for the release of files after a defined period, should be enforced in a consistent and disciplined manner.

Fourth, that greater discipline should be exercised over archival sources. All sources should have an identifier, even if it is not yet made public. We need three categories of registration: classified (retained) and unpublicised; 2) classified and publicised (as in many unreleased files described at the National Archives); and 3) declassified. A confidential registry of sources should be maintained when any authorised history is written, so that the sources may be revealed at that future time when the files are declassified (if indeed that happens).

Fifth, that it must be remembered that archival sources in the world of intelligence matters are especially suspect, since they may have been doctored, weeded, or redacted. While the accuracy of published material can be debated in public forums, an extra layer of scepticism must be applied when dealing with one person’s individual interpretation of secret archives, in the face also of justifiable doubt about the completeness of the sources.

Sixth, that all interviews undertaken by historians with individuals temporarily unshackled from the Official Secrets Act (or other confidentiality agreements) should be recorded and transcribed. They should then be made available at the same time that relevant files are released. That would help ensure that deceptive self-promotion and concealment were reduced in quantity, and government officials would be held accountable for their contributions.

Seventh, that all such historians should provide a methodology for how they approach memoir, biography and other historical works not based on the archival record. They should explain why an item appears in any bibliography, and discuss any individual work in that context in their History. Robert Conquest once said: “Just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not invalidate all its evidence.” The corollary would be that, just because a source can be shown in some places to be true, it does not mean that all its evidence is reliable. Historians should also be prepared to explain why they reject well-founded and broadly-supported published theories, and not simply make ex cathedra denials of them.

Can an objective history be written? Herbert Asquith said he did not believe there had ever been an historian who had not exhibited some amount of partisanship: “It is a common infirmity of the tribe.”  And I recorded the following in my April 2017 Commonplace entries: “Indeed, those who don’t like his [Eamon Duffy’s] work say he is a Roman Catholic first and a historian second. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. All of us bring our whole selves to scholarship, including our faith.” (Giles Fraser, in Prospect review of Duffy’s Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, May 2017) Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. When does a point of view become a prejudice? A principle become a dogma? No doubt every historian brings some unique perspective to his or her process of interpretation, and selection itself reflects some intellectual preference, but if any allows a particular credo to dominate, the result will be an inferior product. While Evelyn Waugh was a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Graham Greene was undeniably a Catholic novelist, and I believe his oeuvre suffered because of that. (“Get a grip, Greene! You weren’t born with it. Make a choice, man!”)

So it is with history. Just as there can be no ‘Marxist’ or ‘feminist’ history, there can be no ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ history – or even ‘definitive’ history. Just history, written by qualified academics, with sources available to all, competing for credibility and reputation in an open market, and subject to refinement and re-interpretation in the light of new evidence. As Basil Liddell Hart was reputed to have said about an ‘official’ history of WWI: ‘official – but not history’.

P.S. As I was preparing this piece, I discovered the existence of an essay titled Intelligence and ‘Official History’, by Christopher Baxter and Keith Jeffery (the same), published in the 2013 compilation Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945, edited by Christopher R. Moran and Christopher J. Murphy. I ordered it, and it arrived after I had completed my text. The authors focus more on the lack of intelligence analysis in official military histories, but include many of the same points that I make about the propagandisation of officialdom, the ambiguity of sources, freedom of access, and the dubiousness of memoir. In that vein they cite my supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, who in 2003 said: “I don’t think governments should write their own history”, and “academics should not become ambassadors or politicians, or work for the secret service.” In the treatment of non-official sources, the authors provide a telling example with Brook Richards’ official history of clandestine sea operations during World War II, where the author stated that he was responsible ‘for the accuracy of any information not obtained from official British documents’, an assertion that would have been welcome in the histories that I have analysed. The authors also make the following conclusion: “Acknowledging and handling this kind of material (whether in the form of memoir or careful scholarship, as well as more popular works) can pose a problem for the official historian, who, in many cases, cannot simply ignore its existence, but whose use of it may be taken in some way to authenticate it.” Exactly: I could not have put it better myself.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here. And I have added a few more examples of Hyperbolic Contrast here.


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2 Responses to Officially Unreliable

  1. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

    • coldspur

      Nothing at all! I just went to Yahoo News, and had to enter ‘Unofficially Reliable Archive’ to find the piece number one in the search list.

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