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Peter Hennessy, historian
Peter Hennessy, historian

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now, we've got Peter Hennessy here with us right now and more secrets and lies, again in Whitehall, but this time in rather different circumstances. This is the Cold War that we're talking about here and just, we wanted to draw attention to the Cold War for a few minutes, just one question - where do you, with your expertise, stand on the question of the civil service and whether it is under threat?

PETER HENNESSY: Certainly it's under threat. Robin was being very careful, which is his training, and also he's a very measured man, but there's more threat to the impartiality of the civil service now than ever. Even Mrs Thatcher at her height would not have, didn't cause a problem as acute as this, and we do need that civil service act. And it's not a contemporary historian you need, like me, David, but a medievalist, because it's all about courts.


PETER HENNESSY: Rival Courts. It's back to the Middles Ages. And Robin said, it's an 18th century reversal, but the State didn't do anything in the 18th century. Look what the State has to do now. Fifty minutes of Cabinet discussion, not on is it. But the civil service is a fundamental one and Robin's quite right, things cannot stay as they are.

DAVID FROST: Things cannot stay as they are. What was the most fascinating - because it's a fascinating part in history - what was the discovery that you made about the Cold War that most surprised you?

PETER HENNESSY: I think it was, David, the retaliation procedures. The nuclear retaliation procedures. If, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, for example, which you and I remember because we were around, it had all gone wrong and the Russians had put a bolt from the blue on London and Mr MacMillan was killed, the decision whether to launch the B-force, the B-bombers with their hydrogen bombs, would have gone to the Chief of Bomber Command, an airman in uniform. And we have there the explicit instructions for the head of Bomber Command, if the Prime Minister's wiped out, and he can't find an alternative senior minister, the airman, on his own initiative, can launch retaliation.

DAVID FROST: And in fact we were in danger, I mean that's one of the findings of your book, that there was a real nuclear threat. There was a real danger, it wasn't all got up in the minds of the Cold War warriors.

PETER HENNESSY: Not at all. British intelligence were very measured and detached, and they didn't think the Russians, because they were rational people - Khrushchev was impulsive but he wasn't mad - would ever do it deliberately. But the great danger was, and this is what they said to ministers, is war through inadvertence. Escalation, because one side misreads the intentions of the others - and remember they've only got minutes, a flock of geese on the radar screen being misinterpreted, it was very precarious. Although British intelligence, throughout, reassured ministers, even at the moments of greatest crisis, that it was most unlikely.

DAVID FROST: And what was the moment where we were closest to a nuclear holocaust?

PETER HENNESSY: I still think it most have been the Cuban missile crisis, but the only time I've seen a message flashing through that the Russians looked as if they were coming was on the worst day of the Suez crisis when British intelligence in the Middle East thought the Russian airforce was moving into Syria - which in those circumstances would have meant a big one - and they sent a message back to London, disperse, get your troops ready on the, on the world war three alert. It turned out to be a false alarm and there was a big inquest. But the only signal I've ever seen where one serious group of British intelligence thought it might be about to happen was there. But I still think it's Cuba. That weekend, we can probably remember exactly what we were doing at the end of October 1962.

DAVID FROST: That, that's right. And today, I mean do we have a safer world because there can only be limited nuclear strikes? Or, or is it still dangerous?

PETER HENNESSY: It's still dangerous. To, to an extraordinary extent, the 20th century is littered with the history ... the bodies of British dead, but not our half of it, you see. But if it had gone wrong, within minutes the body count would have been unimaginable. But now, with proliferation and rogue states, there's still a real danger that the nuclear taboo, which has held since the bombs on Nagasaki in August 1945, may be broken before you and I go to our reward. And it won't be like a general release of thermo-nuclear weapons which will destroy the bulk of the world, but if that happens, as you know as well as I do, the world will be a very different place from that minute onwards.

DAVID FROST: Peter, thank you very much indeed. Peter Hennessy there, talking about the Cold War and the recent Whitehall war.


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