(W)Archives: “C’s List” — How the British Debated Covert Action in the Early Cold War
…We know that MI6 has an event-shaping role today. However, popular wisdom dictates that during the Cold War Britain’s political leadership were fundamentally opposed to these kinds of “un-British” and ungentlemanly dirty tricks, which they associated with the Communists. Indeed, Ernest Bevin had placed severe constraints on MI6 special operations shortly after becoming Foreign Secretary in 1945 — especially those behind the Iron Curtain.
…Documents…remain hard to come by. Stumbling upon a piece in the archives written by a chief of MI6, who is known as “C”, is a rare treat. Stumbling upon material containing the explosive word “liquidation” is practically unheard of.
A quite striking file released in 2013 contained just that.
The document was written by Stewart Menzies, chief of MI6 [more here], a man not remembered as being a particular lover of special operations. Dated Jan. 1948, it consisted of a range of options for covert action against the Soviet Union. These included:
- “the dissemination of photographs, genuine or faked, likely to cause embarrassment to, or lack of faith in, the Communist leaders”;
- “use of rumour or whispering campaigns”;
- “framing of diplomats or other officials by planting evidence … in order to effect their removal and possible liquidation”;
- “fostering ‘go slow” movements and strikes” in factories;
- “kidnapping of high-ranking Communist personalities or Russians in such a manner as to give the appearance of defection”;
- “Incendiarism, causing ‘accidental’ outbreaks of fire”;
- “Liquidation of selected individuals.”
…the Foreign Office [had] asked Menzies to compose a list of options. Importantly, “C” was not an advocate of many of these — he was simply laying out possibilities. Nonetheless, in Whitehall bureaucracy, these possibilities did swiftly (and perhaps inevitably) become known as “C’s list” or “C’s proposals,” thereby giving poor Menzies an unfair burden of ownership and implying a more hawkish attitude than he really possessed.
They key question then is: Which of these options were ever implemented?
Menzies’ list was not initially well-received. “Liquidation” and various forms of sabotage in peacetime were too much for many diplomats to take. Others worried such activity would create a rebellion that Britain would simply be unable to support militarily. Raising hopes, in the full knowledge they would be crushed, would serve only to retard resistance movements.
Not surprisingly, then, Menzies’ list was quietly sidelined. The threat did not yet warrant such a response. By the end of 1950, however, the situation had changed. The Cold War had intensified: Czechoslovakia had fallen, the Soviets had acquired nuclear weapons, the Berlin Blockade had been and gone, and CIA–MI6 attempts to liberate Albania had failed [with a lot of help from Kim Philby, but they had not yet ended–see also: “Treason? Kim Philby and Trevor-Roper–I Wish I Could Write Like T-R“].
The time was right for a new approach to covert action. Menzie’s list was resurrected as Britain began a strategy of “pin pricks”: small-scale operations designed to gradually undermine Soviet authority. Although the more provocative ideas of assassination and sabotage fell by the wayside, many of the ideas sanctioned directly reflected C’s initial list of options. These included measures to “incriminate the senior [Communist] officers in the eyes of the Russian security police,” economic warfare, black propaganda and whispering campaigns. And this time, Menzies was more vocal in his support.
Such covert action continued into the 1950s…
Dr Rory Cormac is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. He currently holds an AHRC fellowship to examine the evolution of British covert action between 1945 and 1968. Follow him on Twitter: @rorycormac.