Writing the Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee
By Dr Michael Goodman
Having just published the first volume of this book I thought it might be interesting to write a few words about the process of writing Official History. Historically speaking, academics have treated officialdom with some scepticism.
The nineteenth century historian Lord Acton declared that there is ‘an enmity between the truth of history and the reason of state, between sincere quest and official secrecy’. Similarly, Sir Herbert Butterfield, a Cambridge historian stated that ‘we must never lose sight of the separate interests of officialdom on the one hand and the academic historian on the other, never allow the situation to be blurred or the tension and conflict between the two to be quietened.’
The issue, of course, is one of sources. Official Historians have unparalleled and unlimited access to files which have not yet been released, and which, quite possibly, will never be released. The issue is one identified by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who said ‘when a historian relies mainly on primary sources, which we cannot easily check, he challenges our confidence and forces us to ask critical questions. How reliable is his historical method? How sound is his judgment?’
How does this impact upon writing the history of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), whose records have been partially declassified in line with the 30-year rule? There are several complicating factors here, aside from the breadth of the history itself.
The first is the broad range of topics and the difficultly in conveying the remit of the JIC into chapters that focus on specific topics. This is a Committee that produces assessments, has a management function, sets collection requirements and priorities, deals with security matters, the clearance of books and more.
A second difficulty is knowing what exactly to include under the JIC umbrella. The full Committee had a large number of sub-committees that were subordinate to it and regional JIC’s that reported back to London. The JIC Chairman has also never been seen as a full-time position, instead the JIC Chairman held other roles in government while undertaking duties for the JIC. How can these roles, which both impacted on and were influenced by the JIC work, be excluded or ignored? It is not an easy task.
A third complicating factor is the fact that it is a committee. The Secretary of the JIC in the late 1960’s wrote about the science of minute writing. He referred to how the minutes produced would not necessarily reflect the discussions in the Committee. How then can the records alone be relied upon?
A bigger issue, and one that returns us to the starting comments on Official History, is the documentary trail of the JIC. A practical problem is the sheer volume of information but more serious is the nature of the paperwork itself. A trap always at the back of my mind is to avoid the criticism addressed at Sir Harry Hinsley’s Official Histories – that they were books about committees, written by committees and for committees.
The JIC’s different functions are reflected in the nature of the released material. Though it changes over time, generally speaking the material is organised into various ways: there are volumes of Committee minutes and memoranda; separate volumes containing the JIC Secretary’s paperwork; subject specific files; volumes of Confidential Annexes and the more tactical-focussed assessments including the Weekly Review of Current Intelligence and Weekly Survey of Intelligence.
What is the status of these records? The majority of the minutes and memoranda have been declassified and these provide a very good picture of how the assessments changed over time. Only a small number of JIC secretariat files have been released and none of the confidential annexe volumes have been declassified. Having looked at these files I think it is fair to say that while the assessments generally don’t change, you do get more specific information in the retained volumes. Furthermore there are some topics that are discussed in them which are not revealed in the declassified files.
Is it possible to escape the subjectivity of the Whitehall devil? The simple answer is yes. The Cabinet Office contracts for Official Historians make it explicit that the interpretation is the historian’s alone, and that their control is limited to security.
Furthermore, an advisory board ensures that objectivity and analytical rigour are maintained throughout. In 1962 President Kennedy, commenting on the Foreign Relations of the United States series, said that ‘The effectiveness of democracy as a form of government depends on an informed and intelligent citizenry.’ The Official History series is part of this tradition.
To conclude, almost 50 years ago D.C.Watt wrote that ‘the [official] historian is, among things, the custodian of the national memory. It is his responsibility to see that memory is kept as free as possible from the distortions of distance in time from the events remembered, of imperfect biased recollection, and of prejudice or ignorance.’ I could not agree more.
Dr Michael Goodman is a Reader in Intelligence and International Affairs at Kings College London. His book The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee: Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis is now available to purchase online.