(W)Archives: “C’s List” — How the British Debated Covert Action in the Early Cold War

July 10, 2015

British archives contain little on covert action. The Secret Intelligence Service, (SIS, more commonly known as MI6) was only legally avowed in 1994 and is not well-known for transparency. It does not release files to the National Archives, and its own archive is exempt from the 1958 Public Records Act and is beyond the scope of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act. Moreover, the British state employs “weeders” to prevent other sensitive material from reaching the National Archives.

To be fair, a few years ago MI6 commissioned an excellent official history, written by Professor Keith Jeffery, to mark its centenary. As with many official histories however, readers remain unable to examine the sources for themselves. In addition, the history only went up to 1949 and primarily explored the service’s foremost task: intelligence gathering.

But what about covert action (a phrase used surprisingly often by British officialdom)? 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.

Thanks to the work of Jeffery, and pioneers of British intelligence history such as Richard Aldrich, we know that MI6 has long been a practitioner of covert action. Documents, however, 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, 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.”

This list is quite remarkable. At first glance it seems Britain was up to the entire range of covert action and was more gung-ho than even the CIA.

However, before we get carried away, some context is necessary. It is certainly true that the Cold War was heating up at the start of 1948. In Jan. 1948, Bevin had authorized the creation of a new secret body to engage in anti-Soviet propaganda. This was known as the Information Research Department and was based in the Foreign Office. At the same time, a host of (sometimes acrimonious) debates swirled around London regarding the British response to the rising Soviet threat.

The military sought action and pressed for a rapid intensification of special operations and political warfare. The diplomats were more cautious. It was within this context that the Foreign Office 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.

The time was right for a new approach to covert action. Menzies’ 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. While the CIA engaged in such activity on a grander scale than its British counterparts, recent archival declassifications reveal that MI6 had its own playbook of dirty tricks too.


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.