Brit Book Reviews: The Secret History of MI6

Move over James Bond! Professor of British history at Queen’s University in Belfast, Keith Jeffery partook in a clandestine mission of his own: writing the history of the first 40 years of the most secretive group in England: MI6.  He condensed forty years of information into 752 pages complemented by an array of black and white photos, which enhanced the research and fact finding mission Professor Jeffery presented.

Professor Jeffery was granted coveted access to the MI-6 archives to piece together events from the agency’s beginnings to the start of the Cold War. Reading The Secret History of MI6, it was incredible just how much transpired in first 40 years starting with its inception in 1909. The people who put their lives on the line to safeguard Britain from her enemies put so much into perspective as I have watched the last 10 seasons of the British television series MI5 the sister agency of MI6. Although agencies that work together they are even leery of each other. Truly, this book seemed to be intriguing form the moment I spotted the cover.

From the launch of the agency, there was a struggle between the need for military intelligence, upon which wartime tactics could be formed, and foreign intelligence, upon which political and international policy decisions could be based. As the drumbeat to the First World War began to pound, it was a matter of convincing the agencies to truly trust one another as well as rely on intelligence reports as they began to construct a network of field agents and informants alike. The idea of mistrust and information sharing occurred for the next forty years as well. It became somewhat of a game to balance the need for information, the need for clandestineness, and the safety of all assets involved.

The book provides a comprehensive interpretation of many of the trials and tribulation developing as well as implementing the tools and techniques of the MI 6 spy. From coming up with secretive ways for officers to record, communicate and deliver reports from the field back to headquarters to creating and implementing cover identities and companies to hide assets in ordinary sight. All of this coming to fruition before World War I!

Although the text does get thick and slowed down in detail at stretches, Jeffery’s book is certainly a good read for those interested in British history or seeking to learn more about how MI-6 began. As a history teacher, I gained a new outlook on key events leading to World War I as well as World War II and the aftermath of both wars. The Secret History of MI6 is a great summer read; I look forward to a part two which would take us on a journey from post-World War II, through the Cold War and into present day.

The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949

Review by Cindy Stockman

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