Review of Haldane


The Hidden War by R. A. Haldane, Hale


© The New Statesman, 1978



Who is now winning the code war, which is so vastly more vital than the cod war, or even the cold war? On the historical front at least, much ground has recently been gained. The secret vaults are being opened, and their crypts are crammed with cryptology. We can leave to one side the technical provisions that only the specialist will relish or can digest; there is still an endless supply of food for thought and research. Thus the personalities and achievements of individual codebreakers can now be studied and evaluated. A start has already been made in the recent sketches of William Friedman and Dillwyn Knox, while the biography of Alan Turing now being written by Dr Andrew Hodges will delve much deeper into the historical field. Who was really breaking whose ciphers, by what agencies and methods; how were the texts disseminated, and with what results? Dr David Kahn's investigations of the German wartime archives will also no doubt disclose new data and discoveries. The correspondent British records are now coming under close and keen scrutiny from Dr Christopher Andrew and others. The secret war of scientific intelligence has been re-fought and re-thought by Dr K. V. Jones in a recent book; he acknowledges the help given by cipher intelligence, notably from Bletchley Park, the official history of which is now being written.

So after years of rationing much exciting new material has at last becoming available. This is the moment chosen by R. A. Haldane to unfold yet again the well-worn homespun of the postwar decades (stirring tales of Soviet spy-rings, naval warfare, special operations and so on) stretched and patched with strained and second-hand references to codes and ciphers. It was certainly a good idea to draw the threads together, as the last of ten shortish chapters characteristically puts it; but the flimsiness is still nakedly evident, and the gaps are still yawning. So will readers be after repeated doses of rich anodyne formulae as “we cannot but conclude that code and cipher services played a vital part”, or, more ambitiously, "it is probably the opinion of the majority of cryptographers that in the construction of ciphers the Russians are about as good as anybody”. The confession of ignorance is often even more specific; we don't really know this, can't possibly fathom that, won't ever guess the other. Perhaps this is what the blurb means by “a unique book”: the text offers so many more qualifications than the author.           

But like a good Intelligence Officer, Mr Haldane certainly has his Sources of Information, as he ingenuously titles his rather inaccurate and undiscriminating four-page list of over 150 books consulted. Whatever their writers were consulted is less clear; to call them “contributors” seems almost comically candid. The acknowledged contributions take up over 500 references; plainly, much depends on their reliability and the use made of theirs. The first source-book I checked was withdrawn by its publisher over 20 years ago, following a libel action. Another author and publisher listed have also paid punitive damages for libel in the same field.

Even  when credentials are good, we should carefully study the references provided. Take David Kahn's well-known and carefully documented compendium The Codebreakers. His typically energetic first­hand research on the Yamamoto assassination unearthed “a cover-story… to the effect that Australian coastwatchers had radioed in… the information, probably getting it from friendly natives around Rabaul”. Thus page 331 of the heavily abridged paperback edition, which is the source-book cited. The Haldane version runs as follows: “a cover story was devised to the effect that watchers on the coast of Australia had obtained the information, probably from natives on Rabaul”. The quotation marks here are mine; but Mr Haldane is welcome to them, and in my view badly in need, of them. It is surely insufficient just to acknowledge a general indebtedness when a particular passage is being so closely followed. On that basis, any unknown factor could readily be raised to a higher power of scholarship just by adding an index figure. All the other references I checked further exemplified what seems to me an impermissible use of source-material, whether by insufficient acknowledgement, textual garbling, or plain incomprehension. On my analysis the book itself is a cipher, in style as well as content.

It is fair to record a dissentient voice. The blurb announces that this story has never before been told. No doubt much depends on what is meant by telling stories; but personally I found this claim the only really surprising piece of intelligence in the book, whose title seems only too apt.