06 February 2019

Cold War Vetting

'Covert and Overt Operations: Interwar Political Policing in the United States and the United Kingdom' by Jennifer Luff in (2017) 122(3) The American Historical Review 727–757 comments
This article reveals a startling episode unknown to contemporaries and historians: Britain’s secret interwar bar on Communists in government service. Between 1927 and 1946, thousands of unwitting industrial workers suspected of Communist sympathies were investigated, and many were fired or blacklisted from government employment. Contrary to popular and historical accounts, the interwar British security regime was considerably more stringent than the American one. Moreover, these security regimes were enacted by legislatures, not imposed by executive fiat, and thus reflect the peculiarities of their respective political cultures. Comparing interwar American and British surveillance and policing of Communists shows that each state developed distinctive practices that varied along a covert/overt axis: both surveillance and policing could be surreptitious or conspicuous. Publicity alerted American civil libertarians, who left a record of noisy protest for historians, while secrecy concealed state repression from British citizens and the historical record. This article calls for more comparative research on modern political policing, which can enable historians to integrate the “secret state” into larger historical narratives and provide the empirical grist to revise theoretical accounts of state surveillance and social control by scholars such as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.