Book Review: The Secret World: A History of Intelligence


by Christopher Andrew

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 950+. . Illus., notes, biblio., index. $26.00. ISBN: 0300248296

Looking on “The Other Side of the Hill”

Prof. Andrew (emeritus, Cambridge), author of several books on MI5 and intelligence during the Cold War, notably The Venona Transcripts, has written what is the first comprehensive history of intelligence from Biblical times to the present. This is no mean feat, given that the inherent nature of intelligence hampers research into its history. After all, the first books to actually to speak of the craft of intelligence were produced in ancient China and India, centuries after some of the early operations that Andrew discusses.

Particularly for early operations, there’s a lack of sources, so many ancient “operations”, such as the Homeric epic, the Bible, or handbooks on strategy and stratagems, such as those of Sun-tzu or Polyaenus. Even many far more recent intelligence activities are often long shrouded in secrecy.

This lack of sources means that this book has its highs and lows, with coverage of some periods far better than that for others. Andrew’s accounts of intelligence activities in Elizabethan England, revolutionary America, the Napoleonic wars, and the era of the world wars are particularly good, though the work is oddly weak on the Cold War, probably because despite some three decades since its end much still remains secret.

Andrew is also not very familiar with certain periods. For example, he writes that Scipio Africanus aside, “most Roman generals paid more attention to divination than to military intelligence”, which is hardly accurate, as he might have discovered in Frontinus, Ammianus, or other ancient documents.

Despite that shortcoming, and some other minor errors, given that this is a first ever effort at a comprehensive look at the history of intelligence, The Secret World is an impressive achievement.


Note: The Secret World is also available in hard cover, audio-, and several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close