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The Secret World: A History of Intelligence

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  395 ratings  ·  56 reviews
The history of espionage is far older than any of today's intelligence agencies, yet the long history of intelligence operations has been largely forgotten. The first mention of espionage in world literature is in the Book of Exodus.'God sent out spies into the land of Canaan'. From there, Christopher Andrew traces the shift in the ancient world from divination to what we ...more
Kindle Edition, 875 pages
Published June 28th 2018 by Penguin
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Average rating 3.96  · 
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Sep 01, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: two-stars-books
2 " I really really tried" stars !!

I have spent 14 hours on this book over the past few months and have only reached the quarter (25%) mark.

The book is well researched but I find it not only exhaustive but exhausting. My eyes get heavy reading it, I cannot keep track of all the names and I just cannot move forward with it.

I am going to give this two stars for the research but wished I had found it more compelling and interesting.

Right Georgy ?

PS If anybody tells me this gets better at the 28% ma
Italo Italophiles
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a history of intelligence work covering roughly 3000 years of human history. It is a scholarly work (16% is notes, references...) lightened with quick-moving, free-flowing prose. There is plenty of scope for further study, encouraged by the excellent bibliography, and there are lots of interesting facts, and some entertaining quotes, like this one: “the most distrustful persons are the biggest dupes”. I discovered that the history of intelligence is also a history of leakers of info ...more
Steve Agland
Sep 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
I came to this book, less from an deep interest in codebreaking or espionage, but more because it falls into my favourite genre: Histories of the World From some Interesting Perspective. And of course, intelligence as a human endeavour is very interesting.

This is a long book. On the spectrum from shallow pop histories to dense dry names-n-dates, this lies closer to the latter than my usual fare. But don't let that put you off - this is a thoroughly entertaining list of names and dates. And note
Laura ☾
Apr 13, 2020 rated it liked it
The Secret World is an interesting and comprehensive account of the History of Intelligence, albeit a bit dry and very very long. There were strange segways in parts of the narrative and abrupt changes in argument. Overall this felt very episodic, and no larger picture was painted, and very few conclusions were drawn.
Dec 09, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, politics
This is an ambitious and engrossing book, covering a large swathe of intelligence in human history. It is wonderful for really digging into the role intelligence has played as part of larger contexts of human warfare and diplomacy.

It is not perfect, however. Barring a quick hop to Sun Tzu and to India in one of its opening chapters, and a review of Communist China in the conclusion, this book is predominantly focused on the Western World: largely France, US, Russia, UK and Germany. It misses opp
Sep 04, 2020 rated it liked it
I enjoyed The Secret World and I was disappointed. The first thing you should know is this is a limited history. The primary focus of the book is intelligence history from a European perspective to include the USA, even though the book starts with the Ancient Near East using the Bible as the medium for conveying the oldest documented history of intelligence. To be far there is some mention of Japan during the first and second World Wars - as it relates to European Powers. China is mentioned - in ...more
Printed Pages and Coffee
For those of you who may not know, Professor Andrew is one of (if not the) leading authorities in intelligence history, and I’ve been reading his work since I was a baby undergrad who didn’t know the difference between deception and denial. The fact that I have the opportunity to read this book (published September 2018, you can preorder here) just made my week.

As you can tell, this is going to be a sterling review. And, honestly: it would have to have been a truly atrocious book for me to have
Suzy Plows
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a very, very detailed account of the history of intelligence that lacked a coherent narrative and had a lot of snippets of facts vaguely strung together by chronological order.

Overall, I would say that unless one has a very good understanding of military history spanning from practically the beginning of man to about a decade ago, then you're going to end up quite lost, or at least Googling lots of things for clarification, which can be fun if you know that's what you're in for. Places,
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you are starting off in intelligence or have a general interest in the topic, this book is for you. If your interest in intelligence is fleeting or going to pass, do not read this books - it too much. It’s scholarly and academic.

The book is very in depth and very long. A majority of the book held my interest bc I was aware of the events being discussed. There were insights into these events in this book. Very few spots were dry just bc I could care less. I read through them anyway just to le
Nov 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
By far the most interesting book I have read this year. I borrowed it from the library and I only had 2 weeks to read such a massive text so I finished it in audiobook form. This book is better read than heard, I found myself trailing off in the audiobook - the narrator was a little monotone. It is such a great encyclopedia of espionage but it will begin to get a bit repetitive. I was so surprised to learn about biblical spies - a time of history that I never reference when it comes to the topic ...more


2020-04-09: Added to TBR after notification from GR friend Jon Rupinski
Jan 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-history
The biggest challenge of this book is getting through the first 150 or so pages without mothballing it. This is the first comprehensive history of the the work of secret intelligence to be written and it suffers a little from the nature of the task that Christopher Andrew has set himself. What do we know about secret intelligence in the three millennia preceding the Reformation. The answer, is not a huge amount, and such intelligence that did exist is not that interesting. So having got through ...more
Scott Martin
Sep 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was quite an ambitious work, attempting to describe the history of intelligence throughout world history. It starts from the dawn of civilizations and discusses the use of intelligence throughout the major monotheistic traditions, as well as the great empires of Greece and Rome. Yet, as the work progresses, it mainly sticks to a Euro-Centric/Western World perspective on intelligence. The role of intelligence as described in this book is a mix of intelligence disciplines such as Human Intell ...more
A master work from the acknowledged expert on intelligence history.
Christopher Andrew’s four main themes are:
- The neglect of the role of espionage, counter-intelligence and especially signals intelligence by historians and international relations academics;
- The short-term non-historical outlook of decision-makers and analysts;
- The reluctance of intelligence advisors, especially in oppressive regimes, to ‘speak truth to power'; and
- The focus of intelligence agencies serving such regimes on p
Peter A
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Summary Statement: This work is a huge contribution to the history of intelligence. But this book is not to be read by the faint-hearted. It is clearly a labor of love to write, and for me it was a labor of love to read. But I am glad I did! For intellectual depth and detail this is a 5-star book. For the issues sited below (e.g. Euro-American centric, not enough summary compared with details), I will give it an overall rating of 4.5.


“Twenty-first century intelligence suffers from long-te
Gabriel Stein
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very good - and yet

This is excellent book about the history of intelligence. It is a pleasure to read. Nevertheless, there are some greeting issues: the author is very fond of phrases like “this is the first“ or “only” time such and such has happened. When this is repeated time and again in every chapter, it becomes a little boring.

Second, the author relies heavily on European history and that of the United States. Surely, intelligence has a history outside Europe, for instance Japan and China.
Lecy Beth
Mar 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
This is a very comprehensive look at the history of intelligence, spanning the last several thousand years. Beginning in Biblical times and continuing on into the present day, we are taken into the secret world of spies and intelligence. This is a hefty book and there is a lot to take in, but it follows a chronological outline with lots of notes, making it easy to read. Andrew, who is an historian at the University of Cambridge, did a wonderful job compiling all this information and I was intere ...more
Brett T
The idea that real espionage differs from the version we see onscreen and in thriller novels is unexceptional, but the idea that "intelligence" is more than spying isn't as widely understood, believes historian Christopher Andrew. His 2018 The Secret World is an exploration of that idea as it has developed through history in different settings.

Although the idea of covertly observing an enemy's forces probably dates back to the first time groups of armed combatants faced off against each other, A
Jul 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-themes
Drudgery. Pure and utter drudgery.

Chewing this behemoth of a book was perhaps the most difficult task I completed in the early months of this year. There were times when it seemed to be an endless series of one damn code-breaker after another and it required genuine willpower to wade through such bogs.

But at the same time this was an extremely rewarding read, for it’s a magnificent attempt at compressing the nuts and bolts of intelligence collection from Biblical times to World War II into a si
Ernest Spoon
Jun 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I can sum up this book with two quotes:

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero

"It is not difficult to think of current world leaders with little of no discernible historical interests." --Christopher M. Andrew, "The Secret World: A History of Intelligence," Yale University Press, 2018, p 760

Even though this book is a
Laura Jordan
Oct 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Whew, finally finished this 760-page behemoth! (Seriously, it was really heavy and kind of a pain to schlep around for the past two weeks.) A couple gripes: not really a global history, as the focus is primarily on European intelligence-gathering (and even there, mostly Britain) with the Americans and Russians thrown in for good measure, and there were some parts (mostly in the sections on WWI and the interwar years) where the detail just became too dizzying for me to handle. But, overall, this ...more
Kevin Harber
Mar 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very long book (it was 31 CDs in audiobook format) that provides an exhaustive and authoritative review of intelligence agencies and operations from the time of Moses to modern days. I don't think a casual reader would enjoy it (it put my wife to sleep on a car trip), but for history nerds, policy wonks, and/or espionage enthusiasts it is quite an interesting read (I fall into all 3 categories so it was right in my wheelhouse). What I found most fascinating was how the same problems an ...more
Sep 30, 2020 rated it liked it
This is an intense read. I'm trying my hardest with it. It is clearly so thoroughly-researched that I'm not sure exactly how the author kept track of the contents of each chapter as this book was being compiled. Obviously, 'intelligence work' being more than simply espionage isn't a new concept, but this book gives great instruction and detail into how intelligencing works and has worked across the world. Being the official historian for MI5, based at Cambridge, I'm not sure how much I trust the ...more
Jan 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Excellent book with a digestible chapter-per-topic format. It's about 37 hours long so the ability to step away from the book is well needed.

Andrew does a great job laying out the history of intelligence and espionage through its development, the incentives for engaging in it, and the frequent recurring challenges faced by states and revolutionary bodies engaged in it.

Four stars as it's educational and provides a great lense for learning about history and government. Not likely to get a re-read
Jul 05, 2019 rated it liked it
I honestly tried to get through this book but, in the end, completed 2/3 of the reading. There are so many names and facts that it was difficult to keep it all flowing as one story in a chapter. It seemed like there was much more than just the history of intelligence going on that was not that interesting to me.

I was sickened to read how leaders abuse their power and torture and kill people who they think are working against them, even if they have no evidence to prove betrayal. This has been go
Dec 19, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Didn't really hit its stride until the time of Elizabeth I, and then after the American Civil War became too granular. Also, much in need of audio copy editing as there are numerous repeated passages. Still, there are some good lines, like the reference to God in the garden of Eden as the "first spy," and the note that modern western intelligence agencies in the latter years of the Cold War suffered from a severe and, as it turned out, crucial lack of theologians. ...more
Kathleen Gray
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well done. A huge book, which incorporates some of Andrew's other work. If you are interested in the subject- truly interested- this is the place to start, even though it is intimidating. It's deeply researched and well written. This not a book to read on Kindle, as there are lots of footnotes etc. Note that this is the history of intelligence in the West. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. ...more
Jan 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
An excellent, well sourced history of Intelligence that accurately supports its thesis on the importance on an understanding of history to following current events. The author does however seem to rush through the 20th Century and lacks information on most events outside of the Western Powers, with some exceptions. That is most likely because of a lack of resources to draw on.
Ivar Dale
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Totally fascinating - an endless parade of amazing stories and anecdotes from the world of spying, all the way from Moses until today. Does require a concentrated reader (willing to carry a heavy book around) but definitely a book for “leisurely enjoyment” than overly heavy and academic. Very much recommended.
Sep 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A interesting and very well researched book on the history of espionage from the ancient times in the Bible, When Moses sent spies to the Promise Land of Canaan all the way to the present time. This book covers all the historic wars from the American Revolution to World War II. I love military history and espionage and this book is a perfect combination.
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Christopher Maurice Andrew is an historian at the University of Cambridge with a special interest in international relations and in particular the history of intelligence services.

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