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How they decided to have (and keep) the Bomb

We look at what a collection of declassified official documents reveal about the nuclear weapons policy of successive British governments, Labour and Tory

Peter Hennessy’s Cabinets and the Bomb (published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press) is a documentary study concerning the decisions made by various Labour and Conservative governments regarding the development of atomic and thermonuclear power – er -making bombs. It comprises a series of declassified Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers, minutes and letters covering the period from 1940 to 2007.

Even for close students of such matters, there are many fascinating extra nuggets of information to be discovered within these pages and numerous valuable insights into the devious nature of power politics. Also, perhaps surprisingly for some, a document (circulated by Sir Burke Trend, Harold Wilson’s Cabinet Secretary) which summarises, with great lucidity, the case respectively for retention; possible replacement or improvement; or complete abandonment of a nuclear weapons policy.

Less surprisingly, the arguments in favour of abandonment (or non-development initially) – at least at Cabinet level – were based solely on doubts about economic viability, by Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton (both Chancellors of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee) and later, during Harold Wilson’s premiership, by the Treasury and DEA. Ethical considerations played very little part – realistically, none at all – in these deliberations. By the time a decision was required to be made over the hydrogen bomb it was conveniently, and alas correctly, concluded that in terms of ethics there was little or no difference between the A or H bombs and that, after all, the A bomb already existed. Indeed, the point was advanced that the hydrogen bomb could be made “cleaner”.

As the author himself puts it: “This is a book of explanation rather than advocacy, it is for the reader to judge, rather than for the author to declare, which factors trumped what at various times in private debates in the Cabinet Room or Chiefs of Staff suite”. Peter Hennessy, however, does intersperse the rather carefully formulated documents with brief but salient observations. These skilfully succeed in expertly highlighting some of the more important points that might otherwise pass unnoticed in the rather dry language favoured by civil servants. His restrained but informative and engaging commentary provides exactly what is required by the reader and, very sensibly, no more.

One of the benefits of such a commentary is that it is able to draw upon relevant information from other sources. Sometimes this produces a more colourful account than that confined by the austere language of official reports. For instance, when the Cabinet Committee on Atomic Energy (GEN 75) met on 25 October 1946, they were conscious of the fact that, contrary to previously agreed procedure, the McMahon Act prohibited the US from sharing its atomic knowledge with any other country, including the UK. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, had broached the matter with the American Secretary of State, James Byrne, and received short shrift. He was not accustomed to being treated in such a disdainful manner and arrived at the meeting still smarting from the humiliating encounter.

The minutes of the Cabinet Committee meeting are relayed thus: “THE FOREIGN SECRETARY said  . . . Even with the American information, however, there would still be strong grounds for proceeding with the construction of the plant.”. Drawing on a BBC Timewatch documentary, Hennessy tells how Bevin “waddled in late, having fallen asleep after a heavy lunch” and turned the meeting around. Confronting the arguments of Cripps and Dalton he said: “This won’t do at all … we’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs … We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it”.

Lord Portal (Controller of Production of Atomic Energy) apparently considered this piece of simplistic jingoistic logic decisive. He is quoted as remarking to Sir Michael Perrin, a Ministry of Supply official : “You know, if Bevin hadn’t come in then, we wouldn’t have had that bomb, Michael.” To borrow a familiar line from pantomime: “Oh, yes “we” would”.

A further example of this contrast in style arises from the debate regarding the ludicrous and ill-fated Skybolt project. In June 1960, the Tory Minister of Defence, Harold Watkinson, reported in a note to Cabinet on the promised delivery of the missile: “There could as yet be no certainty that Skybolt, which was not due to be tested as a complete weapon for about a year, would be successful . . . However, the United States authorities were confident that it would be effective.” 

The weapon was cancelled in December 1962 and the author recalls how, many years later, it was described to him by Robert McNamara (President Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence) as: “Skybolt. It was an absolute pile of junk”..

What independent deterrent?
In the same month, Cabinet minutes recorded a lengthy debate on the future role of the UK in NATO following the possible provision of Polaris missiles, which reveal a wonderful confusion over the precise meaning of a typically ambiguous passage contained in a draft agreement compiled at Nassau : “Again, the latest draft included a new provision that our strategic nuclear forces would be used for ‘the international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances except where Her Majesty’s Government may decide that the supreme national interests are at stake’. The Prime Minister had particularly directed attention (in telegram Code 24) to these words, which had the effect of giving us sole right of decision on the use of our strategic nuclear forces and had asked whether . . . these words could be publicly defended as maintaining an independent United Kingdom contribution to the nuclear deterrent.”.

In accordance with the Prime Minister’s request, the Cabinet examined the text closely and discovered that the meaning was rather less explicit than it had appeared to be at first glance. As the minutes explain with commendable clarity:

“There was some doubt whether, as it stood, the exception would be generally interpreted as allowing Her Majesty’s Government to use United Kingdom strategic forces in circumstances not involving the defence of the Western Alliance, or whether it would be taken to mean only that the Government could decline to use those forces in particular circumstances involving the interests of the Alliance.”.

It quickly became apparent that this prime example of legal sophistry (of a kind almost invariably present in any political agreement) needed urgent clarification, without which serious reservations could arise concerning the credibility of the Government’s declared nuclear policy. The crucial point was minuted in a masterpiece of understatement: “We might easily suffer from the growth of a suspicion that our military independence was, or might be, less secure than, for example, that of the French.”.

The whole theory of “deterrence” is, of course, a game of bluff and double bluff. While it was, and is, important for successive UK governments to publicly trumpet the idea of an “independent deterrent”, it is hard to imagine that many politicians actually believed in it. Telling revelations identifying such doubts appear throughout the book, via minority reports and admissions made to the author personally.

Discussing nuclear policy with Hennessy in a radio interview in 1985, Harold Wilson confessed: “I never believed we had a really independent deterrent.”

In the 1967 Burke Trend report, under the heading “The Case against retention and Improvement” we read : “The Treasury and the DEA do not find it possible to believe that the United Kingdom could or would confront the USSR with our nuclear capability independently of the USA.  . . .The Soviet Union would not believe that we would be willing to contemplate the total annihilation which would be the result of using our nuclear weapon against them . . . since we have already decided that we shall not develop or acquire a successor to Polaris [professed Labour Party policy at the time, lest we forget] (thereby setting a term to our participation in strategic nuclear deterrence) the right course is to abandon the whole of our nuclear capability as soon as possible.”
Again, in July 1968, dissenting from the Kings Norton Working Party’s recommendation that Polaris should continue, Lord Rothschild raises a further powerful point : “The Committee has been told that Polaris or Polaris-type missiles do not have Union Jacks or Stars and Stripes on them. How then, would Russia react if a missile were fired by the USA, for example, at Moscow?  . . .Whatever the United States may say or believe about the acceptability of megadeaths in the USA, the effective elimination of the United Kingdom by a small number of H-bombs must raise serious doubts about the desirability of us having Polaris missiles at all.”

Later, in a report commissioned by Lord Carrington (Edward Heath’s Defence Secretary) another minority opinion is chillingly expressed by Chief of General Staff, Field Marshall Lord Carver: “He also doubted (the minutes continue) the credibility of an independent nuclear deterrent, either in our own or Soviet minds . . . If it were to be used when Europe was attacked it would represent the voice of suicide; if used when Europe had been overrun or we ourselves were under attack, it would be a voice from the grave.”

A seat at the table
The story told by the documents that Peter Hennessy has assembled is one of secrecy, deception and power motivated expediency. The elaborate charade of nuclear deterrence has at its heart, not the necessary defence of the UK population but perceived political grandeur. Ego-driven politicians playing a dangerous game of power posturing – fuelled by the pathetic belief that “Britain” has some divine right to sit at the nuclear table for reasons of national prestige. This, from a 1962 Cabinet meeting presided over by Harold Macmillan : “Finally, if this country abandoned the attempt to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent it would be unable to exercise any effective influence in the attempts . . . to achieve some international agreement to limit nuclear armaments.”

Similarly, in a December 1967 minute from Wilson’s Cabinet: “We should lose the ability to influence nuclear policy.” Yet again, from a June 1974 report to Harold Wilson from Sir John Hunt: “But quite apart from the military consequences, it would severely affect our political influence and standing . . .”  Nevertheless, four months later the Labour Party manifesto boldly declared: “We have no intention of moving towards a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons.” Throughout the book, whenever disputes arise over the preferred direction of nuclear policy, we see the trump card of “influence” triumphantly played. From Bevin’s “Bloody Union Jack” intervention to Blair ensuring a UK nuclear commitment through to 2050, the underlying purpose remains the vainglorious and consuming desire to perpetuate the dangerous illusion of “British prestige.”

Similarly, General De Gaulle famously stated that his foremost consideration in reaching the decision to produce a “French” bomb, was that it would enable him to take part in nuclear disarmament talks. This provided fresh ammunition for the British nuclear weapons apologists. A minute of the meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Nuclear Policy (5 December 1967) puts it bluntly: “very serious political consequences would be involved in abandoning Polaris. It would leave France as the only nuclear power in Western Europe at a time she was moving further away from the NATO Alliance and planning to develop an inter-ballistic missile.” Honestly, the damn cheek of those French  . . .

Although many papers still remain locked away (it’s called “Democracy”), this excellent collection offers a chance to understand in greater detail, the Machiavellian manipulations practised by successive UK governments. It has only been possible, in this article, to touch upon some of the political expediencies, policy reversals and downright deceptions awaiting the reader of this book. Made all the more compelling by their official status.

At last it is possible to more fully comprehend the desperate nature of the futile, but extravagantly expensive, attempts to “keep up” in the nuclear arms race. To follow the gradual unravelling of the staggering costs of the Chevaline development, which Callaghan for so long kept secret from Parliament. There are interesting reports on the nuclear resources of the Soviet Union and numerous enlightening insights into the UK’s supposed “special relationship” with the United States.

What exactly was the “Moscow Criterion”? What was “Option M” in relation to Polaris? What assistance did the London Zoo provide? The answer to all these questions and many more can be found within these pages.

This book deserves to be in every library, but a word of warning must be sounded. The detached and occasionally even elegant manner in which the various Cabinet debates are recorded, may lead some to conclude that we are all in safe hands. We should beware, however, of regarding any discussion as rational when it is manifestly based upon a lunatic and possibly fatal assumption.


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