RUSI Journal – February 2008
Peter Hennessy (ed.): Cabinets and the Bomb, introduction by Sir Michael Quinlan, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2007, 356 pp, £19.95 (ISBN 978-0-19-726422-5)
Years of delving in the National Archives seldom diminish the thrill of examining original, once-classified material. Peter Hennessy, doyen of contemporary political historians, has provided the next best thing to a sabbatical at Kew by compiling this outstanding collection of facsimiles, recording Britain’s quest for a nuclear deterrent from the 1940s to the mid-1970s.
Direct access to primary sources provides the historian with many seams to mine. For Professor Hennessy, and no doubt many others, one major issue is the extent to which successive Prime Ministers chose to bypass their own Cabinet colleagues. Churchill faced this situation twice: initially with the wartime Tube Alloys project, when he rightly told as few people as possible, and again in 1954 when his decision to build the H-bomb caused the first detailed nuclear discussion in full Cabinet rather than in hand-picked ministerial committees.
As Hennessy points out, this “documentary reader” not only supplies ingredients for a future political history of the British nuclear force, but also has much to contribute to the current low-key debate about its next generation. In particular, the concept of preventative deterrence is seen to have featured in both the pioneering reports which convinced the British and Americans respectively that an atomic bomb was feasible. If Germany obtained this weapon, wrote Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls in their 1940 paper:
“The most effective reply would be a counter-threat with a similar bomb”.
In the words of the Maud Committee report of 1941:
“Even if the war should end before the bombs are ready, the effort would not be wasted, except in the unlikely event of complete disarmament, since no nation would care to risk being caught without a weapon of such decisive possibilities.”
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Attlee similarly declared:
“The answer to an atomic bomb on London is an atomic bomb on another great city”.
Mass-destruction weapons rendered attitudes to conventional warfare largely obsolete.
Hennessy’s skilful annotations stress the need to supplement documentary records with personal recollections whenever possible. Diaries and media interviews – some conducted by Hennessy himself – fill significant gaps in the narrative. Only in 1982 does it emerge that Bevin’s determination to build a British bomb resulted, in part, from not wanting
“any other Foreign Secretary … to be talked to or at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes”.
Attlee’s frank confession that some of his own Cabinet members “were not fit to be trusted with secrets of this kind” is similarly imported from a post-retirement interview.
At every stage of the process – acquiring the Bomb, upgrading it to thermonuclear status, agreeing nuclear deals with the US, and converting from bombers to missiles – the central doctrine of minimum deterrence was consistently articulated. A typical formulation was succinctly set out in 1967 by officials from the MoD and overseas departments:
“[N]o British Government has ever based its policy on a pre-emptive first strike against the Soviet Union. Indeed, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could sustain a claim for first strike being a sensible basis for planning. Possession of Polaris gives us a force which is invulnerable to pre-emptive strikes and a capacity which, though small by American and Soviet standards, poses a threat to at least 30 Soviet cities. It seems difficult to argue that such a threat can be ignored, particularly if we show our determination to maintain its ability to penetrate. We have no requirement for parity in offensive and defensive weapons with the super powers; we are concerned with deterrence and the risk of escalation and not with fighting a war.”
The strength of this reasoning helps to explain why Harold Wilson could win the October 1974 election on a Manifesto pledge to renounce “any intention of moving towards a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons”, but then tell his newly-formed Cabinet later that month that, if the strategic nuclear force
“is to remain a credible deterrent in the face of advances in Russian anti-missile capability, some improvements need to be made to the missiles. This would not involve … a new generation of strategic weapons”.
This revealing and – to those of us who support deterrence – reassuring collection suffers from only one deficiency: the omission of a number of seminal documents prepared by the Service chiefs themselves. Much of the thinking which influenced key politicians (including Attlee and his highly-praised paper of August 1945) stems from the foresight of the Chiefs of Staff in commissioning the Tizard Committee’s examination of ‘Future Development in Weapons and Methods of War’. This set a standard maintained in successive COS studies only one of which – from mid-1954 – is reproduced in this volume.
Examination of COS files from a decade later would have revealed, for example, the crisis meeting of 29 September 1964 (just days before Wilson’s first election victory) when Lord Mountbatten as CDS proposed that each Service chief should personally sign a paper confronting a unilateralist Labour Government with the ultimatum that if they “wished to do away with our deterrent force, they should formally absolve the Chiefs of Staff from further responsibility for the defence of the United Kingdom against attack”. To this end, much material was prepared before it became clear in mid-November that Defence Secretary Denis Healey was “trying to find reasons for retaining the Polaris force” provided that he could “show some difference between the proposals now put forward and those approved under the previous administration”.
In every other respect, this admirable compilation of primary material gives the essential basis for future academic study whilst illuminating and reinforcing the doctrine of deterrence. It should inspire future potential historians to beat a path to Kew for many years to come.
Dr Lewis is a Shadow Defence Minister and the author of “Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942–47” (Frank Cass/Routledge, 2003).