A Very British Deterrent – BBC

The BBC recently broadcast a programme called A Very British Deterrent. UK viewers can watch it until 4 October from the BBC website, which describes it as follows:

‘With Trident renewed for another generation, A Very British Deterrent tells the story of the remarkable events, eye-watering costs, power relationships and secret deals done half a century ago to secure Britain’s very first submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In today’s turbulent world, it is a story that is more relevant than ever. At the height of the Cold War, a series of political and technical crises came close to leaving Britain without a nuclear weapon of its own. In a time of unprecedented international tension and with the world locked in a terrifying nuclear arms race, one small loch in Scotland became a crucial bargaining chip to keep Britain in the nuclear game.

Using the personal letters of prime ministers and presidents, eye-witness accounts and once-secret documents, this film explores how the British prime minister Harold Macmillan seized every opportunity to further Britain’s nuclear ambitions, was prepared to trade a Scottish base for a new American weapon, and even jeopardised the crucial Anglo-American relationship to keep Britain an independent nuclear power.’

In 1957 only the USA, USSR and UK had nuclear weapons. In October of that year the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This meant that it was possible to put nuclear weapons into orbit round the Earth.

Macmillan wrote in his diary that this had a similar impact on American confidence to Pearl Harbor, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower being for the first time attacked for not being able to defend the country. Macmillan was close to Eisenhower, having been British Minister-in-Residence at his headquarters for a period during WWII.

Three weeks after Sputnik Macmillan visited Eisenhower in the USA, obtaining what he wanted: access to US nuclear secrets. In WWII the USA and UK were full partners in the development of the atomic bomb, but after the war Congress decided that the US should nit share nuclear secrets with anybody.

The UK then developed its own nuclear weapons and by 1957 had bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The big problem, however, was not the bomb but a delivery system that could penetrate Soviet defences. The UK developed its own missile, Blue Streak, but it took 30 minutes to get its engine ready, compared with a 4 minute warning of a Soviet attack from space. The UK was too small to conceal land based nuclear missiles or to locate them well away from population centres.

The US had a number of nuclear weapon programmes, including a navy one lead by Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations. Burke proposed putting nuclear missiles on nuclear powered submarines rather than land: the Polaris system.

Burke’s British counterpart,  Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, saw Polaris as the solution to the UK’s problem and began a correspondence with Burke, who proposed putting a British officer in the office developing Polaris.

An alternative US project was Skybolt, an air launched nuclear missile with a range of 2,000 miles. It would be cheaper than Polaris because it could be fitted to existing bombers.

In March 1960 Eisenhower and Macmillan met at Camp David, officially to discuss future summit meetings involving themselves and other world leaders. The two, however, also had a meeting at the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. According to Eisenhower’s grandson David, who witnessed their arrival, they were not accompanied by anybody else, not even security personnel.

Eisenhower offered Skybolt, but not Polaris, to the UK. In return he wanted a base for US Polaris submarines in Europe and thought that Scotland was the best location. The cancellation of Blue Streak and the acquisition of Skybolt were soon announced, but the US submarine base in Scotland was at first kept secret. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was then holding mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK.

Eisenhower’s chosen site for the submarine base was not in a remote part of Scotland but at the mouth of the Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow. Macmillan wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a more isolated location but the President wanted a site that offered better access to open seas, good shore facilities and was near an international airport.

Increased international tension meant that Eisenhower wanted to base US Polaris submarines in Scotland as soon as possible. The British felt that this would make it harder to sell to the British population.  Macmillan eventually agreed to the US base at Holy Loch on the Clyde.  He asked that a proposal that US submarines should not be allowed to fire their missiles from within British territorial waters without British consent should be extended to 100 miles. Eisenhower was prepared to offer only a weak assurance about consulting the UK and other allies in the event of a crisis.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became US President. Despite being from a different generation and with a different world view he saw Macmillan as somebody he could turn to in a crisis, speaking to him every day during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Kennedy’s inner circle argued that the US should not favour one of its European allies over the others by supplying the UK with nuclear weapons. They appeared to have an opportunity to achieve their wish when Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, decided that Skybolt was a waste of money. In early December he unformed the British that all five Skybolt tests so far had failed. The British pointed out that they had cancelled Blue Streak and made themselves completely dependent on the US in return for allowing the US the Holy Loch base.

An Anglo-American crisis then developed. Ahead of a meeting with Macmillan at Nassau in late December Kennedy phoned Eisenhower to check what had actually been agreed. Kennedy’s view was that Skybolt and Holy Loch were separate agreements made at the same time.

The talks between the two leaders at Nassau were fully minuted. Kennedy offered the UK Skybolt, which had cost the US $450m so far, for $100m. Macmillan replied that ‘while the proposed marriage with Skybolt isn’t exactly a shotgun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful.’ Macmillan asked for Polaris and its missiles. Kennedy said that a British Polaris fleet must be: ‘assigned to NATO.’ Macmillan asked what ‘assigned to NATO’ meant and Kennedy replied:

‘that it is in the UK’s interests to define assigned as loosely as possible. These missiles and submarines missiles should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies.’

Macmillan thought that this meant ‘a question of absolute survival’ and was concerned that it excluded the defence of British ‘supreme national interests’, such as the British controlled oilfields in Kuwait.

On the second day of the summit Macmillan talked in such a way that made it appear that the UK desired a nuclear deterrent so that it could retain international credibility despite being in decline. He then said that unless the nuclear deterrent could ‘be used when they wish by the British government…he would rather ‘drop the whole idea [and] undertake an agonising reappraisal of our military and political priorities’, suggesting that close ties between the UK and USA might end.

On the third day agreement was reached. The British Polaris submarines would be assigned to NATO but the UK would reserve the right to use them independently, when its ‘supreme national interests’ were at stake.

Macmillan had retired by the time of the 1964 UK General Election in which his Conservatives were defeated by Labour. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, ordered four Polaris submarines, each costing £600m in current money, despite having previously promised to cancel the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. The submarines and warheads were built in the UK and the missiles bought from the USA. They were based as Faslane, close to the US base at Holy Loch. The USN left in 1992 but the British nuclear force remains at Faslane. Since they came into service in 1969 the UK has always had at least one nuclear missile submarine at sea.

A very interesting programme. Macmillan was very keen to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent. The only major problems that this gave him with Eisenhower was the President’s insistence on having a nuclear submarine base near a large British city. Later, however, the British decided that the naval and logistic arguments for a base on the Clyde outweighed the political ones for a more remote location. Macmillan initially had more difficulties with the Kennedy Administration. In the end, however, the President put the need to maintain good relations with the USA’s closest ally ahead of the desire of many of his advisers not to favour one European ally over the others.

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2 Comments

Filed under Political History, War History

2 responses to “A Very British Deterrent – BBC

  1. Fascinating. I had no idea.

  2. David Gunn

    Absolutely fascinating Martin. Many thanks. Have passed it on to former (recent) submariner chums who probably do not know the whole story.

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