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The Cold War: Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

In this article, Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan consider the beginnings of Britain’s atomic weapons programme.
ROSS MAHONEY: Welcome. So in this session, we’re going to start exploring the evolution of Britain’s nuclear capability, especially surrounding its airborne nuclear capability because, of course, until 1968 and the introduction of sea launched ballistic missiles, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was carried by the Royal Air Force, in particular the V-Force of medium bombers that come into service in the 1950s. But before we get onto that, we’re going to explore why Britain ends up developing what was initially an independent nuclear force. So one of the things that really leads to this is the McMahon Act in America. Can you just explain a little bit more about that?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Right. What we have with the Manhattan Project is a tripartite development of the nuclear, I’m sorry, atomic weapons that were eventually used on Japan in 1945. Now, what we see is the American government increasingly retreating from the position where they are prepared to share nuclear technology with its partners. So the McMahon Act following on from the Atomic Energy Commission starts to limit what the United States can pass on to other nations, even friendly nations like Britain, who actually had invested quite a lot in the development of the Manhattan Project. It was a decision relatively early on to move it to the United States for fear that Britain might be subject to either bombing or more unlikely overrun.
So what we are seeing here is really the development of Truman’s atomic diplomacy, not only as a threat to the Soviets, but actually saying we’re not prepared to share these weapons further. And do remember that there was a proposal in the embryonic United Nations that no other nation should be allowed to develop them, and that nuclear weapons would be held in trust by the United States. The Soviets immediately rejected that perspective. So on one hand, it’s an attempt to stop proliferation. On the other hand, it’s to a certain degree cutting out one of America’s major partners, and preventing that technology flowing to those who’d actually input into the process in the first place.
ROSS MAHONEY: Britain develops a bomb. Is this just a way of Britain maintaining a seat at the negotiating table? At the end of the day, Britain by 1945 is a declining power arguably. So is this just Britain trying to maintain its world status?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: We, with the benefit of history, see 1945 as the beginning of a downward slope. The Attlee government certainly considered Britain was going to be a world power for the future. And I always refer to the 1948 British Nationality Act as something that reflects on that. Why give 800 million people British citizenship were it not for Britain to argue with the United States and for the Soviet Union that they spoke for a large proportion of the world in international negotiations? So I think there is an element where Britain did not have a view of itself as a declining power.
More than anything it was probably a power that was having difficulty in the aftermath of the Second World War, certainly the level of government debt was quite phenomenal. But it was trying to make sure that it was relevant for a future world. The Empire might be being taken apart, decolonisation as being integral to that, and the Americans who pushed for this were very clear. They fought against two imperial powers who’d annexed territories through conquest– Germany and Japan. So even though they fought on the same side, they didn’t want to see the Dutch or the French or the British maintaining an imperial presence in the same way.
So I think when we’re looking at the decision in the post ‘45 period, it was to cement a position, and trying to regain Britain’s relevancy in world affairs, not an attempt to shore up Britain on a downward slope. It’s only when we see what happens with the growing superpower tension between the Soviet Union and America that we can put Britain’s decline into perspective. In the post ‘45 period, up till even 1955, I think Britain was still very hopeful of being a third force in the world in that regard.
ROSS MAHONEY: OK. Why Bomber Command?
Bomber Command comes out in the Second World War arguably as a war winner. Plays a significant role in defeating certainly Germany, and would have potentially gone on and played a significant role against Japan. An airborne nuclear deterrent. What’s the rationale?
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Well, first you have the precedent of the bombing of Japan that you could actually develop weapons of a deliverable size. And that’s very important because the leaders in rocket technology in 1945 were the Germans. Neither the British or the Americans had anything comparable to the A-4, which we know more commonly as the V-2 vengeance weapon. And therefore delivery systems through anything other than the bomber wasn’t conceivable at the time. That goes further forward when you start looking at the hydrogen bomb. Now, there are developments in America for missile technologies, but that takes most of the 1950s to actually become operational.
But the hydrogen bomb initially was considered to be about the size of a house because the refrigeration that was required to make the early versions work. It’s only through the Ulam Teller breakthrough that they worked out how to actually reduce the size of the weapon. Now, if you go back to the controversial decision in 1949, 1950 when Robert Oppenheimer as a chair of the subcommittee for the Atomic Energy Commission suggested that the superbomb, the hydrogen bomb, wasn’t developed. One of the reasons that he put forward was how are you going to deliver it? It’s going to be so large.
So unless you are going to actually sail a nuclear weapon into a port, really the bombing force was the only credible way of delivering the weapon. In 1945, I would say right the way through until about late 1950s when you actually had missiles that could do the job even at short range. I don’t think there was ever really very much doubt that if Britain had the bomb, it was going to be delivered by the RAF.
ROSS MAHONEY: Now, we have some context as to why the RAF eventually becomes the country’s strategic nuclear deterrent which is its key role for the next 20 years or so. In the next session, we’re going to start looking at the evolution of the RAF V-Force, the means by which Britain will deliver that capability.

The Start of Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent

In this article, we consider the following questions and statements:

  1. The McMahon Act effectively cut the British out of the legacy of the Manhattan project. Did that necessitate a British atomic programme?
  2. Was Britain’s ‘Bomb’ programme merely a way of ‘retaining a seat at the negotiating table’.
  3. Bomber Command was always going to be the preferred means of nuclear weapons delivery from the early 1950s.

Ross and myself will be using the RAF Museum exhibits as a backdrop to our discussions. The website to the museums gives plenty of information on all of the collections.

The Start of Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent by Lauren Semple and Emmett Sullivan

Until 1949 and the creation of the first Soviet atomic bomb, America remained the only country in the world to have successfully created and used nuclear weapons.

Controversy around America’s nuclear monopoly was first seen with the proposal for the Baruch Plan, put forward by the United States to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission at its first meeting in June 1946.

The four main proposals of the plan were:

  1. For extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends;
  2. For control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes;
  3. For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction;
  4. For effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying States against the hazards of violations and evasions.

Here is a link to the proposition presented to the United Nations if you are interested in reading further.

The Soviets rejected the plan on the grounds that U.S. and Western European influence dominated the United Nations, and that they would only consider talks on control and non-proliferation if the U.S. first agreed to remove their nuclear weapons. Two months later, we see the culmination of American anxieties over nuclear power, resulting in the McMahon Act of 1946.

On the one hand, as the only country in the world that had been able to successfully develop and deploy an atomic weapon, America desired to retain this position of supremacy, and in particular over the Soviet Union. On the other hand, a mistrust of Britain also contributed to the decision to limit the transfer of knowledge in nuclear weapons, in the fear that they may build a bomb of their own, or that their security systems were not adequate enough to protect nuclear secrets from Soviet espionage. Therefore, the McMahon Act, passed on 1 August 1946 required Congress to approve the transfer of any data concerning classified nuclear information to a foreign country. A rocky relationship between the United States and Britain followed, as Britain considered the McMahon Act a betrayal. Therefore, Britain faced no choice but to invest in an independent nuclear deterrent.

At the same time, at the end of World War II, Britain was in an increasingly pressurized position to decolonize their vast worldwide empire, by their own deeply strained economic situation at home, and also by the condemnation of colonization by the increasingly dominant America. Clement Attlee’s pro-decolonization Labour government led the movement and granted independence to India in 1947. Further colonies were granted independence in the 1950s, notably the Gold Coast, Sudan and Malaya. All Britain’s remaining colonies in Africa bar Southern Rhodesia were granted independence by 1968. It therefore may seem somewhat contradictory that the 1948 British Nationality Act granted the status of British citizenship to all Commonwealth subjects and legally recognized their right to work and live in the UK along with their families. This was an attempt by the Attlee government to say that through the Commonwealth, as it was developing, Britain spoke for 800 million people.

The pressure from the U.S. was not simply on Britain to decolonize – France and the Netherlands who also fought on the Allied side during World War II similarly decolonized after the war.

From a practical side of the equation, and the armed forces themselves, the RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF’s bomber forces from 1936 to 1968. They played a particularly important role in the strategic bombing of Germany during World War Two. This link helps to visually display the effects of bombing on German cities.

While Britain was a leader in jet technology in 1945, it was clear that the Germans had the lead in rocket technology during World War II, with their work on the V-2 headed by SS Sturmbannführer Wernher Von Braun. We talked about the V-1 in previous weeks; the V-2 was Wernher Von Braun’s A-4 rocket, and Germany’s second ‘vengeance weapon’. It could deliver a similar warhead to London as the V-1 flying bomb; but as a ballistic missile, it was practically impossible to stop a V-2 once launched. Although ultimately missile technology would dominate the nuclear arms race, in 1945 it was the bomber that was to be the first delivery system for operational weapons, hence the importance of Bomber Command. (As an aside, Von Braun and his team were granted immunity from war guilt after the war if they all agreed to continue their research in the U.S. under the codename Operation Paperclip. Von Braun and his team deliberately sought out the Americans for this purpose. Von Braun later aided America in launching their first successful satellite (Explorer 1) into space in 1958.)

Finally, in background to the next video, we mention the ‘Ulam-Teller’ breakthrough in the development of hydrogen bombs. This meant that an aircraft-deliverable hydrogen bomb became feasible, and a huge refrigeration plant to keep the bomb stable could be dispensed with. The ‘Ulam-Teller’ breakthrough remains classified to this day; however the introduction to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory report written by Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller and states

In this discussion the following general scheme is considered. By an explosion of one or several conventional auxiliary fission bombs, one hopes to establish conditions for the explosion of a “principal” bomb. The latter may be either a fission or thermonuclear assembly.
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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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