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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.

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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