10 December 2012

Macmillan’s pre-Christmas crisis 50 years ago

The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when homo sapiens edged towards mass extinction, gained its fair share of media coverage. Will the less significant UK/US Nassau Agreement of December that year be remembered?

At the beginning of December 1962, Britain’s Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was almost certainly looking forward to his Christmas break. In July he had sacked a third of his cabinet, an event dubbed the Night of the Long Knives, an ironic revival of Hitler’s purge of the Sturmabteilung in June 1934. Then on 27 October, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the PM had felt it necessary to take the pre-apocalyptic decision to place the RAF’s V-bombers at 15 minutes notice, the aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons and stood at the end of their runways in Eastern England.

The existence of the V-bomber nuclear force was the result of the massive investment seen as necessary to maintain Britain’s international status and to secure national security during the post-World War 2 confrontation with the Soviet Union. In 1961, Bomber Command had more aircraft than BEA and BOAC (British Airways’ predecessors) together. However, by then the likelihood of the bombers actually reaching their targets was being thrown into doubt by the formidable air defences being installed around the Soviet Union and in occupied Eastern Europe. As a counter, the RAF had embarked on the development of a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead, Blue Streak, which could be launched from the UK but was vulnerable to pre-emptive attack. Instead it was decided to extend the usefulness of the V-bombers by buying an American ballistic missile, Skybolt, which could be launched in the air at a safe distance from the Soviets. Trials were arranged to demonstrate the compatibility of the system with the RAF’s Vulcan aircraft (below, top). The last aircraft of this type, XH557 (bottom), will cease flying in 2013.

In return for Skybolt, Macmillan had agreed in 1960 that the US would be able to support its new nuclear submarines with Polaris missiles from a base at Holy Loch in Scotland.   On 11 December, Robert McNamara arrived in London bearing bad news: the US no longer had any requirement for Skybolt. The project was experiencing development problems (“an absolute pile of junk” McNamara would recall, somewhat unfairly), while at the same time the US Navy were confident of Polaris being a success. The US announcement was to precipitate a major crisis in Anglo-American relations because the prospect then facing Macmillan was of Britain’s ceasing to be a nuclear power by default. Inevitably the summit meeting between Kennedy and Macmillan already scheduled to take place at Nassau from 19 to 21 December turned out to be dominated by the consequences of the Skybolt decision. Just before the PM's departure over 100 Tory backbenchers signed a motion calling on him to safeguard the deterrent.

In fact it was on the 20 December that Macmillan and Kennedy reached a significant understanding.  Macmillan declined offers of the transfer of the Skybolt project to the UK and an alternative air-launched missile called Hound Dog – perhaps the name alone was a political liability. The old actor manager knew he “had to pull out all the stops” as he put it himself. He reminded Kennedy of the way wartime atomic cooperation under Roosevelt and Churchill had been abruptly terminated by the US and went on to persuade Kennedy that if Britain were now forced to cease being a nuclear power, there would be an anti-American backlash in Britain, British defence policies globally would have to be reconsidered and that his government might fall and be replaced by one of a neutralist inclination. Macmillan’s Private Secretary, de Zulueta, commented that at the end of Macmillan’s performance “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine”. Macmillan returned to London with a pledge that the US would supply Britain with the Polaris system to be committed to NATO but with independence of operation if supreme national interests were at stake. In April 1963 the Polaris Sales Agreement was put in place on what turned out to be a favourable financial basis for the UK.

Shortly after the Nassau meeting Kennedy departed to Key West for what would turn out to be his last family Christmas. On his return to Washington in January one of his first public duties with his wife was to open the exhibition of the Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre. Back in London Macmillan had found that his endeavours in Nassau had not been greeted with much enthusiasm in The Times:

Although incorrect in its second headline - agonising about the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US continues to this day – The Times was prescient in its third, Kennedy’s offer of Polaris to France. At the unveiling of the Mona Lisa, Kennedy made the dry comment:
Mr. Minister, we in the United States are grateful for this loan from the leading artistic power in the world, France. In view of the recent meeting in Nassau, I must note further that this painting has been kept under careful French control, and that France has even sent along its own Commander in Chief, M. Malraux. And I want to make it clear that grateful as we are for this painting, we will continue to press ahead with the effort to develop an independent artistic force and power of our own.
De Gaulle publicly declined Kennedy’s offer on 14 January 1963, accompanied by another, more famous, ‘non’. This blocked Britain’s joining the European Economic Community, one of Macmillan’s major foreign policy objectives, despite his regarding de Gaulle “as having all the rigidity of a poker without its occasional warmth”. De Gaulle, on the other hand, thought that Britain had become a vassal of Washington and had sold its birthright for “a plate of Polarises”. British politics in the summer of 1963 was dominated by the Profumo affair. The nuclear test ban treaty which Macmillan had sought was signed in August but he would resign in poor health in October, a few weeks before Kennedy’s assassination. The first of the four RN Polaris submarines, HMS Resolution, became operational in June 1968. Through the Polaris Sales Agreement, these were replaced by Trident in the 1990s. As has been described in posts here in June and October, there are divergent views in the current UK Coalition government about a successor to Trident with the added complication of possible Scottish independence.

Edward and Florence heard the muffled headlines and caught the name of the Prime Minister, and then a minute or two later his familiar voice raised in a speech. Harold Macmillan had been addressing a conference in Washington about the arms race and the need for a test-ban treaty. Who could disagree that it was folly to go on testing H-bombs in the atmosphere and irradiating the whole planet? But no one under thirty - certainly not Edward and Florence believed a British Prime Minister held much sway in global affairs. Every year the Empire shrank as another few countries took their rightful independence. Now there was almost nothing left, and the world belonged to the Americans and the Russians. Britain, England, was a minor power – saying this gave a certain blasphemous pleasure. Downstairs, of course, they took a different view. Anyone over forty would have fought, or suffered, in the war and known death on an unusual scale, and would not have been able to believe that a drift into irrelevance was the reward for all the sacrifice.

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Possible further reading: Of course, Peter Hennessy: The Secret State and Cabinets and the Bomb. A famous analysis of the Skybolt decision from a US viewpoint is Richard Neustadt’s Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective. According to Jonathan Fenby in The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved, Macmillan appeared confident about securing Polaris when he met de Gaulle at Rambouillet on 16 December 1962 (page 502).


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