Nowadays, discussions about nuclear weapons in the United States and the United Kingdom mostly centre around arms reductions. “The Cold War is over. What is the purpose of having nuclear weapons? They’re not going to be used anymore since the Soviets don’t exist.” That being said, it is a rather convincing statement from a cursory understanding of it. The premise that the West’s primary aggressors, the Soviets, do not exist as a threat to our existence anymore; so why keep the weapons which were designed to protect us from them? Although it is a simple and therefore somewhat persuasive argument, it is–unfortunately–a rather short-sighted argument.
As Peter Hennessy put it, “A nation is changed both when it decides to make a nuclear bomb and at the point it has acquired a serious capability to deliver usable weapons in strength…” That is to say, one’s perception as a citizen of that country and the country’s perception of itself changes; the country sees itself as having stepped out onto the world stage as a major player. That country knows now that it can only be threatened and pushed so far because if pushed to the breaking point, an aggressor nation might find itself on the receiving end of nuclear or thermonuclear attack that will annihilate it.
Today, if the UK did not already have nuclear weapons, it would most likely not attempt to acquire them. The sheer cost of developing its own system would outweigh the benefit given the current international climate. However, now just as in various points over the last 60 years, it has never seemed like the appropriate time to dispose of its nuclear capabilities. Quite an interesting paradox indeed.
In 1954, Winston Churchill famously said in a cabinet meeting about Britain acquiring thermonuclear weapons, “We must do it. It’s the price we pay to sit at the top table.” Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, in 1946 in regards to Britain acquiring a nuclear bomb, “We’ve got to do this. I don’t mind for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, by the Secretary of State in the United States as I just have in my discussions with Mr. Byrnes. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” Although both men may have overestimated the international clout Britain would receive by acquiring nuclear weapons, they knew that not doing it would relegate the UK to a second class player.
The international circumstances surrounding why the UK finally decided to develop its own nuclear capabilities instead of buying them from the Americans is vastly different from why other countries decide to develop nuclear weapons. But the underlying principle persists that a nation’s pride in itself becomes that much greater when it wields the power to wipe entire countries off the face of the earth. Later in his life, Clement Attlee was quoted as saying, “We had to hold up our position vis-a-vis the Americans. We couldn’t allow ourselves wholly to be in their hands, and their position wasn’t awfully clear always. At that time we had to bear in mind that there was always the possibility of their withdrawing and becoming isolationist once again. The manufacture of a British atom bomb was therefore at that stage essential to our defence.” Had the Americans changed course and refused to sell new nuclear weapons to the UK at some future point, Britain would have been left in a most awkward position: possessing outdated and eventually ineffectual nuclear arms and no way of using them.
For example, in the early years of UK nuclear capabilities, Britain developed and maintained her own nuclear arsenal as well as her own delivery system, the V-bomber. First commissioned by Attlee in the late 1940s, the long-range bomber only came online in significant numbers in 1958, a full year after Sputnik. That is to say, by the time the British delivery system of its nuclear arsenal was online, it had already become obsolete by the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
Let’s step back, however, before one jumps too far ahead. The Americans became the first nuclear power in 1945, the Soviets in 1949, and Britain in October 1952. The same year Britain developed its first atom bomb, the Americans detonated the first thermonuclear device (a 14 megaton bomb, the ‘Mike’ device at Eniwetok in the Pacific). By August 1953, the Soviets tested a 1 megaton bomb.
There were two forms of hydrogen bomb -a ‘hybrid’ bomb and a ‘true’ hydrogen bomb. The ‘hybrid’ bomb was something like the earlier atomic bomb but ‘boosted’ with lithium deuteride. The Russians had developed a ‘hybrid’ bomb…in 1953. The ‘true’ hydrogen bomb was a new departure: it involved a series of chain-reactions which at the last stage produced very fast neutrons; and in theory there was no limit to the size of explosion which could be produced by a bomb of this type. Moreover, it used uranium or thorium, not plutonium, as the main explosive element; and was highly economical in its use of fissionable material. Its cost was therefore relatively low (about £1.5 to £2 millions a bomb). – Sir William Penney
All this had a profound effect on Churchill who had returned to Number 10 as Prime Minister in 1954. A pivotal year in British nuclear history. It is the year surrounding the first major reassessment of British nuclear capabilities as well as her commitment to develop thermonuclear weapons.
Prior to the development of thermonuclear weapons, one must understand that the idea of nuclear war was not as horrific as it would later be. Indeed, one bomb destroying an entire city certainly was a significant catalyst for obtaining one’s own weapons as seen above. However, one must also understand that the Soviets did not possess an effective means to prevent a massive American attack prior to the Soviet acquisition of ICBMs. At a time when the primary means for delivering atom bombs was via long-range aircraft, coupled with a minimal Soviet air defence system, the Soviet Union could not have prevented, let alone retaliate against an American preemptive strike.
Once thermonuclear weapons had become the primary weapons of destruction, however, few considered nuclear war “winnable” the same way they viewed it prior to the H-bomb. Sir William Penney, one of the top British nuclear scientists at the time, described to Churchill the destructive nature of a 5 megaton ‘true’ hydrogen bomb:
A bomb dropped on London and bursting on impact would produce a crater 3/4 mile across and 150 ft deep, and a fire-ball of 2 1/4 miles diameter. The blast from it would crush the Admiralty Citadel [a stone-clad World War II signals centre across Horse Guards Parade next to the Mall-which is still there] at a distance of 1 mile. Suburban houses would be wrecked at a distance of 3 miles from the explosion, and they would lose their roofs and be badly blasted at a distance of 7 miles. All habitations would catch fire over a circle of 2 miles radium rom the burst.
The urgency to act must have been great for Churchill since the Americans were quickly buying up large amounts of thorium. The Prime Minister then gave it to his cabinet that he would ‘invite the cabinet to decide in principle that hydrogen bombs should be in the British arsenal.’
Given the dire consequences of these decisions, it is hard to understand (simply based on the above written text) why the Cold War developed as it did. Was there not more restraint or was it simply a race to the top? I hope to go into the personal motivations of the British and American leaders in the next post so as to shed light and answer these questions in more detail.