National Security Archive: The British Bomb and the United States - Part One

Malcolm Byrne's picture

Prime Minister Macmillan was determined to “stay in the nuclear club”


U.S. officials (correctly) believed British wanted independent capability to strike Soviets if Washington did not come to their aid


Dean Rusk saw danger of U.K. tending to “move in on our independence”


Edited by William Burr


Washington, D.C., May 13, 2021—British leaders were determined to become a nuclear power after World War II in part so they could have a “seat at the top table” of international negotiations, according to a 1965 State Department intelligence report published today by the nongovernmental National Security Archive.  London also wanted to be able to present its own “independent” deterrent to the Soviet Union to mitigate its reliance on U.S. forces, records show. 


Documents obtained by the Archive provide important perspective on the recent British decisions to raise the ceiling on their nuclear stockpile, a move the Biden administration has yet to comment on publicly.  The new materials explore several topics and events that underlie the secrecy-shrouded U.S.-U.K. nuclear relationship and reveal interesting attitudes toward nuclear weapons that officials kept scrupulously private.


For example, for many U.S. officials, Britain’s national nuclear program was an irritant; Washington pushed for London instead to join a multilateral force.  The documents point to a number of American motivations, including high costs and the risk of proliferation, but it was also a question of control.  “[T]he more the UK stressed its independence the more it tended to move in on our independence,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk observed.


Rusk went on to comment on the mixed advantage of being a nuclear power: “[T]he employment of nuclear weapons is not a path to freedom but a path to slavery” since the U.S. “has never had less independence than it has today in the areas affected by these weapons.”  


Today’s posting—the first of a two-part series—begins with the late 1950s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan agreed to highly secret exchanges of nuclear weapons design information. It continues into the Kennedy administration and includes documents on the 1962 Skybolt crisis that led to a joint U.S.-U.K. decision to deploy Polaris re-entry vehicles on missiles carried by British submarines.  It concludes with the early stages of British discussions with Washington of a Polaris follow-on that would be less vulnerable to Soviet anti-ballistic missiles.