Sarkar on Craig, 'America, Britain and Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Programme, 1974-1980: A Dream of Nightmare Proportions'

Malcolm M. Craig
Jayita Sarkar

Malcolm M. Craig. America, Britain and Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Programme, 1974-1980: A Dream of Nightmare Proportions. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 319 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-51879-4.

Reviewed by Jayita Sarkar (Boston University) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Malcolm Craig’s examination of Anglo-American partnership to stall Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is a significant contribution to the existing scholarship on nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation in South Asia. Spanning six years—three US administrations and three different UK governments—the book accomplishes what very few studies have, namely, demonstrating the volatility in the "special relationship" on the question of nonproliferation. Divided into eight chapters, the book begins with India's 1974 nuclear explosion and concludes with the election of Ronald Reagan and the last months of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Craig's monograph is an astute study of the challenges that the economic instabilities of the 1970s posed to American goals of preventing nuclear proliferation and the internal battles within the United States and the United Kingdom to harmonize the economic goals of seeking financial profit with the political goal of nonproliferation. Like most first academic books, this study is based on Craig's doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, which he completed in 2014. It is detailed, clear, extremely well researched, and sharply argued.

It is a book that exemplifies the limitations of American global power in the precarious times of the 1970s. The challenges posed by globalization—specifically, West European and Japanese economic competition—strained the US economy culminating in the 1971 "Nixon shock" that ended the Bretton Woods monetary system of fixed exchange rates. A little over two years later, the OPEC embargo precipitated the 1973 oil price shock, leading to widespread energy shortages in the United States and Western Europe. Washington and its transatlantic allies had major differences over the future of the global economic order and the steps that could stabilize it. The end of the dollar convertibility to gold and the widespread "stagflation" reflected weaknesses in US power and its constrained ability to influence the behavior of its close allies.

India's 1974 nuclear explosion, therefore, came at an inopportune moment for US policymakers. New Delhi’s action demonstrated the ability of countries to legally obtain equipment and technologies from the global atomic marketplace to effectively build a nuclear device and thereby foregrounded the need for a concerted nonproliferation effort for policy harmonization. A concerted effort for nonproliferation meant convincing other suppliers not to trade in technologies, equipment, materials, and know-how that could lead to proliferation by the recipient states. In the age of energy crisis, rising inflation and unemployment, and a consequent balance of payments crisis in the largest economies of the Western world, a harmonized set of policies to reduce profitable nuclear exports was easier said than done. It brought Washington in direct conflict with some of its closest West European allies.

Malcolm Craig’s study shows that even the "special relationship" between Washington and London was not above these tensions. Craig demonstrates how this brought the Department of Trade and Industry (DoT) in confrontation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) within the UK government. The former found British cooperation with the United States on nonproliferation hurtful to its economic interests while the latter prioritized political benefits of the "special relationship." British economic interests drove UK's offer to sell Jaguars— nuclear-capable light attack aircraft—to India despite concerns that it could threaten Pakistan and thereby push Islamabad further toward developing nuclear weapons.

Apart from Anglo-American tensions on nonproliferation, three takeaways from this book that stood out are the following. First, Craig identifies the correlation between conventional arms exports and nuclear proliferation/nonproliferation. He argues that the UK-India Jaguar deal raised challenges for US nonproliferation efforts toward Pakistan by making Islamabad anxious about an Indian nuclear deterrent, thereby providing impetus to Pakistan's nuclear weapons development. Similarly, the Ford administration decided to offer light attack aircraft to Islamabad in order to address the latter’s security concerns, in the hope that this might stop Pakistan's proliferation. Second, the author breaks new ground through his discussion of the "Islamic bomb," which he argues was a "meme" canvassed by the media in Europe and the United States but largely ignored by pragmatic policymakers in both Washington and London. The "Islamic bomb" meme was based on the irrational fear that Pakistan's nuclear weapons would be shared with other countries of the Islamic world, not as a result of a nuclear domino (or reactive proliferation) but through joint financing of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program by oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya, and Islamabad’s sharing of the "final products" (i.e., nuclear bombs) with its funders. Through this examination of the Islamic bomb, Craig masterfully connects the cultural factors with the strategic ones—a rare feat, and rarely well executed in studies on questions of nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation—thereby effectively linking "high politics" with important social factors. Third, although the book foregrounds US-UK cooperation and competition vis-à-vis Pakistan's nuclear weapons development, the study is aware of the challenges to nonproliferation that emerged from continental Europe. Paris, Bonn, and Bern among others were keen to supply technologies, materials, and equipment to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. This suppliers-led challenge to US nonproliferation efforts in the 1970s needs more scholarly attention although this is gradually changing.[1]

The author does not offer some key answers, which can befuddle the readers. First, why did the United Kingdom largely cooperate with the United States on nonproliferation, even though there were clear economic reasons not to? Was it the outcome of several series of internal battles between the FCO and the DoT that were repeatedly won by the former? Or was there an economic logic that drove British willingness to cooperate with the United States to prevent proliferation? The DoT was concerned that if London did not provide materials to Pakistan, then the West Germans or another supplier would, and the British would lose out. By the reverse logic then, British cooperation with the United States on nonproliferation that included multilateral export controls of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to prevent other suppliers from providing assistance to Pakistan and other recipient states might have a strong economic rationale. This rationale could have strengthened the FCO's position vis-à-vis the DoT in those internal battles. The book seems to largely push forward the argument that London was in favor of nonproliferation (except when it was not for economic reasons). But we do not get a picture of whether UK’s overall affinity for this particular policy choice was driven most by political, strategic, and/or economic factors.

Second, Craig does not distinguish between sensitive and dual-use nuclear assistance. Sensitive nuclear assistance involves technologies, equipment, and materials that are direct pathways to the bomb, like uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, while dual-use assistance comprises those that have both military and civilian uses, for example industrial spare parts useful across various sectors. This is particularly evident in the discussion of Swiss nuclear assistance to Pakistan. Bern was abiding by the "minimum conditions" under the Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines in 1980 and thereby providing dual-use assistance to the centrifuge program of Pakistan led by A. Q. Khan. Readers would benefit from a discussion on sensitive nuclear assistance (based on the nature of the exports) and nuclear assistance to "sensitive" countries (based on real or perceived end use of the exports by the recipient at times irrespective of the nature of exports). Since the latter is a political decision—namely, the determination of end use on the basis of the intent of the recipient state—not all supplier states agreed with the attributions made by US policymakers, like the Swiss. This is an important part of the nonproliferation puzzle that needs to be explained.

Third, the meme of the "Islamic bomb" is not merely reflective of the culture of Islamophobia in the Western media but also of the conflictual politics between the global North and the global South at the time. The 1973 oil price shock, when a handful of oil-rich Muslim countries of the Middle East collectively placed an embargo on oil exports, precipitated an energy crisis and massive economic turmoil in the West. The calls for economic redistribution by the G-77 through a New International Economic Order underlined the tense relations between the West and the Rest, and the "Third World’s new insurgency."[2] The media-led popular fear of the Islamic bomb developed by Pakistan and shared with the umma was restricted to Middle Eastern states with an abundance of oil. The neglect of the centrality of oil politics and its influence in creating the cultural imaginary of the Islamic bomb is a missed opportunity in this book.

Nevertheless, the intellectual contributions of this book outweigh its flaws. Future scholarly works by the author and others in the field will hopefully address some of the above issues. It is an important book for scholars of twentieth-century international history, post-1947 South Asia, the history of foreign relations, transatlantic relations, and those passionate about politics of nuclear weapons and nuclear technologies. On a topic like Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, where primary sources are scarce and secondary sources are dominated by insider accounts with their usual biases, Craig's meticulously researched monograph fills an important lacuna in the extant scholarship.


[1]. William Burr, "A Scheme of ‘Control’: The United States and the Origins of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, 1974–1976," The International History Review 36, no. 2 (2014): 252-76; Or Rabinowitz and Jayita Sarkar, "‘It Isn’t Over Until the Fuel Cell Sings’: A Reassessment of US and French Pledges of Nuclear Assistance in the 1970s," Journal of Strategic Studies 41, nos. 1-2 (2018): 275-300; and Jayita Sarkar, "Whack-a-Mole: American Policy to Curb West European Nuclear Exports, 1974-1978," Journal of Cold War Studies, forthcoming.

[2]. Daniel J. Sargent, A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 176.

Citation: Jayita Sarkar. Review of Craig, Malcolm M., America, Britain and Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons Programme, 1974-1980: A Dream of Nightmare Proportions. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Firstly, I would like to sincerely thank Jayita Sarkar for her generous review of my book. She is a scholar for whom I have the greatest respect and whose work leads the way in new understandings of nuclear non-proliferation’s history and impact.

Secondly, something of a mea culpa. This book emerged from my doctoral thesis and, were I to have my time again, greater knowledge and experience would dictate a slightly different shape to the work. The book straddles the lines between several competing research interests of mine (sometimes complementary and clearly intersecting, sometimes not), including nuclear non-proliferation, US-UK relations, the Cold War, and ‘Western’ relations with the ‘greater Middle East’.

Moving on the substance of the review, I would again like to express my appreciation for the warm terms in which Dr Sarkar lays out her critique. I was delighted to see that the ‘Islamic bomb’ element was viewed favourably. This is a theme that I intend to make central to my second book project, and I fully take on board the comments on integrating the issues raised within this theme more fully with the impact of oil politics and wider climate of the era. In this regard I have found very recent works such as those by Christopher Dietrich immensely valuable.(1) Likewise, I think there is still much to be done on more rigorously connecting short, medium, and long term domestic developments within the United States to intersections between nuclear weapons and fear of Islam.(2)

Dr Sarkar is quite right to suggest that some elements of the book leave certain issues implicit rather than explicit. The problems of discriminating between overtly ‘nuclear’ exports and grey area, dual-use exports lay at the heart of official concern surrounding Pakistan’s weapons programme. British civil servants and politicians in particular had great difficulty, for example, in obtaining straight answers from their counterparts in Bonn on the subject of electrical inverters. Such were the wide-raging uses of these industrial products that it took nearly a year for West German officials to arrive at any sort of conclusion and thence communicate this to London. Even then, there remained a considerable amount of debate as to whether or not these inverters were indeed intended for nuclear uses. It appears, though, that critical distinctions could have been made a little clearer to the reader.

On the reasons why successive UK governments sometimes vacillated over non-proliferation, again I think there is much work to be done in this area. Compared to US policy, British non-proliferation policy is relatively under-studied. I would argue that – within the confines of Britain’s problematic economic situation in the 1970s – economic self-interest frequently pushed aside global non-proliferation concerns. As I argue in the book, this was coupled to a range of domestic and foreign policy imperatives, from unemployment and the balance of trade, to post-colonial diplomatic relationships and rivalry with continental European competitors such as France. British officials concerned with the sale of the Jaguar strike aircraft, for example, persistently expressed concerns about leaving the field open to the “unscrupulous French” should non-proliferation concerns trump the need for international arms sales.(3)

To return to the start of this reply, I am grateful to Jayita Sarkar for her rigorous, insightful, and provocative review. As an early career scholar, such collegial feedback can only make my future work stronger.


(1) Christopher R.W. Dietrich’s Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) for example, is a fascinating study that sadly appeared just after my own book manuscript was submitted. Suffice to say, studies such as this are already having a considerable influence on my own work.

(2) See for example Pamela E. Pennock’s The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and key sections of Salim Yaqub’s Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).

(3) For a concise version of the elements in the book related to this issue, see Malcolm M. Craig, ‘”I think we cannot refuse the order”: Britain, America, nuclear non-proliferation, and the Indian Jaguar deal, 1974–1978’, Cold War History 16:1 (2016), 61-81.