14 December 1950
On 14 December 1950, Prime Minister Clement Attlee had just returned from a meeting in Washington, DC, with President Truman. Attlee claimed in the House of Commons that he had ‘received assurances’ which he considered to be ‘perfectly satisfactory’ over the use of American military bases in the United Kingdom.1 He had been under intense pressure, in the wake of threats by Truman at a press conference that he might use atomic weapons to win the Korean war, to obtain an unequivocal agreement on the terms under which U.S. bases could launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.
The reality, however, was the opposite from the impression the prime minister gave. Truman had refused to give any written undertaking that Washington would seek London’s approval prior to any such strike. He had instead assumed a patronising tone, informing the prime minister that any assurance would ‘not be in writing, since if a man’s word isn’t any good, it isn’t made any better by writing it down.’2 When the official communique was released it merely referred to the president’s ‘hope that world conditions would never call for the use of the atomic bomb’ and ‘his desire to keep the Prime Minister at all times informed of all developments which might bring about a change in the situation.’ These were polite words to disguise the truth that Britain retained no meaningful veto on the United States launching a nuclear attack from British soil, and in so doing making the country the prime target for total obliteration by any retaliatory nuclear strike. While the Soviet Union’s long range nuclear bombers could not reach America, the whole of Britain was easily within range.
Many began to fear what came to be known as ‘annihilation without consultation’. Nor was it merely a concern of radical left wingers. Only five months earlier, at a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, Sir John Slessor, Chief of the Air Staff, had warned of a danger ‘we could not risk… in which the Americans had decided to use the A-bomb while we were arguing about whether it should be used.’3 Attlee, however, had other priorities more important to him than the safety of the population. If Britain was to retain its position as a major power, he had to appease his more powerful ally. So, rather than provoke Washington’s anger, he decided instead to mislead parliament and the public.
- The prime minister Attlee cited in Hansard HC Deb 14 December 1950 vol 482 cc1350-464 accessed online at url https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1950/dec/14/prime-ministers-visit-to-usa
- Jim Wilson, Britain on the Brink: The Cold War’s Most Dangerous Weekend, 27-28 October 1962, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2012, p. 17.
- Sir John Slessor cited in Nicholas Wheeler, ‘Attlee Government’s Nuclear Strategy,’ in Ann Deighton ( editor ), Britain and the Cold War, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, p. 138.
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