25 October 1946
A little over a year had passed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over one hundred thousand people, when, on 25 October 1946, Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary of Britain’s first post-war Labour government, showed up late to a meeting of the Atomic Energy Committee at 10 Downing Street. Prior to Bevin’s arrival, Hugh Dalton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, had been winning the argument against Britain embarking on an immediate programme to develop its own nuclear weapon.1
The two Cabinet heavy weights did not object on ethical grounds. Instead, they reasoned that, at a time when Britain was struggling to pay off its war debts, she could not afford the immense diversion of economic resources and expenditure that would be needed. The Cabinet Committee minutes do not mention the precise details of their argument. They may well have reminded their colleagues that the country was so short of foreign reserves that bread and flour rationing had been introduced only three months earlier. The minutes do however indicate that the committee was warned that if the project went ahead ‘we might find ourselves faced with an extremely serious economic and financial situation in two to three years time.’2 However, only moments after the Foreign Secretary entered the room, he was taking the two ministers to task.
‘That won’t do at all… we’ve got to have this… I don’t mind for myself, but I don’t want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked to or at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes. We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs… We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’3
The minutes phrased Bevin’s comments more diplomatically. ‘Our prestige in the world, as well as our chances of securing American cooperation would both suffer if we did not exploit to the full a discovery in which we had played a leading part at the outset.’4 Bevin’s focus on Britain’s standing in the world won the day. There was not a single reference to Russia. It was all about prestige and maintaining British influence with Washington.
- Peter Hennessy, Cabinets and the Bomb, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007, pp. 44-48 and Graham Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Britain’s First Nuclear Weapons Programme, Faber and Faber, London, 2004, pp. 324-325.
- Cabinet Committee on Atomic Energy, Minutes, 25 October 1946 cited in Peter Hennessy, op. cit., p. 45.
- Ernest Bevin cited in Peter Hennessy, op. cit., p. 48
- Cabinet Committee on Atomic Energy, Minutes, 25 October 1946 cited in Peter Hennessy, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
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