Britain's Defence Policy in a Nuclear Age: Ian Cawood Shows How British Policy-Makers Adapted to the Changing World after 1945

By Cawood, Ian | History Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Britain's Defence Policy in a Nuclear Age: Ian Cawood Shows How British Policy-Makers Adapted to the Changing World after 1945


Cawood, Ian, History Review


The Post-War World

Britain found herself, by 1945, deeply in debt, chiefly to USA, with an overextended Empire. Clement Attlee's Labour Party had won power in a landslide election, promising the construction of an extensive welfare system at home, which placed further financial strain on her foreign policy. Consequently Britain rapidly demobilised, ending conscription in 1945 and reducing her armed forces to under 1 million men. As a result of this, Britain found herself even more over-stretched after the war than she had been during it. Not only were more troops needed in the restive parts of the Empire, but she had to maintain occupation forces in Trieste, Libya, Germany and Austria. The granting of independence to India in 1947 did not particularly help Britain either, as she could no longer call on the Indian Army to help police other colonies in the Middle and Far East.

Britain was forced to reintroduce conscription in 1947, not much more than a year after abolishing it, and even then was not able to cope with the scale of the civil war in Palestine. It was not surprising that both the Chiefs of Staff and successive governments should look to nuclear weapons as offering a cheaper alternative in such a situation.

Britain Draws Closer to the USA

In 1946, the USA placed restrictions on the sharing of nuclear secrets, despite the role of British scientists in the 'Manhattan Project' which had developed the atom bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The new foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, reacted angrily, asserting that Britain 'could not afford to acquiesce in an American monopoly of this new development'. It was clear that great power status now depended upon possession of nuclear weapons, and for Britain, in particular, with her limited economic and military strength, they would provide the means of ensuring her continued role on the world stage. In October 1946, therefore, Bevin decided: 'We've got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs', and the Cabinet ordered the production of a British atomic bomb, which was to be test-exploded in the Pacific in October 1952. The Labour government also ordered the construction of a fleet of long-range jet bombers (the 'V-bombers')--in order to be able to bomb Russia.

Bevin was acutely aware that none of the western European countries had the resources to resist a full-scale Soviet ground assault using conventional forces. He therefore chose to involve the United States in European defence. Firstly, he announced that, due to the economic crisis in Britain in 1947, Britain would abandon her role in Greece and Turkey. This forced the American President to issue the 'Truman doctrine', committing the USA to give $400 million to aid 'free peoples... resisting attempted subjugation'. Secondly, with the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia and then Stalin's closure of road links into western zones of Berlin in 1948, Bevin was able to present the USA with what seemed clear cases of attempted Soviet expansion. The United States participated willingly in the subsequent 'air-lift' to keep Berlin supplied for the next 11 months. American B-29 atom-bomb carrying planes were allowed use of four airfields in East Anglia from July 1948. Most importantly of all for Britain's security, American and the western allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Bevin now had the USA with its vast economic wealth and military arsenal committed to the defence of western Europe for at least ten years.

With the USA taking a leading role in the defence of Europe, it was expected that Britain would assist America in containing the perceived threat of communist expansion outside the continent. Britain sent over 10,000 ground and naval troops, the largest non-American force, to help drive North Korean forces back from the South. Britain also demonstrated the strength of this relationship when in 1950, following the Chinese intervention in the war, Attlee flew to Washington and was given a personal pledge that atomic weapons would not be used without Britain's agreement. …

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