Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective

Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective

Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective

Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective


In March 1963, President Kennedy asked Richard E. Neustadt to investigate a troubling episode in U.S.-British relations. His confidential report -- intended for a single reader, JFK himself, and classified for thirty years -- is reproduced in its entirety here.

The Anglo-American crisis arose out of a massive misunderstanding between the two governments. The British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had been operating on the assumption that Washington would proceed with, and sell for British use, an airborne missile system named Skybolt. In its defense planning, the United Kingdom relied on Skybolt to sustain its nuclear deterrent. The Americans, however, decided to cancel the program. This decision rocked the British government and seriously strained Anglo-American relations.

Upon reading Neustadt's report, Kennedy passed it to his wife, Jacqueline, remarking, "If you want to know what my life is like, read this." She had it with her in Texas five days later, when he was killed. Today the document remains fascinating for the insight it provides into American-style foreign policymaking. This volume adds to the report Kennedy's comments, a glossary, a cast of characters, and new information gleaned from recently declassified British files.


In December 1962, the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, received an unpleasant surprise. Three months after the Cuban missile crisis, just as he was ready for a relaxed Christmas season, he found himself facing an unexpected crisis of confidence with his country's closest ally, the United Kingdom.

Kennedy faced it literally, across the table from the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, at Nassau, the Bahamas, then still a British possession. Their meeting had been scheduled long since for December 19-21, as one among a series of pleasant periodic get-togethers. It turned out to be a tense and, on the British side, distinctly angry confrontation over American cancellation of the Skybolt missile. This confrontation Kennedy had anticipated for only a week.

Skybolt was an air-to-surface weapon, still in development, on which Britain had relied to prolong life for its manned bombers, then its sole strategic nuclear deterrent. Macmillan insisted on Polaris, the first submarine-to‐ surface missile, as his seaborne substitute. in the event, Kennedy conceded, which was more than most of his advisers thought he should have done. His course seemed the more questionable in January 1963, when President Charles de Gaulle of France vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community—as the European Union then was styled—using the Nassau agreement for his symbol and excuse: Britain's insufficient Europeanness and the transatlantic entanglements of its deterrent.

So, early in 1963, Kennedy was in the mood for a postmortem.

By coincidence, just then I had approached his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs . . .

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