Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

By John Baylis | Go to book overview

Introduction

THIS book focuses on the evolution of British nuclear strategy from 1945 to 1964. The dates have been chosen partly because they reflect the complete period in which archives are available but also, more importantly, because they cover the era in which the foundations of the British nuclear programme were firmly laid. In 1945, although Britain had played an important part in the wartime Manhattan programme which led to the development of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, it was still not an atomic power. The McMahon Act of 1946 effectively cut Britain off from collaboration with the United States, leaving the new Labour government under Clement Attlee to decide whether or not to develop nuclear weapons. The decision to do so was made in January 1947 and the first atomic test was conducted in October 1952. By the end of the period covered by this book Britain had established a highly successful scientific and technological base for the production of atomic and thermonuclear weapons; a stockpile of around 300 weapons; a force of V-bombers to deliver the weapons; and a very close nuclear partnership with the United States which provided crucial atomic energy information and which was about to provide the most sophisticated sea-launched ballistic missile available anywhere in the world. A deep-seated commitment to the concept of nuclear deterrence had also been established which remained at the centre of the British approach to security for the whole of the Cold War period.

Given the importance of this formative period it is not surprising that a substantial literature already exists on British nuclear policy. While the treatment of the subject differs from book to book there are two main approaches which can be discerned. The first, which is reflected in the work of Margaret Gowing, Andrew Pierre, G. M. Dillon, and A. J. R. Groom, deals with the political dimensions of nuclear weapons.1 The

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1
See M. Gowing, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-52 (2 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1974); A. Pierre, Nuclear Politics: The British Experiencewith an Independent Strategic Force, 1939-70

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