95. Message From Prime Minister Macmillan to President Kennedy0

Dear Mr. President, We have considered very anxiously your suggestion that the facilities at Christmas Island should be made available for further nuclear tests in the atmosphere.1 I am, of course, committed by the public statement which I made to Parliament on October 31 that “if I were convinced that a particular atmospheric test was necessary in order to maintain the balance of the deterrent and to preserve freedom in the world, Britain would be bound either to co-operate in, or support, its conduct”. Your statement on November 1 [2]2 was in very similar terms. It follows that, if we were both convinced that further atmospheric tests were necessary within the meaning of those statements, our two countries should stand together in making them. But I feel very strongly [Page 228]that we should be under no illusion that a resumption of atmospheric tests will be at all acceptable to world opinion. I naturally shrink, as you must do, from being forced to do anything which looks like following the evil example of the Communists. And as the world judges us and them to be of two different standards, we must be very careful not to prejudice our moral predominance, which is a factor, perhaps the only factor, by which in the long run we shall undermine their atheist creed. I fear that these pressures of world opinion would be brought to bear upon us as soon as preparations were started to re-activate the facilities at Christmas Island. These cannot, of course, be kept secret. I therefore feel very strongly that, before we become involved in the public outcry which would certainly develop as soon as we were seen to be preparing for further tests, you and I should have a clearer picture of what exactly the tests will be and what purpose they will serve. We need to be satisfied ourselves, if we are to satisfy others, that the programme is one which falls squarely within the public positions which you and I have both taken.

From the experts who were over here last week, I gather that what your technical people have in mind is a series of up to 24 or more tests to be run off as fast as possible in a period of three to four months. All tests would be in the atmosphere, although one or two might be at heights of 150,000 to 300,000 feet. Some would be at sea level. These would be made by a combination of air drops and balloon shots, together with a few surface shots of small yield devices and possibly including barges. [2-1/2 lines of source text not declassified] We have not, however, been told what military purpose these tests would serve, i.e., in what way they are “necessary to maintain our responsibilities for free world security”, or whether any of their purposes could be met by tests made underground.

I consider that you and I ought both to be satisfied on this point before we get into the arena of public controversy. It may be that, until the Russian tests have been fully evaluated, we cannot know for certain what further experiments may be necessary in order to preserve the existing balance of the deterrent. But I think that we could at least get a clearer definition than we have yet had of the purposes and possibilities of any 1962 series. I should like, therefore, to suggest the following programme.

In the first instance, I would be ready to authorise the secret reconnaissance on Christmas Island which you suggested. If this is to be kept secret, it must be a really small Anglo-American party, just two or three a side. They should set out from Hickham Base, Honolulu, whence reliefs are normally made to the 300 or so officers and men that we maintain on Christmas Island and I suggest that they ought to fly on the British transport aircraft that we have.

Secondly, I suggest that our expert advisers should get together at once (presumably atomic and defence experts from both sides) so that [Page 229]we can have a more precise picture of what your people would propose as a series of tests for 1962, showing the general nature of the tests and the purposes which they would serve. To begin this study, I would be ready, if you agreed, to send senior people from our Atomic Energy Authority and, if possible, from our Ministry of Defence over to Washington for this purpose as soon as you are ready. I realise that it would not be practicable at this stage to obtain full details of all the scientific and engineering content of the programme, but we need to have enough to enable us to judge whether it could be justified and defended in public as falling within the terms of the public statements which you and I have both made.

Thirdly, I would hope that a report of these discussions would be available for us to consider when we meet before or after Christmas.3 We could then take our individual political judgments whether such a programme is within our public definitions and whether the material and technical gain is such as to outweigh what would inevitably be a moral loss to our position in the world. We should need, of course, to be satisfied that the purposes of the programme could not be met by underground tests. I think myself that we should also exclude tests designed solely to reduce the cost or marginally to improve the efficiency of our weapons, e.g., to increase the yield per unit of weight. The sort of thing I had in mind, when I made my statement, was something much more directly related to preserving the balance of the deterrent, such as tests which protect the validity of our weapons (e.g., by safeguarding them against counter-measures) or tests which might promise a break-through of the anti-missile missile front.

I recognise that this programme will involve postponing the start of work at Christmas Island until the New Year. It seems to me, however, that we cannot avoid this if we are to discharge conscientiously our heavy responsibilities in this very serious decision.

I am, of course, concerned about the possible reactions of opinion in this country where, I must confess, the public pressures are running in the opposite direction to your own. But I am much more deeply concerned about our joint position in the face of world opinion. On both these grounds, I feel that, before we take our final decision, we ought to have the fuller information which I have suggested in this message.4 It [Page 230]will then, of course, be necessary for a more formal agreement to be drawn up, dealing with the many related questions which would flow from such a joint enterprise.5

With warm regards,

Yours sincerely,

Harold Macmillan6
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 65 A 3464, Atomic 400.112, 8 Apr 61 (Jun-Nov 61). Top Secret. Another copy is in Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, Macmillan-Kennedy 1960-1961.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 93.
  3. See footnote 8, Document 90.
  4. President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan met in Bermuda December 21-22.
  5. The President’s November 21 reply stated that despite preparations “no decision has been made to resume atmospheric testing,” repeated many assurances given in his November 10 letter, and stressed that each proposed atmospheric test would be submitted to him for decision, with emphasis “for the present” on recommendations for weapons development and weapons effects tests. Kennedy accepted Macmillan’s recommendations on a reconnaissance party. (Attachment to memorandum from Battle to Bundy, November 17; Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, Kennedy-Macmillan 1960-1962) See the Supplement. Regarding Kennedy’s November 10 letter, see footnote 5, Document 93.
  6. In a November 21 memorandum to Seaborg, designated NSAM No. 113, Kennedy asked for recommendations by November 30 on which tests to conduct, “if and when I decide that testing should be resumed,” so that representatives could be sent to England “to argue the case for this approved testing program.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Subjects Series, Nuclear Weapons Testing 11/1-28/61, and Meetings and Memoranda Series, NSAM 113)
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.