394. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Kohler) to Secretary of State Rusk0


  • U.K’s Nuclear Role: A Program of Action


We are increasingly being forced to face up to the issue of the future of the U.K. independent nuclear capability and the related question of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship in the military nuclear field.

Our existing policy in this field, as set forth in the April 21 [20], 1961, Policy Directive,1 states: “Over the long run it would be desirable if the British decided to phase out of the nuclear deterrent business.” The policy also states that the U.S. should not prolong the life of the British V-bomber force, except to the extent of continuing the development of Skybolt if this is warranted for U.S. purposes.

We have done little to date to implement this policy.

The purpose of this memorandum is: (a) to describe the factors which seem to be bringing the question to a head; (b) to lay out a suggested program for limited immediate steps to implement the policy; and (c) to outline some more basic and longer-range actions for further consideration; (d) to submit a proposed letter to Secretary McNamara designed to bring about action on the more immediate steps.


Factors Bringing Issue to a Head. One factor bringing this issue to a head is the relationship of the U.K. deterrent to the British role in the European Communities. Present indications are that the issue will not, at least at present, become directly involved in the U.K.-EEC negotiations. It appears clear that the French do not plan to link the questions at this time.

[1 paragraph (9 lines of source text) not declassified]

British aid to the French would fragment the European cohesion we are trying to create by giving preferential status to the French over other members of the EEC and by stimulating the Germans to want similar treatment. We should continue to oppose it, if the basic thrust of our European policy is to be maintained.

The French may, however, not agree to admitting the U.K. to the European Communities as a full partner and, at the same time, permit [Page 1074] the special and exclusive U.S.-U.K. military nuclear relationship to remain unchanged. The French may argue that the U.K., if it is to join the European Communities, must do so as a complete equal. Maintenance of the special U.S.-U.K. nuclear relationship would, in the French view, preserve a special and preferred status for the U.K. in the most prestige-laden of all fields. If the U.K. is not to extend nuclear aid to France, the French may, implicitly or explicitly, make some assurance that U.S.-U.K. nuclear cooperation is a waning, rather then a waxing, phenomenon the ultimate price of U.K. admission to the Six.

The attitude of the British is a further factor bringing the issue to a head. You will recall that, in the context of the recent White Paper on Defense, the British made clear that they intended to maintain their independent deterrent throughout the 1960s. In his letter to the President,2 Prime Minister Macmillan justified this decision on the grounds that the independent British nuclear deterrent added to the strength of the overall deterrent of the West. This view runs counter to the U.S. position. Secretary McNamara in Athens3 made clear our view that relatively weak nuclear forces with enemy cities as targets are not likely to be adequate to perform the function of deterrence. As Secretary McNamara said: “In a world of threats, crises, and possibly even accidents, such a posture appears more likely to deter its owner from standing firm under pressure than to inhibit a potential aggressor. If it is small, and perhaps vulnerable on the ground or in the air, or inaccurate, it enables a major antagonist to take a variety of measures to counter it. Indeed, if a major antagonist came to believe there was a substantial likelihood of it being used independently, this force would be inviting a pre-emptive first strike against it. In the event of war, the use of such a force against the cities of a major nuclear power would be tantamount to suicide, whereas its employment against significant military targets would have a negligible effect on the outcome of the conflict. In short, then, weak nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are expensive, prone to obsolescence, and lacking in credibility as a deterrent.”

These remarks, which were generally interpreted at Athens as applying to the French, apply with equal force to the British.

There are also indications, as you are aware, that the British themselves are clinging to the doctrine of first reliance on nuclear weapons and are not responding as well as some other countries to our emphasis on the need for a conventional build-up. This has been evident in both the Berlin and NATO contexts. In the military sub-group on Berlin, the British are continuing to express opposition to our arguments on strategy. [Page 1075] [9 lines of source text not declassified] In other words, the U.K. puts so much emphasis on a strategy of early use of nuclear weapons that it is willing to go along with an action which would considerably enhance the Soviet conventional capability.


Program for Immediate Steps. This situation points to both the correctness of the existing NSC policy regarding the special U.K. nuclear role and the importance of its effective execution.

The heart of the matter is that we should avoid any actions to increase the degree of our special nuclear relationship with the U.K. We should make clear that we are not prepared to extend that relation, notably in regard to creation of a U.K. Polaris missile force. The British will undoubtedly show a continuing interest in acquiring Polaris or other missile-bearing submarines, as they come closer to the end of the effective life of the V-Bomber Force. Even if that life is prolonged through Skybolt, the V-Bomber Force is a wasting asset. (Our information is that development of Skybolt is proceeding and that a production decision will be made one way or the other in July.) If the V-Bombers are not replaced by a sea-borne missile force, the independent British deterrent will expire, since the British have already decided to phase out land-based Thor’s by about 1964.

In addition to the basic course of action outlined above, the following supporting actions suggest themselves:

We should review and reconsider the extensive collaboration under the Tripartite (U.S.-U.K.-Canada) Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP). [4 lines of source text not declassified] The extent of U.S.-U.K. cooperation in the ballistic missile field seems to go well beyond what we would be willing to do with the French and provides a potential unnecessary irritant in our difficulties with the French in the nuclear field. It stems from the Eisenhower–Macmillan agreement of December 20, 1957.4 This entire range of cooperation needs to be reexamined in the light of the present day situation.
We should encourage the British to take part in a NATO multilateral force, if our other allies want to create one. Their present stance is thoroughly negative, but so was their posture toward joining the EEC a while back. In the long run, they may well come to see that a multilateral force is the way of containing German nuclear aspirations which is most consistent with the Alliance’s interests.
We should instruct all U.S. personnel to take consistently the approved policy line with the British regarding their national deterrent. At present, the U.S. Government may present a rather confused picture to the British. Lacking any clear directive, various lower level officials have been speaking to the British in contradictory terms, sometimes giving the impression that the U.S. favors the U.K. independent deterrent program.


Longer-Range Actions. There are some longer-range and more basic actions which we should consider for future implementation:

We should at some not-too-distant date explore with them the possibilities of committing their remaining strategic forces (V-Bombers) to NATO. (This is also existing policy, as set forth in the April 21, 1961, NSC Directive, but has never been implemented.) We should not do this, however, until we have a clearer idea of what we are prepared to do in the way of committing additional U.S. forces to NATO and until we can see how action to this end could be fitted in with the concept of a genuinely multilateral force. We would not want commitment of V-Bombers to substitute for full U.K. participation in the multilateral force or to set a pattern for a multilateral force based on national contingents rather than on units under multilateral ownership, control, and manning.
We should launch a State–DOD study of the extent of present U.S.-U.K. weapons cooperation to determine whether there may eventually be possibilities for limiting its scope and/or duration in such a way as to ease the problems referred to above, without generating contra-productive U.K. reactions.
Finally we may be forced, in the context of the U.K.-EEC negotiations, to explore with the British the possibility of their offering broad military nuclear cooperation with the European Community as perhaps the ultimate price for their membership therein. This assistance would be to the European Communities, not to a French or other national effort, and would be designed to enable these Communities to mount a nuclear effort whose benefits would only be available to multilaterally owned, manned, and controlled forces. The French could not participate in any way which assisted their national program. If we explore this with the British, we would of course need to be prepared to say that our own close military nuclear cooperation with the British should be gradually transformed into a U.S.-European Community cooperation. This step is not for immediate action, but some basic decisions on this may be forced upon us sooner than we think in the context of the U.K.-EEC negotiations.

Recommendation: In order to move forward with implementation of the more immediate steps and the study referred to under (b), we recommend that you sign the attached letter to Secretary McNamara. (Tab A)5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 741.5611/5–1862. Secret. Drafted by Fessenden on May 21, sent through Johnson, and initialed by Kohler and Johnson.
  2. Document 100.
  3. Dated February 23. (Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204)
  4. Reference is to the Athens meeting of the North Atlantic Council, May 4–6, 1962; see Documents 136 and 137.
  5. This agreement has not been identified further.
  6. Not attached, but see Document 396.