398. Department of State Memorandum0


It is understood that a decision as to whether the 1000-mile-range air-to-ground missile Skybolt, which has been under development for some time, is to go into production has either been made or is about to be made, and that indications are that the decision will be not to proceed with production. Our commitment to the British on this weapon is an agreement to sell it to them if we decide to produce it. Discussed below are some of the consequences for the British, and for Anglo-American relations, of a decision to abandon Skybolt. (These are not necessarily in order of importance.)

I. Defense

With the cancellation of its ICBM, Blue Streak, two years ago the UK abandoned its effort to keep up with the US and the USSR in the range of weapons systems available for its defense. It still has, however, the RAF V-bomber force, capable of delivering H-bombs of British design and manufacture against, an enemy. The 1962 Defense White Paper, “The Next Five Years,” stated as an important principle of Britain’s defense that “the efficacy of our deterrent will therefore be maintained throughout the 1960’s by using our V-bombers and fitting them with stand-off weapons, Blue Steel in the first instance and later Skybolt.” In fact, as the quantity and quality of Soviet SAM’s improves, a missile like Skybolt is probably the only real possibility of providing Britain with a modern strike weapon. Cancellation of Skybolt would put in jeopardy not only Bomber Command but a vital element of British defense philosophy, including as it does the future efficacy of the independent nuclear deterrent.

II. Domestic UK Politics

Two of the Conservative Party’s talking points (which may or not be valid) are that they have special and superior qualifications, as compared with Labour, for dealing with 1) defense and 2) the Americans. As British defense depends to a unique degree on Skybolt to be manufactured [Page 1084] by the Americans its cancellation would be a serious blow to the image, both public and private, of Tory competence in these two fields. There will be half-a-dozen by-elections in Britain in November; the results will be scrutinized with unusual attention by political observers to see whether Macmillan’s cabinet reshuffle in July has reversed earlier electoral trends which have been against the Tories. Britain’s prospective entry into the Common Market and the future of the Conservative Government are bound up to a considerable though unpredictable degree with these by-elections; however, both prognosis and analysis of this relationship are debatable. But the cancellation of Skybolt could be an unmitigated political blow to the Conservatives.

III. The Independent Nuclear Deterrent

As indicated above, cancellation of Skybolt would not only foreshorten the effective life of the V-bomber force but would call into further question the whole concept of the independent British deterrent. It might be noted in passing that the new British Defense Minister, Mr. Thorneycroft, has publicly reiterated Britain’s intention to retain this weapon; privately, he has indicated that it has some value as a bargaining counter. Skybolt’s cancellation would in considerable measure nullify this value. Whatever our own feelings about the efficacy of the British deterrent, the British could hardly regard our cancelling Skybolt as a friendly gesture in this context, nor is it clear how weakening Britain’s bargaining power would be to our advantage. It is not impossible that Britain would undertake the development of a comparable weapon of its own, for reasons of either prestige or survival.

IV. The Special US-UK Relationship

Without beating the drums too much, it might be pointed out that a far more important ingredient in this relationship than the peculiar provisions of our atomic legislation is the degree of mutual trust and confidence which exists between the two countries. In view of the serious consequences for Britain touched on above, it seems probable that Skybolt’s cancellation would be a serious blow to this mutual confidence. The British would certainly feel let down—hard. They might console themselves afterwards with thoughts of all the money they were saving; the Labor Party would crow, maybe, that they didn’t believe in the independent deterrent anyway; the advocates of interdependence in the hardware field would be permanently silenced, but they were primarily trying to sell British goods anyway; etc. Nonetheless, we still rely heavily on British real estate all over the world, from Christmas Island to Holy Loch; we should carefully consider the possible consequences of an estrangement of this relationship. Finally, if we were to appear to be “double-crossing” our oldest and closest ally—and it might well appear this way—it would be a serious blow to our whole alliance system.

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V. Possible Tactics

If it is not already too late, it would of course be preferable to consult with the British, rather than merely informing them, even though we have no legal obligation to do so.

Assuming that a decision has already been made, however, serious and urgent consideration must be given to the manner and timing of informing the British. A letter from the President to the Prime Minister might be appropriate; it should emphasize the military-fiscal aspects of the program which are said to be the basis for the cancellation, without ignoring the repercussions which Macmillan will have to face in the UK. He should have as much time as possible to prepare the ground before an announcement is made.

Again if it is not too late, consideration should be given to the possible bargaining power involved in giving up Skybolt, with the implicit consequences for the British deterrent. Although the British may have in mind the use of their independent deterrent for possible future negotiations with the French involving British entry into the Common Market, or in the evolution of a European deterrent, there might also be the possibility of using their deterrent as a factor in negotiations with the Soviets for a general détente.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 74.5611/11–262. Secret. No drafting information appears on the source text, but it was attached to a November 2 memorandum from Executive Secretary Brubeck to Kaysen, through Bundy, which states that it was in response to a request by Kaysen.