401. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • The President, Secretary McNamara, Acting Secretary George Ball, Alexis Johnson, Jeffrey Kitchen, Roswell Gilpatric, Dr. Wiesner and McGeorge Bundy

At the President’s request, Secretary McNamara opened the meeting by discussing the course of his discussions with Mr. Thorneycroft in London and after.1 In essence he summarized the discussion as previously reported by cable, noting the insistent desire of the British to obtain a categorical assurance that the United States was in favor of the independent British nuclear deterrent, and his own refusal to give such an assurance. Secretary McNamara remarked that the British had seemed wholly unprepared for his Aide-Mémoire on the technical weaknesses of Skybolt2 although he had given preliminary notice to [Page 1089] Ambassador Ormsby Gore on the 8th of November and to Mr. Thorneycroft on November 9.3 The British had, however, apparently accepted the proposition that Skybolt was in trouble, and their inclination was to seek Polaris as a substitute. The preferred solution would be to buy components for a missile-carrying submarine of their own which might at best be ready by 1969, and Thorneycroft had argued that it was important to have some other instrument between the time at which Skybolt would have become available and that later date. In particular the British had asked to rent Polaris, but Secretary McNamara had indicated his opposition, because of the very great complexity of Polaris submarines and the corresponding difficulty of training effective crews.

Secretary McNamara indicated his opinion that we could consider selling the Polaris missile with its associated guidance and navigation systems. We could link it to the same rules of use and control as those applied to Skybolt and to the existing UK/US mutual defense assistance agreement. Secretary McNamara presented a draft paper indicating the conditions of such an agreement.4

Secretary Ball expressed his grave concern with respect to the political implications of any arrangement with the British on MRBM’s. He pointed out that any arrangement which appeared to give the British a national capability in this field would lead us at once to the question of what we would do to the French, and so, inexorably, to the question of the role of the Germans. A decision in favor of a national force in this range of weapons would change our entire policy and would represent a major political decision.

There followed an extended discussion of varied aspects of the confrontation of views. The President pointed out that in the eyes of the British there could well be a claim that the cancellation of Skybolt implied some obligation to provide a substitute, on our part. “Looking at it from their point of view, which they do almost better than anybody,” he said, “it might well appear to them that since Skybolt was a substitute for Blue Streak, which they had cancelled in reliance on our assurances, we should now provide an alternative.” In this connection, Ambassador Bruce indicated that in his judgment this was primarily a political problem—and a political problem which would come to a head on the 29th of January, when Parliament met again. The old question was what would meet the Prime Minister’s needs for this hour, and he thought only the Prime Minister could decide this question.

Secretary McNamara argued strongly that the discussions of recent months have demonstrated that our current position with respect to a [Page 1090] multilateral force simply will not work. He had been told repeatedly by different delegates in Paris5 that they would be glad to follow the United States if they could only tell what it was that the United States was for. There is no way in which we can persuade the Europeans to buy and pay for both a multilateral force and a full compliance with NATO conventional force goals, but that is what our current policy requires. Secretary McNamara believed that it was time to move on to a more realistic arrangement and one which would better serve our own interests.

Secretary Ball, continuing to urge caution, told the President that this might be the biggest decision he was called upon to make. The President’s reply was, “That we get every week, George.” Yet the President clearly recognized the complexity of the problem which appeared to involve grave political risks for Mr. Macmillan if we should not help him, and serious risks also for our own policy in Europe if we should help him too much.

Dr. Wiesner argued for the possibility of helping the British, at least in an interim period, by providing them with Hound Dog missiles which could be properly and easily represented as substitutes for Skybolt, while the MRBM problem was being worked through. Secretary McNamara indicated his view that this arrangement would be without military or economic justification. The President interrupted this argument to return discussion to the principal question, and indicated his preliminary view that if we should offer Polaris to the British it must be in the context of a continuation of our undertakings with respect to Skybolt. To this Secretary Ball replied that if we should offer Polaris to the British and not to the French, we would appear to have intensified our special relationship to the British and our refusal to cooperate with the French.

After considerable further discussion, a program which reflected both the desire to be helpful to the British and the requirement of respect for our European allies led the President to approve, for planning purposes, the following general proposal:

We would offer appropriate components of Polaris missiles to the British.
It would be a condition of this offer that the British would commit their eventual Polaris force to a multilateral or multinational force in NATO.
It would be a further condition of this arrangement that the British should undertake to build up their conventional forces to agreed NATO force levels.
The terms governing the use of Skybolt would apply also to the use of such Polaris missiles.
It would be publicly assumed that deliveries might take place effective in 1967, but it would be privately recognized that the probable date of effectiveness of this new system would be 1969.

[Page 1091]

This conclusion was much influenced by the advice of Ambassador Bruce that since we had told the world we would not help national nuclear forces, we should relate any assistance to the British, in this new field of MRBM’s, to a large-scale solution of the broad problem of the Atlantic deterrent. (Ambassador Bruce emphasized this point later in the week by indicating his strong belief that the multilateral and conventional force requirements of the proposed understanding with the British were absolutely fundamental and should on no account be discarded.)

McG. B.6
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings with the President. Top Secret. The meeting was held in the Oval Room of the White House.
  2. Extensive summaries of McNamara’s conversations with Thorneycroft on December 11–12 are in Report to the President, Skybolt and Nassau, November 15, 1963, by Richard E. Neustadt. For an account by Thorneycroft, see House of Commons, Parliamentary Debates, 5th Series, vol. 669, col. 894.
  3. A copy of this aide-mémoire with Ball’s handwritten suggested changes is attached to a letter from Ball to McNamara, December 10. (Department of State, Central Files, 741.5611/12–1062) It is also in Neustadt’s report.
  4. See Document 399.
  5. A copy of this draft agreement is in Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 533, CF 2212.
  6. McNamara was in Paris December 13–15 for the North Atlantic Council meeting.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears these typed initials.