403. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Skybolt


  • Great Britain:
    • The Prime Minister
    • Lord Home
    • Mr. Thorneycroft
    • Ambassador Ormsby Gore
    • Mr. Ian Samuel
  • United States:
    • The President
    • Secretary McNamara
    • Under Secretary Ball
    • Mr. McGeorge Bundy
    • Ambassador Bruce
    • Mr. William R. Tyler

The President read to the Prime Minister the text of the three documents which had been prepared by the U.S. Delegation on a possible substitute for Skybolt.1 The President emphasized that it was our intention that the details of a multilateral force should be kept private. We should study its possible development and then come to a decision. This much could be said publicly, and meanwhile we would see what the reactions were in Europe. The President pointed out the advantages of the proposal under discussion from the UK view point.

The Prime Minister asked what was really meant by the words “assigned to NATO”. He pointed out that SACEUR and SACLANT had forces under their command under double capacity: they are both NATO and national forces. At the time of Cuba, the US itself had withdrawn a number of ships that were assigned to NATO for the special action which the situation required. The fact that these ships were assigned to NATO had not stood in the way of the US. If “assigned” means something like their being part of NATO for ordinary times, for training purposes, maneuvers, and of course joint military operations if the situation should come to that, then this makes things easier. The question was whether units assigned to NATO could be taken out for purposes to which others are not parties.

The President said he understood that it was in the UK interest to define “assigned” as loosely as possible so as to satisfy British opinion with regard to an independent role, whereas from the point of view of the European countries there was advantage in making the work “as signed” [Page 1103] mean a firm commitment which would not be ignored except in moment of extreme national peril.

There followed some discussion with the Secretary of Defense about the distinction between forces which have been “assigned” and those which have been “earmarked for commitment to”. The Secretary of Defense said that “earmarked” was usually applied to sea forces, whereas the word “committed” was used for land forces. In any case there was no doubt that national forces which have been assigned to NATO can be withdrawn, with appropriate notice.

The Prime Minister then pulled a paper out of his pocket which he read out and which set forth the British position and reasoning on the question of a substitute for Skybolt.2 He went on to say that the situation now was that the US had agreed to sell Polaris missiles to the UK, which would construct the actual submarines and the warheads. He said that the primary task of these units would be to contribute to the defense of the NATO area. So the job to be done was to build them, make them available to NATO in all ordinary conditions, and meanwhile see if we could work out some kind of multilateral force. If the UK Government was going to assume these heavy new expenditures, it would have to be in a position to justify the decision to do so. The UK Government would have to explain that the UK was in a period of history between two worlds: the world of independence and the world of interdependence. If the UK was going to undertake this program it would have to have the feeling that it had gained, in the last resort, an instrument which it could use, in certain circumstances, to preserve peace, and in other circumstances perhaps as an instrument of national policy. He said that the UK needed just that degree of sovereignty which would justify making the added effort. If this element were not present, then the question would arise whether the effort was justified, since there were other ways of spending money for the UK Armed Forces, such as making them more mobile, better equipped, and giving them greater support.

The Prime Minister recalled that there had been cases in recent years when it had been necessary to move rapidly to preserve peace:

the UK forces had moved into Jordan while US forces had been sent to Lebanon;
the UK had had to move fast for the defense of the Gulf of Persia;
troops had recently been sent to put down the trouble in Malaysia.

What the UK Government needed was little, but this was “what is needed in order to remain something in the world”. This sentiment was shared by the French. The Prime Minister did not think that Germany [Page 1104] today entertained these sentiments. He thought the Germans were very different people now from what they were under Hitler. He thought that a phrase something like “the primary purpose of those forces would be to contribute to the defense of NATO” would be acceptable. He thought it might be healthy to have this kind of weapon available for special needs in other parts of the world, e.g., the Far East. Then there was the question of the morale of the crews. US submarine crews, for instance, on units assigned to NATO feel strong national loyalties. We would have to see whether and if so how a multilateral force could be created.

The President said that the US has had some rather serious disagreements with the French with respect to their nuclear role, in which the UK has not been involved. Our object is to make the force envisaged as multilateral as possible. We take the view, he said, that this proposal represents a substantial step. He said we do not discount possible difficulties with regard to French and German reaction. These missiles and submarines, said the President, should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies. The proposal has the advantage of saving the UK something like $800 million. We recognize that British national forces assigned to NATO could be taken back by the UK in extreme circumstances. The President thought that “ordinary conditions” should cover all situations that could be envisaged short of those which constituted “mortal danger” to the survival of the country.

Lord Home asked whether, if Nehru was in very great trouble, and the UK wanted to put three submarines in the Bay of Bengal, they would be entitled to do so. Mr. Ball said he had been impressed by the Prime Minister’s reference earlier in the morning to the situation in which the UK found itself in 1940. That was the kind of desperate situation which in our view would justify the withdrawal of the committed forces. Lord Home said there were other potential crises which should be considered. For example, Kuwait and the UK oil interests there.

The Prime Minister said it seemed to him that what we were saying was that it would be all right for the UK to withdraw its forces if it was a question of absolute survival, but that no situation short of this would justify their doing so. However, there were conceivable situations in which the UK would want to make policy by having Polaris at their disposal for national purposes. Otherwise, the British people might want to do something else with their money. The UK would be committing its entire force, whereas the US would retain a good deal of its Polaris forces outside of NATO. The Prime Minister referred to complications of giving submarines, which was far greater than in the case of aircraft and armies. Submarines would be spoken to but apparently must never answer back. He felt that a British Admiral of the fleet must be in the position of issuing commands to this particular fleet, otherwise the units [Page 1105] would “have no life of their own”. He added that there was no reason why the British Commander would not be part of a higher command, whether SACEUR or SACLANT.

The Secretary of Defense commented on the very heavy cost involved in the Polaris systems. He said the US and the UK would try not to duplicate overhead costs, and that the UK could share in use of the systems.

The President said that our language was intended to satisfy other members of NATO. After all, we are talking about 1970 for the force to come into being, whereas we are faced with the political requirements of the situation the next two or three years. He said that it was the US and not the UK which carried the responsibility for the situations with regard to France and a nuclear role.

The Prime Minister said he wanted to sum up where we now stood: the UK does not want to go on with Skybolt for the reasons given. Hound Dog would have been absolutely splendid, “were it not for the fact that it would mean practically re-designing the bombers”. The Prime Minister said he could see the difficulties facing the US, but if the UK were to acquire the Polaris submarines, it would put them entirely under NATO. The problem was what the word “assignment” really means. The value of the proposal to the UK would be if the British Government in power at the time were able to make use of the British element in the force, should the UK be faced by some national emergency which required its use. The Prime Minister drew a comparison with the US Sixth Fleet, or sending a cruiser or gunboat off to deal with some emergency situation. He said that the UK must reserve the ultimate right to withdraw from the force. The crews must feel that they are the “Queen’s sailors” until a supranational organization comes into being. The Prime Minister added that if General deGaulle were prepared to consider joining a multilateral force, he would undoubtedly say the same thing.

(At this point the meeting adjourned, after a brief discussion during which the President and the Prime Minister agreed to keep the Conference going until sometime Friday, December 21.)

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 65 D 533, CF 2209. Secret. Drafted and initialed by Tyler and approved by the White House on December 31. The meeting was held at the Prime Minister’s house.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. Not found.