406. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Skybolt


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

The Prime Minister recapitulated the UK intentions:

The US Government has very generously made an offer on both Skybolt and Hound Dog.
The UK Government has raised the question of Polaris. The Prime Minister agreed that this was not merely a substitute for Skybolt. It represented something new which marks the opening of a fresh phase in US-UK relationships.
The world has moved on. France is now strong. Germany has a weak government with ambitions.
We are considering organizing a contributory NATO structure, whereby several countries put something into the pool.

“Actually”, said the Prime Minister, “the whole thing is ridiculous.” What do seven or eight UK units add to the existing nuclear strength, which is enough to blow up the world? So why does the UK want it? It is partly a question of keeping up with the Joneses”, which is human. We have not yet reached the point of a melting pot of nations. So countries which have played a great role in history must retain their dignity. This area is not merely a question of difference of degree, but of order. The UK does not want to be just a clown, or a satellite. The UK wants a nuclear force not only for defense, but in the event of menace to its existence, which the UK might have to meet; for example: when Khrushchev waved his rockets about the time of Suez, or when that fellow Qassim got excited and Kuwait was threatened. The UK, the Prime Minister went on to say, wants to do three things: to contribute to NATO, to contribute to the strength and unity of Europe, and to retain [Page 1110] an element of strength in its foreign policy in order to maintain the valuation given by other countries to the UK’s advice. It was difficult to define what was meant by “withdrawal”. You could talk about “dire emergency”, but what was meant by “dire” and how much of an emergency would it have to be? It was right, he said, that we should not alarm the Germans or the French—particularly the Germans. We should promote the European concept. It was also necessary that the UK should not have the status of a satellite. The UK should increase or at least maintain the strength of its foreign policy, so that it should not be threatened with impunity. He felt that it was necessary to find language which would take the foregoing into account. The matter under discussion was very serious for the UK, and would be much debated. It would set the tone for the next 15 years. For these reasons, said the Prime Minister, he has asked the Deputy Prime Minister in London to call a Cabinet meeting for Friday, December 21, at 10:30 a.m. Thus there would be a Cabinet decision. He thought it would be useful to hold a drafting session to work out language.

The President agreed that the solution being discussed was, and would be regarded as being a very different question from Skybolt. The US did not want to have similar requests addressed to it, which it would have to refuse. Careful drafting would be necessary. With reference to Kuwait, doubtless the UK Government in power in 1970 would have to decide whether it was still a live issue. He assumed that the UK did not have the intention of using nuclear weapons against Qassim.

Turning to the question of what answer the Prime Minister should give to questions in the House of Commons, this matter would have to be carefully considered. The President said we would have to put something into the agreement on the need to increase conventional forces. So long as Berlin existed as a problem, there was danger of war. He felt that the extra costs involved in building nuclear submarines should not be at the expense of pressing forward toward conventional goals. (At this point, both Lord Home and Mr. Thorneycroft referred to the language in the recent NATO communiqué on conventional forces and suggested that this be used.) The President said the language reached should be such that both countries could defend it. It should include the thought that, having talked together about a multilateral force, both the US and the UK wanted to make such a force a reality. We must not make the multilateral project a mere cover for national deterrents. There was the question of what the Prime Minister should answer to questions in Parliament.

The Prime Minister said he did not like the idea of defining a precise text. He would prefer just to say that the UK force was assigned to NATO. The Prime Minister went on to say that they were talking about a very long time ahead. He suggested making a start by pooling some of [Page 1111] the bombers and other aircraft of the US, the UK and France. Thus the multilateral force “would grow naturally, as though from a seed”. “Let us do it now, he said, and build up on it.”

The President said that pooling bombers might be a good idea, but asked what would the Prime Minister say in answer to questions.

The Prime Minister said this was a hypothetical question. The bombers, then the submarines, would be put into the multilateral force. “Of course”, he said, “in the last resort you may be forced to pick up your stick and fight.” Moreover, officers of Her Majesty’s Navy would expect to take orders from a minister of the UK Government. The President asked the Prime Minister what he would say if people asked whether the UK was retaining an independent deterrent. The Prime Minister said he would say that the UK was making an independent British contribution to the nuclear defense of the West. The President noted that the emphasis was on the words “British contribution”, rather than on “independent deterrent”. (At this point the Prime Minister distributed a paper with some language.)

The President said that if deGualle were to ask whether the US was prepared to make the same offer to him as to the UK we should say “yes”. Of course, he might object to a proposal of this kind. (There followed some discussion of the language proposed by the Prime Minister, and it was decided to recess for one-half hour in order that each Delegation should be able to discuss separately the situation which had been reached.)

The meeting reconvened at 12:00 noon. The Prime Minister objected that the US language went too far in reasserting the very points that had caused him so much anxiety. It did not give him what he needed, which was: “a British force.” He insisted that he would have to use the words “supreme national interest.” At that point, the President read part of an article in that morning’s Washington Post to illustrate the difficulties he faced with regard to American domestic opinion. The Prime Minister raised again the three desiderata from the UK point of view: (1) to make a contribution to NATO for joint defense; (2) to give the UK Government authority in international councils; (3) to retain the means of wielding influence in international diplomatic life.

Obviously, said the Prime Minister, he could not say that the British force envisaged would be as British as the Brigade of Guards, but if all this effort and expense were to be borne, it must mean to the British people that they were thereby keeping up with the Joneses. He was sorry, but he could not accept the US paper as it stood. If the US insisted on keeping this language, he would prefer not to agree. It would look as though the US only wanted, “to keep the little boys quiet.” DeGaulle would say that the UK had sold out. The Prime Minister said he intended to stress both independence and interdependence together. The [Page 1112] UK was prepared to put the whole force into the pool. The language he had in mind was such as to give the UK Government a “life, and existence” so that it is not merely a client. “I do not believe”, he said, “that the Atlantic partnership will ever succeed or be built up except on pooling of equal pride and honor.”

The Prime Minister then engaged in a long soliloquy of reminiscences of World Wars I and II. The British troops which had died had done so for their Sovereign, not for just some vague reason which meant nothing to them. He agreed that the force contemplated could be a joint navy for practical purposes, but the British contribution must be the Queen’s. In the recent Cuban crisis, he said, the population of the US knew why it was prepared to face war if necessary. These thoughts must be taken into consideration in the agreement which we were trying to reach. If we were to disagree, “we would have to undertake an agonizing reappraisal of our military and political policies.”

The President said it was clear that we had somewhat different interests with regard to what should be said after our meeting in Nassau. US policy has constantly been directed toward discrediting national nuclear deterrents, and it was not possible for the US to start saying the opposite.

The meeting broke up at about 1:00 p.m. for further consideration of the language proposed by each Delegation.1

  1. Source: Department of State, Conference Files: Lot 66 D110, CF 2217. Secret. Drafted by Tyler and approved by the White House on December 31.
  2. In subsequent meetings on December 20 and 21 the President and the Prime Minister discussed the Sino-Indian border dispute, the Congo, Yemen, nuclear proliferation, and Japan while members of each delegation drafted the final communiqué and the statement on nuclear defense systems. Memoranda of the President’s conversations are ibid.; for texts of the communiqué and statement, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1962, pp. 633–637.