U.S.-U.K. Nuclear Weapons Cooperation and the British Veto
March 4, 2012 • 9:57AM

A consistent theme running throughout the decades-long history of U.S.-British nuclear cooperation has been the British insistence on having a veto over U.S. nuclear weapons use, while not allowing their own arsenal to be subject by a similar U.S. veto. As far back as the 1943 Quebec Agreement, the British were demanding a veto over use of the bomb by the U.S. against third countries, but in order to get that veto in 1943, the agreement specified that the U.S. would dictate to the British any post-war arrangements regarding industrial or commercial development of atomic power, a specification that the British clearly didn't like. "Ironically enough, when we were ready to drop the bombs on Japan, the British acquiesced in our doing so even before Alamagordo," Gordon Arneson, a State Department official during much of the Truman years who was involved in negotiations on atomic matters with the British, told an interviewer in 1989. "They gave their consent on the Fourth of July!" The first test of the atomic bomb took place at Alamagordo, New Mexico on July 16, already 12 days after the British approved the bombing of Japan.

When the terms of the Quebec agreement were publicly revealed in 1947, the British veto caused a firestorm in Congress leading to efforts to abrogate it, which wasn't hard, because it wasn't a treaty anyway. "Several members walked out [of the hearing of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee at which Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson testifed on the Quebec Agreement] at the very thought that we'd have to ask anybody's permission to use these weapons," reported Arneson. "Actually the Committee's reaction gave quite an impetus to the negotiations. We accomplished four objectives. We abolished the veto proviso; we abolished British dependence on us for their future industrial and commercial use. For 1948 and '49 we received all the ore from the Belgian Congo, and the British received none."

All of this began to change after the start of the Korean War, however. In December 1950, Harry Truman made a comment that was interpreted by the press as suggesting that he was considering the use of atomic bombs against China, after the Chinese intervention in Korea. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee hurriedly flew to Washington for five days of summit meetings with Truman, who fell all over himself to assure Attlee that, not only was he not considering use of the bomb against China, but that he wouldn't even consider any use of the atomic bomb without consulting with the British government. This appears to have been on the advice of Acheson, who recommended to the president before one of his discussions with Attlee, that he stress the U.S. "desire" to act "in step" with the British. "The President stated that it was his hope that world conditions would never call for the use of the atomic bomb," read the communiqué of Dec. 8, 1950. "The President also told the Prime Minister that it was also his desire to keep the Prime Minister at all times informed of developments which might bring about a change in the situation." The theory was tested by Winston Churchill, who had returned to power in 1951, when he demanded assurances in June 1952 that the U.S. was not contemplating the use of atomic bombs against a power plant on the Yalu River. Truman wasted no time providing that assurance.

Until 1958, most discussions between the U.S. and Britain relating to the use of nuclear weapons involved the stationing of U.S. weapons at U.S. bases in Britain or on naval vessels operating in British waters. As we have previously reported (see the Feb. 22 bfg) the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement came about essentially when the British demanded a bribe to support President Eisenhower's nuclear reduction efforts. The British government of Harold Macmillan basically told Eisenhower, we'll support your disarmament proposals at the UN, but you have to help us maintain our arsenal by giving us what we would lose by no longer being able to test our weapons. The British followed this up with a proposal to the Soviets that they knew the Soviets could not accept. On Nov. 18, 1958, Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd informed the cabinet that in discussions between the U.S., the Soviet Union and the U.K., "the U.S. delegation were anxious to ensure that any agreement of suspension of tests would be conditional both on the establishment of an organization to control the execution of the agreement itself and on the adoption of measures for progressive disarmament in general." Public opinion, Lloyd said, would accept this formulation. "We were therefore seeking to concentrate discussions on this latter point and to compel the Soviet delegation to declare whether they shared our view that the validity of an agreement for suspension of nuclear tests should be dependent on the establishment of an organization for inspection and control. It was unlikely, on balance, that they would be prepared to accept this stipulation."

As a result of the 1958 agreement, the British effectively lost the ability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons completely on their own, but retained the veto over U.S. use. In early 1961, the British demanded, and got from newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy, agreement that while the U.S. must consult with Britain on all U.S. nuclear weapons forward deployed in Britain, British nuclear weapons on British bombers were specifically excluded from such consultations. The 1961 agreement also affirmed, more generally, that the U.S. "will consult with [the British] before using nuclear weapons anywhere, if possible." Even though, today, the British nuclear arsenal could not exist without U.S. technical support (this is freely admitted in the annual reports of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston), the U.K. reserves the right to use its own arsenal in cases of an "extreme" threat to the British homeland, though no one can describe what such a threat might be.