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Why Britain Built Their Own Atomic Bomb History Essay

The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme started its origins from the Second World War. In 1941, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, allowed the Development of an atomic bomb following reports that showed it was scientifically feasible. [1] Britain’s efforts on developing nuclear weapons was progressing too slowly which therefore led in 1943 to a proposal from the British prime minister Winston Churchill and the US President Roosevelt that the British work should be subsumed into a larger joint effort – the Manhattan Project. Wartime UK-US nuclear collaboration was brought to an end by the 1946 US Energy Act (the McMahon Act). [2] During the beginning of the collaboration Churchill regarded the project as joint Anglo-American enterprise, which was located for obvious reasons in America, but was partaking of British scientific expertise much of the basic science leading towards tube alloys, after all had taken place in Britain, beginning with the initial research of the new Zealander Lord Rutherford at the university of Manchester around the turn of the century [3] . In the early days of American participation in the war, Roosevelt deferred to Churchill’s wishes. According to the prime minister’s memoirs he and the president agree to build the bomb in the United States but regard it as a joint project, a decision affirmed in a letter from sir john Anderson, Churchill’s senior adviser in the atomic project, to Vannevar Bush in august [4] . Anderson proposed developing a joint nuclear energy commission that could establish an Anglo-American monopoly over atomic energy production, and to coordinate a mutual policy for controlling atomic weaponry after the war. Secretary of war Stimson, alarmed by this news sought to persuade Roosevelt to rethink this position in October, reminding him that the United States was doing ninety percent of the work on the bomb [5] . Conant met with British envoy Wallace Akers in November and informed him that the United States would restrict scientific interchange on the atomic project, releasing to the British only the information relevant to their own research connected with the Manhattan effort, and nothing to do with post-war energy uses or other operations in which the British were not involved. When bush and Conant learned that the British had in September 1942 signed an agreement with the soviet union to share atomic technologies, they became even more determined to keep the British out at much as possible [6] .

So here we begin to learn why Britain had to forward it own plans without the American assistance in going forward with its nuclear programme, I believe Britain feared America going back into isolationism and even more worrying was that the soviets were developing their own atomic facilities so I believe this was a major factor in Britain putting forward its Nuclear plan, Labour prime minister Clement Attlee set up a committee shortly after the war which was known as the GEN 75 Committee which was known informally as the atomic bomb committee [7] . This was set up due to the McMahon Act of 1946 which restricted foreign access to nuclear technology. The committee did however encounter problems from the start Hugh Dalton and Sir Stafford Cripps wanted to not go ahead with the project because they believed the costs would be too high, but then believed they had to due to Britain’s prestige and also the massive boost to industry from the possibilities of atomic energy. A nuclear programme was then started in 1946 which was under control of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment [8] . It was given the role of producing the fissile material which was started with plutonium 239 which would then be used in a military programme. William Penney one of Britain’s Physicists who was a specialist in hydrodynamics was then forwarded the question in last 1946 to gather a report on the likelihood of being able to produce a weapon [9] . After being a member in the Manhattan project and being in the observation plane Big Stink which flew over Nagasaki he knew the damage assessment from the destruction caused by the bomb. His report concluded the decision to proceed which was in early 1947, at the meeting of the GEN 163 Committee which had a total of 6 cabinet members, where Clement Attlee was also present; Penney was then promoted and given the role of leading the programme [10] .

Britain’s nuclear activity during the cold war was worked with the united states which is why I believe they went on to develop their own weapons as they still wanted to be seen as a super power and take part on the world stage, Britain and America had devised a plan for Soviet union which was referred to as the “Moscow Criterion” which was Britain’s ability to strike back at the soviet union [11] . Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons I believe has been key for the governments in order to maintain diplomatic influences abroad; it also has generally seen support from the British public.

From 1948 onwards the US was basing nuclear capable bombers in Britain this was already showing the threat from the Soviet Union and that the US was not planning to trust them at all even though the US government was still on good terms with Stalin at this time. One of Churchill’s last political ambitions was to try and find a way with the soviet leaders after Stalin’s death in order to try and contain the hydrogen bomb which came to no success. In 1957 Britain managed to explode its first hydrogen bomb but this came with great difficulties and huge monetary costs which the government did not expect, however shortly after the testing’s of the weapons the US then pledged to provide full support to the British weapons programme [12] . Peter Hennessey describes in his studies of the British hydrogen bomb programme and that the main purpose in Harold Macmillan’s point of view was to actually show the Americans, how the British were a nuclear power that could help them rather than just being an independent weapon [13] . In 1958, the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) was officially signed, although little was known to the public about it. However it has been renewed periodically ever since. The MDA allows the US to provide Britain with nuclear arms designs, nuclear manufacturing abilities and nuclear reactor technology, designs and material. This was seen as a huge step forward for Britain after having signed the MDA it was sending a clear message to the Soviet Union that the US was willing to help share its advanced technologies and greatest assets with Britain [14] . Britain needed this assurance especially with the arms race build up which would lead even greater through the sixties. The December 1962 Nassau agreement to provide the UK with Polaris did provide the UK with missiles, submarine and reactor technology [15] . President Kennedy then forwarded an offer to the French leadership. The French made a speech rejecting the US offer of Polaris to France much to US dismay and vetoing British membership of the common market on the assumption that the British were under US Control. The two vital agreements made by Macmillan on US support (the MDA and Polaris) were made because Britain at the time could not act independently it was too weak at the time. The underlying facts has meant that even over time that no government has tried to change the actual groundwork of agreements which were established by MacMillan, More so over they have been making sure the US is actually renewing them.

The separate paths which were taken by the United States and Britain in the manufacture and organization of nuclear weapons began to change in the late 1950’. In the Suez crisis of October 1956 Britain realised it could not go against the States, Britain was then to step up cooperation [16] . This was strengthened even more by the Soviet launching of Sputnik. After a meeting between Eisenhower and Macmillan in London the British signed an agreement to have 15 missile bases in Britain [17] , this was seen as a great success but again the Soviets would of seen this as an act of aggression against them because the weapons were to have a range of fifteen hundred miles which was in range of striking soviet targets these would be used as ballistic missiles not the manned aircraft. This did cause unrest for the British public as opinion polls opposed creation on the nuclear bases on British soil. With the hosting of nuclear bases they believed you would be targeted by the soviet union yourselves, never the less the bases were built.

Another important factor for the British to build the atomic bomb at the time was the threat from Nazi Germany being at the time in 1942 being one of the leaders in the areas for researching it, however luckily the German government never did go on to fully to finance and develop the nuclear weapons. As the government had predicted would not be ready in time for use in the war. So the German programme was after all much more limited in capacity and ability when it was actually compared to the huge size of the Manhattan project. In 1945 US investigations under operation Alsos had found out that the German scientists under Heisenberg were getting closer, but still not quite there and were not at the point where the allies were in 1942 which was in fact the creation of a sustained nuclear reaction which could be used for either a power source or for nuclear weapons.

With the introduction of surface to air missiles in the 1950’s made flight over enemy territory a different story it was no longer an easy task to complete. Yet the air-force and most military commanders were still reluctant to move over to nuclear strike capability to missiles, which after launch were no longer under positive control, and were not able of being recalled or redirected, but were capable in reaching their targets within minutes of after launching. This was again another huge threat to Britain especially being a small island nation with the soviet union also being capable of being able to launch without the use of bombers it was a huge scare to the British government and another reason why they needed American re assurance. Still at the time in the 1950’s the inaccuracy of the missiles made them useless unless they were to attack areas such as cities as their precision systems were still not perfected. Initially, the western ballistic missiles would not even be able to reach targets such as command and control centres deep within the soviet land mass, and thus the potential integration with aircraft and the invulnerability of the ballistic missile was a very interesting prospect for the 1950’s military planners. For the British, the problem was a large matter of geography and there financial resources [18] . Fixed land based missile systems could be installed due to technically installed within the British Isles but they were well within range of soviet air strikes. The limited land meant that no matter they were to try and build a site it could easily be spotted which was not suitable. The use of American bases in Europe was also another huge factor to Britain needing its own Nuclear weapons this is because even with American arms in Europe with the possibility of a nuclear war the Soviet Union would be launching at Britain due to it being the most viable target, so the American bases for Britain could be seen as to hinder them and make them more of a target even if they were there for a counter act to the Soviet union.

There are many different reasons why Britain built its own atomic bomb another being the country was in serious problems after the war, and most of the industry was destroyed by the Nazi bombings. With the advancement in a nuclear programme there was the possibility of creating great wealth within the economy and the chance to get more jobs. Not only were there the possibilities of jobs but an actual civilian energy source from nuclear power possibly this could be seen as a huge possibility. However I believe one of its largest factors was that Britain was losing its role on the scene of being a superpower and a great power status [19] , the British government thought that with the production of a nuclear weapon they would be able to remain a great power. This approach I believe was most clearly summed up by Aneurin Bevan in 1957 the labour parties shadow foreign minister. Who was addressing labour members at their annual conference, he was opposing a resolution which said “labour would not test manufacture or go ahead with use of nuclear weapons”. Bevan said if the resolution was passed “Britain would go naked into the conference chamber”. [20] Britain he made a point had to retain its nuclear arsenal in order if it was to still have a say on the world scene in politics.

Another important reason for why the British were seen to build their own atomic bomb was the huge casualties suffered to their conventional forces the British army had lost a significant amount in its ground and air forces and some of it navy. However the huge costs in trying to rebuild equipment and training of an army for a country which was struggling economically at the time did not seem to be the best option at the time. Nuclear weapons could be seen to save British forces lives if it was needed. Britain does not have a large population on scale to the United States or the Soviet union they knew their conventional forces had no chance if the Soviet Union was ever to make an attack on Western Europe [21] the only feasible action was to head for Nuclear weapons and to make its relationship with the united states as close as possible.

So I believe there were many contributing factors as to why Britain built the atomic bomb, but I believe mainly with the loss of its conventional forces and the Soviet Union becoming more and more aggressive the threat of them having nuclear weapons was too much. With the Soviet Union being able to gather its arms and be in firing range from its satellite states I see why the British probably thought they had no other option than to go ahead with nuclear production, especially since that the soviet union was able to produce nuclear weapons by 1949 this would of even more intensified British efforts to secure nuclear arms with the threat from the Soviet union at this time being greater. Another huge contributing factor with Britain losing grasp over its empire and most of its army the pride of the British was going and their role on the main stage in politics this was a huge blow to the British governments and they each saw this as a opportunity to try and hold on to that power for longer via nuclear weapons if that was necessary. Britain still operates as a nuclear power and I believe it will continue to do so even with the huge rising costs of trident and the need for renewal especially with its commitments to NATO and the US. To bring this to a close I believe with the ending of the second world war and the huge threat of Europe falling to communism and the Soviet threat Britain saw no other option than to go ahead with its own Nuclear policy and try to create its own Nuclear arsenal.

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