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Atomic Energy (Anglo-American Arrangements)

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 22 March 1951

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4.0 p.m.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply to this debate will accept it from me that I mean nothing personal as regards himself when I say that the subject of the whole relationship, since 1945, between ourselves and the United States is a very sad and sorry one in respect of this vitally important matter of atomic energy.

To get this subject into its proper perspective we must remember that the main share in the basic work of nuclear fission has been a British share. Almost all the fundamental research was done by people who studied under Rutherford-Chadwick, Cockcroft, Walton and others—and their work was absolutely crucial for the whole development. Without going into the whole of the reports—and the Smyth Report and the White Paper are perfectly explicit upon the whole matter—I can say that it is clear that until 1941, although there was some important exchange of information between America and ourselves on the subject, we went forward with our atomic energy project and that, at the same time, America went forward with her atomic energy project.

Eventually, the decision was taken that we should pool the whole of our resources in relation to atomic energy. That decision was taken by the war-time Coalition Government. The effect of it was a plan whereby America would obtain the benefit of all our scientific resources. It was a plan to enable them to make, in America, the vast factories or furnaces for the production of atomic energy and, after that, the development of the bomb. That plan succeeded, but the effect of it was that we handed over to America a great national asset for the period of the war.

I shall not go back into all those matters in respect of which I got into a great deal of trouble in 1945, but I did give, on 30th October, 1945, certain details which had come to my knowledge on the subject of the agreement which was reached at Quebec between the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) and President Roosevelt, and which was entered into in September, 1943.

As a result of a speech which I made in 1945, the right hon. Member for Woodford made a speech, from which I should like to read a few words. He first referred to the speech which I had made and which, he said—I am reading his words—
"was immediately telegraphed to the United States and at the Press Conference the next day President Truman was questioned about it. A truncated report appeared in some of the newspapers … I have taken pains to verify the actual text of the answers which President Truman gave at his Press Conference on 31st October."
The right hon. Gentleman then quoted some of the questions and answers. The really vital sentence in what President Truman was reported to have said, was as follows:
"As nearly as I can find out, on the atom energy release programme, Great Britain. Canada and the United States are in equal partnership on its development, and Mr. Attlee is coming over here to discuss that phase of the situation with the President of the United States."
The right hon. Gentleman commented:
"It seems to me that that is a satisfactory statement of the whole position, and it affords an exceedingly good basis upon which the Prime Minister may begin any discussion he may wish to have with the President."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th November, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 1298–1299.]
It is also clear that under the terms of the agreement or understanding which was reached during the war, this country has a right to be consulted over the use of atomic bombs, because we are in equal partnership with the United States and Canada over the whole atomic energy programme — I am using President Truman's own words—which must clearly include decisions as to the use of the atomic bomb.

I recently wrote a letter to the Prime Minister asking him for an assurance that that relationship of equal partnership, which was admitted by President Truman in the passage to which I have referred, is still valid and subsisting today, but the Prime Minister is not prepared to answer that question. I am not for one moment trying to cause any difficulties whatever between the Americans and ourselves in this matter, but there are limits. It appears to me, upon the face of it, that the right which was acknowledged by President Truman in 1945 is no longer valid and subsisting.

I wish to refer to two statements. There was the statement by President Truman which partly led to the visit of the Prime Minister to the United States, and there was a recently reported statement by General Eisenhower. In neither case has it been made plain by the United States that we are in equal partnership with them over this matter, and that we have to be consulted and have a right to be consulted. It is perfectly clear—it has been admitted—that when the original decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was taken, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford was consulted by President Truman, which was a recognition of our right. Surely we ought to be in exactly the same position today. Surely we have not sunk to the position of a secondary Power, to be treated as just another member of the United Nations.

When asked about this, the Prime Minister said that he thought the United Nations ought to be consulted. But, independently of the United Nations, under that agreement this country had a right to be consulted. Has that right been lost or not? I now speak as an independent Member, and I am of the opinion that if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford had remained Prime Minister since 1945, that right would be valid and subsisting today.

In any event, this country has become the aircraft carrier of the Western world. By our agreement with the United States, we have on our shores American aircraft which, to the knowledge of everybody, are capable of carrying atomic bombs into the heart of the Soviet Union. The contribution which this country and the British Commonwealth and Empire have made and are making to the defence of the free world is second to the contribution of no other country in the world, and I say that both by our war-time right and by our present contribution to Western defence, we have the right still to be treated as equal partners by the United States of America over the whole matter; not merely on the ground of agreement but also on the ground of our contribution to the defence of Western Europe——

—and the hazards which the people of this country necessarily may have to undergo and the sacrifices which we are willing to make in the common cause. The people of this country will be the first targets in the event of the war which we all hope we shall be able to avoid. That is the sacrifice which we have been willing to make, and it appears to me that our relationship of equal partnership should be fully recognised.

But the matter is far worse even than that. The more one goes into it the worse it becomes. We have had no military or scientific observers at any atomic explosions conducted by the Americans since 1947. The atomic bomb is the supreme weapon in modern war. The right hon. Gentleman has said that it was the exclusive possession of the atomic bomb during the years 1945–50 which deterred the Soviet Union from aggression. That may or may not be so, but everybody will agree that exclusive possession of the atomic bomb was a profoundly important factor and that it is a supreme weapon in war.

How idiotic and absurd it is to found our Western defence upon an alleged full partnership between the free nations of the West and yet not to allow our military and scientific observers full access to information about the most important weapon in modern war. From the purely military point of view, it is utterly and completely indefensible. From the moral point of view it is equally indefensible, because we gave all that we had to the United States during the war to enable them to proceed with the atomic energy project.

From the point of view of deterring the Soviet Union, I say, once again, that it is equally absurd. Indeed, the present failure of the United States in this and other matters—such as the appointment of the Supreme Naval Commander of the Atlantic—to treat us as equal partners, is, in my view, wonderful Communist propaganda. The Communists are saying that the Americans seek to dominate the Western democracies and to make us play second fiddle to them. That is the Communist case.

Surely the great people and the great leaders of the United States—and I have the greatest possible respect, as have most people in this country, for President Truman—will be more generous and will realise that it is in their interests as well as in ours that we should be treated as equal partners. I wish to be absolutely fair on this. The main trouble lies with legislation passed by the Congress of the United States in 1947. This legislation, to some extent, fetters the hand of the President. It even prevents economic and commercial co-operation between this country and the U.S.A. There is a ban upon the export of important products and by-products of atomic energy from the United States, even where security considerations do not arise.

The reason for this 1947 ban was that we had some unfortunate cases of people, such as Professor Allen May who undoubtedly gave atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and it was felt by some people in America that this country was perhaps not as reliable as the United States. With the greatest good will to the Americans, I am bound to say that anyone who seriously studies this matter knows that Communist spies in the United States have numbered 10 for every one Communist spy in this country. Anybody who takes the slightest trouble to read the case of Alger Hiss, to read about Dexter White, Wadleigh, Whittaker, Chambers, and the rest, must realise that the extent of Communist espionage in the United States was far greater than it ever was in this country. The very man whom President Roosevelt called in at Yalta to be the legal adviser in relation to the Polish settlement and to negotiate with Stalin, was a man who, according to the evidence, was a secret member of the Communist Party at the time.

I feel sure, knowing the generous hearts of the Americans, that they must realise that this 1947 legislation is utterly unfair to us. Having spent a month in the United States discussing this matter with American scientists, having discussed it with many Americans of distinction, I have yet to come across an American who does not think this is unfair to the people of Britain. After all we have done, it is both unfair and contrary to morality. It is contrary to the agreement. It is contrary to common sense. Therefore, I hope very much that the right hon. Gentleman, while I appreciate that he cannot say much in public, will see that this matter is raised at the earliest possible opportunity at the highest level.

One final general point. It is perhaps the main trouble of the peoples of the Western world that we do not believe sufficiently in ourselves, whereas the Communists certainly believe in themselves. The trouble with us, in many cases, is that we do not stand up sufficiently for ourselves throughout the world. The British Commonwealth and Empire today still remains the only Power which has interests and communications all over the world. We would be utterly unjustified in accepting a position of secondary importance to the United States of America, whose people are our natural cousins, our natural Allies, and the other section of the English-speaking people. It must be a relationship of equal partnership on this matter such as was recognised by President Truman himself.

I ask the Government to take immediate steps to see that our right to the fullest consultation over the use of the atomic bomb and over the development of atomic energy is recognised by the United States, and that we obtain immediately the fullest information on all economic and scientific subjects so that we may be equal partners in defence.

4.15 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn) for hurrying through his speech on this most important matter, especially as he knew I was going to take my right to extend the scope of the discussion to the broader issue of international control. The only possible criticism I have to make of the hon. Member's speech is that to discuss the matter on the somewhat narrow limit of our relationship with the United States might make it appear as though we considered it inevitable that we could never secure agreement with the Soviet.

One can only discuss the matter of atomic energy and production and control in the context of general disarmament Indeed, if I may quote the remarks of Mr. Representative Vorys, he said that if Russia were to agree to the outlawry of the atomic bomb, the Americans would be giving up the only possible weapon they have against mass armies and mass conscription. The weaknesses of the original Baruch plan are, indeed, weaknesses of the United Nations Charter, for if any country were attacked by means of the atomic bomb, it would, in fact, be annihilated to the point where the procedure for collective action under the existing United Nations Charter would be far too late.

The three fundamental weaknesses of the Baruch plan were, in my view, these: First, the international inspection of atomic plants, if challenged by any individual nation, would be the signal for war by the so-called conventional weapons. Secondly, it is impossible to secure a strategic balance of atomic plants. One has only to consider the alignment of the Commonwealth and America against, possibly, Russia to realise that we cannot have a strategic balance of three equal parts in that context. Thirdly, the industrial and technical capacity of any individual nation will govern the speed at which plant for the production of atomic energy can be converted to plant capable of producing atomic bombs.

In this whole matter we must consider that the existing United Nations Charter, controlling an assembly of individual sovereign States, cannot possibly be father to any plan for the international control of atomic energy and atomic bomb production. I should like to quote this significant extract from a letter from Bernard Baruch to Mr. Representative Vorys, which seems to me to indicate that even when he was producing his plan he did not really have much faith in it. In a letter of 2nd August, 1946, he wrote:
"Just outlawing the atomic bomb will not get us anywhere. Too many people were killed in the war without the atomic bomb. We must outlaw war itself, and that can be done by placing in the constitution of each country the pledge that it will not go to war."
Many people say that it is just a crowd of starry-eyed idealists who talk about world government. I see the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) sitting opposite me. I have never addressed a question to him before—I consider myself far too humble a Member of this House—but I do so now. I wish that the right hon. Gentleman would lend his energy and his great distinction to furthering the idea of amending the United Nations Charter in order to secure world government and to produce some sort of instrument which would permit the possibility of producing international control of atomic energy.

4.20 p.m.

I did hope that on some occasion the House would have the opportunity, at some time other than the eve of a Recess, to discuss not only the technical details of this matter, but its moral implications. I agree with the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn), who opened the debate, that not only does it appear but it is a fact that we are taking a secondary place vis-à-visthe United States as far as the use of the atomic bomb is concerned. I have not the time to look up the quotation, but, if memory serves aright, I believe that when the Prime Minister came back from Washington after his visit to President Truman, the House was given an assurance that we would be consulted if there was any thought of using the atomic bomb.

I think that at this period of civilisation Bertrand Russell's three propositions are worthy of consideration. The United States, Soviet Russia and the British Commonwealth have a duty to civilisation at this climacteric in the history of man—to use a phrase of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill)—to get together, and they must do so. I believe Russell was right, and that we are faced with the possibility either of (1) the end of human life, or (2) reversion to barbarism in Western Europe, or (3) the unification of the world under world government. That is the point on which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow).

I believe the scientists have a moral duty to mankind. I believe the scientists should not be used by politicians or statesmen, no matter how brilliant they are, in keeping so-called nuclear fission secrets. These should be handed on, and I am sure that if civilisation goes on like this both in the United States and here, those secrets will be handed out by men who think they are morally right. It is no good dubbing men Communists because they believe that this is a moral sin against civilisation.

The biological hazards of atomic energy have never been given to the world. At a recent conference at Oxford, the details of which time prevents me from discussing, it was said that it is known that there are possibilities of altering the whole genetical development of mankind. I hope that some day, some men, whether scientists or not, will have the courage to unload these secrets on society. We have a duty to the miners working in uranium mines and with other dangerous commodities. No one knows the injuries those men suffer in the backward areas, and civilised men must not exploit for war, people in the backward areas. I hope that, in agreement with America, an effort will be made to make a rapprochement with the U.S.S.R. on this Satanic weapon of war.

4.22 p.m.

I think the House will appreciate that in the time available I cannot possibly enter into all the aspects of this very important subject which have been raised. Moreover it is perhaps a good deal more difficult for me to express opinions on the matter than it was for the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn). I think the most useful thing I can do is to try to explain as factually as possible the position on the issues the hon. Member raised.

During the war, as the House knows, there was a partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom for the development of the atomic weapon and by agreement between the two Governments their efforts, and particularly the actual making of the bomb, were concentrated in North America, for strategic and other reasons. It was natural, indeed inevitable, that during the war the actual manufacture of the new weapon should take place in North America, which was distant from the actual scene of operations and where the resources for rapid development were immeasurably superior to those in this country. The development which took place during the war was in practice a tripartite undertaking. Canada made an outstanding contribution to the joint effort and has since carried out an atomic energy programme with marked success.

By agreement between the three Governments, the nature of the war-time arrangements has never been revealed on grounds of public policy. The House will recall that on 30th January my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated that he would inquire from the United States Government whether they considered that the war-time agreement should now be made public. The United States Government have been consulted in the matter and have informed us that they share the view of His Majesty's Government and could not agree to the publication of the agreement at the present time. This is not, as the House will appreciate, a matter in which His Majesty's Government can act alone, and publication can take place only if both parties to the agreement are prepared to permit it.

The hon. Gentleman was not quite clear. He implied that His Majesty's Government also did not want publication of this agreement. If they did not want it, why did they approach the United States Government? I was not quite clear whether His Majesty's Government wanted or did not want publication. The hon. Gentleman did not make that point clear.

I think that it was made clear on a previous occasion that the Government were reluctant to publish; but in view of the wishes expressed, they consulted their colleagues and found that the United States Government were equally of the opinion that it should not be published. So far as we were concerned, that concluded the matter.

During the war the British effort, in terms of manpower, was deployed in the United States and in Canada. Our scientists and experts, working in close collaboration with the Canadian and American experts, supplied, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the initial impulse and contributed in no small measure to the successful development of atomic weapons. At the same time they gained much valuable experience and knowledge in return. But this experience and knowledge could not be turned quickly to account after the end of the war. The diversion of our scientific resources to North America under the terms of the war-time agreement meant that facilities for production in this field were not developed in the United Kingdom.

The policy of concentrating actual production and development in North America was, as is well known, one which was initiated by the present Leader of the Opposition, whom I am glad to see present. It is not, of course, a criticism of that policy to say that one cannot have it both ways. When, by a deliberate act of policy, one concentrates one's production resources in one area, one inevitably retards development elsewhere. It takes time to create the highly complicated facilities required for the production of atomic energy.

Since the end of the war, however, there has been rapid and successful development in the United Kingdom atomic energy programme. It is, of course, true that, quite apart from the lead gained by the United States during the war years in production facilities, our resources cannot be compared with those of the United States of America; but within the limits imposed by practical possibilities we have achieved certain remarkable technical advances. As regards the atomic weapon itself, as distinct from developments in other directions of this field, we have advanced further than the country has been led to believe by certain statements that have been made. It is incorrect to say, for example, as has been said, that we do not even know how to make the atomic bomb or indeed have made no progress. It would not be in the public interest, however, to say more on these points at the present time or to give details——

I said that President Truman admitted specifically in 1945 that we were in full possession of the knowledge of how to produce the atomic bomb. That point has never been raised.

I have asked about this, and I have been informed that these statements have been made. I was careful not to say that they were made in the House; I do not think they were. It is true that co-operation between the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America on atomic energy matters is not now regulated by a formal agreement. The position of the United States Administration in many of these matters is, as the hon. Gentleman said, now governed by legislation, in particular by the Atomic Energy Act, 1946, commonly known as the MacMahon Act. The war-time arrangements have been modified accordingly.

So far as the question of United Kingdom observers at United States bomb tests is concerned, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence informed the House, on 14th February last, that it has not been the practice of the United States Government since the passage of that Act to admit non-American observers to atomic energy tests. Nevertheless, as has been announced, the tripartite partnership between ourselves, the United States of America, and Canada continues for certain purposes in the atomic energy field, and we co-operate with those countries under arrangements made from time to time by the Combined Policy Committee which was set up in 1943 by the three Governments, and which meets periodically in Washington.

His Majesty's Government are naturally ready at all times to examine with the United States of America the possibility of extending the area of co-operation in the atomic energy field, and the United States Government are fully aware of our readiness to do so. In this connection, I should like to draw attention to a statement that Mr. Gordon Dean, Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, made at a Press Conference on 2nd January, that he was crystallising certain recommendations for a modification of the atomic energy law that would allow the Atomic Energy Commission a rather wider discretion to exchange information and materials with Canada and the United Kingdom, and that he expected to submit these recommendations to Congress in the near future.

This is not an easy subject to discuss in public debate. The secrets of atomic energy, whether they are exploited for civil or for military purposes, are immensely important to those who possess them, and they could be immensely dangerous in the hands of Powers who could not be trusted not to abuse them. It is inevitable, therefore, that the subject should be handled by Governments with the greatest reticence, and security considerations have to be given exceptional weight. T hope the House will accept my assurance that the Government give very close attention to the whole matter and fully recognise its importance.

4.32 p.m.

This is a very grave matter, and is certainly one unsuitable to a few moments' debate or discussion. The discussion which we have had this afternoon has not, I think, shed any new light upon the subject at all; nothing new has been said upon the matter. It was raised in the House by the hon. Member for Northfield (Mr. Blackburn), who is a law unto himself and enjoys a perfect independence, five years ago—nearly six years ago now. He then made a number of statements, which can be read in HANSARD, and I was surprised at the knowledge that he possessed. I took part in the debate, and again a little later, and I said then what I say today, that no publication of the wartime agreement could be made by us without the assent of the United States. That is the position. It was an agreement between President Roosevelt and myself, and unless there is agreement by the United States Government for its publication we are absolutely bound.

Five years have passed, and matters that perhaps, in 1945, stood in one light, stand in a somewhat different light now after five years, which is a long time in this changing world. I am bound to say that I thought that the war-time agreement of 1943 had passed out of current events into history. I also thought that it would do us no harm to have it published. But I stand completely by the fact that we cannot do so without the approval of the United States, and I should not press the Government in any circumstances to do it without the approval of the United States.

The Prime Minister said that he would ask the United States. I have no knowledge of the form which his communications take, but we have been told today that they disagree and do not wish that the agreement should be published. That being so, I personally feel that we are bound to defer to their wishes, because agreements made between two Powers ought not to be made public while they remain on close and, I trust, on ever-growing friendly terms, without the assent of both. That is where I think we must leave the matter this afternoon.