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Accidental War

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 10 May 1961

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asked the Minister of Defence if he will order an inquiry to be made into the dangers of accidental war, in view of the increasing evidence that they now constitute a major possible cause of nuclear war.


asked the Minister of Defence what consideration has been given to the special measures necessary to prevent a third world war starting by accident or by the misinterpretation of a signal or a situation.

As the House has been assured on many occasions, we take the most stringent precautions against any accident or miscalculation which could lead to accidental war. These are kept under review and no special inquiry is necessary.

Is the Minister aware that about a month ago the United States Secretary of Defence, Mr. McNamara ordered a special inquiry to be made in America into the ways in which the accidental causes of war might be reduced, and into the basic policy in relation to both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons? Since Britain intends to have her own nuclear force, would it not be as well to follow the American example?

I had the advantage of having discussions with Mr. McNamara in Washington recently, but I am not prepared to say what we discussed.

Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that this danger exists and will be enormously increased if forty-five Polaris submarines are roaming the seas, or if nuclear weapons are placed in advanced positions in Germany?

I do not admit that this danger exists, in the sense that the hon. Member puts it, because, as most people who have studied the matter carefully admit, the Polaris weapon is a second strike weapon which is much safer, and this greatly decreases the chances of an accidental war.

In that case is there not a powerful case for getting rid of the first strike weapons, such as the Thor missile?

The right hon. Gentleman has his time tenses a little mixed. Thor is a perfectly valid contribution to the deterrent now. It may not be so in a few years' time.

If no conceivable danger of the possibility of an accidental war arising exists, can the Minister say why, after his conversations with Mr. McNamara, he has ordered an inquiry into the matter?

Is it the Minister's policy that, while allowing complete political control over nuclear bases, and of weapons operating from nuclear bases in this country, to be in the hands of the American Government, we should also leave the question of the reduction of the causes of accidental war to the Americans?

Not at all. I said in my original Answer, if the hon. Lady will study it, that this matter is kept under the most careful and detailed examination. The warning systems that we use, as a whole, include a wide range of built-in checks, and I consider that those checks are satisfactory.