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Nuclear Tests (Foreign Ministers' Meeting)

Volume 655: debated on Monday 5 March 1962

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The House will have read the announcement about nuclear tests made by the President of the United States on Friday evening, 2nd March. This followed close and intimate consultation between the British and the United States Governments.

Last autumn, after the massive Russian tests, the President and I made statements in very similar terms as to the conditions which we would observe in deciding whether new tests by the West were necessary on military grounds.

At our Bermuda meeting, in December, we discussed this subject at length, and issued a communiqué in the following terms:
"The President and the Prime Minister … agreed that it is now necessary, as a matter of prudent planning for the future, that pending the final decision preparations should be made for atmospheric testing to maintain the effectiveness of the deterrent.
"Meanwhile, they continue to believe that no task is more urgent than the search for paths toward effective disarmament, and they pledge themselves to intensive and continued efforts in this direction."
We have adhered strictly to the letter and the spirit of both parts of this communiqué. It has become increasingly clear that while we may to some extent discount the claims which Soviet leaders have made for the military effects of their tests, we cannot ignore them altogether. The Russians have certainly acquired from their tests much useful information, on which further development is now being pressed forward with all the vast resources of the Communist empire, and it may be that these developments include significant advances in defence capability.

The President and I have, therefore, been forced to the conclusion that we now face a potential threat to the deterrent power of the Western strategic armoury. We understand the formidable practical problems of devising a defence against missiles: yet, whilst the arms race continues, we dare not fall behind in the struggle between offensive and defensive capabilities with their increasingly complex systems of decoys, counter-measures and all the rest. To wait until one was certain that the Russians had made significant advances in this or any other field of nuclear development would be clearly to wait until it was too late to restore the balance of the deterrent on which the defence of the free world rests. This new series of tests, must, therefore, however regretfully, be started. They will be as limited as possible in size and will amount to only a small proportion of the recent Russian tests in explosive power.

As I told the House on 8th February, the British Government view with deep distress the prospect of a renewed rivalry in nuclear tests. I made this very clear to the President at Bermuda and he entirely agreed with me. I think that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition described President Kennedy as a reluctant tester. This is, indeed, clear from his words when, on 2nd March, he described the tests as "grim and unwelcome".

It was for that reason that after studying the matter on a purely technical and military basis, we spent so much effort in trying to devise some new approach on the political side. On 8th February, I described to the House the proposal which the President and I had jointly made as a result of our full discussions. We still think it to be a very practical one. Among other proposals we urged that before the meeting of the 18-Power Committee, representatives of Britain, the United States and Russia—the Foreign Ministers and their staffs—should meet together and lay the foundations for some arrangement to call a halt to the nuclear arms race. To this offer Mr. Khrushchev's original counter-proposals made no direct reply. But we remain ready to discuss this question. Our offer to do so is repeated in the President's statement. This is not an ultimatum, but a sincere and genuine appeal.

This is a bleak dilemma which we have had to face. Yet I do not see how any President of the United States who carries the main burden for the future defence of the West, or any British Government which carries some part of the responsibility, could have reached any other conclusion. There are still several weeks, nearly two months, before this programme of tests is due to begin.

I have just received a note from Mr. Khrushchev which states that he is now broadly agreed to the procedure which the President and I proposed on 8th February. We suggested that the 18-Power conference should comprise, in the first stage, the Foreign Ministers of the countries concerned. Mr. Khrushchev has now accepted this. He has also agreed that the Foreign Ministers of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union should meet in Geneva as we had proposed a few days before the conference meets. While Mr. Khrushchev does not indicate in his letter to me that the draft treaty of April, 1961, is acceptable to the Soviet Government, I hope that the progress made on this aspect of disarmament will be such as to make it possible for President Kennedy and myself to meet Mr. Khrushchev in Geneva to conclude the final stages of a treaty to ban nuclear tests.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the information which he has just given that Mr. Khrushchev has accepted the proposal that the Foreign Ministers should meet in Geneva before the conference begins will be warmly welcomed on both sides of the House? Following that up, may I ask the Prime Minister whether the Americans and ourselves are sticking firmly to the draft treaty of April, 1961, or whether they propose to put forward new suggestions which are somewhat more flexible than that treaty for a ban on nuclear tests?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question. I think that he is right in saying that there is a general sense that new hope may come from this new communiqué.

With regard to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, we think—and we worked hard on it—that the draft treaty of April, 1961, is a reasonable basis for discussion. But we are, of course, prepared to consider any proposals which can help to make it acceptable. We have already made such suggestions to the United States Government, and they to us, and we are considering those. The only thing that is necessary is to provide for some system of international verification.

I think that most of us at least would agree on the necessity for some system of international verification, to quote the Prime Minister's words. Could the right hon. Gentleman be a little more precise? Is it the intention of the American and British Governments to put forward modified proposals when the Foreign Ministers meet Mr. Gromyko at Geneva on 11th March?

I think that we had better take the treaty as a basis for discussion. I am quite sure that by then, our representatives, both British and American, will be armed with powers either to make or to accept proposals within the general ambit of our joint purpose.

Can the Prime Minister tell us why it was necessary to make this announcement about further tests only five weeks before the disarmament meeting? Would it not have been better to have left the decision and the announcement in order to see how the conference works out? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the British tests in Nevada are concerned with counter-missile missiles?

I have nothing to add to what I have already said about the British tests at Nevada.

On security grounds, I am not prepared to describe their precise character.

With regard to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, it is, of course, arguable that we should have waited. I do not, however, think that it would have been very proper to have made this announcement at any date between 14th March and 1st June, because that would not have been very suitable. Therefore, there is a great deal to be said for making the announcement now. The fact that we are still to have the meeting, and under what, I hope, are better auspices, shows that that judgment was a correct one.

With regard to delay, I would only say this, and I have said it before. I think that successive American Governments have been patient. I remember certainly two occasions on which I pleaded with a former President—President Eisenhower—to hold his hand and to continue the voluntary unofficial moratorium, when, I am bound to say, his advisers were taking a rather different attitude. This lasted for three years and it was quite clear from what happened at the end of the three years that the tremendous massive test was being prepared during that time. I therefore think that there is a point at which—it is a matter of judgment—we are more likely, perhaps, to get results by this method; and I still hope that we shall get results.

The right hon. Gentleman has just said, in reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party, that he declines to disclose any information on further details of this test, but did he not, in his original statement, refer to the atmospheric test proposed to take place on Christmas Island as being a contribution to defence against missiles? I think that is what the right hon. Gentleman said. Does that apply to the Nevada test? Are we to understand that the Nevada test will be a contribution to defence against missiles, or is it for some other reason?

No, Sir. I said on 31st October and made it very clear—and I will not quote all the words—that I drew a great distinction between underground and atmospheric testing, that the great feeling in the world was to get rid of them all but that the great danger was the atmospheric testing. I said that the President and I would only have regard to the need for atmospheric testing if it was justified by the kind of military danger which I described-missile, anti-missile, counter-missile and counter-anti-missile. The Nevada underground test is another matter. The danger from fall-out—if there is any—in particuler tests comes from atmospheric testing. The test is part of a series of tests which the Americans and ourselves have carried out for the general purpose of the improvement of weapons.

Since this is a matter of vital importance, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is to ask the House of Commons to support him by a definite Motion? Is he aware that many people here want to show their discontent with this statement? Has not the House of Commons the right to pass its judgment on this? Since the right hon. Gentleman described the Russian tests as brutal and cynical, and used every other kind of objective, will he tell the House how he can possibly defend these tests without committing himself to a charge of blatant hypocrisy?

On the second part of the hon. Member's supplementary question, I said, and I repeat, that after three years' voluntary moratorium it seemed to us that that massive series of tests, clearly prepared during that period, was a somewhat cynical approach to the problem.

As to the first part of the hon. Member's question, if a Motion is put down against what the Government have decided I would be very glad to try to defend it.

Does the Prime Minister realise that, whatever may be the proprieties of a premature disclosure of the nature he has made to us today, anxious people all over the world are grateful that at least we have some limited measure of agreement with Mr. Khrushchev?

In view of the need for restraint and the unimaginable consequences if things go wrong at Geneva, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he would consider discussing with President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev the possibility again of a voluntary ban on testing, not just for the two months which America has announced but until an effective test ban agreement has been signed by all the nuclear Powers? Would not that enable discussion in Geneva to proceed in an atmosphere free from the threat of resumed tests?

I do not wish to add to any difficulties there are and I would rather hope to rest on what satisfaction we may take, which is considerable, from Mr. Khrushchev's reply to my letter. I can only say that I think that events have shown that a voluntary ban without any kind of organisation to watch it, umpire it, test it, or look after it, is not a satisfactory method of dealing with what amounts to life and death matters between two parts of the world.

Is it not a fact that atmospheric tests are self-policing and that it has been found that the bulk of underground tests can also be detected by instruments which already exist inside the territories of all the countries concerned? Does not this provide a basis for a starting point on an agreement to have a ban on further nuclear tests, knowing that we can detect if it has been broken? Therefore, we could proceed from there to negotiate the next stage of controlled disarmament, which might be more difficult. Is it not a fact that this would be a contribution towards the creation of confidence to make that next stage possible?

While not accepting in full what the hon. Lady has said, it is perfectly true that the remarkable advance of scientific instruments may make it easier to arrange for some form of international verification without some of the difficulties which hitherto have made it difficult for the Russians to accept.

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm the statement made by many leading American authorities, just after the run of Russian tests, which has been repeated in the last few days, that the West still retains a substantial lead in nuclear power? If that is so, is it not a fact that if the West went ahead with H-bomb tests they would be giving another twist to the arms race? Can the right hon. Gentleman say how many tests the Americans propose to carry out in the Pacific and what will be the degree of fall-out from them? If the right hon. Gentleman will not give these answers, how can we test what he has been saying about American intentions there?

If the hon. Member puts Questions on the Order Paper in detail I will see whether I can answer them, but I must have time to study them.

On the first part, I think that I said that the Americans and ourselves together have the advantage of the power as it now stands, but that is not to say that there may not be some devices developed which may reverse that. What I was trying to say was that we must not be behind-hand and allow ourselves to get into a position when that advantage is taken away from us suddenly without our having done any work in reply.

Is not the real problem that there is no guarantee, even if the West refrained from further tests, that the Russians would do so? Is not the real answer a multilateral agreement to ban all tests?

May I say that I disagree with the Leader of the Liberal Party? I believe that it was right to make the announcement. The important thing, however, is what the announcement contains. In that connection, may I ask the Prime Minister whether, supposing that there is very real progress in the next two months towards agreement, he will use his influence with President Kennedy—if it really seems likely that agreement will be reached—to defer a little while longer the resumption of tests?

Without pledging myself to anything, I can say that the right hon. Gentleman knows, as I know—and the President carries a greater burden, but I carry quite a heavy one, our country having made Christmas Island available—that both the President and myself approached the decision which we had to make on this matter with the deepest regret and dislike. If we can make progress, and if we can avoid this, I am sure that we shall try to make the best use of that progress.