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Clement Attlee and the bomb

As the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, wrestles with his own beliefs about nuclear weapons and those opposing beliefs of many members of the Shadow Cabinet, it is interesting to look back to the debates which took place in the Labour Government of Clement Attlee in the immediate post-war period.

Despite being a member of the wartime Cabinet, Attlee had little knowledge of the Manhattan project and the development of the atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. When he became Prime Minister shortly afterwards he was immediately faced with the question of whether Britain should become a nuclear power itself. In these early days before the Cold War gathered momentum, the Attlee government had a major dilemma: whether to pursue an internationalist or a nationalist agenda. He recognised that the modern conception of war to which his generation had become accustomed was now ‘completely out of date’ in the nuclear age. If the world lapsed into a major war again he believed that every weapon available would be used resulting in ‘the destruction of great cities and, in the deaths of millions.’It seemed to him that some form of deterrence was the only answer, but what if deterrence broke down?

The Prime Minister’s initial conviction was that every effort had to be made to bring about some form of international control. He told his Cabinet that “time is short…only a bold course can save civilization.” As a result he decided to take the initiative and write to President Truman. In his letter he told the US President that “the world was now facing entirely new conditions” and if the international community was to “rid itself of this menace” far-reaching changes in the relationship between states would be necessary. It was important he said to “bend our utmost energies to secure a better ordering of human affairs which so great a revolution at once renders necessary and should make possible.” He appreciated that there would be risks involved in associating the Soviet Union in this process, but in the new circumstances “acts of faith” were called for.

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Harry Truman, Clement Attlee and Mackenzie King boarding the USCG Sequoia to discuss the atomic bomb by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

In the time prior to Attlee’s meeting with President Truman to discuss these radical ideas a major debate took place in the British Cabinet about the question of international control. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, told colleagues that Britain had “everything to gain and little to lose by making Russia party to knowledge of the atomic bomb process.” It would be worth, he argued, “trusting to their good faith” by negotiating an international control agreement. These views were shared by other members of the Labour Cabinet at the time.

When Attlee met Truman (and the Canadian leader, Mackenzie King) in November 1945 he argued that “a real attempt must be made to build a world organisation upon the abandonment of power politics.” Alongside these beliefs in the need for radical change, however, Attlee also recognised that, as Prime Minister, he had to make sure he looked after Britain’s national interests, until such a time as the desired changes in international politics were actually achieved. In the Washington Declaration which followed the meeting the importance of pursuing international control was stressed but at the same time a secret agreement was made to share scientific research between the three states. By this time, Attlee and the other leaders were beginning to wonder whether sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union would be such a good idea after all.

Here we see the contradictions at the heart of Attlee’s dilemma. His lofty and noble thoughts of putting aside nationalist ideas came directly into conflict with the sober calculations of Realpolitik. Although the Western powers and the Soviet Union pursued the aim of international control for a number of years in the late 1940s, increasingly different national perspectives dominated the discussions rendering it unachievable. As the Cold War gathered momentum the Labour government of Clement Attlee took the decision in 1947 to develop a British nuclear deterrent which has continued down to the present day. Faced with the harsh realities of world politics internationalism gave way to nationalism.

It remains to be seen whether the contemporary Labour Party faced with a similar dilemma can resolve it any better than their predecessors did nearly seventy years ago.

Headline image: HMS Edinburgh Fires Final Sea Dart Missiles by Defence Images. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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