Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Skybolt Affair and Nassau Conference

Defense procurement issue that shook relations between Great Britain and the United States. Toward the end of 1962, Great Britain faced the prospect of having no means of delivering its atomic weapons apart from its aging V-bombers. A British missile project, Blue Streak, had been recently abandoned because of technical problems. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan thus turned to the American Skybolt missile, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration had promised to sell to Britain in March 1960. But in 1962, hearing rumors that the Americans might scrap Skybolt, Macmillan asserted that the United States was not fully supportive of other Western states possessing independent nuclear capability, preferring instead to rely on a vaguely multilateral arrangement defined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Skybolt Affair caused a great rift in Anglo-American relations, possibly the worst one in several generations.

In his memoirs published in 1973, Macmillan wrote that "it was difficult to suppress the suspicion that the failure of Skybolt might be welcomed in some American quarters as a means of forcing Britain out of the nuclear club." For the prime minister, this was a fundamental issue, as the United Kingdom's independent deterrent showed that "we were not just satellites or clients of America." More to the point, a British bomb was a hedge against the possibility that the United States might not always be relied upon to use its weapons in defense of Europe.

Against this background, Macmillan and President John F. Kennedy agreed to meet in Nassau, Bahamas, in December 1962, but in deference to French President Charles de Gaulle's sensitivities about Anglo-American collusion, Macmillan met with de Gaulle first in Rambouillet, France. In generally even-tempered talks, de Gaulle hinted that he might veto Britain's application to join the Common Market, at that time still in negotiation. He also stated that the French, like the British, sought an independent nuclear deterrent and that he too was unclear about the implications of a multilateral nuclear force.

When Kennedy and Macmillan met on 19 December 1962, the prime minister immediately established Britain's credentials by enlarging on the crucial British scientific contribution in developing nuclear weapons and subsequent Anglo-American cooperation. President Eisenhower, he claimed, had promised him Skybolt as well as the submarine-launched Polaris missile "if necessary." Thus, Macmillan made it clear that if the Skybolt missile were now unavailable, he wanted the Polaris. Kennedy confirmed that Skybolt was indeed to be abandoned but suggested the sharing of development costs of a new missile, a quixotic offer that Macmillan declined. But Kennedy resisted offering Polaris to the British, unconvincingly arguing that to do so would alienate de Gaulle.

Macmillan was distressed by Kennedy's seeming disingenuousness and the importance that the Americans attached to their plan for the NATO-led multilateral control of nuclear weapons. He fought fiercely for Polaris but, in the process, had to concede something to the American demand for multilateralism, offering to make British nuclear forces available to NATO except where supreme national interests were involved. With that concession, Kennedy agreed at the Nassau Conference to provide the Polaris missile.

Paul Wingrove


Further Reading
Horne, Alistair. Macmillan, 1957–1986. London: Macmillan, 1989.; Macmillan, Harold. At the End of the Day, 1961–1963. London: Macmillan, 1973.; Neustadt, Richard E. Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
 

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