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Ambiguity and DeterrenceBritish Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964$

John Baylis

Print publication date: 1995

Print ISBN-13: 9780198280125

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198280125.001.0001

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(p.393) Appendix 2 Letter from Mr Attlee to President Truman, 25 September 1945

(p.393) Appendix 2 Letter from Mr Attlee to President Truman, 25 September 1945

Source:
Ambiguity and Deterrence
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

Dear Mr President

Ever since the USA demonstrated to the world the terrible effectiveness of the atomic bomb I have been increasingly aware of the fact that the world is now facing entirely new conditions. Never before has there been a weapon which can suddenly and without warning be employed to destroy utterly the nerve centre of a great nation. The destruction wrought by the Germans through their air fleet on Warsaw and Rotterdam was startling enough, but subsequent attempts to do the same to London were defeated, though without much to spare. Our own attacks on Berlin and the Ruhr resulted in the virtual destruction of great centres of industry. In Europe the accumulated material wealth of decades has been dissipated in a year or two, but all this is not different in kind from what was done in previous wars in Europe during the Dark Ages and the Thirty Years War, in America by your own civil war. Despite these losses civilisation continued and the general framework of human society and of relations between peoples remained. The emergence of this new weapon has meant, taking account of its potentialities, not a quantitative but a qualitative change in the nature of warfare.

Before its advent military experts still thought and planned on assumptions not essentially different from those of their predecessors. It is true that the conservative (with a small c!) mentality tended to maintain some of these although they were already out of date. For instance we found at Potsdam that we had to discuss a decision taken at the Crimea Conference as to the boundaries of Poland. These were delimited by rivers although the idea of a river as a strategic frontier has been out of date ever since the advent of air warfare. Nevertheless, it was before the coming of the atomic bomb not unreasonable to think in terms of strategic areas and bases, although here again it has seemed to me that too little account has been taken of the air weapon.

Now, however, there is in existence a weapon of small bulk capable of being conveyed on to a distant target with inevitable catastrophic results. We can set no bounds to the possibilities of airplanes flying through the stratosphere dropping atomic bombs on great cities. (p.394) There are possible developments of the rocket for a similar purpose. I understand that the power of the bombs delivered on Nagasaki may be multiplied many times as the invention develops. I have so far heard no suggestion of any possible means of defence. The only deterrent is the possibility of the victim of such an attack being able to retort on the victor. In many discussions on bombing in the days before the war it was demonstrated that the only answer to the bomber was the bomber. The war proved this to be correct. This obvious fact did not prevent bombing but resulted in the destruction of many great centres of civilisation. Similarly if mankind continues to make the atomic bomb without changing the political relationships of States sooner or later these bombs will be used for mutual annihilation…

It would…appear that the lead which has been gained as a result of the past effort put forth in the United States may only be temporary and that we have not much time in which to decide what use is to be made of that lead.…

It is clear to me, therefore, that, as never before, the responsible statesmen of the great Powers are faced with decisions vital not merely to the increase of human happiness but to the very survival of civilisation. Until decisions are taken on this vital matter, it is very difficult for any of us to plan for the future. Take the case of this country. During the war we had to shift much of our industry to the less exposed parts of our island. We had to provide shelters for our people. Now we have to restart our industries and rebuild our wrecked homes. Am I to plan for a peaceful or a warlike world? If the latter, I ought to direct all our people to live like troglodytes underground as being the only hope of survival, and that by no means certain. I have to consider the defence forces required in the future in the light of San Francisco, but San Francisco did not envisage the atomic bomb. Its conceptions of security are based on appreciations of a situation existing in June of this year. We considered regional security and a policing of the world by the Powers with the greatest resources in the interests of all so that there should be available the forces to prevent aggression…

We have, it seems to me, if we are to rid ourselves of this menace, to make very far-reaching changes in the relationship between States. We have, in fact, in the light of this revolutionary development to make a fresh review of world policy and a new valuation of what are called national interests. We are ourselves attempting to undertake such a review. What was done on American initiative at San Francisco was a first step at erecting the framework of a new world society, but necessarily it could have regard only to the requirements imposed by the technical advances in methods of warfare then known. Now it seems to us that the building, the framework of which was erected at (p.395) San Francisco, must be carried much further if it is to be an effective shelter for humanity. We have to secure that these new developments are turned to the benefit rather than to the destruction of mankind. We must bend our utmost energies to secure that better ordering of human affairs which so great a revolution at once renders necessary and should make possible…

Yours sincerely

C R ATTLEE