The July 1945 General Election saw a Labour Government come to power in a landslide victory under Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The use of two atomic bombs, which British scientists had help develop, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the start of August resulted in the Japanese surrender on 15 August. Alongside all the other vital matters the new government had to consider following the end of the Second World War was now the question of what Britain’s atomic policy should be.
Churchill had kept knowledge of the atomic bomb to a very small circle of people, however that was to change under Prime Minister Attlee, who in mid-August formed an advisory committee made of scientists, senior military people and civil servants. Its role was “to investigate the implications of the use of atomic energy and to advise the Government on what steps should be taken for its development for military or industrial purposes, and to put forward proposals for the international treatment of this subject”.
The committee met for the first time on 21 August 1945, when it discussed the effect of the atomic bomb on future methods of warfare. At its second meeting on 29 August, the Prime Minister tabled a paper entitled “The Atomic Bomb”.
As you will read, that paper unequivocally set out the need for major policy decisions, pointing out that the bomb had rendered current post-war planning out-of-date. Clement Attlee was the first British leader to propose a policy of nuclear deterrence: “The answer to an atomic bomb on London is an atomic bomb on another great city.”
Attlee also pointed out that any attempt to keep atomic bomb technology solely in American and British hands would be useless – and so it turned out to be. The Russians exploded their first atomic device on 29 August 1949.
By January 1947, the Government had decided to authorise the research and development effort on atomic weapons, and had issued the specification for the jet bombers to deliver them. The V-Force was conceived!
What is just as interesting is that aspects of Clement Attlee’s paper of 75 years ago still have resonance in today’s world.