Defence Thinking In The 70s

January 2011

Documents found by a researcher into atomic history shed chilling light on government thinking on nuclear policy in the 70s.

Discussions started on a replacement for Polaris.  The government chose Trident because it could kill up to 10 million Russians and inflict “unacceptable damage” on the then Soviet Union.  Documents show how attacks on Moscow and St. Petersburg could “bring about the breakdown of the city as a functioning community”, by inflicting “severe structural damage” on 40% of each of the two cities.

Labour’s Foreign Secretary, David Owen, argued that the number of UK nuclear weapons could be reduced, saying that “a million Soviet dead would be more that adequate”.  However, the late Michael Quinlan argued that, for the “deterrent” to be effective, “options of a magnitude higher than this”, of up to ten million dead, would be required.

The government would have to keep the option of ground-burst bombs, so that Soviet civil defence would be useless.

Documents released under the 30 years rule

Just as Polaris (pictured, at Cape Canaveral) was about to be replaced, the Defence Select Committee held an inquiry into strategic nuclear weapons policy.  The defence secretary, Francis Pym, suggested that he should not give evidence until the decision about Trident had been made.  Margaret Thatcher responded that “the committee will be very angry when they learn about the decision”.

In May, 1980, British diplomats feared Israel would use nuclear weapons in the event of a fresh war with the Arab nations. A cable from the British embassy in Tel Aviv said, “The situation in the region is deteriorating and with it Israel’s dangerous mood of isolation and defiance will grow. … If they [Israel] are to be destroyed they will go down fighting this time. They will be ready to use their atomic weapon. Because they cannot sustain a long war, they would have to use it early.”