Atomic agitation

Cold war 2

In September 1961, at the age of 89, Britain’s most eminent philosopher, Bertrand Russell, was arrested and imprisoned for seven days in Brixton prison. The charge that put him behind bars was ‘Breach of the peace’.  But the actions that led to Russell’s imprisonment were the very opposite of the charge – he had protested in London with others for peace and against war, particularly nuclear war.

The arrest of Russell and the other peace campaigners who had joined him in his street protest marked a turning point in the relationship between government and people in modern times.  The policies pursued first by Labour and then Conservative administrations from 1946 on had inexorably led to the point where attempting to use publicity to oppose government policy had become, in effect, an arrestable offence.

It was George Orwell who coined the phrase ‘cold war’ in 1945 in his article You and the Atomic Bomb. 1 He intended it to convey his idea of nations living in a perpetual state of conflict and the threat of war specifically in order to keep their populations under control as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the phrase soon came to mean the state of undeclared hostility between the Soviet Union and the West – principally the United States and Britain – that had smouldered since the Second World War because of America’s possession of nuclear weapons and Russia’s ambitions for territorial expansion.

The Attlee administration had intended to focus as much of its energy as possible on domestic matters, primarily nationalisation, education, welfare and planning the economy. But from the day he took office, Attlee had the smirking shadow of Stalin peering over his shoulder and was compelled to deal largely with foreign affairs, especially Russian attempts to foment trouble for British interests in the Middle East – then the source of all Britain’s oil.

It came as a huge shock to Attlee’s Cabinet when in August 1946 President Truman unilaterally tore up the Quebec agreement under which the US shared its atomic secrets with its wartime ally by signing a U.S. act of congress prohibiting the United States from sharing nuclear information. Britain was on its own, facing the overwhelming military might of Russia in Europe.

During the war, the Cabinet had been kept in the dark about atomic energy and the bomb.  Almost everything about the subject was obscured by the ‘Top Secret’ label and code names such as ‘Tube Alloys’. When Cabinet decisions had to be taken, as much information as possible was made highly secret or obscured. After 1945, matters connected with atomic energy were left as far as possible to Attlee personally, advised by Sir John Anderson who was a former scientist who had studied uranium.  The rest of the Cabinet, just like the rest of the country, knew little about the subject.

Now in January 1947, ditched by his wartime ally, Attlee took the momentous decision that Britain would develop her own atomic weapon in complete secrecy. He also manipulated the Estimates to conceal £100 million pounds of expenditure from Parliament. The House of Commons was not to learn of his decision until May 1948.

Perhaps the worst impact of all would be on the relationship between government and people, an impact far from the idealistic goals expressed by Francis Williams who foresaw that government policies would arouse strong opposition from groups, ‘who will employ all the measures they can to convince public opinion that these measures are wrong and should be opposed.’  Such people, he said, are entitled to adopt all legitimate means to argue their case.  The arrival of a home-grown nuclear weapon would turn Britain into a secret state, with its own nuclear police force and an expansion of the Security Service to check up on potential nuclear spies and saboteurs: a society far from one in which opponents are entitled to adopt all legitimate means to argue their case.

The fears that brought about these measures were real enough. One part of the new secret state apparatus was the Imports Research Committee. The Committee included senior officials from the Ministry of Defence, Directorate of Scientific Intelligence and the Security Service.  Their task was to consider the possibility that someone might smuggle a nuclear bomb into Britain in the hold of a ship, given the relatively small size and portability of such devices. The Committee was compelled to conclude that , ‘There are no  practicable . . . steps that can be taken in peace time to prepare against any of these threats.’  Given that there was nothing anyone could do to prevent an enemy from smuggling a bomb into the country, the best the Committee could do was suggest, ‘there should be some deterrent value in a display of confident assurance on our part that we have an adequate answer to the threat.’

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