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US President John F Kennedy with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1961

The Nassau Agreement, concluded on 22 December 1962, was a treaty negotiated between President John F. Kennedy for the United States and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for the United Kingdom. The agreement enabled the UK Polaris programme.

It was the result of a series of meetings by the two leaders over three days in the Bahamas following the U.S.'s cancellation of the AGM-48 Skybolt, the planned basis for the UKs entire nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. Under the agreement the US was to provide the UK with a supply of nuclear-capable Polaris missiles (under the terms of the Polaris Sales Agreement), in return for which the UK was to lease the Americans a nuclear submarine base in the Holy Loch, near Glasgow. The agreement was clear that the UK's Polaris missiles were part of a 'multi-lateral force' within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and could be used independently only when 'supreme national interests' intervened.



A Skybolt missile at RAF Museum Cosford, showing the RAF roundel and the manufacturer (Douglas Aircraft) logo

Through the 1950s the manned bomber remained the primary method of delivering a nuclear bomb. The UK had maintained a nuclear development program throughout the Post War period, as well as the V bomber force to deliver them. However, the introduction of effective surface-to-air missiles by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s seriously degraded the ability of a bomber force to penetrate Soviet airspace.

The UK initially attempted to address this problem with the Blue Steel stand-off missile and Blue Streak IRBM. Neither weapon was ideal; the Blue Steel was too short-ranged to be truly effective and was difficult to maintain, while the Blue Streak was subject to attack from Soviet bombers as there was little room to hide their silos on the British isles.

An initial solution appeared to be the American AGM-48 Skybolt system. The Skybolt combined the range of the Blue Streak with the mobile basing of the Blue Steel, and was small enough that two could be carried on the Vulcan bomber. This would greatly improve the deterrent capability of the UK's V bomber force. Permission to buy the Skybolt was obtained from Dwight Eisenhower by Harold Macmillan in 1960.

American concerns

US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967

The incoming Kennedy administration had a different opinion of the UK and the UK-US "special relationship." Robert McNamara, in particular, was opposed to independent British nuclear forces. In a speech at Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 16 June 1962, he stated "limited nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are dangerous, expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent," and that "relatively weak national nuclear forces with enemy cities as their targets [are] not likely to perform even the function of deterrence."[1] Dean Acheson was even more blunt; in a speech at West Point he stated "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role - that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a 'special relationship' with the United States... is about played out."[2]

The Kennedy administration was concerned that a situation like the Suez Crisis might repeat itself, one that would once again incite a response from the Soviets. If the UK deterrent were not considered credible, an attack might follow that would require a US response. The Americans saw the UK nuclear force as a potential target that could draw the US into a war it didn't want. They developed a plan to force the UK into their "Multilateral Force" concept, a dual-key arrangement that would only allow launch if both parties agreed, thereby reducing or eliminating the UK's force as a credible target. If those weapons were part of a single larger force, attacking them would require attacks on the other hosting countries as well, making the prospect far less interesting. The US also feared that other countries would want to follow the UK lead and develop their own deterrent forces, leading to a proliferation problem even among their own allies. If a deterrent was being provided by a larger international force, the need for individual forces would be reduced.

In early testing the Skybolt proved to be unreliable, failing all of its initial launch attempts. The US no longer needed Skybolt anyway, as improved silo-based missiles and UGM-27 Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) made their counterforce largely invulnerable. The SLBM's offered all of the advantages of air-basing, but allowed for much greater areas of movement and loiter times of months instead of hours. The Skybolt, another long-range medium-accuracy weapon, added no useful capabilities over these weapons.

The British, on the other hand, had cancelled all other projects to concentrate fully on Skybolt. This meant that there were few advantages in continuing Skybolt for the US, but at the same time its cancellation would be an immensely powerful political tool for bringing the UK into their Multilateral Force.

Skybolt Crisis

In late November 1962 the US first broached the topic of potentially canceling Skybolt. McNamara visited London in early December with the same message. These discussions were reported in the House of Commons by the Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft,[3] leading to a storm of protest. Thorneycroft pointed out that the first five tests had all been failures and this was the reason for the US's concerns, but Air Commodore Arthur Vere Harvey quickly pointed out that the Polaris had suffered 13 failures in its development, and that was what was being offered as a potential alternative. He went on to state "...that some of us on this side, who want to see Britain retain a nuclear deterrent, are highly suspicious of some of the American motives... and say that the British people are tired of being pushed around?"[3] Jo Grimond noted "Does not this mark the absolute failure of the policy of the independent deterrent? Is it not the case that everybody else in the world knew this, except the Conservative Party in this country?"[3]

Meeting of minds

Polaris A-1 on launch pad in Cape Canaveral

As the crisis grew to a boil in the UK, an emergency meeting between Macmillan and Kennedy was arranged to take place in Nassau, Bahamas. On the night of 18 December, Macmillan and Kennedy had a personal conversation during a walk away from the rest of the group. That morning, in London, 103 conservative members of Parliament, nearly one third of the body, signed a motion urging Macmillan to ensure that Britain remained an independent nuclear power.[4]

The next day, during the opening presentations, Macmillan outlined the UK's contributions to the development of the nuclear bomb, and stated in no uncertain terms that the UK would continue to maintain an independent nuclear force, no matter what the US did to try to stop them. If the US were to pull out of their technology sharing agreements, the UK's force would become entirely independent, precisely the problem that so worried McNamara.

Over the next few days a new plan was hammered out that saw the UK purchase the Polaris, but equipped with British warheads, and lacking the dual-key system. The UK would thus retain its independent deterrent force, although its control passed from the Royal Air Force largely to the Royal Navy. The Polaris, a much better weapon system for the UK's needs, was a major "scoop". The American offer has been referred to as “almost the bargain of the century”[5] and so "amazing" to the British that many refused to believe it.[6] The RAF kept a tactical nuclear capability with the WE.177 which armed V bombers, and later the Panavia Tornado force.

The original US policy of attempting to force the UK into their Multilateral Force proved to be a failure in light of the Polaris decision. Kennedy, stung by the entire issue, commissioned a detailed report by Richard Neustadt on the events and what lessons could be learned from them. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis recalled him reading the initial report and commenting that "If you want to know what my life is like, read this."[7] The report was later declassified in the 1990s and published as Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective[8]

Following Kennedy's departure, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was to arrive for talks with Macmillan. However, the Canadian leader arrived early, so Kennedy lunched with both Diefenbaker and Macmillan, later remarking, "There we sat like three whores at a christening."[9]

See also


  1. David Owen, "The Politics of Defence", Taplinger, 1972, p. 174
  2. George Ball, "The Discipline of Power: Essentials of a Modern World Structure", Bodley Head, 1968, p. 69
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Hansard 17 December 1962, SKYBOLT MISSILE (TALKS)", Hansard, 17 December 1962
  4. "December 19", A Chronology from The New York Times, JFK Presidential Library and Museum
  5. John Dumbrell, "A special relationship: Anglo-American relations from the Cold War to Iraq", Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 174
  6. JSTOR 2009841
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  7. Myron Greenberg, "Kennedy's Choice: The Skybolt Crisis Revisited", Naval War College Review, Autumn 2000
  8. Richard Neustadt, "Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective", Cornell University Press, 1999
  9. Robert Bothwell : Alliance and Illusion

External links

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