Britain, and the Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

British Foreign Policy Since Suez 1956-1968 by Donald Maclean is an interesting book quite apart from its contents. Maclean was a British civil servant who was also one of the Cambridge Five who spied for Russia from the 1930s until 1951.

Maclean wrote the book in 1970 when he was living in Moscow. Hodder and Stoughton published the book in the UK with Foreign Office approval.

I bought a second-hand copy (which I am still reading) after it was mentioned by Roland Philipps in his biography of Maclean published last year under the title A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean. I enjoyed reading Maclean’s biography for a couple of reasons. It showed Maclean to be a complex, tortured, principled and highly intelligent and capable man.

And it made me reflect on how I would have behaved if I had been similarly motivated as a young man. I don’t think I would have lasted five minutes, and it is a reflection of Maclean’s capability that he did it for years.

It also showed how divided loyalties involve some kind of self-delusion – a young man’s (or woman’s) game.

I knew of Donald Maclean and the Cambridge spies, after all I am British and grew up with the revelation in 1979 of Anthony Blunt’s spying.

Blunt was Professor of the History of Art at the University of London, director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

He was giving immunity from prosecution (why?) in 1964 in return for spilling the beans, but it was kept secret from the public for another fifteen years.

And I grew up with the talk of the fifth spy, the unknown man in the UK establishment, a big secret until an MI5 agent revealed what he knew in a book he wrote and had published in Australia.

It was all exciting stuff, but until I read Roland Philipps’ biography of Maclean I thought Maclean was a minor civil servant.

In fact he was high up in the service, privy to all kinds of secrets at the highest level, and in line for an appointment as British Ambassador to the United States.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in British Foreign Policy Since Suez 1956-1968 about Britain’s relationship with Europe and the United States. Maclean talks about the changing fortunes of Britain and the history of the uneasy straddling of Europe and the United States that Britain has been pursuing since the Second World War. I will write something about that when I have read a bit more. It interests me not least because of the the looming Brexit.

For the moment I want to talk about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.

I knew that the pursuit of a viable weapon was a joint British and US effort. I thought, though, that the decision to drop the bombs rested solely with the USA.

What I learned from Maclean’s book was that there was an agreement between Britain and the United States that the bomb would only be used with the consent and agreement of both countries. In plain English, Britain gave approval to the use of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I googled to see what I could find about this and found an article from 2013 in Japan Times which states:

Britain supported the use of atomic bombs by the United States against Japan in World War II about a month before the first one was dropped on Hiroshima, documents recently declassified by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration showed.

Really though, they just had to read Donald Maclean’s book in which he says, on page 53

The presence of U.S. nuclear bases on U.K. soil and other aspects of the Anglo-American alliance exposes Britain to the risk of nuclear counter-attack should the United States use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. This remains true whether the US. fires its first salvo from British bases, from a Polaris submarine in mid-Atlantic from the United States or from some other quarter.

From the point of view of the British sponsors of the alliance, the logic of this situation requires that there should be a binding overall agreement that the United States will not in any circumstances use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union without British consent. Washington has not been willing to tie its hands in this way, but, besides the guarantees relating specifically to the use of bases in Britain, gave unofficial assurances of a wider character. At the earliest stage of Anglo-American co-operation in nuclear matters—during the manufacture of the first, wartime, atomic bombs—such a binding agreement existed and was applied. From the signing of the Quebec Agreement by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1943 until its disavowal by the Truman Administration at the end of the war, both countries had a clear-cut obligation, set out in the second clause of the Agreement, not to use nuclear weapons against third parties without each other’s consent. This clause was strictly complied with before the American atomic attack on Hiroshima.

The hiatus was subsequently partially filled by personal assurances from the President to the Prime Minister, given orally and requiring renewal with each change of President.

For an official account of the conclusion of this agreement, and its text, see Margaret Gowing. Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945. London. 1964. pp. 164-171