HC Deb 19 April 1962 vol 658 cc689-95

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

Q9. Mr. DRIBERG: To ask the Prime Minister if, in view of the proposal for the international observation of nuclear tests tabled by eight neutral nations at Geneva on 16th April, he will now consult the President of the United States with a view to the cancellation of the Christmas Island tests or their postponement while the neutral nations' proposal is considered.

Q12. Mr. FRANK ALLAUN: To ask the Prime Minister if, in his talks next week, he will ask President Kennedy to accept the new proposal of the neutral nations for ending the East-West nuclear test ban deadlock, and meanwhile postpone the scheduled series of test explosions at Christmas Island.

Q13. Mr. RANKIN: To ask the Prime Minister whether he will propose to President Kennedy that the Christmas Island tests be cancelled or postponed while the proposal for international observation of nuclear tests, made by eight neutral nations at Geneva on 16th April, is considered.

Q15. Mr. ZILLIACUS: To ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the proposal made by eight neutral nations on 16th April at Geneva for the international observation of nuclear tests, he will now propose to President Kennedy that no tests be conducted until this proposal has been discussed.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, I will answer Questions Nos. Q9, Q12, 013 and Q15 together.

These proposals were put forward on 16th April. Both the Minister of State and Mr. Dean, the United States representative, undertook to study them immediately. On 17th April the British and American representatives asked for clarification of a number of points and the neutrals are to make a reply to these questions today. The vital point for us is the acceptance of the principle of effective international verification. This was made quite clear in the President's and my own joint statement on 10th April and in my letter to Mr. Khrushchev.

Unhappily, Mr. Khrushchev's reply confirmed that Mr. Gromyko and Mr. Zorin had correctly represented the views of the Soviet Government. The position is now that if the neutral proposals provide for effective measures of international verification, and if the Russians, even at this late stage, agree to this, negotiation will become possible. If not, no negotiations can be fruitful, and I cannot ask President Kennedy to postpone the tests.

Mr. Driberg

All of us will welcome the slight gleam of hope contained in the Prime Minister's last words, but can he say whether these tests are likely to take place before we again have an opportunity of questioning him, if the neutrals' reply to the questions is not considered satisfactory? Further, would not this be a very good opportunity—this setting up of a body of international scientists—at least to test the effectiveness of international verification, since in some of his earlier answers—with great respect—the Prime Minister seemed to exaggerate the difficulty of this?

The Prime Minister

Again, there are two points to be considered. The verification takes place after the instruments, wherever placed, reveal an incident.

Mr. Driberg

I am sorry—I meant identification, and not verification.

The Prime Minister

The principle of international verification comes into play after the instruments, wherever placed, have shown that an explosion has occurred which might be due to other than natural causes. That is the vital point. I have read very carefully in an article in The Times the proposals put forward by the neutrals. I believe that they were very fairly summed up in that article. As I understand it, the proposals would not make verification compulsory; it would be only permissive. If it is to be only permissive, we are really back where we stood before.

The whole question is: is it to be compulsory or permissive? If that point were granted by the Russians—and we have made that point over and over again—the whole situation would be changed. It is that point which, once more, we have thought it our duty to put forward. Failing that, I do not think that a fruitful negotiation can now be embarked upon.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Whatever may be the risk of Russia or America conducting small underground tests without detection, is not that risk less than that involved in the alternative, which is to have both sides resuming tests, and the whole nuclear arms race getting out of control? Since the Big Two seem incapable of getting out of their clinch and accepting each other's proposals, why not grasp the neutrals' proposal, since it may be our last chance?

The Prime Minister

I should like to clear up one point. The question of small or large tests is not now at issue. We have accepted that that is not the point. The point is whether large or small tests should be made. This is a tragic situation. If this single point were granted we could make progress, but without it we are relying, in fact, almost on what we had for three years—a general understanding not to make tests. Our experience of that does not lead me to feel that it would be possible for me to ask President Kennedy to go back to that position.

There are terrible risks in both courses. Nobody can say that we have not striven as hard as we could to try to get a reasonable solution of this problem. I do not abandon hope that even if we fail this time we may be able to come back to it, even as part of some larger settlement. But I do not think that after all the efforts that we have made and all the points that we have tried to grant I could effectively or honourably ask that the tests should be abandoned, merely on what might be called a general understanding.

Mr. Rankin

I respect all that the Prime Minister has said, but is it not a fact that the United States Secretary of Defence has declared that America has an enormous strategic superiority over Russia at present? In view of that fact, would we lose anything if we were to urge President Kennedy at least to consider postponing the tests while we contemplate this new proposal from the eight neutral nations?

The Prime Minister

It is perfectly true that, as has been mentioned before, the United States Secretary for Defence has stated that at present America has a very strong and even overwhelming position. The question is: is that position likely to be endangered by new discoveries—by a break-through or something which may come out of these tests? The Russians have now carried out two series of tests ahead of America. We discussed this in great detail in Bermuda. Nobody will be keener than I or President Kennedy to reach the conclusion which the hon. Member proposes, but we cannot do so, because our advisers tell us that there are risks which we ought not to take.

Mr. Brockway


Mr. Zilliacus

Is it not a fact that there were British and American tests after the Russians had unilaterally suspended tests, and that we are still ahead of them in the number of tests carried out? Is it not further a fact that existing national detection systems can with certainty indentify the nature of all explosions in the atmosphere, and of all but quite minor underground explosions?

In those circumstances, is not the Prime Minister straining at gnats over controls, in rejecting the hypothetical risk that under the neutrals' plan a test ban treaty might be denounced at some future date because of disagreement about the verifying of minor tests, and swallowing the elephant of the evils and dangers of aggravating the arms race and wrecking the world's hopes of peace?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member's historical account of this affair is rather biassed. I honestly think that the Western Powers have made great efforts to try to solve this question. We have worked at it very hard. We have postponed our tests over the whole period of three years. During that period the Russians prepared for further tests, which they suddenly brought about. Even then we did not make these preparations. After the first three tests the President and I proposed the very solution which the hon. Member suggests, to ban atmospheric tests. That suggestion was rejected with contumely by the Russians.

Mr. A. Henderson

Does not the Prime Minister agree that the problem of verification is entirely one for the scientific mind? In view of the reiterated fears expressed by the Soviet Government on the question of espionage, will not he consider, in connection with the proposal put forward by the eight neutral countries, the possibility that the whole question of verification should be treated as a scientific problem and put under the aegis of the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

The variation in scientific views, if any, concerns the range at which instruments can say that an incident has happened which may not be due to natural causes. The question of verification is an entirely different one. When an incident is reported the principle of verification is that a team can go to the place quickly, before the traces can be removed, and see whether there has been an artificial explosion. That is the point, and it is an ordinary practical point. I said before, and I repeat, that I could understand the possibility of fears of espionage—I think that they are exaggerated, but perhaps they are endemic in the Russian mind—if these were incidents in factories, or in great centres of population, but they are in very remote places, where, perhaps, we would agree to put forward the suggestion that a team of neutrals would go for a week or ten days, or whatever was the necessary time, and then come back, and in those circumstances the argument about espionage is quite untenable.

Mr. M. Foot

Has the Prime Minister or the Government considered the position, of which there may be some indications, that the Soviet military authorities have been bringing pressure to bear on the Soviet Government to enable tests to take place precisely because the Soviet military authorities may wish to make good their present nuclear inferiority, and that, if this is the case, the fact of the Americans going ahead with the tests is merely playing into their hands?

Tough action on one side is merely encouraging tough action on the other side. Therefore, how can the right hon. Gentleman think that people will accept his view that we have done everything to try to stop this terrible horror of 30 or 40 tests which may take place in the next few days, started this time by the Americans, when he will not even ask President Kennedy to postpone the tests for even a few days?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view, but I think that the broad opinion in the country and in the House is that the President and I have tried to do the best we could in the situation short of—and this is the real point—abandoning what we believe to be our duty to protect the power and strength of the West.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of us believe that we shall not stop the nuclear arms race either in the form of tests or other ways without a multilateral disarmament agreement, and that we shall not get such an agreement without international inspection of some form or other? Having said that, can the Prime Minister tell us whether the Russians have yet rejected the neutrals' proposals and the stage which the negotiations have reached?

While accepting the point which the right hon. Gentleman made that it is essential that there should be the right of access in a limited form, perhaps by independent neutral bodies, to inspect if an explosion has occurred, and if they do not know what it is, can the Prime Minister say definitely that the Russians have as yet turned that down?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the neutral proposals were, in a sense, permissive and not compulsory, that is to say, the Russians have a right to refuse the team arriving. That, of course, grants them their whole case. We have put points about that and they are being discussed. Mr. Zorin made no comments, I think. We put those points the day before yesterday and asked the neutrals to explain this particular point.

As I said, and I repeat exactly, the neutrals are to make a reply to these questions today. The vital point is the acceptance of the principle of international verification, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, so far rejected all through the negotiations—rejected when we made our joint statement, rejected in Mr. Khrushchev's reply to my quite short and simple letter on this point. If they were at the last stage suddenly to change, then, of course, negotiation would become possible.