HC Deb 23 July 1962 vol 663 cc1192-202

3.33 a.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I am sorry to detain hon. Members, and the staff of the House, at this hour, but this may be the last chance we shall have before the Summer Recess of exploring rather more fully and deeply the subject of our brief debate yesterday afternoon —disarmament. I therefore make no apology for recalling the House from the grave problems of a particular region to a grave problem that concerns the whole of mankind.

The Minister of State gave an expert, factual account of the proceedings at Geneva. It was an interim report, necessarily, and, on the whole, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), who thought that the Minister's tone was fairly objective and restrained, and relatively free from the abusive propagandist jargon of the cold war. There were a few vestiges in it, though, of what our friend, Aneurin Bevan, used to call the demonological approach to international affairs: "We are always right, archangels of rectitude; they are always wrong. Everything that goes wrong is their fault."

It is true that the Russians do seem to have been at some points in these negotiations exasperatingly obstinate and suspicious. However in the course of a long talk which I had recently with the principal representative at Geneva of an important neutral nation I received an impression of the Soviet attitude rather different from, rather less pessimistic, than that conveyed by the Minister yesterday afternoon.

Moreover, one should perhaps try, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) suggested, to find why they are so suspicious. I do not think, to start with, that the Geneva talks had a particularly auspicious send off with the announcement of the Anglo-American resumption of testing on the very eve of the arrival there of all the delegates. Then, again, I wonder whether a toughening of the Russian attitude last month may not have coincided with, or rather followed very soon after, Mr. McNamara's speech on 16th June. This was, I suppose, the most important speech on defence that has been made anywhere in the world in the last few months. The part of it that most people here picked on, quite naturally, was the passage in which Mr. McNamara attacked the concept of an independent nuclear deterrent, an attack which was embarrassing momentarily to Her Majesty's Government and rather less momentarily to President de Gaulle.

But the more important part of his speech, which has been very largely ignored, is probably the passage in which Mr. McNamara seemed to be announcing a major change in United States defence policy. It is a remarkable thing that this, so far as I can recall, has hardly been mentioned yet in the House, yet practically every well-informed Washington correspondent and defence commentator in the serious reviews has interpreted this passage in Mr. McNamara's speech as a victory for the "counterforce" strategy advocated by the United States Air Force and as a switch from a second-strike to a first-strike nuclear strategy.

If this is the case, this is, indeed, a rather sensational change and since, as we have been repeatedly assured, British nuclear strategy and the Royal Air Force itself are so closely geared to and integrated with American nuclear strategy and policy, we have some right to be told whether Her Majesty's Government interpret Mr. McNamara's speech as all the commentators do, and, if so, whether the Government assented to this important change of policy.

I know that the Joint Under-Secretary, who has been good enough to come here at this late hour to listen to and answer this part of the debate, cannot be expected to reply authoritatively on every detail, but so momentous a change in the whole of our defence policy, if in- deed I am right in following these commentators, presumably must have been discussed pretty thoroughly at all levels in the various administrations of the past few weeks. I therefore hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to say something on this point.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Peter Thomas)

So that the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) will not be under any misapprehension, I should say this. I believe that he had words with my hon Friend the Minister of State, who had to leave to go to Geneva tonight and apologised to the hon. Member for not being present in order to hear his intervention on this very important topic of disarmament. I believe my hon. Friend told the hon. Member that he would make sure that someone from the Foreign Office was present who would listen to what he said and my hon. Friend promised that if there were any queries the hon. Member had he would write to him personally. I feel it right to intervene at this juncture to tell the hon. Member that I personally am not prepared to answer these very important questions, particularly the one he has just asked, without preparation.

Mr. Driberg

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate his position entirely and I was most grateful to the Minister for troubling to speak to me when hurrying off to Geneva on his very important duties, on which all of us naturally wish him well. In mentioning this particular point, I said that I did not expect an answer on all the various details, but I thought that possibly—precisely because this point is so important—the hon. Gentleman might have heard of it and would know the answer offhand, but if not, of course I accept what he says.

Actually it was as long ago as 6th March, in the defence debate we had on that date, that I quoted the warning of a United States senator that the Americans were apparently building up a first-strike force, and the question which that senator asked, which was Is a conscious effort to achieve and maintain a first strike nuclear force compatible with serious disarmament discussions? That is a very important question. It is even more urgently pointed today if the interpretation of the McNamara speech I have quoted is correct. It is a question which must certainly be asked by those who support the theory of the nuclear deterrent, because of course a first-strike strategy cuts right across that theory. Some at least of those who support the theory of the deterrent have argued that if, as they believe, it is legitimate to have nuclear weapons at all a second-strike strategy is less objectionable and even more justifiable morally than a first-strike strategy since it can of course be described in a sense as defensive. This is one of the arguments used to justify Polaris. It is spoken of as a second-strike, not as a first-strike weapon. But this argument can no longer be used if we or our American allies are going over in the main to a first-strike strategy.

This danger is not as abstract, not as nightmarishly unread, as the scholastic theorising of the Rand Corporation casuists makes it appear. As Mr. Wayland Young wrote last Wednesday in the Guardian, although Mr. McNamara did mot give way completely to Air Force pressure, he did order the enormous number of 900 Minutemen". The Minuteman, as hon. Members will be aware, is an intercontinental missile with a range of about 6,300 miles which travels around on specially constructed railway trucks. He did make General Curtis LeMay, the first-strike theorist whom President Eisenhower had refrained from promoting on seniority in 1958 the head of the Air Force and he did increase the defence budget by $10,000 millions". It is alarming to consider the pressures to which President Kennedy, for all his genuine good will and desire for peace, is subjected, pressure particularly from the gigantic military-industrial complex which has grown up round the missile industry, much of it located in the electorally important State of California. Nor is the danger less because Mr. McNamara's announcement of the new policy has what one may call a spoonful of jam of it, the humane-sounding declaration that "principal military objectives should be the destruction of the enemy's military forces and not of his civilian population."

That sounds fine until one analyses what it must actually mean: the knocking out of the Soviet intercontinental missiles before they are actually fired; until one realises also how impossible it would be to use the most massive nuclear weapons to destroy military targets without harming one hair of a single civilian head; and until one considers how improbable it is that the intelligence services responsible for the criminal blunders of the U.2 and Cuba really know the location of all the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile bases or launching pads.

That improbability, combined with Mr. McNamara's speech, which must have seemed in Moscow fairly menacing, just as menacing as the old Dulles doctrine of massive retaliation, of which it is, indeed, a kind of variant, seems to me to be one explanation of such Russian intransigence as has been noticed or late.

Especially on the Consolidated Fund Bill, it is one of the functions of backbench Members of the House to challenge or to query in a Socratic way assumptions that are accepted generally without a moment's reflection. It is astonishing how quickly such assumptions can become sacrosanct axioms. There are quite a number of them always floating around in this nuclear dialogue.

There is the assumption of the necessity of the balance of deterrence, which I asked about in vain in my speech on 6th March, an assumption that might be more impressive if the word "balance" were not so often used, apparently, in exactly the opposite sense to its dictionary sense. For Ministers tell us, "dead-pan", that if the Americans were to lose their lead in the nuclear arms race and if the Russians were to begin to catch up and to close the so-called missile gap—which, we now know, was merely a myth of Presidential election propaganda—this would seriously disturb and not, as one might suppose, restore or establish the so-called balance or equilibrium. In passing, I may remark that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James) yesterday afternoon quaintly mixed a metaphor by saying that "we cannot afford to let the balance get out of step."

Another assumption that is accepted unquestioningly is the assumption that on-the-spot verification is vital; that is the word which is usually used. Is it vital? I wonder. There are, of course, two kinds of verification off inspection at issue. There is the verification of suspected underground nuclear explosions and there is the inspection of zones during the process of disarmament when it starts, as we all hope that it will—possibly in accordance with some such scheme as the Sohn sampling scheme which the Minister mentioned and which I certainly, like many other Members, favour very strongly. I regret very much that the Russians rejected every version of it. I think there is a strong case for regarding this kind of inspection as essential to any serious disarmament scheme. But one can just see that the Russians, faced with a first-strike strategy, may think that the inspecting teams could be looking for the location of their missile launching pads. Moreover, from what the Minister of State himself said earlier in the debate, when he spoke yesterday evening, it occurs to me that this kind of inspection might in some ways be not so much vital as futile. The Minister of State said that, for instance, nuclear warheads are very small objects, tiny little things which can easily be stored away or concealed. Surely, in the absence of mutual confidence, which one would indeed hope had begun to grow up a bit by this stage if disarmament had actually begun, how could any zone, however limited, be inspected and cleared with absolute certainty? A dozen of these tiny little nuclear warheads might have been hidden away anywhere—in some farmhouse kitchen cupboard, or attic. How could one ever be sure?

As for the other kind of verification, on-site verification to inspect nuclear underground tests, it is now common form that almost all of these can be detected and located by national means of detection. The project Gnome, which hon. Members may have seen a report of, which, after some difficulty, I managed to get a copy into the Library— the Gnome project disproved completely the theories of the more ferocious American nuclear pundits like Dr. Edward Teller. It is also common form that, except perhaps for the trigger devices mentioned by the Minister, underground tests are very much less important militarily than atmospheric tests, and those certainly can be detected and located.

There are really risks either way. There are risks if we do not verify, obviously. I must concede that. On the other hand, the greater risk seems to me to be the continuation of the nuclear arms race. These are, in a sense, the alternative risks. I would also say—I rather wish that the Minister had had time to deal with this—I would also say, especially having talked with this neutral diplomat to whom I referred earlier in this speech, that there is rather less difference than is sometimes suggested between verification by invitation and verification as of right, since, after all, even if verification as of right were conceded as a principle, the inspecting team would still have to ask for an invitation or have to be sent an invitation: nobody can just walk straight into another nation's territory without making any of the arrangements for facilities, and so on. I think that this gap has been to some extent exaggerated.

The Minister of State assured us that there is on the part of the Government a genuine desire to reduce tension. I hope that this is so. I hope also that there is some sense of urgency. After all, while the negotiators talk, the tests go on, and the imminence of a further series of Soviet tests is contemplated, apparently almost with equanimity. After that series, we are told, will be the time for a test ban treaty to be signed. What assurance is there at this moment that the Americans will not then say "Ah! But, after all, these latest Russian tests must have given them some considerable new bits of know-how. We suspect that they have gained some important advances. Now we must just have one more series of tests", and that the vicious circle will not go on?

I hope that hon. Members will not think it unduly sentimental of me if I refer to a point that I have raised repeatedly at Question Time—the question of the biological damage caused by these tests. Calculations of the approximate extent of this damage, though difficult, are not impossible. There was the very substantial report of a United Nations scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation which was produced in 1958, which—with the greatest caution, of course, and in the most tentative way—essayed actual figures. So it is not impossible.

Moreover, the Prime Minister told us when he announced the resumption of testing that all the pros and cons of it had been weighed very carefully before it was decided to take this grievous decision and go ahead with the tests. I maintain that he had no right to take that decision and go ahead with the tests unless in that balance sheet of pros and cons he had at any rate some approximate figures of the biological damage—if he did not know roughly how many new cases of bone cancer and leukemia would be likely to be caused by the series of tests, how many cases of genetic damage, and so on. Yet at Question Time he has repeatedly dodged answering Questions on this point.

Yesterday afternoon at Question Time hon. Members were rightly concerned and indignant because a number of babies have been born, and are being born, deformed as a result of the marketing of a drug that had not been adequately tested in advance. Yet this, deplorable as it is, was at least accidental. Many more thousands of babies are going to be born deformed or idiot as a result of the deliberate decision of the British and American Governments. The Prime Minister and the President have agreed that it is in the public interest that x hundred thousand people— innocent people who have not been consulted about it—should die agonisingly of bone cancer or leukemia. This is surely an extreme example of the doctrine that the end justifies the means.

The former Minister of Defence wrote me a letter—I was exchanging some correspondence with him about the matter—saying that, regrettable as all this human suffering is, it is part of the price that we have to pay to secure the defence of the free world.

Everyone will agree that a good and desirable end justifies the use of some means, perhaps means unpleasant or violent. The classic doctrine of the just war is a case in point. But can any end, however good, justify this peculiarly horrible and indiscriminate form of genocide? This, the consequences of the testing alone, quite apart from the use, is what makes nuclear weapons utterly different in kind, not only in degree, from all other weapons and makes some of us say that, whatever other nations may do, these are weapons that it is absolutely impermissible for us to have, to test, or to threaten to use.

One particularly disturbing aspect of this controversy is that the Prime Minister seems to have, no doubt unwittingly, misled the House when he gave us to understand that only real necessity could have induced President Kennedy and himself to resume testing. We were repeatedly assured that because the Russians' autumn series of tests had made certain, or might have made certain, advances which might lead them forward to further advances and so on and so forth, it was absolutely necessary to preserve this so-called balance of the deterrent by starting our tests again.

What we did not know when we debated this matter on 6th March was that the strongest evidence that the resumption of testing was not necessary at all had already been provided from a most unexpected source—again, Mr. McNamara himself—only a week or two before the announcement of the resumption of tests.

On 25th January, he was testifying before the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives in the Committee's hearing on military posture. Again, if any hon. Member cares to turn up the verbatim record of this hearing, he will find Mr. McNamara's testimony. He will also find, incidentally, that the record has been censored considerably for security reasons, which is quite comprehensible, and this is why the publication of it and its arrival here were delayed, so that we could not have known about it when we had the defence debate.

I will just, if I may, quote a few sentences which illustrate my point that Mr. McNamara definitely said that testing which was about to be resumed at that time was not fully necessary or essential. He was being interrogated by a Representative from Massachusetts, Mr. Bates. MR. BATES. I would like to go back to this question of nuclear testing. And I would like to get an assessment of the importance that you attach to it from a military point of view. SECRETARY MCNAMARA. [Deleted.]

MR. BATES. I don't want to play on words, but you used the words 'desirability' and ' advantage.' I would like you to express it more on terms of criticalness. Does it hit that area or is it merely desirable? That is what I am trying to get at.

SECRETARY MCNAMARA. I would say it is desirable.

MR. BATES. YOU don't think it is a grave matter of concern?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA. Well it is difficult to say whether it is grave or not. [Statement off the record.] But I am just giving you my personal opinion … I don't know whether I have answered your question fully, but I hope so.

MR. BATES. Well, a little bit differently than I expected. I know about the reasons for the tests. But I don't know of anyone on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy who doesn't think that this is of supreme importance to the survival of the Nation. You don't agree with that?

SECRETARY MCNAMARA. I don't believe that they have considered the power we have if they consider that this is of supreme importance."

Then, a little further on, there is just one other exchange I want to quote because it illustrates the point that I am trying to make. Incidentally, I should say that I make no suggestion that Mr. McNamara was against testing. He was, in fact, in favour of testing simply because he thought on principle that everything should be done to increase American nuclear power. But we were told that we were testing again only because it was essential.

Then Mr. Bates said: Well, let me put it this way. We had experts come before the committee who went this far. They said unless we conducted these tests, that the balance of power might well shift to the Russians. You don't agree with that statement? MR. MCNAMARA: I do not."

That disposes of the kind of argument on which testing was sold to the people of America and to Parliament here and to people elsewhere and it is a pity that we were sold that argument which, on the testimony of the American Secretary of Defence himself, is seen to be a phoney argument.

Almost every speaker in yesterday's debate agreed that we must press on to get complete and general disarmament. Of course that is the aim, but I hope that we shall not use the phrase as a sort of rune, and do nothing now because we cannot do everything at once. The unilateral abandonment of testing— or, better still, a test ban agreement— would be the most valuable first step towards general and complete disarmament. If the negotiators fail through their own fault they will not be forgiven; if they do not achieve agreement through prejudice, or timidity, or irritability, or because they did not try hard enough, they will be haunted throughout their lives by the ghosts of the innocent victims of the cancerous plagues that they have failed to check.