HC Deb 25 October 1962 vol 664 cc1053-64
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on recent events in relation to Cuba.

On Monday, 22nd October, President Kennedy, in a personal message and through the United States Ambassador in London, made clear to me his deep concern about the Soviet development of Cuba as a formidable base for offensive ballistic missiles. It is, of course, true that the United States authorities had known for some time of the location of a number of surface-to-air missile sites in Cuba; but these missiles, even though carrying nuclear warheads, may be regarded as of a defensive nature.

Very recently, however, a number of medium-range ballistic — or ground-to-ground—missile sites have been definitely identified in Cuba. Reports from all American intelligence sources confirm that at least 30 missiles are already present in Cuba. Such missiles, with their range of over 1,000 miles, could reach a large area of the United States, including Washington and nearly the whole of Central America and the Caribbean including the Panama Canal. In addition, sites for intermediate range ballistic missiles with an operational range of 2,200 nautical miles have been identified. Further sites for both types of missiles are being constructed. All these missiles are designed to carry, and must be presumed to carry, nuclear bombs. In addition, Russia has supplied Cuba with IL28 aircraft, of which over 20 have been definitely identified. These bombers are, of course, offensive and not defensive weapons.

Neither the Soviet Union nor the Cuban Government appear to have denied these facts. In addition, it is believed that there are at least 5,000 Soviet military technicians already on the island.

These facts, which are fully established on the basis of the evidence provided, serious though they are in themselves, took on a more sinister character because of the previous history of this affair. The House may recall that, on 4th and 14th September, President Kennedy issued solemn warnings about the build-up of offensive weapons in Cuba and that on 11th September the official Soviet news agency, Tass, said: the armaments and military equipment sent to Cuba are designed exclusively for defensive purposes and added: there is no need for the Soviet Union to shift its weapons … for a retaliatory blow to any other country, for instance, Cuba. That amounted to an official disclaimer by the Soviet Government. In addition, as recently as 18th October, Mr. Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister, explicitly speaking on the instructions of his Government, assured President Kennedy in person that Soviet assistance to Cuba was of a purely defensive character. At that very moment, circumstantial evidence to the contrary was accumulating.

In view of the President's pledge that the United States would take measures to oppose the creation of offensive military power in Cuba, the Russian action, contrary to their categorical assurances, in developing this power can only be regarded as a deliberate adventure designed to test the ability and determination of the United States. The President, no doubt, formed the view, and, in my judgment, rightly, that to have accepted this would throw doubt on America's pledges in all parts of the world and expose the entire free world to a new series of perils.

The House is well aware of the action so far token by the President of the United States in this situation, both in the area of Cuba itself and in the Security Council of the United Nations. As regards the area of Cuba, the measures announced in the President's proclamation are designed to meet a situation that is without precedent. Moreover, it cannot be said that these measures are extreme; indeed, they are studiously moderate in that the President has only declared certain limited types of war material, not even all armaments, to be prohibited. The armaments specified are these: surface-to-surface missiles, bomber aircraft, bombs, air-to-surface rockets, and guided missiles, together with their warheads and equipment. None of the categories specified in the President's proclamation could honestly be described as defensive.

In the Security Council, the United States representative has made a strong appeal for a resolution which calls for the dismantling and withdrawal from Cuba of all nuclear missiles and offensive weapons and for international supervision of this process by a United Nations Observer Corps. The resolution also urgently recommends that the United States and the Soviet Union should confer promptly on measures to remove the existing threat to the security of the western hemisphere and the peace of the world, and to report thereon to the Security Council.

As the House knows, Sir Patrick Dean, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, gave his support to this resolution. I understand that the discussion in the Security Council has been adjourned until 4 p.m. New York time today, that is, 9 p.m. London time.

Meanwhile, as the House will have heard, the Acting Secretary-General, U Thant, has addressed a message in identical terms to President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev. He has also sent, I am informed, a message to the Cuban Government. U Thant's proposal is that there should be a voluntary suspension on behalf of the Russians of all arms shipments to Cuba, and, at the same time, a suspension of the quarantine measures involving the search of ships. His appeal to the Cuban Government adds the suggestion that the construction and development of the military facilities and installations should be suspended, all these measures to last for a period of two to three weeks in order to give time for the parties concerned to meet and discuss with a view to finding a peaceful solution of the problem.

I am not yet in a position to inform the House of any replies from any of the three Governments to whom the Acting Secretary-General has addressed his messages. The British Government are, of course, concerned that this new threat to security should be dealt with as rapidly as possible and will add their support to any measures which genuinely lead to that end. They trust also that, based upon some alleviation of the present state of tension, it might be possible to move into a wider field of negotiation. Nevertheless, I think what has happened in the last few weeks must confirm our view that in these grave matters we cannot rest upon mere words and promises. These need, if they are to restore confidence, to be independently verified and confirmed.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in all quarters of the House there will be much sympathy for the United States in the situation in which they find themselves, both in view of the rockets installed in Cuba and the clear breach of faith on the part of the Soviet Government? Is he further aware that there is also very considerable anxiety and apprehension as to what may follow from the steps already taken by the United States Government? Will he agree, however, that this morning's news is somewhat better? Can we at least feel reasonably satisfied that the tone of Mr. Khrushchev's latest statement is moderate in intention and that President Kennedy, for his part, appears to have clarified the United States' intention? For my part, I wish to say how much we on this side of the House welcome this slight improvement in the situation.

May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? First, since President Kennedy has made it plain that it is his intention to secure the removal of the nuclear bases in Cuba, and since, clearly, this can be done only by agreement or by attack, is it not clear that every possible effort must be made to secure agreement? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if there were to be a United States attack on Cuba on this ground, it would be very difficult to see how the Russians would not be able to justify a similar attack on Turkey? If the ground for attack is that there are nuclear bases on neighbouring territories, then I am afraid that this seems to follow.

Since, clearly, this would be a most disastrous situation, may I ask the Prime Minister to tell us a little more about his attitude to possible direct negotiations? For instance, do the British Government support the proposal of U Thant, which the Prime Minister explained in his statement? Can he give us any news about the possibility of a meeting between Mr. Khrushchev and President Kennedy? Has such a meeting been officially proposed by the Soviet Government? If so, has there been a reply from the United States?

I should like to ask one other question relating to consultation. Were Her Majesty's Government consulted before the decision by President Kennedy to institute a blockade of Cuba was taken? If they were consulted, what advice was taken? If they were not consulted, is it not a very unsatisfactory state of affairs that one member of an alliance can take unilateral action even though this may clearly involve the gravest danger to other members of the alliance? Will the Prime Minister say what steps he proposes to take to try to avoid any further lack of consultation of this kind in future?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the last part of what the right hon. Gentleman said, as I told the House in my statement, I received from the President, and so did other members of the alliance, a personal message and a visit to explain the situation which had arisen. I think that the President had to act, in his view, very rapidly, and that is the degree. Those are the facts and I do not wish to comment on them now. That fact exists.

The problem which I would rather present myself is that raised in the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. I was glad that he expressed his understanding of the great anxiety and, indeed, anger caused in America. After all, this is a new development. Various armies and forces of the East and West have, unhappily, been drawn up for fifteen years facing each other. We have tried to reduce the tension, not to add to it. This sudden decision, denied while it was going on and which would not have been admitted had it not been discovered, is a very new feature and is not comparable to the present balance of forces on both sides which, unhappily, exists each side of the Iron Curtain. It is that feature of it which, I am bound to say, fills me with apprehension. I feel sure that, had the President merely neglected it, that would not have been in the interests of continuing peace and freedom in the world.

I am, naturally, in the closest touch with the heads of Governments of other countries, with the Commonwealth and with the President. Our representative in New York is in daily touch with the situation through his contact with the Acting Secretary-General. I would always be ready to take an initiative at the moment at which I thought it valuable and when it would serve a 'useful purpose. But I cannot do so merely for the sake of appearing to do something. Rather must I do so in order to achieve something useful.

I feel that we have two points to consider. First, there must be no break or wavering among the allies—which is, perhaps, the main purpose of the Russian initiative. Secondly, no possible path of retreat which may be open should be closed. I feel that to achieve these objectives it may be better at the moment to use the United Nations as an instrument, under the Acting Secretary-General's approach, rather than for there to be any initiative by me or the head of any other allied Government.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his last remark about leaving the United Nations to deal with this will receive very general support? Is he further aware that none of us is suggesting for one moment that the unity of the alliance should be impaired? The case is quite the contrary. Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that nothing would endanger that unity more completely than unilateral action by one member of the alliance? Will he therefore bear in mind the need to impress, in the friendliest possible manner, upon the United States Government the desirability of taking us and the other allies into the fullest possible consultation before any further steps are taken in what is, after all, still a very critical situation?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that they are in consultation as to further steps.

Mr. Wade

I deplore the deceit and duplicity of the Russian Government in this matter, which they have shown not for the first time. I also fully understand the feelings and fears of the American people. But would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the reaction to which this has given rise, and, in particular, the unilateral imposition of an embargo by the United States, without consultation, does create possibly dangerous precedents which China and Russia may be only too glad to follow in the future? May we assume that Her Majesty's Government have taken that into account in any representations through diplomatic channels or the United Nations?

Whilst I am very well aware of the imperfections of the international machinery for dealing with these disputes between the great Powers, and also the imperfections of the United Nations, I fully support any move for mediation through the United Nations. I and all my colleagues will fully support any effort Her Majesty's Government will make, even though it will involve some measure of compromise on both sides. May I ask the Prime Minister for an assurance that that will be done? I believe that that assurance will be given.

Finally, may I have an assurance that, arising out of this situation, a new effort will be made to improve the consultative machinery among the members of N.A.T.O.?

The Prime Minister

Those points have been partly covered by what I have already said. This is a dangerous situation and, of course, we must try to avoid its getting worse. Of course, we must try to find a way out. But I would like to add, with great sincerity, that some of us in this House have long memories. Whilst we preserve the peace of the world we must be sure that, at the end of this particular incident, we are not placed in an impossible position from which to defend freedom and preserve peace.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us will endorse the opening remarks of the Leader of the Opposition in expressing sympathy for the United States in the position in which it finds itself—a position not entirely unknown to this country?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware of the talk, now being bandied around, about acts of piracy? Will he make it clear that piracy can only be committed by a captain or seaman at sea who is acting contrary to the orders, or independent of the orders, of his head of State, and that, therefore, whatever action this embargo may constitute, it is certainly not piracy?

Will my right hon. Friend finally bear in mind that the real test of an alliance does not always come when all its members are in total agreement but at a time when a certain member of the alliance may find it necessary, in its own defence, to take independent action? May I therefore endorse what my right hon. Friend has said about the importance of the alliance being kept firm?

The Prime Minister

I think that what my hon. Friend has said is correct. I do not think that this is the moment to go into the niceties of international law, but it is only fair to make two points. The character of this embargo is extremely limited. It is not a general embargo on all goods—not even on all arms. It is an embargo on these particular weapons, with all that they imply. Secondly, in new situations—and these are unprecedented situations in the nuclear world—we cannot rely on a pedantic review of precedents.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

Can the right hon. Gentleman say, following the latest news that Mr. Khrushchev has made a submission to President Kennedy about a Summit meeting, whether such a meeting would include a representative of the United Kingdom—or are we to be excluded from any considerations?

If the Prime Minister has any official information about this proposed Summit meeting, will he make it clear both to the United States Government and to Mr. Khrushchev that this country must be consulted? This matter affects not only the Caribbean, but the whole world, particularly Europe. Can the right hon. Gentleman say also whether, in the event that the Russians, as is alleged, divert vessels carrying arms from Cuba, the United States propose to continue the search of British vessels? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that, if Russian ships are diverted, there is no question of an arms search, that British ships will not allow themselves to be searched by the United States?

The Prime Minister

We have for some time had an agreement with British shipowners that no arms of any kind will be carried in British vessels. In any case, it is almost inconceivable that arms of this limited category would be put into British vessels—although in some ways there would be some convenience in having a look at them. I do not think that point arises and I do not think that we shall have difficulty with our American friends on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman's question will not arise because we have assured the United States Government that we have already got agreements that British ships will not carry arms. That has been the situation for some weeks. This is a limited embargo and, therefore, does not alter the situation.

With regard to the movement of ships, the House will realise the hours factor. It is difficult to keep the latest information up to date. I heard late last night that there was some indication that a number of the ships had changed course while others seemed likely to be going on; but I do not know. It was not an officially confirmed report. If it is confirmed, I have no doubt which of the ships will have changed their course. Joint consultation between the allies must and does continue.

With regard to the question of a Summit, there has been no proposal, as far as I know, by Mr. Khrushchev. What I saw was a reply to a telegram sent by Lord Russell in which he said that a Summit meeting would be a useful thing —or something of that kind—tout no proposal from one Government to another.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while the vast majority of people will accept the position of Her Majesty's Government—

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)


Mr. Lloyd

—and will welcome what has been said today about the immediate approach and how to handle the immediate situation, many, looking a little further to the future, hope that this very dangerous situation will be used to give a new and greatly increased impetus to constructive negotiations about disarmament?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, I thoroughly agree and it was for that reason that I said in my statement that we trusted that, based on some alleviation of the present state of tension, it might be possible to move into a wider field of negotiation. I might add that this situation is particularly tragic because there were indications during recent months that over many questions the situation was improving and the atmosphere towards negotiation was getting better. This is really, as I said, a most sinister change of front and we have most carefully to consider what is involved in it and what really lies behind it.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

Is the Prime Minister aware that our anxiety over the threat of conflict in the Cuban area is in danger of overshadowing the fact of Chinese aggression along the Indian frontier? Can he say anything this morning to relieve the anxiety Which, I am sure, is felt on both sides of the House? In particular, can he say what requests have been made by the Indian Prime Minister to this country and how far and by what means—the delivery of arms or other means—we can help our Indian friends in the Commonwealth to ward off Chinese aggression?

Mr. Speaker

There is some difficulty about this. I would like to help the hon. Lady, but I have authority from the House only to allow questions arising out of the statement made by the Prime Minister, and this does not seem to be quite the same topic.

Miss Lee

Can I modify my question to the point of asking the Prime Minister whether he agrees that preoccupation with the dangers around the Cuban area is apt to overshadow the other act of aggression which deeply concerns the House?

The Prime Minister

If I have the leave of the House to answer that, may I say that I have been in close touch and have interchanged messages with the Prime Minister of India. As regards practical help, while I would not like to give details—the hon. Lady will understand—there is no doubt of the reality that we are ready and anxious to help in any practical way we can. But as to the methods, I think that the Indian Government themselves would probably prefer to deal with them on a commercial rather than on inter-governmental basis.

Mr. Edward Gardner (Billericay)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this crisis emphasises yet again that our first ambition must be disarmament by safe and practicable methods by all nations? Will he assure the House and people everywhere that he will continue to do all he can to secure the fulfilment of this fundamental condition?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I must say that that is also very much in the mind of the President of the United States. What I feel we must try to do is to resolve this immediate danger without a form of appeasement which will lead us into greater danger, or merely postpone clangers, but, having done that, to use it as a new impetus to see whether we cannot proceed with the wider negotiation which alone can give real peace to the world and on which we had made some progress and on which many of us have worked for so long.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Is it not a fact that both the United States disarmament plan and the Soviet disarmament plan, put forward at the 18-Power disarmament conference, provide for the dismantling of all foreign bases? Would not the Prime Minister agree that the best contribution which President Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev could make to the peace of the world would be to meet and break the present disarmament deadlock, which would lead to a solution of all these problems?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, but all these questions reinforce our view that phrases, words and promises, however given, even between individual statesmen, must be supported by independent verification.

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