HC Deb 28 February 1963 vol 672 cc1439-44
Q1. Mr. Swingler

asked the Prime Minister why he did not inform the nation that on 20th October, 1962, he had given authority for alerting all V-bomber crews and Thor rocket bases in preparation for nuclear war.

Q2. Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister for what reason he authorised the Thor rockets and the V-bombers in this country to be put in a state of instant readiness for attack during the United States' arms blockade of Cuba.

Q4. Mr. Warbey

asked the Prime Minister why, during the Cuban crisis period last October, he ordered the 60 Thor missiles in East Anglia to be held at instant readiness for firing, and the V-bomber force to be held at instant readiness for despatch to targets in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Q5. Mr. Driberg

asked the Prime Minister what steps he took during the Cuba crisis to alert Thor rocket bases and V-bomber crews in preparation for nuclear war: and why official denials that any such action had been taken were issued at the time in response to Press inquiries.

Q9. Mr. Grimond

asked the Prime Minister whether there was a full airborne alert of the British strategic bomber force at the time of the 'Cuba crisis; and what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking in concert with their allies to develop more effective joint planning and control of the nuclear weapons used by the alliance, so that the allies may share with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in major foreign policy and defence decisions.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The V-bomber force and the Thor rockets in this country are always at a very high state of readiness. During the period of tension, though not, in fact, on the date mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler). certain precautionary steps were taken, but more than this was not necessary.

As regards the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, we are discussing with our North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies a whole range of problems arising from the development of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation nuclear force foreshadowed in the statement on nuclear defence systems which I agreed with the President of the United States at Nassau in December last year.

Mr. Swingler: No doubt the Prime Minister will have seen the detailed allegations made by Mr. Stevenson Pugh, the Daily Mail Defence Correspondent, on 18th February. Is the Prime Minister calling Mr. Pugh a liar and saying that his detailed allegations are false or does the Prime Minister's Answer about precautionary measures contain a formula for concealing the fact that the Government were preparing a national suicide threat at the time of the Cuban crisis?

The Prime Minister

Naturally, if the deterrent is to play its rôle it is always kept at a high state of readiness. During a period of tension certain additional steps were taken, but they are of a kind which is merely intended and normal and were no more than normal.

Mr. Zilliacus

Is the Prime Minister telling the House that he was prepared to enter into a nuclear war which would have destroyed the people of this country in support of an act of aggression by the United States, which had resorted to force in violation of the United Nations Charter? Why did the Prime Minister deny that any such action had been taken? Was that just a diplomatic courtesy to the people of this country?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. The hon. Member is making a quite false deduction from what I have said or from what was done.

Mr. Warbey

Exactly what was the purpose of these precautionary measures? Were they directed towards ensuring that the missiles and V-bombers could be more instantly used for attack or were they directed towards ensuring that they could be immobilised so that in the event of nuclear war ensuing from the Kennedy-Khrushchev dispute over Cuba, this country would have been able to stay out and the lives of its people protected?

The Prime Minister

I am not prepared to add to what I have said. Any weapon of this kind must, of course, always be, if it is to exist at all, at a high state of readiness. In certain periods of tension, it is quite natural that certain normal precautionary measures should be taken in addition.

Mr. Driberg

Would the Prime Minister at least be good enough to answer the second part of my Question? Since he has said today that certain precautionary steps were taken, could he say why categorical denials were given at the time that any preparations were being made? These denials were put out to reputable defence correspondents, as he perhaps knows, by Ministry of Defence and Bomber Command spokesmen.

The Prime Minister

What was denied was that some abnormal action was taken. This was the normal procedure of a force which is kept at a much higher normal state of readiness than is perhaps the case with other forces.

Mr. Grimond

Will the right hon. Gentleman be more explicit about what is meant by the word "normal"? This seems to have been a very abnormal situation. Surely people are entitled to know what abnormal steps were taken. Is it not usual that any crisis in the West affects all nations of the West if they are of any power whatever? If that is so, is it not vital that the nations of the West should consult not only about the final crisis but about the diplomatic and defence decisions which lead to it? The Prime Minister has stated that discussions are proceeding. Can he say what proposals the Government are making and what progress is being made with the discussion of guide lines?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I have nothing to add to what I have said. It is clear that with weapons of this kind, if one has them they must, if they are to be credible, be kept at a very high state of readiness. At certain periods of tension certain additional steps are taken. That is not unreasonable. With regard to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, that would arise in the discussions which will take place—in the next week or two, I believe—in Paris. Our proposals are, broadly, those which are set down in the Nassau Agreement.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is not one of the lessons of the Cuban affair that the deterrent does indeed deter? Is my right hon. Friend aware that very many people in this House and throughout the country fully endorse the unflinching support given by Her Majesty's Government and the Royal Air Force to the United States in this matter? Furthermore, is he aware that we would welcome reciprocal American support in regions such as the Middle East which are vital to us?

The Prime Minister

The lesson of Cuba is certainly that the strength of the alliance as a whole was of very great value in reaching a settlement. It is also a fact that these terrible forces on both sides did deter war, because all Governments must shrink from any action which could bring them into play.

Mr. Healey

On the question of the collective control of the alliance's nuclear forces, why is the Government's representative on the N.A.T.O. Council opposing the American proposal for a multilateral N.A.T.O. deterrent? Is it because Her Majesty's Government insist that every participant in a collective force should have the right to withdraw it in case of national emergency? Does not this open up the gravest dangers in case West Germany, for example, participates in such a multi-national deterrent?

The Prime Minister

As far as I know, there is no question of a proposal that non-nuclear Powers should have a national control of nuclear weapons.

Q3. Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister whether the public speech of the Foreign Secretary, read for him at the Wilton Park Conference at Steyning, Sussex, on 18th February, regarding resort to nuclear weapons against attacks by conventional forces, represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Zilliacus

Is it, then, the Government's policy to resort to nuclear weapons first in case of a conflict involving only conventional arms?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. That is not the necessary deduction. I must repeat what I have said before. It seems to me very unwise to inform a possible aggressor in advance of the precise circumstances in which he can or cannot make an aggression without danger of retaliation.

Mr. Healey

But would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the level of conventional attack which the West is capable of withstanding without resort to nuclear weapons will depend on the level of the West's own conventional forces? Is it not the case that the failure of the Government to make their proper contribution to the N.A.T.O. conventional forces, as agreed in the Paris Treaties in 1954, and the proposal of the Government to withdraw yet another brigade group from West Germany, are likely dangerously to lower the level at which the West will be obliged to respond with nuclear retaliation?

The Prime Minister

I understand that we are to have a two-day defence debate next week. For the moment, I can only say that the hon. Gentleman appears to rest upon rumour and, from rumour, to draw false conclusions.

Mr. H. Wilson

Will the right hon. Gentleman at any rate make it clear that the policy of the Government is, and should be, based on the principle that the conventional forces of N.A.T.O. should be adequate to resist conceivable conventional attacks, so that we are not automatically driven into escalation and into the use of nuclear weapons?

The Prime Minister

That opens up very wide questions. What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by the words "adequate to resist"—a week, two weeks, a month, a year, or two years?