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"I Assumed He'd Get the Message" Failures in Communication During the Skybolt Crisis September-December 1962

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Failures in Communication During the Skybolt Crisis September-December 1962

Text of "I Assumed He'd Get the Message" Failures in Communication During the Skybolt Crisis...


In the 1960's, the Cold War was beginning to reach a period of heating up. The Western Hemisphere was constantly trying to combat the Soviet Union's advances in nuclear technology. Whether that meant preventing the placement of Russian missiles in land close to the West or developing their own missiles to counter the Soviet equivalents, America and its allies were looking to gain the upper hand on Khrushchev. During the Eisenhower administration, England was looking to develop its own nuclear deterrent called Blue Streak. Blue Streak would be attached to England's V-bomber and would be an air-to-surface missile. Despite a partnership with Australia, England chose to cancel due to the costly development and partner with America on its missile, called Skybolt.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Raymond Williams, "Skybolt and American Foreign Policy," Military Affairs 30 (3), 153, Accessed November 23, 2015, doi:10.2307/1985370. ]

The U.K. joined America in the production of Skybolt in 1960 at Camp David. Initially, Prime Minister Macmillan, the Conservative party leader, desired the Polaris missile but after touting Skybolt heavily, the United States was able to persuade Macmillan to take it. A "memo of understanding" was then signed after the meeting where England would buy one thousand Skybolt missiles without their warheads once they were completed, which was estimated to be sometime in 1965.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Ibid, 153]

By September of 1962, the fate of the Skybolt missile was already being called into question. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara presented to the President and Secretary of State Dean Rusk the issues with the missile, which was still in development. Two separate reports were done by the Controller of the Pentagon, Charles Hitch, and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Harold Brown, per request of McNamara. Hitch and Brown both came to the same conclusion: Skybolt as a part of a B-52 force is inferior to the missile programs already in place at the time. Hound Dog missiles could easily be attached to the fleet of B-52's for a smaller amount of money and act as defence suppression or primary attack missiles in conjunction with the Minuteman missiles. With Hound Dog completed and Minuteman nearing completion at the end of 1962, Skybolt did not make fiscal sense. Another problem with Skybolt noted in the Brown and Hitch reports was the low reliability. They note, Skybolt will take another two years...the difference in schedule is likely to be reflected, as well, in a lower reliability for Skybolt....that risk that Skybolt will fail to work at all is very low; the risk that it will not be a highly reliable...system until the late 1960's is quite large.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Report to the President, "Skybolt and Nassau: American Policy-Making and Anglo-American Foreign Relations," 15 November 1963 in Richard E Neustadt, Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective, 1st ed. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999, 27-28]

From this point on, the future of Skybolt had been sealed. The United States would terminate production of the missile and instead focus its efforts on submarine launched missiles, like Polaris. Cancellation of Skybolt would affect England more so than it would the United States. England was relying on Skybolt to be its nuclear deterrent in the 1960's. Without the missile, England's plan for a V-bomber central defence would be null. No nuclear deterrent would also create a serious problem as Prime Minister Macmillan attempted to convince Charles de Gaulle to allow England to enter the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the European Union.How to satisfy both the needs of Macmillan's Tory government and the needs of the United States became the main focus of JFK's cabinet. Fresh out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy left the issue of Skybolt to members of his own cabinet who ultimately passed the issue down to their own staff. Lack of communication between superiors and their staff, or "Chiefs and Indians" as Neustadt refers to the relationship in the Report to JFK, was what ultimately lead to the mishandling of foreign relations between England and the United States.With the reports from different branches of the government, it seemed as if Skybolt was going to be cancelled in September. The U.S. was looking for a way to break the news to England or at least tell them that it was a possibility that production of the missile may stop. Great Britain's Minister of Defence Peter Thorneycroft made his way across the pond to visit the United States in mid-September. Skybolt was discussed between Thorneycroft, Kennedy, and McNamara but the whole truth was kept from Thorneycroft. McNamara painted an optimistic picture to the Minister of Defence, saying that production funds had just been released Skybolt.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 31-32]

Despite that piece of news, Thorneycroft still warned the Kennedy administration that Skybolt was pivotal to the U.K.'s defence plan and that the U.S. needed to hold up its end of the deal made at Camp David under Eisenhower. The lack of information at this stage was because there was no definitive answer on the fate of the missile. McNamara could not give an answer to Thorneycroft because he himself did not know and nor did official Washington. Official word would not be given until October 15th. More pressing matters came up the day before on October 14th. Skybolt would have to take a backseat to the Cuban Missile Crisis.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Ibid, 32-33]

When the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak on October 26th, a memorandum was sent from Budget Director Bell to McGeorge Bundy. Originally, the memorandum had been drafted for JFK himself but due to the situation at hand, Bell advised his staff to change the addressee. It stated, "...the current reviews in Defense in connection with the 1964 budget will lead to a firm recommendation by the Secretary that development of Skybolt be cancelled."[footnoteRef:6] Finally, official word had been sent that Skybolt was highly likely to be cancelled. In that same memo, Bell warned that [6: Director of Budget Bell to McGeorge Bundy, October 26, 1962, Memorandum, in Report to JFK, 33]

cancellation is likely to create internal political problems for the British...our actions, up to now...have clearly implied an intention to proceed...It would seem important that suitable arrangements be made for advance notification...and consultation prior to the time that a decision becomes known publicly or through Air Force channels....[footnoteRef:7] [7: Ibid]

Bundy, heavily involved in Cuba, barely saw this memo. It was instead passed on to his secretary, Carl Kaysen, who was acting as "Bundy-for-everything-else." A Chief had passed down the workload to an Indian. It was then up Kaysen and the rest of the Indians not working on Cuba to sort this out. Kaysen turned to his colleagues working at the British National Affairs desk, a department used infrequently as the president and his colleagues often act as the liaison between Britain and the U.S. The men of the British National Affairs chimed the same warning as the others: Tell Macmillan the news with enough time to prepare.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 34-35]

With the cancellation of Skybolt now all but certain, the U.S. was faced with breaking the bad news to its ally. America was well aware of the importance of the missile to England. In a memorandum from Executive Secretary from William H. Brubeck to Karl Kaysen, a staff member of the National Security Council, the ramifications for Her Majesty's Government are outlined. England was relying on its fleet of V-bombers to be its main strike force in the 1960's while the U.S. was instead turning its focus to submarine based missiles. With Polaris being launched from under the sea and Hound Dog already completed, the U.S. did not see a need to continue with the missile.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Executive Secretary Brubeck to Kaysen, through Bundy, by request of Kaysen, October 31, 1962, Department of State Memorandum in Foreign Relations of the United States, 19611963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, 19611963, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 398,]

Politically, cancellation would have serious impacts for Prime Minister Macmillan's government. The Tory party in England had won election by promising the nation that they could deal with both defence and the Americans. Failure to acquire Skybolt would be both a failure in the defence department and a failure in dealing with the Americans. With an election scheduled in November, Macmillan could not risk losing seats in the House of Commons to the Labour party because of Skybolt.[footnoteRef:10] [10: Ibid]

"The special U.S.-U.K. relationship" was also seen to be at risk. As stated in the memorandum, "Without beating the drums too much, it might be pointed out that a far more important ingredient in this relationship than the peculiar provisions of our atomic legislation is the degree of mutual trust and confidence which exists between the two countries."[footnoteRef:11] This trust between the two nations was what allowed the level of cooperation in military affairs. Since the U.S. would sell the U.K. Skybolt, the U.K. allowed the U.S. to use Holy Loch and Christmas Island to house missiles and submarines. An estrangement with America's oldest and closest ally might leave a black mark on the U.S. and cause other nations to be weary of trusting them. This would have been a major blow to the whole alliance system. The memorandum warns, "We should carefully consider the possible consequences of an estrangement of this relationship."[footnoteRef:12] [11: Ibid] [12: Ibid]

What the memorandum ultimately suggests is to communicate with the British and try to solve the problem. It says if a decision on Skybolt has not been made, then there should be a consultation between the two nations. If the U.S. has already decided to cancel production of the missile, Kennedy should send Macmillan a letter explaining the fiscal and military reasons for its cancellation while also allowing Macmillan time to prepare for backlash when the decision does go public.[footnoteRef:13] [13: Ibid]

On November 7th, the Washington finally decided to send word to London. Eleven days after the climactic Sunday of the crisis in Cuba, the men of the Kennedy administration felt like they could tackle any problem so they shifted their attention, albeit briefly, to Skybolt. McNamara's cancellation of Skybolt would save America $2.5 billion over several fiscal years with a fifth of it being saved in the next fiscal year alone. The issue was no longer what to tell the British whether the project had been cancelled or not but what kind of compensation would be offered to Great Britain now that it was. McNamara and Rusk both stated that the Skybolt crisis was "so serious as to make the Government fall" in London.[footnoteRef:14] Without a substitute, their prediction may have just very well came true. The discussion of Skybolt at the meeting ended quickly and it was decided that Sir David Ormsby Gore, the British Ambassador, would tell Macmillan.[footnoteRef:15] [14: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 36] [15: Ibid, 37]

On November 8th, Secretary of Defense McNamara saw Gore and told him all he was able to. Skybolt was very likely to be cancelled due to increasing costs. All that was needed to give Skybolt the final nail in the coffin was the recommendations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McNamara tried to reassure Gore that he had time and that no decision would be made for three to four weeks. Gore returned to the embassy stunned. A compatriot noted that on that day Gore "was like a man who'd learned the Bomb was going to drop...and he doubted he could stop it."[footnoteRef:16] [16: Ibid, 37]

McNamara called Minister of Defence Thorneycroft on November 9th to discuss the news Ambassador Gore broke to him only a few days ago. McNamara told Thorneycroft, "Prior to any U.S. decision to cancel I would be quite willing to come to London to discuss the matter...I estimated that the decision would be not made here before approximately December 10."[footnoteRef:17] But December 10th was not the date McNamara expected a decision. November 23rd was and December 10th was instead the date McNamara expected the decision to be leaked. This was not done to confuse London but to give McNamara leeway.[footnoteRef:18] [17: Ibid, 38] [18: Ibid]

Thorneycroft was not as dramatic as his colleague Gore was. He appreciated the warning from McNamara. Thorneycroft decided to have his department reassess how the V-bomber force could be of use without Skybolt and how Washington and London should announce to the public should the program be cancelled. Near the end of the conversation, Thorneycroft implied, according to McNamara, that Her Majesty's Government "would wish to consider a sub-launched missile if the V-bomber would be made obsolete by the loss of Skybolt."[footnoteRef:19] By Thorneycroft's own recollection, "I did more than intimate; I used the word 'Polaris.' I said I thought we'd have to start from there. I assumed he'd get the message."[footnoteRef:20] [19: Ibid, 38-39] [20: Ibid, 39 Besides that last quote from Minister of Defence Thorneycroft, the recollection of the conversation between McNamara and Thorneycroft came from McNamara. According to Neustadt, both square with each other except on the point of Polaris. McNamara said Thorneycroft only hinted at it with the sub-based missiles.]

Despite this initial wave of communication, discussions between the U.S. and the U.K. were few and far between in the rest of November. Prime Minister Macmillan did not feel it was his place to push the U.S. to a decision and he was hoping the U.S. would not make any decisions until after the election for members of the House of Commons. Macmillan could handle any criticisms the Labour party threw at him provided the Tories held the majority.[footnoteRef:21] [21: Ibid, 59]

On November 15th, Macmillan cabled Gore in Washington with the instructions to present three matters of procedure to President Kennedy. First, Macmillan needed to make sure there would be no press leaks before consultation. Second, no decisions on Skybolt or alternatives could be made until after consultation. Finally, that the consultation mentioned should take place as soon as possible. Macmillan also asked Gore whether or not he should call JFK. Gore didn't reply until a week later on the 21st which is an interestingly long time. Gore said that calling Kennedy now would be premature and that it should wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday. Calling now would make Macmillan look weak.[footnoteRef:22] [22: Ibid, 59-60]

Both sides were curious why nobody called each other at this point. Neither London or Washington wanted to seem like it was being pushy. The election in London proved to be less than desirable for the Tory party with six seats being lost to the Labour party on November 22nd. Throughout November, messages were exchanged between London and Washington but they did not discuss Skybolt. At last, on November 27th, it was decided a meeting would be arranged in Nassau in three weeks on December 18th with the goal of coming up with a solution for Skybolt.[footnoteRef:23] [23: Ibid, 60-61]

Previous to the decision to meet in December, the U.S. was planning on alternatives to what they would offer Macmillan since Skybolt had been terminated. Three options were drafted for Great Britain. First, the British could continue with the research of Skybolt through cut-back production in the U.S. or through production in England with U.S. technology. This option would cost $375 million dollars, or $175 million more than the U.K. was planning on spending on Skybolt. Second, England could buy Hound Dog missiles to use on V-bombers. The problem was that V-bombers would need further modifications to carry that missile and by the time those were completed, they would be obsolete. The third option would be participation in a sea-based, medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) force under multilateral manning. At this point in time, the U.K. wanted to avoid discussion of this until after EEC negotiations were over with de Gaulle. Secretary Rusk wanted to " make quite clear to the British that there is no possibility of our helping them set up a nationally manned and owned MRBM force."[footnoteRef:24] [24: Letter From Secretary of State Rusk to Secretary of Defense McNamara, November 24, 1962, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 19611963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, 19611963, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 400,]

The problem Secretary Rusk saw with giving England MRBM's was the potential jealousy amongst Europe of the "special U.S.-U.K. relationship." The U.K. had been denied entrance to the European Economic Community by France previously on grounds that it relied too heavily on the U.S. in regards to defence. A multilateral force would only make that reliance seem stronger. The U.S. had also been denying the Federal Republic of Germany access to MRBM's on the basis that putting nuclear missiles so close to the Soviet Union's borders would spark another situation similar to Cuba. Granting England a force of Polaris armed submarines could spark demands that the Federal Republic of Germany should receive equal treatment. Rusk ends his letter by saying that the options presented to England must be limited to those listed and that if Polaris is offered, it has to be part of a multilateral force, not an independent deterrent.[footnoteRef:25] [25: Ibid]

By the time of the Nassau meeting, tensions had been high. Poor communication up until this point had left both sides practically in the dark about each other's plans. Macmillan did not know for sure what the Kennedy was going to offer and Kennedy did not know if Macmillan would accept any of the three offers his cabinet had devised. Macmillan had just returned from unsuccessful talks with Charles de Gaulle in regards to entry to the EEC. By December 18th, Macmillan had already decided he would not accept a British continuation of the Skybolt and instead wanted Polaris.[footnoteRef:26] [26: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 89 ]

Talks began the following day in the morning. Present at the conference was Kennedy, Secretary McNamara, Prime Minister Macmillan, Minister of Defence Thorneycroft, Ambassador Ormsby Gore, and others. Macmillan opened the meeting by discussing the cooperation that existed between the two nations since Roosevelt when it came to matters of nuclear weapons. He reminded Kennedy of the Camp David agreement made under Eisenhower which stated that England agreed to take Skybolt with the stipulation that the U.S. was able to have a submarine base at Holy Loch. Macmillan then moved immediately to Polaris, saying that if the U.K. received that missile, he felt that France and the FRG would not feel slighted.[footnoteRef:27] [27: Memorandum of Conversation on Skybolt between The President, Secretary McNamara, Mr. Ball, Ambassador Bruce, Mr. Bundy, Ambassador Thompson, The Prime Minister, Lord Home, Mr. Thorneycroft, Ambassador Ormsby Gore, Mr. de Zuleta, and Mr. Bligh, December 19, 1962, Nassau, The Bahamas, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 19611963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, 19611963, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 402,]

Kennedy did not offer the Polaris missile on the first deal. He instead offered Macmillan the chance to buy the research from America and continue on with Skybolt. They could acquire all of it for $100 million, a package Kennedy said was worth $450 million worth of work. Kennedy said he wanted to use the time in Nassau to create a multilateral force that could satisfy the needs of both nations. Macmillan declined that offer outright, with the retort, "The girl has been violated in public."[footnoteRef:28] Kennedy was mostly worried about upsetting the other European nations, mainly France and the FRG. He did not want to give them the same deal as England out of fear that the nations would then expect U.S. aid.[footnoteRef:29] [28: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 90] [29: Memorandum of Conversation on Skybolt between The Foreign Relations of the United States, 19611963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, 19611963, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 402,]

On day two, the final deal was decided. Macmillan got Polaris and the submarines but still had to be a part of a multilateral force. Macmillan was prepared to put in all of his part of a Polaris force provided the Queen had the ultimate power and right to call back the submarines in case of a dire emergency, similar to that in 1940. England would get its independent nuclear deterrent while still satisfying America's need for a multilateral force. Macmillan made an interesting comment towards the opening of discussion. He said, Actually, the whole thing is ridiculous. What do seven or eight UK units add to the existing nuclear strength, which is enough to blow up the world? So why does the UK want it? It is partly a question of keeping up with the Joneses...[footnoteRef:30] [30: Memorandum of Conversation on Skybolt between The Prime Minister, Lord Home, Ambassador David Ormsby Gore, Sir Robert Scott, Mr. Thorneycroft, Mr. Bligh, The President, Secretary McNamara, Under Secretary Ball, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Ambassador Bruce, and Mr. William R. Tyler, December 20, 1962, Nassau, The Bahamas, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 19611963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada, 19611963, eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010), Document 406,]

Macmillan knew that the question of having missiles was not just about having a deterrent, but also about keeping up an image on the international stage. Without the "latest and greatest" weapon, a nation would be seen as weak. It was also decided at Nassau that France would be offered the same deal England was offered, which they ultimately rejected.[footnoteRef:31] [31: Ibid and Report to the President in Report to JFK, 101]

Throughout the whole Skybolt Crisis, communication between departments and nations could have allowed the situation to not have been so tense at times. In the conclusion in the Report to the President, Neustadt makes mention of the letter that outlined the three options for England,But might-have-dones are not confined at high levels. At lower levels one finds more enduring problems....One of the most revealing things in this entire the State Department letter of "instruction" to Defense...For what this indicates is that at upper official levels, where staff work was confined, State's Indians who took the lead in drafting neither grasped the "British problem," nor took time for though about, nor faced up to the dilemma it created for their chiefs.[footnoteRef:32] [32: Report to the President in Report to JFK, 113 ]

The main issue Neustadt sees with the relationship between Chiefs and Indians is the narrow-minded view of policy and "low tolerance for listening." The report recommends that an interdependency needs to be created in the administration so that all departments will be working together in order to do their jobs effectively.[footnoteRef:33] [33: Ibid, 115]

There were numerous times throughout the crisis where a faster reply or even just a telephone call or letter informing Great Britain the intentions of the United States could have saved both sides a load of headaches in the end. Because of the lack of communication, the trust between England and America was violated and the "special relationship" suffered because of that. Though there was cooperation on the staff level, the Chiefs did not listen to the constant warnings of their Indians to simply contact Macmillan. Kennedy was unable to see the changes in Neustadt's report through. A few days after reading the report, he was assassinated in Dallas.[footnoteRef:34] [34: The Report to JFK was one of the last documents JFK read. On Sunday, November 17th, he spent the day by the pool reading it at his family's home in Palm Beach. He gave it to his wife and said, "If you want to know what my life is like, read this." It was the first government document Kennedy had given Jackie and she was so struck by it, she kept it on her person, reading portions while on their trip to Texas. ]

Works Cited

PrimaryReport to the President, "Skybolt and Nassau: American Policy-Making and Anglo-American Foreign Relations," 15 November 1963Foreign Relations of the United States. 19611963. Volume XIII. Western Europe and Canada, 19611963. eds. Daniel J. Lawler and Erin R. Mahan (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2010.) Documents 398, 400, 402, and 406.

SecondaryEllison, James. "The Special Relationship and Its Critics." The American Interest. June 17, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015., Richard E. Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective. 1st ed. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999. Williams, Raymond C.. 1966. Skybolt and American Foreign Policy. Military Affairs 30 (3): 15360. doi:10.2307/1985370.