"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, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v13/d398]

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: