Almost Oblivious to END, 1945–1957



From the late 1940s to the early 1970s,1 many senior officials in Canberra made serious attempts to acquire and then develop an Australian nuclear weapons capability. However, for more than a decade, Australian thinking about nuclear weapons and strategy remained inchoate. Extended nuclear deterrence (END) as a concept in Australian strategic policy did not yet exist. Canberra was focused almost entirely on British defense policy, and any thinking about the role of nuclear weapons revolved around their tactical use in a war-fighting context, not their strategic utility as instruments of deterrence. Policy-makers first thought about the bomb in purely literal terms: how such weapons could be used against communist forces in Southeast Asia and to destroy forces attempting to invade Australia. There was no discussion of concepts that would guide the use of these weapons. This chapter identifies and examines the prevailing attitude of policy-makers, and how that view was shaped by the geopolitical circumstances at the time. It argues that Australian thinking about nuclear weapons developed primarily through the framework of thinking about Canberra’s strategic ties to Britain, and the idea of being a responsible contributor to the notion of “Empire defense.” Indeed, although Australia was aligned with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty, policy-makers did not think of it as a “nuclear” alliance until around 1956.


Nuclear Weapon External Affair Nuclear Capability Defence Committee Lucas Height 
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  1. 1.
    Most of the evidence showing actual efforts to acquire or develop the bomb has already been documented by Jim Walsh and others. For a comprehensive review of the history of efforts, assessments, bureaucratic processes, and debates on the nuclear option in Australia, see Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” Nonproliferation Review (Fall 1997), pp. 1–20; Richard Broinonwski, Fact or Fission?: The Truth about Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions (Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2003);Google Scholar
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    1953 Strategic Basis; 1956 Strategic Basis; 1962 Strategic Basis; 1963 Strategic Basis; 1964 Strategic Basis. In 1953, Minister for External Affairs Richard Casey identified “communist imperialism based on the mainland of China” as the primary threat to regional peace and stability. Cited in Neville Meaney, Australia and the World: A Documentary History from the 1870s to the 1970s (Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1985), p. 593.Google Scholar
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    A number of elements contributed to this perception. One important factor was US testing of its nuclear devices. David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956 (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1994), p. 162. Another was the nature of NATO war planning in the 1950s, which inspired the Australian defence establishment to plan in the same manner. Note to James Plimsoll from Defence Liaison Branch, January 12, 1955, NAA: A1838/269, CS TS691/1. It was noted that “nuclear weapons… are being increasingly introduced into the armament of the great powers for employment in all aspects of offensive and defensive warfare.” Memorandum by Defence Committee, “Nuclear Weapons for the Australian Forces,” p. 3. February 6, 1958, NAA: A1209/80 CS 58/5155.Google Scholar
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© Christine M. Leah 2014

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