68 Note by Evans

Canberra, 30 June 1965

Top Secret

History of Australian Policy towards the Acquisition of a Nuclear Weapons Capability


The Australian Government has consistently given support to all genuine efforts to both general and complete disarmament and to the banning of nuclear tests. In doing so, it has, however, been careful to leave the way open for the acquisition of a nuclear capability should future circumstances make this necessary for Australian security. Generally, the policy has been to avoid supporting any moves which would prohibit the stationing of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear countries by the nuclear powers, on the grounds that this would prevent possible stationing by the U.K. or the U.S. of nuclear weapons in Australia should this ever be necessary. On three separate occasions since 1961 this policy has been extended to allow the possible direct acquisition of a nuclear capability by the Australian Government.

Australia has supported international moves aimed at preventing the emergence of new nuclear powers. Many of Australia's reservations on disarmament schemes stem from concern at the intentions of Communist China and the undesirability of being bound by arrangements which may not bind Communist China. Australian defence policy has remained committed to the use of all resources available at the present time in improving conventional forces.

Prime Minister's Speech in Parliament, September 1957

The first definitive public statement on Australia's attitude towards a nuclear weapons capability for Australia was made by the Prime Minister in the House of Representatives on 19th September, 1957, with a subsequent clarification of some of his remarks the following day. This policy speech has formed the basis of most appreciations of an Australian nuclear weapons capability since that time.

The Prime Minister stated, inter alia, in the above speech that

  1. 'Australia is not a nuclear power in the military sense. If we were to set out to become one, we would be involved in such prodigious expenditures as to involve either an intolerable total Defence Vote, or a heavy degree of abandonment of non-nuclear elements.'
  2. 'There is advantage in the world in having nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in the hands of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union and no others.'
  3. 'Should the manufacture of nuclear weapons be extended to a number of other powers, great or small, the chances of irresponsible action with calamitous repercussions in the world would be materially increased.'
  4. 'Australia's immediate plans for defence should be in the “conventional” field.'
  5. In his clarification on 20th September, the Prime Minister stated that he wished to prevent any misunderstanding that 'under no circumstances will Australian forces in the future be armed with nuclear weapons'. His statement, he said, was not meant to 'exclude the possibility of future procurement'.1

UNGA 1958

Australia's attitude to the acquisition of nuclear capability has on many occasions been considered in the light of draft resolutions before the United Nations, mainly on nondissemination questions. The first important occasion of this kind was in October, 1958, when an Irish proposal suggested a ban on the supply of nuclear weapons to countries which did not possess nuclear capability and a ban on their manufacture by such countries.2

The Department of Defence, asked by the Department of External Affairs for its views, replied on 23rd October, 1958 that it doubted that the Irish proposal was capable of effective policing, but commented that 'there was no intention in the foreseeable future to manufacture nuclear weapons in Australia' and 'there would therefore be no Defence objection to support of an appropriately-worded resolution against the manufacture of nuclear weapons by a fourth power'.

Defence stated, however, that in view of 'situations which could arise in the future where the availability of some nuclear weapons might be essential to the security of the country' … 'Australia should not willingly enter into any Agreement which would preclude the United States or the United Kingdom making nuclear weapons available in this country in certain circumstances and under certain conditions.' The possible need for information on nuclear weapons, the stationing of U.S. or U.K. weapons in Australia under their control with use by joint agreement, and the possible need at some future time of nuclear warheads were cited as possible future requirements. The Defence attitude was essentially that the door on future 'supply' to Australia of nuclear weapons should not be closed.

UNGA 1959

In response to a further query on a revised Irish resolution at the 1959 (Fourteenth) U.N. General Assembly,3 Defence stated on 22nd October that its views were unchanged. The Defence memorandum, which had the approval of the Minister of Defence,4 agreed on the need for prevention of 'the extension of nuclear powers capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons and the unrestricted disposal of nuclear weapons by the present nuclear powers to other countries.' The memorandum added that this 'should not prohibit stationing of nuclear weapons in other countries with the supplier retaining control' (as for example in the case of U.S. and U.K. support of N.A.T.O. in Europe ('key-of-the-cupboard' arrangements)).

UNGA 1960

When the Disarmament question was discussed at the Fifteenth General Assembly in 1960, Australia's attitude as conveyed in instructions to the UNGA Delegation remained unchanged. Australia eventually abstained5 on a further Irish resolution which, inter alia, called on nonnuclear powers to refrain from manufacturing these weapons and from 'otherwise attempting to acquire them'. This latter phrase was interpreted as possibly preventing key-of-thecupboard arrangements, which would cut across U.S. support of N.A.T.O. and the possibility of future acquisition by Australia on that basis. Other objections were that non insistence of the prior establishment of a verification system might be exploited as a precedent by the Soviet Union, that the resolution would be contrary to the first of the 1960 Australian Defence Principles (which stated that Disarmament commitments should not be entered into without prior assurance of effective verification, inspection and control)6 and that Communist China would not be bound by the resolution.

Cabinet Consideration 1961

On 8th May, 1961 when the Nuclear Tests Conference was proceeding in Geneva, the United Kingdom approached the Australian Government to seek its concurrence to what the U.K. regarded as tactical suggestions on the setting up of control posts in Australia under Phase I of the (then) planned 3-stage establishment of a World-Wide Control System to police a nuclear tests ban. These requests resulted in a detailed analysis of Australia's policy regarding nuclear acquisition, and finally led to an exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister in which the latter was asked to recognize the U.K.'s obligation to provide Australia, if ever necessary, with a nuclear capability.7

The Minister for External Affairs (at that time the Prime Minister himself) argued, in a Cabinet Submission on the matter dated 7th June, 1961,8 that Australia was committed to support a controlled test ban treaty, but that this did not guarantee that other nuclear powers would not emerge. 'I take it as needing no argument that if China or Indonesia or other significant countries in our area were to acquire nuclear (weapons) capability … Australia would be forced to consider whether to acquire nuclear capability also'. (Paragraph 13). Nuclear capability would take the form of either strategic or tactical nuclear weapons and could be acquired in several different ways, ranging from 'full indigenous manufacture using our own designs, to indigenous manufacture using others' designs, to sole control by Australia over a stockpile in Australia of weapons manufactured by an ally, to joint control with that ally over such a stockpile, and finally to sole control by that ally over such a stockpile'. (Paragraph 14).

The Minister commented that 'my own prime concern, and our collective responsibility, is to ensure that as far as possible we take no decisions now which will commit our successors to a particular decision in the future, or which will even restrict the freedom of their decision between the two forms of nuclear capability and the several means of its acquisition'.

The submission argued that Australia could not stand out from any Treaty, and might not, because of pressure from its allies, be subsequently able to withdraw if it wished to do so. If therefore Australia was going to be committed not to test, it should seek to remove the possible disability of this limitation by seeking from the United Kingdom its agreement to provide Australia, if ever necessary, with manufacturing data or nuclear weapons. Cabinet accepted this proposal.

Exchange of Letters—Mr. Menzies and Mr. Macmillan

On 29th June, 1961, Mr. Menzies wrote in these terms to Mr. Macmillan, who replied on 14th August that the U.K. would need to consult the American Government ('on any action involving the spread of nuclear information'). A similar draft letter to the American Secretary of State, Mr. Rusk proposing 'sympathetic examination' of Australia's requirements, was never sent, because both initiatives lapsed on the resumption of Russian atmospheric testing. Mr. Menzies and Mr. Macmillan agreed that the matter should rest, with Mr. Menzies retaining an option to raise the matter 'when circumstances are more propitious'.

The submission to Cabinet and the letter from Mr. Menzies to Mr. Macmillan broke new ground, in that they did not take the view that it was sufficient for Australia to leave the way open to stationing of nuclear weapons, but specifically proposed the handing over of 'full manufacturing data' or 'in view of the time lag between manufacture and production …9 the supply of ready-made weapons'. Although the conditions under which the letter was written are no longer entirely relevant (as was pointed out by the Department of Defence in its oral advice on the subsequent Partial Test Ban Treaty-see below), some of the general propositions remain valid. It should also be noted that Mr. Macmillan's offer of talks with the U.S. (on Australia's proposal) was never in fact withdrawn.

A United States View

A United States view of some interest was expressed 2 years [later]10 on 17th August 1963 during a discussion in Washington between the United States Secretary of Defence, Mr McNamara and Sir Garfield Barwick. Mr McNamara asked Sir Garfield what the reaction would be in Australia to the development of nuclear weapons by the Chinese. Sir Garfield said that he thought this would impel opinion in the direction of believing that Australia should have nuclear weapons. Mr McNamara replied that he thought this would be entirely natural, and indeed the obvious thing to happen for a small population faced with an enormous population must naturally turn to the idea that its best protection lay in nuclear weapons.

UNGA 1961-Irish Resolution

In supporting an Irish Resolution (No. 1665) at the 16th General Assembly in 1961,11 calling for the conclusion of an 'international agreement' to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, it was Australia's understanding (although it was not publicly explained, as only a few members spoke on the draft) that any international agreement would include all militarily significant states, and from our point of view Communist China in particular. (This proviso was also incorporated in the Defence Principles of April, 1960).

UNGA 1961-Swedish Resolution-Letter to Secretary-General

Sir Garfield Barwick made the next important public presentation of Australian policy on 15th March, 1962,12 in answer to a letter from the Secretary-General of the UN concerning the Swedish Resolution (1664 (XVI)) at the 16th General Assembly in 1961.13 The Swedish resolution requested the Secretary-General to ascertain 'the conditions under which countries not possessing nuclear weapons might be willing to enter into specific undertakings to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring such weapons and to refuse to receive, in the future, nuclear weapons in their territories on behalf of other countries'.

Sir Garfield Barwick's letter restated the main tenets of the Prime Minister's speech of 19th September, 1957,14 which still remained valid. The letter said that Australia recognized 'the right of nuclear powers to conclude agreements for the stationing of their nuclear weapons wherever military necessity requires'. In the manner in which it quoted the Prime Minister's remark of 20th September, 1957, that 'we can't undertake that under no circumstances will Australian troops in the future be armed with nuclear weapons', Sir Garfield's letter implicitly included the possibilities of manufacture as well as procurement.

The letter continued that Australia did not see, in the light of the emergence of Communist China as a 'military power of great dimension and some ambition', and for other reasons, that a regional non-nuclear club was possible 'in the region of which it (Australia) forms a part'. Sir Garfield restated Australia's belief 'that declaratory undertakings of the sort envisaged are of little practical value without an agreement for general and complete disarmament under adequate control and covering all militarily significant states'.

Nuclear Free Zone in Southern Hemisphere-Joint Planning Committee Report No. 36/6315

Following a proposal in March, 1963, by an Australian Labour Party Conference in favour of a 'Nuclear-free zone in the Southern Hemisphere', the Joint Planning Committee, having considered the question decided in J.P.C. Report 36/63 that the 'establishment of the Southern Hemisphere as a nuclear free zone, without effective world-wide measures for disarmament, both conventional and nuclear, would be contrary to the interests of Australian security'.

[matter omitted] This Report was endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee and marked 'Seen' by the Prime Minister and 'Read' by Sir Garfield Barwick.

In the attachment16 to J.P.C. Report No. 36/63, consideration was given to the possible developments which could make the possession of nuclear weapons vital to Australia's security. Considering the possible emergence of the new nuclear powers and in particular Communist China, the attachment states:

'In certain circumstances in the future not now regarded as likely, but which cannot be considered completely inconceivable, the possession of a nuclear military capability in some form, or the use by our allies of such a capability from or adjacent to our territory, could become vital to the national survival of a nation such as Australia, with its relatively small population and resources'.

The attachment also refers to the possibility that in time 'tactical nuclear weapons could become standard equipment in the forces of our allies and of potential enemies'. 'To forego for all time the introduction of such weapons into the armoury of the Australian forces might gravely prejudice their effectiveness in relation to that of the forces of other countries'. As with Mr. Menzies' letter to Mr. McMillan and Sir Garfield Barwick's letter to the Secretary-General (see above), this assessment of Australia's possible needs specifically includes the contingency of 'possession' of nuclear capability, as distinct from key-of-the-cupboard arrangements.

Partial Test Ban Treaty, 1963

On the day that the Partial Test Ban Treaty17 was initialled in Moscow (26th July, 1963), the American Ambassador to Australia Mr. Battle18 called on the Prime Minister with a note seeking Australia's accession to the Treaty. It was agreed by Ministers that Australia should make an early announcement of its intention to accede, and this announcement was in fact made later that day.19 The views of the Department of Defence, as conveyed by telephone to the Department of External Affairs on 26th July, were that Australia has long supported efforts to conclude an agreement for the suspension of tests and that, as the Treaty did not preclude Australia from getting weapons for our own defence, but only experimenting with explosions, and as there were adequate escape clauses, Defence saw no reason why Australia should remain out of the Treaty.

The Defence view was that the reservations made by Mr. Menzies to Mr. McMillan in 1961 seeking special safeguards of the Australian position in a nuclear test ban treaty, were no longer strictly relevant, and Australia was no longer claiming a special position as a testing country.

[matter omitted]

Australian Defence Policy Paper, 1964

In an Australia Defence Policy Paper of 16th October, 1964 para. 77 states that 'having regard to the present strategic situation and our treaty arrangements in which our most powerful allies have a nuclear capability, there is no immediate requirement for an Australian nuclear capability'. The assessment did not rule out the possible long term need for such a capability and commented that 'Our forces have as far as possible a potential capability to operate with nuclear weapons and in the face of nuclear opposition'. The main present requirement was to concentrate on the conventional field.

[matter omitted]

UNGA 1964-Indian Resolution

On 9th December, 1964 when requested to comment on a draft Indian Resolution on nonproliferation at the U.N. General Assembly, Defence reaffirmed the view that manufacturing and dispersal of nuclear weapons should be prevented but that 'we could not accept the prohibition of nuclear weapons being stationed in other countries with the supplier retaining control'.

Parliamentary Statement, Minister for External Affairs, 1965

On 23rd March in his statement to Parliament the Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Hasluck, referred in the opening section of his speech to the horrors of a nuclear holocaust. He reiterated the Australian Government's concern at French testing and at the explosion of a nuclear device (since followed by a second) by Communist China.

Reiterating the view of the Prime Minister in 1957 he said that nuclear power in the hands of a few nations acting with responsibility can be a deterrent, and referred to the dangers of an increase in the number of nuclear powers. The Minister said that

'To check impulses towards proliferation we are likely to need, as well as an agreement against dissemination, a reasonable assurance that other nations, particularly the middle sized powers, will not need to possess or develop nuclear weapons of their own in order to feel that they can defend themselves.'

[NAA: A1838, TS919/10/5 part 1]