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The Skybolt Affair

Brass Tacks

By J. DOUGLAS Van sant

Last November Secretary of Defense McNamara decided to cancel the development of the Skybolt air-to-ground missile. After making the announcement to the press in early December, McNamara flew to England to explain his decision to British Defense Minister Thorneycroft, who flatly informed McNamara that such a move was wholly unacceptable. During the following week the British press blasted the Kennedy Administration for its tactlessness and infidelity. Stunned government officials, including a large number of M.P.'s, began talking of reprisals and an "agonizing reappraisal" of Anglo-American relations. At Nassau, a hand-wringing Macmillan accepted the U.S.'s viewpoint and received a guarantee for Polaris missiles in lieu of the promised Skybolts.

Several questions emerge from this sequence of events--questions which the Administration has not even tried to answer. Why, for example, did the Administration not negotiate an agreement with Britain before the announcement to cancel the Skybolt program was made? And then why was the Polaris deal not announced in the same statement which dropped Skybolt, thereby reducing the inevitable insult to Britain and avoiding the period of international recrimination? Why, above all, was de Gaulle given graphic evidence of the fickleness of American commitments, thus further enfeebling NATO? What, in short, possessed the Administration to conduct for three weeks an asinine foreign policy?

One answer, which has been very popular in Britain, maintains that Kennedy deliberately cancelled Skybolt to eliminate Britain from the nuclear club. The period of humiliation was designed, so the theory goes, to forceably impress upon the English, as well as DeGaulle, that the U.S. was running the nuclear armaments show and did not welcome competition. This explanation concurs with statements by both Kennedy and McNamara on the necessity for a "unified NATO command," which is today U.S. command. Enticing as this theory may sound, it does not quite square with the final outcome of the Skybolt affair. For the Polaris agreement provides the British with a better weapons system than the Skybolt-Vulcan bomber arrangement would have given her. If Kennedy had been determined to deprive England of its nuclear capability he could have refused Macmillan's demands completely.

A second theory seeks to explain the clumsiness and apparent indirection of the U.S. policy from the time McNamara first announced his decision until the Nassau meeting. It maintains that McNamara acted independently of the rest of the Administration. After deciding to cut Skybolt for budgetary and technical reasons, McNamara made the cancellation announcement without having allowed anyone else time to fit his decision into a coherent foreign policy. The Administration's behavior seemed so muddled because it was essentially a reaction to McNamara's fait accompli. The fact that Secretary of State Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy figured nowhere in the affair (as far as the press knows) is cited as supporting evidence. Rusk, in fact, did not even go to Nassau, while McNamara did.

The blame, then, is placed on the bureaucratic incompetence of McNamara rather than any deceitful motives of the Administration as a whole.

This comparatively charitable approach turns on the rather hopeless assumption that no one in the State Department was aware of McNamara's moves throughout the time leading up to his announcement. As early as November 19th, however, Aviation News and Space Technology reported that the Department of Defense was planning to cancel Skybolt. Agents of the State Department sit in the Pentagon for the express purpose of relaying news of projects in the Defense Department in order to study their effect on foreign policy. Besides, we must assume that McNamara is an extraordinarily naive man to formulate and execute such an important decision by himself.

If the Administration was not deliberately attempting to reduce Britain to a nuclear nonentity, but at the same time did acquiesce in McNamara's handling of the cancellation process, then why did it proceed with such bungling haste?

One plausible motive heretofore skirted is that of Kennedy's domestic political objectives. The Administration's private struggle with Congress and the Pentagon probably shaped its strategy as much, if not more, than any other factor. McNamara planned Skybolt's demise while still smarting from the attacks launched at him last spring when he had tried to stop development of the B-70, a Mach 2 superbomber. Primarily on the strength of the testimony of the Air Force's General Curtis Le May, Congress reprimanded McNamara's action and threatened to "direct" him to reverse himself. He eventually had to concede three B-70's to the Air Force.

But this time, by timing his announcement to coincide with Congress' adjournment, McNamara prevented General Le May from using the Senate Armed Forces Committee and headed off any attempt by Messrs. Vinson, Symington and Goldwater to organize against him. By the time Congress reconvened the missile contractors would have ceased production and begun reconversion of their plants. The sooner the order was given the harder it would be for Congress to contravene it.

To wait and formally negotiate a long range agreement with Britain might have forced Kennedy and McNamara to go through the same embarrassing and time-consuming performance that they had undergone the year before. The quickest course was to confront the British government with an unchangeable situation, let Macmillan work himself into a desperate frame of mind, and then present him with Polaris missiles, a gift he accepted with practically no delay.

The only crime, then, of the Administration was arrogance. And in the age of the drawn-out Cold War, arrogance and insensivity toward one's closest ally represents consummate stupidity.

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