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US 'Atomic Capability' and the British Forward Bases in the Early Cold War

Ken Young
Journal of Contemporary History
Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), pp. 117-136
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036432
Page Count: 20
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US 'Atomic Capability' and the British Forward Bases in the Early Cold War
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Abstract

During the Berlin crisis of 1948, US bombers were once again based in Britain, signalling to the Soviet government the American resolution to stand fast in defence of western Europe. Contemporary commentators and many historians readily assumed that the act of deployment represented the rattling of a nuclear sabre. But did the USA have the capability to deliver an atomic attack on the Soviet Union from English bases at that time? The answer is not obvious. A series of confusions obscures what the term 'atomic capability' really signified in the late 1940s and early 1950s. First, contrary views persist even in the recent literature as to whether the particular B-29s deployed to Britain in 1948 were capable of delivering an atomic attack on Russia. They were not, but were equipped, armed and prepared to fight a conventional air campaign. Second, nuclear capability is mistakenly seen as an attribute solely of the delivery vehicle rather than of the logistical capability of the bases themselves and their supply lines. Work on converting and equipping the East Anglian airbases for atomic operations, begun as early as 1946, had not been completed by the time of the Berlin crisis. Third, the date when US nuclear weapons were actually deployed to Britain is concealed by tactically convenient definitions of what constitutes a 'weapon'. The article argues that USAF forces in England gained a nuclear capability only in 1949, and that the purpose of the deployment at the time of the Berlin blockade was not nuclear diplomacy but to secure the forward airbases required by contemporary US war plans.

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