The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: Leonard Beaton and John Maddox. Published for the Institute of Strategic Studies by Chatto and Windus, 18s. 210 pp.

When a difficult task has been performed once, it is often supposed that it is easier to perform it another time. Thus nowadays no-one is likely to be particularly impressed by the news that Everest is climbed, though the task is presumably only slightly easier than it was in 1953.

People tend to be equally blasé about another extremely difficult performance, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and assume that the development by other countries of nuclear capabilities is inevitable and a mere matter of time. (CND and the political left in this country has been at fault here.) The very phrase used, “the spread of nuclear weapons” is a misleading one, for generally speaking nuclear weapons do not spread, but rather go through the painful process of being produced independently in different countries. The bomb made by the Nth country may require just as much (or at any rate almost as much) effort put into its development as the first bomb made by the USA. In fact, it is encouraging to note that no nuclear weapons development programme has ever produced the “goods” as quickly as the first one, the Manhattan project which lasted from 1941 to 1945.

If it had no other value, this book would be worthwhile simply for the way in which, with tremendous expertize and carefully amassed information, it spells out just how difficult it is to make nuclear weapons. This side of the book has received very fair and full treatment in the press, and in a way it is a message of hope: the world is obviously safer the fewer nuclear powers there are.

The main value of this book, however, is as much for its political comment as for its technical statements. Part II is devoted entirely to assessing the technological and political situation in many countries as it affects nuclear weapons, and an analysis of these chapters reveals many extremely important things, chief among which is the potency of an anti-nuclear public opinion.

“A horror of the weapons themselves has undoubtedly played a large part,” the authors say when discussing why Canada, which undoubtedly could have manufactured nuclear weapons by now, has not in fact done so. It emerges that one of the chief factors favouring a nuclear programme is simply public ignorance: thus the British programme, which was kept secret for five years, and only became gradually known to the public, tended to arouse the more opposition the more there was known about it. The authors say “Politically, the British nuclear force began to encounter strong opposition almost as soon as it became fully known to the public.”

Both the British and French nuclear programmes have met considerable opposition, but both have revealed disquieting aspects of the democratic state which the bombs are supposed to defend. In England, the Labour and Conservative governments managed to pursue a nuclear bomb programme, and build reactors at Harwell and Windscale, without the fact becoming public knowledge. Between 1947 and 1952 very occasional references were made in ministerial speeches to nuclear weapons, but these were all extremely abstract: there was no discussion of the programme in parliament or anywhere else. That such a national effort could take place unapproved by parliament makes one wonder just how democratic our institutions are.