The megaton mission : the role of the nuclear arms race in 1950s British imperialism

  • Joseph David Daniel HOLDING

Student thesis: MPhil Thesis (Lingnan)


In August 1945, the Pacific theatre of the Second World War came to a dramatic close with the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following this, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew tremendously and the two superpowers set about developing even more destructive bombs in case these tensions reached a breaking point. The nuclear bomb came to symbolise power in the post-war era. However, they were not the only powers with nuclear programmes in the 1950s. Churchill, and successive Conservative governments, were keen in joining the nuclear arms race. Operation Grapple was conducted secretly from 1954-58 on Christmas Island, then part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Southern Pacific.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a Crown Colony at the time, and this paper shall examine the connection between the nuclear experiments and the British Empire, and geopolitical power by extension. This thesis is divided into three thematic chapters. The first chapter explores how space and place shaped aspirations for power and vice versa. Not only did Operation Grapple bring about colossal environmental damage but major demographic changes with both the arrival of the British and Fijian military personnel as well as a new transient population who brought the resources necessary to sustain such a population. As well as the functions of the different islands being altered, they came to symbolise the long-term health issues which affected the Fijian veterans long after the experiments were over.

The second chapter examines how colonial rule in the Gilbert and Ellice islands was shaped by the nuclear experiments. It explores the rapid change in infrastructure needed to accommodate the new population and the friction it caused when the issue of financial responsibility was raised. This chapter also explores how colonial rule became increasingly reliant on the military and how the developing military complex at Britain extended to remote colonies. Finally, the limits of ‘East of Suez’ and various governmental departments’ visions for the future are discussed as the South Pacific was useful for further developments of nuclear weaponry.

The third and final chapter gauges Britain’s place in the world through their relationships with other nations. This is achieved by examining how Britain interacted with the United States, France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. It concludes that Britain was in a weaker position to negotiate with other nations but were still able to wield some power in a softer way, despite their label as a ‘superpower’ being called into question.

This thesis shall reach the overall conclusion that the experiments elevated the status of the islands in the minds of the British government to one of high importance as well as offering the British the means of maintaining geopolitical relevance as well as recalibrating attention to the South Pacific, albeit briefly.
Date of Award17 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorMark Andrew HAMPTON (Supervisor) & Grace Ai-ling CHOU (Co-supervisor)

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