Chemical Maggie: Thatcher considered chem weapons stockpile in Cold War standoff

Chemical Maggie: Thatcher considered chem weapons stockpile in Cold War standoff
Britain’s late prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, considered reviving the UK’s chemical weapons program in an effort to bolster Britain’s “retaliatory capability” against perceived Soviet threats, National Archive papers reveal.

The papers, released under the 30-year rule that compels the publication of secret Cabinet documents three decades afterward, show that Thatcher’s government secretly mulled chemical warfare against the Soviet Union in 1984. The plans were hatched as Cold War tensions between the UK and the Soviet Union ran high, particularly during the British miners’ strike, in which Soviet leaders were suspected by Thatcher’s government of supporting the National Union of Mineworkers’ year-long struggle against her plan for pit closures.

The papers show that Thatcher claimed a failure on behalf of the UK government to adequately prepare for potential Soviet chemical attacks would amount to negligence.

Previously classified papers, published Tuesday, warned chemical strikes by Russian aircraft on vulnerable or sensitive British targets could have a catastrophic impact, resulting in a colossal loss of life.

One defense paper, contained in the secret Home Office file, estimated as many as 140,000 civilians could be injured and over 20,000 could die if dockyards in Liverpool were hit with poisonous gases. Government officials also predicted a strike on Gatwick Airport could result in 30,000 casualties and 16,000 fatalities.

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Britain had ratified a treaty under the Geneva Convention, which outlawed the use of toxic substances in warfare. But the international agreement’s protocols did not ban the production or development of these weapons of mass destruction, and deemed their use in cases of retaliation permissible.

Alarmed by the Soviet Union’s growing stockpile of toxic nerve gases, strategic planners for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) warned military responses to such chemical attacks would likely escalate to nuclear warfare.

While the Thatcher government privately discussed the possibility of reviving its chemical warfare capability, problems arising from such a move were anticipated.

One paper, released by the National Archives, noted chemical warfare would likely be “an emotional issue” in Britain. Any plans to further develop the state’s capabilities in this context should remain secret until “the general public can be given credible guidance on protection measures,” it concluded.

Another paper entitled ‘Secret UK Eyes A’ said the sharp U-turn in the government’s chemical weapons policy, following 25 years of divestment from such weapons, could provoke “political controversy.”

But the strategic defense paper said UK military chiefs operating under the Thatcher government firmly believed the only credible deterrent to the communist bloc’s deployment of chemical weapons was Britain’s “ability to retaliate in kind.”

Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell. (Image from

The previously secret file does not indicate the final results of the UK government’s deliberations on the issue. But a letter penned by Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, relating to a chemical weapons summit later that year, sheds further light on the government’s stance.

Powell wrote to the permanent secretary of the MoD, confirming the decision. “Modern NBC [nuclear, biological or chemical] equipment should be issued to servicemen and essential civilians in British forces Germany and to some 140,000 servicemen in the UK with a NATO role.”

“The Americans should be encouraged to move forward with modernization of their capability … Public opinion in the UK could be brought gently to a better and wider perception of the imbalance between Soviet and NATO capabilities in chemical warfare while avoiding an upsurge of alarm,” Powell wrote.

The MoD, at the time, estimated the Soviet Union possessed over 300,000 tons of nerve agents.

Thatcher’s government mulled over the idea equipping British homes with protective chemical weapons shelters but the proposed scheme floundered after experts noted that people would have to remain in them for up to 10 hours in the aftermath of a chemical attack.

The Home Office file indicates that Thatcher felt the Soviet Union had the upper hand with respect to chemical weapons and that this created an “enormous imbalance” on a fraught global stage.

This imbalance “in Soviet and Western capabilities in CW” posed a huge threat to Britain, one paper recorded the then-PM, who died in 2012, as saying.

Britain has said it voluntarily ceased stockpiling chemical weapons in the 1950s.