Archives 1984: Thatcher believed public would back chemical weapons

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Margaret Thatcher believed public opinion would back the build-up of a western chemical weapons programme to counter the Soviet threat, according to newly released government papers.

An official note of Thatcher’s meeting with Jeane Kirkpatrick, then US ambassador to the UN, outlines her concern that the west had “no adequate response to the impressive Soviet capability in the field of chemical weapons and that use of these weapons by the Russians might therefore force us at once to nuclear retaliation.”

The comments came less than a month after the UN had confirmed the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and as western allies scrambled to introduce export controls on chemicals which could be used to make agents such as mustard gas.

Kirkpatrick reveals the French foreign minister told her they would “unhesitatingly respond” with nuclear weapons to an attack on France using chemical agents.

In the note, Thatcher argues “public opinion would accept the building up of a chemical weapons capability for the purposes of deterrence if only because the alternative was to depend on nuclear retaliation.”

It was not until 1993 that Britain, Russia and the US signed the chemical weapons convention which outlawed their development and stockpiling.

In 2008, the Ministry of Defence compensated hundreds of servicemen who had been exposed to toxic chemicals during trials at the Portland Down research centre in Dorset between the second world war and 1989 when the tests ceased.

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