Department of State Atomic Energy Files

Memorandum by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer72

In these notes I shall write down some of the non-technical things that have seemed to me relevant to the establishment of effective international control of atomic energy, and make, in rather broad terms, proposals on the basis of which a sound solution can in my opinion be sought. I shall write these notes against the background of our discussions in the past days, and with the thought in mind that the technical basis of many of the judgments will be provided in a separate report.

1. It is probable that the main desire of our Government is the achievement of safety and protection against the threat of atomic warfare. Even if it were possible to achieve this without considering such positive features as the extension of knowledge and its application to constructive purposes, it might be argued that such a course should not be followed. It is my belief that quite apart from its desirability, the provision for constructive development of the field of atomic energy will turn out to be essential for the operation of any system of safeguards. You have seen in the last days evidence of the enthusiasm, inventiveness, and intelligence that has gone into the development of the field in this country, and that has manifested itself even in such relatively peripheral matters as the exploration of raw material resources. I believe that just these elements must be brought to bear on the problem of control if there is to be any chance for a real solution. In particular, it has become clear to us that not only politically, but scientifically and technically as well, the field of atomic energy has [Page 750] witnessed very rapid change and very rapid progress. I believe that this will be the case in the future, too, and that no organization and no proposal can be effective which does not have a flexibility adequate to these changes. I further believe that any proposed organization must itself reflect the changing character of the problem and the constructive purposes which are a complement to control. It is clear that quite apart from any organizational details, the objectives here outlined will require a genuine cooperation and not a mere acquiescence on the part of the participating powers and agencies. As I understand it, the primary function of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission must be to lay the basis for such cooperative approach to the problem.

2. The position of the three powers, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, that have in the past collaborated in the development of atomic energy, is a rather special one, and that of the United States perhaps the most special of all. There are two parts to this: our technical advantage put us in a position to exercise disproportionate influence in shaping the proposals made, and our greater scientific and technical mastery of the problem should give us greater insight into the implications of a proposed solution and the character of the steps necessary to achieve it.

It has from the first, seemed important to balance our technical superiority insofar as possible by allowing the proposals to be formulated as a result of multilateral discussion, rather than through acceptance of a plan elaborated unilaterally by us. It would seem to be inevitable that differences of opinion similar to those which appeared in the Panel, but far more profound, would be expressed in approaching the organizational problems of control. Here again it would seem to me neither desirable, nor in any long term practical, to avoid a discussion of these issues in an attempt at their constructive reconciliation. Just this possibility is in fact my ground for believing that the negotiations we are now discussing may provide a prototype for more difficult future problems.

I have a somewhat different view of the situation arising from our sole possession of the technical and scientific insight necessary to sound judgments. This problem is in part technical, since many of the facts at our disposal, but not now generally known, are indeed relevant to questions of feasibility, adequacy, and safety. It is also in part a psychological problem in that insight depends not only on having facts available, but on having a sense of assurance that the relevant facts have not been withheld. I believe that it is premature to discuss the precise extent to which basic scientific information should be made available to the Atomic Energy Commission. It is clear, on the one [Page 751] hand, that such information neither must, nor with propriety should, include detailed engineering specifications for plants and for weapons; on the other hand, our experience would indicate that the Smyth Report72a as it stands is probably far from sufficient. We shall be in a better position to judge this at our next meeting.

3. In order to evaluate the proposals that I should like to make, it may be well to consider extreme examples, which have been suggested from time to time, of proposals that I regard as unworkable. Almost everyone has, at one stage or another in his acquaintance with this problem, considered prohibiting further work on atomic energy, and devising a system of inspection adequate to insure that this prohibition is carried out. It is not only that this proposal would make impossible the application of existing knowledge to constructive ends; it would be so contrary to the human patterns of exploration and exploitation that no agreement entered into by heads of state could command the interest or the cooperation of the people of the world.

An apparently less radical solution would be the separation of the functions of development and of control according to which the only responsibility of an international authority would be the inspection of work carried out under a purely national or private initiative, and the possible prohibition of some of this work. The negative approach to the problem of control would leave the inspecting agency with inadequate insight, both into the technical state of the subject, and into its motivation and the organic characteristics of its growth. It would provide inspectors who are less informed and less enlightened than those whose evasions they were trying to prevent; it would provide inspectors with a motive pathetically inadequate to the immense and dreary task which such inspection would involve, and who would no doubt be in a poor position to apply to their work the technical ingenuity and inventiveness which alone can make it an undertaking of finite dimensions and some prospect of success. One sees these difficulties most clearly if the problem is considered as it may appear in the almost immediate future. On the one hand, I believe that no one would be willing to wait for the institution of a system of controls until such time as many nations had a flourishing atomic energy industry, and no doubt a flourishing atomic armaments program; on the other hand, it is probably true that at the present time there is pitifully little to inspect in any countries but the United States, the [Page 752] United Kingdom, and Canada. It is unclear what primary deposits would be exploited in the future, what plans would be made for the production of fissionable materials, and what laboratories and scientists will in the end be chosen to carry out this work. It is just this circumstance which would make the task of inspection so unenlightened and so vast as to be prohibitive. It is also clear that this approach to the problem would sacrifice almost wholly whatever advantages there are in the fact that atomic energy developments are nowhere else in the world an established and flourishing activity, representing a vested interest and a living organization.

4. Against this background of the difficulties of control as an isolated and negative function, I have thought it essential at least to consider combining the functions of development and of control in a single agency. It is fairly certain that there are now, and will increasingly be, activities having to do with atomic energy which are not vital to control and which, for human, or organizational, or political, reasons should not be included among the functions of the controlling authority; but there are certainly several such functions which, as matters now appear, should be so included among them: the development of raw materials, the exploration of atomic weapons, and the application, in its more dangerous forms, of atomic energy to power and technology.

I thus propose that the international authority have a monopoly on the study, development, and exploitation of uranium: That this could be an interesting activity some of our discussions of last week clearly showed, and apart from considerations of security a coordinated attack on a worldwide scale is the more appropriate way of exploiting the raw materials. An agency which was well informed about the location of deposits and the most highly developed means of working them, and their relation to each other, would be in a strong position to detect and discourage illegal enterprises of a more private nature. It would also be in a position to provide the basic accounting and material control for an ingredient which is at present, and probably will remain for a long time to come, uniquely necessary. Technical arguments suggest that the same machinery should be applied to the exploitation of thorium.
A second activity of the international authority, which is doubtless far less urgent, but for which provision must ultimately be made, is research and study of atomic explosives. You will remember from our discussion that this is a field in which we are by no means confident of the facts; it is, of course, possible that such atomic explosives may be useful to the peacetime economy of the world, but quite apart from this it is only by their exploration that any agency can have a reasonable chance of insuring that developments beyond its control are not of great danger to the world.
It would be an essential function of the international authority to develop atomic energy for industrial purposes and as a source of [Page 753] power, and to carry out the technical advances necessary to make these developments practical, and to extend their range. In conducting this program, it is clear that economic, technological, and even sociological considerations will be as important as purely scientific ones, and it is further clear that the solution of the resulting conflicts will involve compromise and good will which only an agency with authority and adequate technical competence can bring to the problem.
As we pointed out, there are a number of potential applications of atomic energy which can be made relatively safe, either by denaturing procedures, or because plants are involved which destroy, rather than create, atomic explosives; or because the scale of the operations is small enough to be immaterial for atomic weapons. There may be strong arguments (and there probably are) for conducting these developments under a license system, with nations or with more private organizations, but the line between safe and dangerous activities should not remain fixed where we would draw it today, so that I should be reluctant to make a final apriori definition at this time.
It would seem to me desirable and, in fact, essential, that the international authority cooperate with scientists, engineers, industrialists, and others who are not members of their organization but who have an interest in, or a contribution to make toward, the work of the authority. This openness would contribute in an important way to making the authority subject to enlightened criticism and to making its findings available for more private exploitation wherever this could be done effectively and safely.

5. There are a number of questions which probably should be discussed in connection with the above proposals, although I do not feel qualified to discuss them. In particular, the organizational structure of the international authority, whether it be a commission or a corporation (or take another form), will have to be settled in the light of conflicting views as to the best methods of providing initiative, responsibility, and integrity. The machinery set up for providing a reasonable, forward-looking allocation of atomic power and atomic products, the machinery required for financing undertakings, many of which in the earlier times may not be economically profitable, and the contributions that might be expected in the form of labor, technical competence, and raw materials, all would need a fairly prompt discussion. Other questions on which there will be differences of opinion are the appropriate scale of development and the priorities that should attach to various phases of the work. In all of these matters one will have to draw both on the technical ingenuity of those familiar with the field of atomic energy, and on all useful precedents of effective organization.

6. There are a few questions which it seems to me not very profitable to discuss at present. One has to do with the complex of problems that would arise should there be abrogation of agreements by a nation or a group of nations, or activities in serious violation of these agreements. [Page 754] Such discussions will inevitably bring one to the problem of sanctions, which seems to me essentially separable from the questions we have been asked to consider. Related to these questions is the provision of an adequate physical security for installations operated by the international authority but susceptible to diversion for military use, and the question of whether any useful purpose can be achieved by stockpiling atomic weapons to facilitate the application of sanctions. It is inevitable that all these questions will be asked; in my opinion their discussion cannot contribute in a constructive way to the solution of our primary problem.

  1. This document was a component part of a workbook of papers prepared by members of the Board of Consultants. The Board first considered this workbook on February 12 and subsequently prepared its preliminary report to the Acheson Committee by means of combining several of the workbook papers, including the present document, into an integrated argument.
  2. Henry D. Smyth, “A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” the official report on the development of the atomic bomb by the United States, 1940–1945, prepared by the Chairman of the Department of Physics of Princeton University, a consultant for Manhattan District; released by the War Department on August 12, 1945, and published as Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1945).