Department of State Atomic Energy Files 2

Memorandum of Conversation, by Mr. Edmund A. Gullion, Special Assistant to the under Secretary of State ( Lovett )

top secret

Subject: Professor Niels Bohr’s3 estimate of Russian prospects for atomic weapons.

Participants: Mr. McCloy,4 President, International Bank
Mr. Gullion

Mr. McCloy reported on a conversation which he had with Professor Niels Bohr at the latter’s experiment station near Copenhagen in October last. Professor Bohr had wanted to talk to him because he knew of Mr. McCloy’s membership in the Secretary’s Atomic Energy Committee in 1945–1946.5

Professor Bohr expressed considerable concern over the rift between east and west which he saw becoming wider as time passed. He thought that this could only lead to catastrophe and he feared for the United States in the event of an atomic war because of the vulnerability of U.S. industrial concentrations and the relative slowness of democratic governments in action. The Russians had a peculiar psychological stimulus to develop the bomb. When the Germans were defeated the Red army seemed to the Kremlin to stand invincible and Soviet power incontestable. Now the coming of the bomb had dashed this prospect.

Professor Bohr thought that the Russians would succeed in developing atomic weapons within sixteen or eighteen months.

Russian nuclear scientists were as capable as any in the world and their numbers were adequate. He knew this by personal contact with them. As for Russian technology, he believed that we underestimated it, especially since we attempted to evaluate it by our own standards. We overlooked the enormous concentration of effort which the Russians could bring to bear under their system of government by disregarding waste of materials and manpower.

In the face of this prospect Professor Bohr thought that some plan ought to be offered to the Russians and that we could still “get through” to the Russian people with such an offer. He believed that scientists working together might produce some plan. He gave no details of what the plan should be.6

  1. Lot 57D688, the Department of State consolidated lot file on atomic energy policy, 1944–1962.
  2. Danish theoretical physicist and pioneer in the development of nuclear physics; adviser, Manhattan Engineer District (United States atomic bomb development program), 1943–1945.
  3. John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, April 1941–November 1945.
  4. Regarding the work of the Secretary of State’s Committee, see Foreign Relations, 1946, vol. i, pp. 712 ff.
  5. For information on the proposal Bohr subsequently submitted, see memorandum for the Secretary of State, August 20, 1948, Part 1 of this volume, p. 388.