Department of State Atomic Energy Files

Memorandum of Conversation, by Mr. R. Gordon Arneson, Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State (Webb)

top secret

Subject: Tripartite Atomic Energy Negotiations

Participants: Secretary of State
Secretary of Defense1
Mr. Sumner Pike
Senator McMahon
Mr. Gross
Mr. Volpe
Mr. Borden2
Mr. Arneson

The Secretary opened the discussion by reviewing the relations as they have developed between the U.S., the U.K., and Canada since the war. He pointed out that until the modus vivendi of January 1948, our relations were not only uncertain but unsatisfactory from the point of view of all three countries. The United Kingdom found it was not getting that degree of cooperation from us which they had good reason to assume we were bound to give under the wartime Quebec Agreement. The United States was caught in the dilemma of the need for larger quantities of raw materials and the absence of guiding national policy in the field of atomic energy. This was particularly true before the McMahon Act became law. Canada was caught in the middle. For approximately a year and a half before the modus vivendi arrangements were entered into, ores made available from the Congo were distributed between the United Kingdom and the United States on an approximately 50–50 basis. The result was an accumulation of stocks in the United Kingdom far beyond her needs and a starving of our program.

The Secretary then recited the main provisions of the modus vivendi pointing out that the allocations arrangements not only gave us the total output of the Congo in 1948 and 1949 but would also result this year in a drawing down of British stocks somewhere between 600 and 1000 tons. The modus vivendi would run out at the end of the year.

The Secretary then touched upon other facets of the problem which he felt should be taken into account in considering where we stood and what we had to do about it. Other nations were moving ahead in the field of atomic energy. Such estimates as were available indicated that the Russians might well be an increasingly serious factor in atomic [Page 472]weapons any time after mid-50 or mid-51. France, friendly, but outside the CPC team, was pushing ahead its own program. Other countries such as Norway and some of the other dominions were making modest efforts at least to begin. Perhaps none of them knew really what they were doing, but at least they had aspirations. There needed to be some common line of action agreed between the British, the Canadians, and ourselves as to how we should comport ourselves toward other countries. This was made somewhat more complicated by the fact that certain of the British dominions such as New Zealand and Australia had some knowledge of atomic energy, and indeed New Zealand scientists had been working with the British on their experimental and research reactors. The British were somewhat more favorably disposed toward helping other countries, notably Norway and possibly France.

The Secretary pointed out that it was in the very nature of things that the United Kingdom was our staunchest and most valuable ally in all quarters of the world. They were not only important to us in a military sense, but political and economic as well. Put in its simplest terms, therefore, the problem before us was whether in such circumstances we should not sit down with the British and see whether we could work out on a basis of mutual confidence a satisfactory and desirable partnership in the field of atomic energy. He emphasized most strongly that any attempt to force the British to stop its atomic energy program by use of the club of ECA or other means could only result in abysmal failure.

The Secretary then read the verbatim text of the conclusions, pages 53 through 58,3 of the report of March 2, 1949 as approved by the President. Upon finishing he asked whether the Secretary of Defense and Mr. Pike would care to make any further comment. The Secretary of Defense said that Mr. Acheson had presented the case quite fully and accurately as the Military Establishment saw it and he had nothing further to add. Mr. Pike wished only to add that there was a considerable need for urgency in the matter inasmuch as the Commission would be in a very tight spot should the modus vivendi run out without suitable arrangements having been made for the future.

Senator McMahon said there could not have been a worse time to bring this matter up. The temper of his Committee was such that such a program as was proposed would have rough going. It was his own personal view that a serious “legislative” problem was presented. He said that there would be a serious question in the minds of the Committee members whether the proposed arrangements could be entered into in view of the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 unless the arrangements were put in a form which would override the relevant strictures in that Act.

[Page 473]

Mr. Acheson replied that it seemed to him that the constitutional or legislative question might very well be answered either way, and that it might be exceedingly difficult to decide which way the answer would go until we had seen the substance of an agreement with the United Kingdom and Canada after negotiations. He felt that the Joint Committee must be brought in in any case. It might be feasible to ask the Committee to approve the idea of negotiations in the first instance, leaving for later consideration the form which such agreement should take after it was known what its content would be. Among the forms that suggested themselves were:

An Executive Agreement with the concurrence of the Joint Committee, and
A Joint Resolution under which the necessary executive arrangements could be made.

The difficulty he foresaw in the second possibility was that it would be exceedingly difficult to sell the negotiated arrangements to the full Congress inasmuch as it would not be feasible to supply in open sessions all the relevant information.

Mr. Volpe pointed out that at the time of the modus vivendi talks, the Joint Committee, almost to a man, considered that those arrangements were permissible under the Act in view of the overriding requirements of the common defense and security. He felt that the present situation was much the same only more urgent. Senator McMahon remarked that the temper of the Committee was much less favorable than in 1947.

The consensus appeared to be that the question of permissibility of proposed arrangements under the Act would turn largely on the reactions of the Joint Committee.

Senator McMahon asked whether the United Kingdom really had any bargaining strength. To this the Secretary replied that they did indeed inasmuch as failure to arrive at suitable arrangements for the period beyond the end of 1949 would presumably result in a 50–50 allocation of ores resulting from the fact that we were equal partners in the financing and the operations of the Combined Development Agency.

The Senator made no comment on the substance of the proposed arrangements but said he had hoped it might be possible to persuade the British to forego any production of plutonium and weapons in the United Kingdom in exchange for which the United States would earmark bombs for British use if required.

The Senator emphasized again the mood of his Committee and of the Congress in general. He said he was afraid that ECA appropriations would have very tough going in large part because of the deepening [Page 474]financial crises in the United Kingdom4 and certain acts by the British Government, such as the Argentine Trade Agreement. Hickenlooper, of course, might well seize upon these negotiations as a peg on which to hang his hat. On balance, however, the Senator felt that the problem had to be presented to the Joint Committee. He had hoped that this would not be done until the current hearings were pretty well advanced, certainly not until after the Commission had presented its case.

The Secretary said that a suggested next step had been to have the President call in the more important Congressional leaders to discuss this problem. At that time the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the AEC, and General Eisenhower would develop the case. Senator McMahon said that he thought this was an excellent idea, whereupon ensued some discussion of which members of Congress should be asked to attend. The Secretary mentioned that we had thought of the following:

Vice President Barkley

Speaker Rayburn5

Senator McMahon

Senator Hickenlooper

Senator Connally6

Senator Vandenberg7

Senator Tydings8

McMahon felt, as did Mr. Pike, that there should be a somewhat greater representation from the House side. Representative Durham,9 the Vice Chairman of the Joint Committee, and Representative Cole,10 a Republican, were mentioned. In addition, Senator McMahon seemed to favor a rather broader representation of Congressional leadership. It was agreed that the list should be firmed up promptly and the President requested to hold a meeting as soon as possible.

  1. Louis Johnson succeeded James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense on March 28.
  2. William L. Borden, Executive Director of the Staff of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy.
  3. Of March 2, pp. 443 461.
  4. For documentation on the British economic and financial situation, see vol. iv, pp. 781 ff.
  5. Sam Rayburn of Texas, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
  6. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, Member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy; Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  7. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, Member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy; ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
  8. Senator Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, Member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy; Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
  9. Representative Carl T. Durham of North Carolina, Vice Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy.
  10. Representative W. Sterling Cole of New York, Member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy.