Department of State Atomic Energy Files

Record of the Meeting at Blair House, Washington, July 14, 1949, 8:15 p. m.1

top secret


The Executive Branch Congress
The President Speaker Rayburn
The Vice President Senator Connally
Secretary of State Senator Vandenberg
Secretary of Defense Senator McMahon
The Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Senator Hickenlooper
Senator Tydings
General Dwight D. Eisenhower Congressman Durham
Mr. William Webster Congressman Cole (W. Sterling)
Mr. Joseph Volpe. Jr.
R. Gordon Arneson

The President opened the meeting at 8:15 p. m. by reading from handwritten notes the substance of the suggested statement which had been prepared for him (see attachment2). He made one significant departure from the prepared text. This was to the effect that, in his judgment, we would never secure effective international control of atomic energy.

Mr. Acheson reviewed the situation as the three agencies and the President saw it concerning our relations with the United Kingdom and Canada. His review followed closely along the lines of that given to Senator McMahon in the meeting held with him on July 6. Mr. Acheson called on Mr. Lilienthal to state the Commission’s needs. Mr. Lilienthal stated that in order to fulfill the requirements of the Joint Chiefs for weapons, the AEC needed to run at 100% capacity. Secretary Johnson interjected that he agreed with Mr. Lilienthal but would have put it in terms of 100%-plus. Mr. Acheson called upon Mr. Johnson and General Eisenhower to present the military point of view. The Secretary of Defense stated that he was in full accord [Page 477]with everything Mr. Acheson had said in his analysis of the situation.

General Eisenhower stated his conviction that the proposed arrangement, which the Secretary of State would shortly read and with which he was fully familiar, was essential and had his full support. In the event of another global war, we should be lost if we did not have the British as our partners with the fullest mutual confidence. Our war plans rely heavily on the need for advanced bases in the United Kingdom and other areas under British control. While our B–36’s could reach the Soviet Union from many points of take-off, we relied on the quick launching of medium bombers from the United Kingdom to deliver the heavy punch. As far as he could see, our military fate was so interlinked with the British that it just did not make any sense to him to exclude this one weapon from this full partnership. He did not look upon the proposed arrangement as any gift on our part, but rather as a mutually advantageous deal, highly desirable to both parties. He went on to say that our relations with the British in the field of atomic energy since the war even under the Modus Vivendi have caused stresses and strains and have engendered on the part of the British a feeling that they were not getting a square deal. He felt that the exacerbation of feelings was a most serious matter and if continued might place in jeopardy our fullest cooperation in the event of global war.

Mr. Acheson thereupon read the verbatim text of the proposed negotiating objective as contained in the Report to the President of March 2.3 He suggested that the discussion might center in the first instance on the merits of the proposal, leaving until later the question of how best to bring the proposed arrangements about. He thought that it would be premature to decide at this time, prior to actual negotiations to see what we might come out with, to try to decide what form the agreement should take and what procedure with respect to the Congress would be required.

There follows a summation of salient points made by the various participants under the headings indicated:

1. Substance of the Proposal:

Senator Vandenberg said that the proposal that had been expounded required the most careful thought and that he could not come to any final judgment quickly. He developed at some length his view (which he said might be called a “prejudice”) that the United Kingdom was more dependent on us than we were on them. We were constantly bailing them out. To give them now our last and most prized possession raised the most serious of doubts in his mind. In response to this, the President remarked that he certainly could agree that we had been forced on numerous occasions to bail the British out, [Page 478]particularly in the economic sphere, but that in his opinion the proposals now before the group did not constitute any gift from the United States to the United Kingdom but rather an arrangement in which we would certainly get much more than we gave. Mr. Lilienthal, Mr. Acheson and General Eisenhower pointed out that as far as the British are concerned, they already have, or will soon obtain, all the necessary information to produce weapons. They already know how to put together the final product inasmuch as quite a number of their best scientists cooperated with us during the war at Los Alamos. Indeed, it was a British scientist who assembled the first bomb.4 What the British did lack was some of the technical and engineering knowledge in order to do an efficient job without waste of raw materials in producing plutonium. Mr. Webster pointed out that as far as information was concerned, our coin was depreciating rapidly and it was likely that the information which we would furnish to the British would turn out in fact to be less valuable to them than they now thought it would be. Moreover, while we would not expect any great assistance from the British as regards the engineering and production phases were concerned, there was a reasonable presumption that we might gain real help (perhaps even a great deal) as regards basic science and new ideas. In response to a question from Senator Vandenberg, Mr. Webster stated that the proposed arrangements had the full knowledge and support of such men as Dr. Bush,5 Dr. Compton6 and Dr. Conant.

Senator Vandenberg recalled the episode of the basic metallurgy of plutonium, remarking that Dr. Bush had been shocked by that development. For his own part, he had at the moment at least the same sort of reaction to this proposal as he had had to the move to exchange with the British information on basic metallurgy.7 He wondered whether we could make an arrangement with the British whereby we would continue to be the sole producer of weapons but with the proviso that we would earmark a certain number for the British. Mr. Acheson commented that was in his opinion completely unrealistic, a proposal which the British would never accept, a proposal which if accepted by the British Government would mean its downfall. He went on to say that the fate of 45 million people was at stake. [Page 479]No government which had so near at hand such an important weapon for the defense of the British Isles would voluntarily surrender this development into the hands of another country, however friendly. Considering the off-again-on-again relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom in this field since the end of the war, the British seemed to him fully justified in deciding they would have to go ahead as best they could to bring the atomic weapon into their own hands.

Senator Vandenberg’s suggestion was also made by Senator McMahon and Senator Tydings, but neither of them pressed the point.

As the discussion proceeded, strong support was expressed by the Vice President, Senator Connally and Speaker Rayburn for the view that the proposed arrangement was necessary and should be worked out before the present Modus Vivendi expired. While Senators Vandenberg and McMahon did not commit themselves, they appeared to appreciate the need to have talks with the British and the Canadians. Mr. Acheson cautioned that we could not guarantee just what the results of negotiation would be but that we would certainly endeavor to strike the best bargain we could.

Senator Hickenlooper did not enter into the discussion until a later stage. When asked by Senator Vandenberg for his views, he remarked that the decision to go ahead seemed to have been pretty well reached. He wanted to state, however, that he thought it was wrong and certainly contrary ot the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. He did not think that our raw materials position was sufficiently serious to warrant giving away to the British our greatest heritage and asset. He thought we should concentrate more effort on the recovery of uranium from sludges and by dint of effort in this direction we should be able to manage to keep our plants running at capacity. Mr. Lilienthal took strong exception to this appraisal. He stated that if the end of the year we reverted to a 50/50 split on ores coming from the Congo and from Canada, this country would know within three months that our atomic weapon effort was slowing down. Large numbers of workers would have to be laid off at Oak Ridge and Hanford. General Eisenhower interjected: “And who would take responsibility for explaining that to the American people?”

In summary, as the discussion developed on the substance of the proposals, it was clear that the consensus of the group was that a reversion to the status quo ante with the termination of the Modus Vivendi at the end of 1949 would be exceedingly serious and that efforts must be made to work out suitable arrangements for the future. The participants had full opportunity to express their points of view. There was general but not complete support for the conclusion that negotiations should be entered into with the British and the Canadians with the view toward achieving substantially the objectives that had been [Page 480]read to the group by the Secretary of State. Senators Vandenberg and Hickenlooper were opposed. McMahon did not commit himself but did not voice serious objection.

2. Procedure and Form of Agreement:

Secretary Acheson proposed that the next step should be to bring the whole problem to the attention of the full Joint Committee in executive session. He hoped that this could be done rather quickly. In so complicated and grave a matter as this, he felt it exceedingly fortunate that there had been this opportunity to confer in the first instance with the Congressional leaders present. He hoped that this session might give them an opportunity to think further about the implications of the problem and that the benefit of their views could be obtained at greater length when the problem was presented to the Joint Committee.

At his suggestion that it probably would be undesirable and indeed impossible at this particular juncture to decide just what form and procedure should be followed in formalizing these arrangements, Senator McMahon expressed his view that we should find out first what sort of arrangement would be mutually satisfactory to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada through negotiations. Once the substance of agreement was firmed up, consideration could then be given in consultation with appropriate Congressional leaders as to what form the agreement should take and what Congressional action might be necessary. His own view at the moment was that the proposed arrangements would be illegal under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Senator Hickenlooper expressed strong agreement with this last point. Senator McMahon went on to say, however, that he recognized there were two sides to that question. He was aware of the legal arguments on both sides, and felt that on balance it would be better not to try to thrash this out at the moment.

There appeared to be general agreement on this point.

3. Publicity:

a. Concerning the Arrangements as Worked Out.

Mr. Acheson said that it was the strong view of the Executive Branch that appropriate publicity should be given to the arrangements as finally made; He did not have in mind that such publicity should go into all details such as precise allocations of material, but that it should be made known that the three governments had worked out mutually satisfactory arrangements for full cooperation in the field. Senator Vandenberg strongly supported this point of view. He pointed out that continuation of secrecy in this field under new arrangements would have the most serious repercussions. It would not be possible actually to keep them secret and once they leaked out, the most serious problem would be presented. In view of the desirability of not giving [Page 481]all details, he felt that a treaty would be undesirable inasmuch as the full text of such a treaty would have to be made public and debated at great length. Speaker Rayburn stated that one of the difficulties that would have to be faced in publicity was that it would have to be framed in such a way as not to make the arrangements appear to be greatly disadvantageous to the United Kingdom. If it appeared that the British were getting the short end of the stick, British public opinion would be badly shaken. Representative Durham inquired about what the attitude of the Belgians would be to the proposed arrangement. On being told by Secretary Acheson that their major interest seemed to be to get ore converted to bombs as quickly as possible, Durham suggested we should neverthless have their susceptibilities in mind in considering the problem of public disclosure.

b. Concerning the Meeting.

As the meeting was about to break up, the President again enjoined all participants from making any comment about the subject of discussion. All appeared to agree that no one would make any Comment and that all questioners would be referred to the White House for anything that might be said. For his part the President said his only comment would be “absolutely no comment.”

(Senator Tydings, who was suffering from a very bad head cold, left the meeting about 9:30 before the last discussion on publicity took place. He appeared to be in general accord with the substantive proposals.)

The meeting adjourned at approximately 10:30.

R. Gordon Arneson
  1. Prepared by Arneson on July 20.
  2. The attachment is not printed. For the text of the statement in the President’s handwriting and presumably read by him at the meeting, see infra.
  3. Ante, p. 441.
  4. The basis for this statement has not been specifically identified; information on the British contribution to the development of the atomic bomb, including work at Los Alamos Laboratories on assembly and other problems, is contained in Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939–1945 (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1964).
  5. Dr. Vannevar Bush, President of the Carnegie Institution: Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1941–1946: Chairman of the Research and Development Board of the National Military Establishment, 1947–1948.
  6. Dr. Karl T. Compton, Chairman, Research and Development Board, National Military Establishment.
  7. For documentation on the question of exchange in this field, see Foreign Relations, 1948, vol. i, Part 2, pp. 677 ff.