SCI Files1

The Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy (McMahon) to the Secretary of Defense (Johnson)

top secret

Dear Mr. Secretary: As you know, the President of the United States determines the quantity of fissionable material and weapons to be produced by the Atomic Energy Commission. I understand that you and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are in the process of considering a recommendation to the President on this score.

It seems to me that increasingly we are committing ourselves to the concept of strategic bombardment with atomic weapons in case of war. Here is the keystone of our military policy and a foundation pillar of our foreign policy as well. Some say that to rely fundamentally upon atomic weapons is a mistake. I heartily disagree with such a viewpoint. But I do think that since the atom has become, in large measure, the final premise of our military and foreign policies, we must take every reasonable step to make certain this premise is solid. Stating the matter bluntly, if war comes, the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy will all have fulfilled their tremendous responsibilities provided that enough bombs are available to do the necessary job. On the other hand, assuming enough bombs were not available, we would all have proven derelict in the discharge of our responsibilities, and it would make no difference whether or not we had saved money or had achieved other desirable but secondary objectives. As matters stand [Page 483]today, with the Kremlin rejecting international control, our overriding aim must be the production of fissionable materials and the fabrication of more and tatter weapons.

Accordingly, I am fearful that we may not have set our sights high enough so far as quantity of output is concerned. I do not for a moment wish to depreciate the qualitative power of the bomb. My public remarks over the past three years bear witness that I regard this weapon as unique and as ushering in a new era full of portent for good or evil. But there is also a quantitative aspect to the bomb which we cannot overlook. Numbers, no less than quality, are fundamental—as I have tried to show in recent speeches and articles. Since I do not myself know how many weapons we possess or how fast we are making new ones, I lack background indispensable for rounded comment. To date, the Joint Committee has not seen fit to inform itself of stockpile data.

Nevertheless, I at least hazard the guess that we need additional plant capacity as a safety margin. To be sure, we seem to have done a good and perhaps even an extraordinary job in exploiting the production facilities which now exist. Yet, without taking unreasonable steps which would amount to “fortifying the moon,” I think the crucial role that atomic energy plays justifies a greater investment in plant. If war should come and if our stockpile turned out to be inadequate, the future historian might say: “The Americans counted heavily upon atomic weapons, but they fared badly because they had devoted less than one-twentieth of their annual military budget to developing these weapons.” I also fear that in the past the military requirements for production of fissionables and weapons which were recommended to the President merely reflected an estimate of what the Atomic Energy Commission was capable of producing with existing or planned facilities—and did not reflect an independent judgment as to what we need in the event of war.

On the basis of the facts now known to me, I tend to favor a substantial increase in the requirements as laid down by the President. I do not think that the cost of meeting such added requirements would be excessive in light of the tremendous stakes involved.

It will of course be said that we lack adequate raw materials to implement a program of this kind. But the argument does not impress me. Recent progress in developing methods of extracting uranium from phosphate shales, plus other analogous advances, plus the availability of ores in South Africa and other friendly foreign countries, indicates that if we are willing to expend the necessary effort, we can break the raw materials bottleneck. It will also be said that we must be careful to conserve our resources. But I call attention to the fact [Page 484]that atomic weapons are the only armament ever devised that can be stored indefinitely. Though the detonating mechanism may change from year to year, fissionable material—once it has been manufactured—remains useable almost ad infinitum. This same material, incidentally, could be utilized to furnish industrial power after the necessary techniques are developed.

There is a doctrine that we may reach a point when we have “enough bombs.” To my mind, this doctrine is false. We can never predict what unexpected mishap might seriously impair our ability to deliver atomic weapons, thus making necessary far more units than we had originally deemed to be necessary. Nor can we predict the effect of inaccurate aiming or the opponent’s civilian defense measures. Likewise, a large supply of bombs would make possible an atomic offensive against submarine pens or air bases that were the focus of a devastating attack upon our own country. Conceivably, an increment of bombs above the number needed to destroy enemy industrial targets and capable of being used against vital military points would mean the difference between victory and defeat.

I might also point out that a marked increase in the rate of our production would have a preemptive effect—that is, the finished product would become safely stored in our own country and thus, ipso facto, no other country could utilize the same material. Moreover, the attainment of a genuinely large stockpile as rapidly as possible gives us the option of adopting certain courses of action which otherwise we would not be in a position to consider.

I therefore very much hope that the new requirements recommended to the President will be revised upward to a level considerably above our present output.

Sincerely yours,

[File copy not signed]

P.S. I am sending a copy of this letter to Mr. David E. Lilienthal, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

  1. Files retained by the Bureau of International Scientific and Technological Affairs, Department of State.