Policy Planning Staff Files

Record of the Meeting of the State–Defense Policy Review Group,1 Department of State, Monday, February 27, 1950, 3 p. m. to 6 p. m.

top secret
[Page 169]
Present: Department of State
Paul H. Nitze
E. Gordon Arneson
Carlton Savage
George Butler
Harry H. Schwartz
Department of Defense
Major General James H. Burns [ret.]2
Major General T. H. Landon3
Mr. Najeeb E. Halaby4
Mr. Robert LeBaron5
National Security Council
Mr. James Lay
Princeton University
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer6

Note: For an hour prior to the meeting, Dr. Oppenheimer read the drafts of Section I through VIII of the attached outline.7

Dr. Oppenheimer first asked Mr. Nitze if his impression of the conclusions of the papers were correct that there is no honest escape from an increased effort on the part of the United States. Mr. Nitze confirmed the correctness of this impression. Dr. Oppenheimer said that he agreed but that he was impressed by what he called several “gaps”. (1) What seemed to be a conflict between the author’s confidence in our moral strength and a perplexity as to why this moral strength was not being employed. (2) The paper seems somewhat less than candid in noting the enormous difference between kinds of military strength, in indicating the role which things military play in overall strength, and in pointing up the desirable forms of strength. (3) He said that the unity, determination, and economic power of the United States represents deterrents to war and strength in war. There is, however, a relative importance of having a great potential as against a current armament and it is primarily a question of the balance between the two. The paper doesn’t sharply distinguish between those things which will make for strength in war and those things which we must always have ready. (4) The terms of reference seem to call for answers to such questions as: Do we stockpile the H-bomb if we can make it? What must we receive and what must we be willing to give in order to achieve international control of atomic energy? If we got into a war, we would use the atomic bomb; the Russians know it, [Page 170] have an incentive to use it first, and there is no discussion of the problems deriving from these facts.

Mr. Nitze explained that we had discussed all of these questions in some of our first meetings and had come to the definite conclusions that before we could attempt to give any answers we had to construct a basic framework into which the answers would fit.

Dr. Oppenheimer commented that he had always felt that what we did about the A-bomb could be an inspiration for most other considerations, to which Mr. Nitze replied that in his opinion there is a strong interrelationship between the morale of the people and their feeling that our type of system can provide them with a defense—without particular regard to the type of weapons.

Dr. Oppenheimer said that two things stand out sharply with reference to the atomic bomb: one is terror and the other is mystery. With regard to the first, the question arises as to what we can do or say. Would it be reasonable to say that we would use it only for retaliatory purposes. In this connection, we seen to have slipped into our present military posture by default because obviously right now without the atomic bomb we would have no military posture. The question then arises whether could we build up our strength during the next five years, for example, so as to get away from complete dependence on the atomic bomb?

Mr. LeBaron expressed some doubt as to (a) whether a person was any deader if killed by an A-bomb than by a rifle bullet, and (b) whether the A-bomb is any more horrible than many other weapons, particularly those in the biological and chemical field. Dr. Oppenheimer stated his belief that there was a moral difference between killing ten people and ten million and said that the issue was concerned primarily with the atomic bomb because it was his understanding that biological and chemical weapons were not considered effective for offensive use.

Mr. Nitze reiterated his concern with the relationship between morale and the lack of defense against aggression. He pointed out that to supply Western Europe alone with a reasonable amount of conventional armaments might cost $40 billion and even then you would only have around sixty divisions as compared to over 200 of the Soviet Union. The thing to do was to strengthen the moral fiber of the people, and the draft paper which we had prepared suggested that you build toward that objective. Dr. Oppenheimer agreed that you cannot give up the A-bomb while you are still building toward that objective, but pointed out that the Russians in five years might be able to do more damage with atomic bombs in Western Europe than we could do to them. Mr. Nitze recapitulated four points: (1) that the Russians’ [Page 171] capabilities are now greater than the public believe, (2) the capabilities of Western Europe are very low, (3) our own efforts are inadequate, and (4) there is a relation between confidence and security. One question that arises then is should the situation be stated frankly? Dr. Oppenheimer expressed the hope that the group’s work would result in making the American people aware of the facts. He said that those in Europe already know them. He admitted a connection between morale and material power, but expressed the belief that the connection was not too close. Mr. Nitze asked if the brutal facts would not have to be coupled with the answer or at least the direction of the answer, and Dr. Oppenheimer suggested that an attempt not be made to give a complete answer.

Dr. Oppenheimer wondered if the paper would present a recognizable picture to the average citizen of the Soviet Union and asked if we were so sure that the comparison was one between jet black and pure white. Mr. Nitze said he didn’t think that we had given that impression.

Dr. Oppenheimer said that if one is honest the most probable view of the future is that of war, exploding atomic bombs, death, and the end of most freedom. The people must see this and only then will they do what must be done. The grave responsibility of the Government is to let the people see and to undo the comfortable view of the future. We are not able to defend Europe and the possibility exists that if war came one of the first things that would happen would be the end of Paris. Dr. Oppenheimer admitted the dilemma that if we now renounce first use of the atomic bomb that itself might be the end of Europe, but he repeated the suggestion that we might now be able to so conduct ourselves that in five years we could renounce first use. Mr. LeBaron pointed out that the opposite was possible as in five years it might be recognized clearly that Europe is indefensible.

In reply to several questions as to what we can do to help Europe and reduce the strength of Russia, Dr. Oppenheimer said that probably the first thing is to stand as an example which will inspire those who are drifting toward a concept of nuetrality. We must give back to France the hope that they gave to us and the rest of the world in the age of enlightenment. We must demonstrate that human life can be better. This calls for a new creative job which will be applicable to the twentieth century rather than to the eighteenth. Mr. LeBaron echoed the thought that we must have something new in order to stop going down hill. He suggested that the people must come to this conviction by themselves. Dr. Oppenheimer said that the basis of that conviction is an understanding of the facts, and that the facts must be placed in the public domain. Mr. LeBaron said that it was discouraging [Page 172] to note that those who have been working with these facts and trying to find an answer for four years now seem to have less hope than those who have not. Dr. Oppenheimer said that we will find the answer; the question is how much agony we have to go through beforehand. There is a strange paradox that at the end of the war the democracies who did not put their faith in force ended up with the greatest single condensed package of force. Our failure at that time was to make clear wherein lies our real strength. Mr. LeBaron suggested that we can still make a clean breast of it, and Dr. Oppenheimer agreed, emphasizing that it will require eloquence, forceful expression, and delicacy. The first thing, in any event, is to make an understandable, honest statement with no sugar-coating. We must have more political stability and we must have more diversity of strength, but in addition we must have more recognition of what we are. An act of honesty of this nature will represent more than just giving out information; rather it will be an act that is typical of the United States and it may have results which no one can foresee.

With specific reference to making the facts known to the public, Dr. Oppenheimer suggested that the drawing up of the speech or document, or whatever was necessary, would require the full-time services of a highly qualified group, and he suggested that perhaps a group of people of the sort whom we are probably planning in any event to have in as consultants would be the most helpful. He specifically mentioned Messrs. Grenville Clark,8 John Lord O’Brian,9 James B. Conant, and John Dickey.10 He suggested further that we might say to such a group that the facts which have resulted from our study are grim. We may have missed something or we may have seen something from the wrong angle, but here are the facts as we have developed them and your task is to prepare them for presentation to the American people.

The above represents the general train of Dr. Oppenheimer’s thought as brought out in this meeting and the paragraphs below are, while relevant, of a more specific nature.

Dr. Oppenheimer expressed the belief that we were over-doing secrecy in the American Government with regard to technical information and that it would have a great effect if we were to make more technological information available so long as it was not of prime [Page 173] military importance. Mr. LeBaron said that he had discovered no intent on the part of the military to keep anything secret except with regard to weapons and that, for example, we should certainly open low energy piles up to anyone who wanted them. In response to a specific question as to what kind of information he would advocate giving the Dutch, for example, he said that in the first instance it would be technical information but that what he had in mind was the fact that in an intellectual atmosphere freedom of information plays a great part.

In a discussion with Mr. LeBaron, Dr. Oppenheimer stated that we may find that in the next eight years our eastern seaboard is quite vulnerable to attack and that one of the things perturbing the American people for the first time is the fact that their country is or may shortly be vulnerable to direct attacks from an enemy in the event of war.

Dr. Oppenheimer expressed some skepticism about the Russians having gotten very far on the H-bomb. In response to a specific question, he said that if they had been able to make any advances on the basis of information given them by Dr. Fuchs11 they were marvelous indeed.

He stated also his belief that there was more than a difference of degree between killing 10 people and 10 million and that it was very definitely a matter of morality. In this connection, he recalled that Mr. Stimson12 had doubts about our fire-bombing Tokyo.

In response to a question from Mr. Halaby about the Russians using their possession of the atomic bomb as a form of blackmail on the Western Europeans, Dr. Oppenheimer said that we should, of course, keep it for reprisal in any case. General Landon pointed out that in the field of conventional armaments we are outnumbered and that if we looked to the Germans to make up this lack on our part, we may find that we have only raised another problem of equal intensity. Mr. Nitze referred to the particular advantages of surprise attack in atomic warfare and suggested that there may be a balance at the present between our moral restraint on the one hand and the fact that the Russians have fewer bombs on the other. Dr. Oppenheimer agreed that all of these were very pertinent questions and ones which should be carefully studied in the paper. Mr. LeBaron said that looking at these facts, particularly the fact that we are outnumbered, and trying to answer the question of how we defend ourselves, one comes to the answer that you must multiply our smaller number of men by technological skill, and that the present logical conclusion of such a formula [Page 174] is atomic weapons. He suggested that the ultimate horror is not so much death by this or that weapon but simply the fact of a conflict for survival. Dr. Oppenheimer replied that such a formula left out the important element of the good opinion of mankind. He said that we must believe in ourselves without talking about it so much.

Mr. Lay said that on the subject of international control our plan, as he understood it, is not simply designed to stop production of atomic weapons but also to open up the iron curtain. That is one of the ways we are trying to do it, and he asked if there were others. Dr. Oppenheimer said that while it may have been a visionary but certainly an interesting hope in 1945, there is no chance today. Our present position is very hard to maintain and we have no bargaining point[s] left. He said further that one of the important questions on this general subject was that, given a desire on the part of the Russians to get rid of the atomic weapon, under what conditions would it also be in our interest to do so? Mr. Nitze said that another of the pertinent questions is, who controls the controllers? He pointed out that if the European land-mass came under Communist control, we should no longer have a free majority to constitute the control body; and in order to avoid that, we must have, in the last analysis, freedom of movement and thought. In response to Mr. Arneson’s question as to the tolerable limits of freedom of movement, Dr. Oppenheimer said that this obviously required more study but that it seemed to him to have been thought of to date only in terms of absolute security. Mr. Arneson suggested that in the last analysis we may find that we have to drive out the rulers of the Kremlin completely. Mr. Nitze suggested that ours should be a search for a reasonable gamble and pointed out that the eight points mentioned in VIII of our paper obviously amounted to less than our ultimate objective.

Mr. Halaby asked if Dr. Oppenheimer had any explanation for what appeared to be a sort of delayed catharsis in the public’s mind between September and January both in this country and in Europe, to which the latter replied that at first glance the people might have seen it as a situation calling for no particular action and in any case no particular action occurred to them. He also added that the announcements were pomaded with statements that this new development really didn’t mean very much.

Dr. Oppenheimer suggested tentatively that the Soviets might be planting information with us to give a false impression of their strength, and Mr. LeBaron and General Landon said that they did not agree that our estimates were overly pessimistic or based on false information.

[Page 175]

In answer to a question from General Burns as to whether Dr. Oppenheimer believed that Communism bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction, the reply was that probably, yes; but, of course, the main question was the matter of time. Dr. Oppenheimer said that he thought time was well worth playing for but he expressed some doubt as to whether this destruction would occur prior to a war. He suggested that there were millions of people in the Satellite countries who were yearning for war as the only way that they can now see of escaping Soviet bondage.

With regard to the H-bomb, he thought that the preferred Russian means of delivery would be either through ships in our harbors or rockets launched from submarines, and that strategic bombing with the H-bomb would definitely have third priority although the order might very well be reversed for the A-bomb.


Outline of Draft Report

Terms of Reference

I. Backgrounds of the Present World Crisis.

II. Fundamental Purpose of U.S.

III. Fundamental Design of the Kremlin.

IV. The Underlying Conflict in the Realm of Ideas and Values Between the U.S. Purpose and the Kremlin Design.

V. Soviet Intentions and Capabilities—actual and potential.


VI. U.S. Intentions and Capabilities—actual and potential.


VII. Present Risks.

VIII. Possible Courses of Action.

IX. Recommended Measures.

  1. The State–Defense Policy Review Group, organized to draft the study requested by President Truman in his directive of January 31 (p. 141), first met on February 8. At its second meeting, February 10, the Review Group decided that until completed, the work of the group would also represent the contributions of State and Defense to NSC Action Directive No. 270 on Objectives, Risks, and Commitments (for text, see Rusk memorandum, January 18, p. 138). (Policy Planning Staff Files)
  2. Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Foreign Military Affairs.
  3. Air Force Member of the Joint Strategic Survey Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  4. Director of the Office of Foreign Military Affairs, Department of Defense.
  5. Chairman of the Military Liaison Committee to the United States Atomic Energy Commission; Adviser to the Secretary of Defense on atomic energy affairs.
  6. Chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey; Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission; Director of Los Alamos Laboratories of Manhattan Engineer District, 1943–1945.
  7. The specific working drafts examined by Dr. Oppenheimer have not been identified. For the final version of the study, NSC/68, see p. 235.
  8. Lawyer; Chairman of the Citizens Committee for National War Service, 1944–1945; Vice President, United World Federalists.
  9. Lawyer; General Counsel, Office of Production Management and successor organizations, 1941–1944.
  10. President of Dartmouth College; Director of the Office of Public Information, Department of State, 1944–1945.
  11. The Fuchs case is discussed in the editorial note on p. 524.
  12. Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, 1940–1945.